Back then, the real estate tycoon seemed like a rank outsider, his braggadocio an in-joke that might play well on The Apprentice, but blatantly unsuited to the world stage where diplomacy is key. If after last week’s pantomime of a Republican National Convention, he is still a joke, then he is a dark and potent one enjoyed at the expense of the dispossessed.
There is little reassurance to be had from the US establishment, which seems as panic-stricken as the late-night Googlers. So worried is the Washington Post, it took the unusual step of damning Trump on the day he accepted the Republican nomination. In a scathing editorial, it declared him “uniquely unqualified to be president” and “a unique threat to American democracy”. The tycoon’s hate-mongering convention speech – in which he conjured up the image of a once great nation in need of reclaiming (sound familiar, anyone?) – did nothing to discredit its stance.
But is the Washington Post – or any newspaper – in a position to influence the result of an election taking place in the same post-fact, anti-expert climate of near-hysteria as Brexit did? In an interview with talk show host Bill Maher last week, comedian Michael Moore said he believed Trump would win precisely because he represents a rejection of the mainstream thought; a rejection of the “metropolitan elites” perceived as having left the white working classes to rot. They see in this angry, blame-laying billionaire, a mirror image of themselves. “When you say he hasn’t read a book in his life, you’ve just described the majority of Americans. Get out of your bubble everybody,” said Moore.
Moore’s words are chilling because, here in the UK, we have seen how this goes. Many Remainers – trapped in their own Europhile bubbles – were blind to the scale of resentment in English cities and the capacity of Leave campaigners to exploit it. They couldn’t conceive that a populist campaign based on lies and led by bigots would triumph. And yet it did. Boris Johnson – another parody of a human being – is “uniquely unqualified” to be Foreign Secretary. And yet; here we are.
Viewed from the bubble, Trump’s campaign to become the Republican candidate ought to have been a disaster. He stumbled from gaffe to gaffe, his rhetoric growing increasingly overblown, his claims less rooted in reality. But every time it seemed like he must have blown it, he tapped into a fresh reservoir of discontent, eliminated an opponent and consolidated his following.
Americans – like us – are learning the hard way that, repeated often enough, the most outrageous comments become normalised, the worst calumnies, received wisdom.
The same is true of the Republican convention itself. On paper, it was a study in ineptitude, a vivid illustration of why Trump is unfit to lead the country. There was Melania’s speech – sections of which were lifted from Michelle Obama’s, and the farcical attempts to explain this plagiarism away. There was Ted Cruz’s refusal to endorse him and Al Baldasaro – Trump’s adviser on veterans – suggesting Hillary Clinton should be shot for treason.
And yet all it appeared to take to wipe the slate clean were some heartfelt tributes from his children (if they love him, he must be OK) and the kind of light-on-policy, heavy-on-doom speech he does so well.
For more than an hour, Trump thundered away – presenting the US as a bankrupt, blood-soaked dystopia, and himself as the only one capable of restoring order. All the familiar tropes were there: the contempt for “political correctness”, the scapegoating of migrants, and the demonisation of Clinton – who, earlier in the convention, was said to have a direct line to Lucifer.
He also reeled off series of “facts” on immigration, crime and the economy; of course, most of them weren’t facts at all, they were skewed statistics and half-baked assertions, but, no matter. Most Trump supporters don’t want facts; all they want is a conduit for their rage.
Conscious of those sections of the electorate he has alienated, he (or his speech-writers) threw a few liberal tidbits into the mix: an acknowledgement of the disproportionate unemployment levels experienced by African Americans and a promise of protection for LGBT citizens. Earlier Ivanka had talked of working alongside her father to promote equal pay. As if these token gestures could possibly compensate for the racism, homophobia and misogyny that has been the soundtrack to the campaign.
If Trump has become more extreme over time, so too have his followers. His demagoguery has transformed them from disaffected individuals into the unhinged mob that cheered and booed on Friday. When the Republican leader mentioned immigration, they chanted “build the wall”; when he mentioned Clinton, they chanted “lock her up”. Even Trump seemed uneasy then, but who knows if he is capable of controlling the primal passions he has unleashed. Sometimes it seems as if the bandwagon he set in motion is hurtling driverless into an abyss.
There’s still time for that bandwagon to be halted; still time for those who feel betrayed to find other, more constructive ways of demonstrating their frustration, so they will not wake up on 9 November with a thumping post-election headache and a bucket-load of regrets.
Yesterday, FiveThirtyEight, a website that analyses elections, put the Republican leader’s chances of winning at 40.8 per cent. Yet – having lived through Brexit – who in the UK would draw comfort from polls? “The enemy is complacency,” said Maher, as he thanked Moore for speaking his mind about Trump’s potential victory. “Say it every day.”