The main thing that we learned or, rather, we were reminded of, from the second debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is that this is truly an extraordinary election, and the significance of its outcome will be felt well into the next decade or more.
There are two forces up against each other – the status quo, represented by Democratic Clinton, who symbolises the political establishment, against the Republican Trump, who argues that he is a change candidate. The race started off with an equally extraordinary primary season, where Clinton defeated the ‘socialist’ Bernie Sanders after he secured over 13 million votes in the Democratic primaries; the debating season is matching the unprecedented character of the races that preceded it.
The (most recent) strategy that Trump has been employing is to try to win back those Republican voters turned off by his overall image of xenophobia and misogyny. I do not believe that there was enough in the second debate, other than his denial on the question of the audio tape released on Friday, to win them over. Overall, he is believed to have failed to win back ground from Clinton, who held her own in the debate – even when Trump raised allegations of sexual abuse relating to her husband for which she could hardly be held responsible.
Clinton maintained a relatively dignified approach to the entire debate, which had a very personal nature. Trump used the tactics he is normally associated with, which often lower the level of civility, by saying that she had “hate in her heart” and that she has tolerated abuse. The important point to make here, though, is that this kind of political gossip is an opiate for the American electorate, and the cult of celebrity and interest in stardom means these debate exchanges are lapped up every four years.
Yet, Trump hit home with several points that show why this race is as close as it is: Clinton’s place and role as an establishment politician, with powerful links with the past and with Big Money, the disasters of the Iraq war and of the financial meltdown of 2008-09, of the chaos in post-US intervention for regime change in Libya. Trump also scored with criticism of Clinton’s private email server as secretary of state and with the Wikileaked transcripts of Clinton’s espousal of sympathy with Wall St and on the efficacy of maintaining public and private positions on key political questions, and her sympathy for a policy she has publicly repudiated – the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Clinton’s credibility, level of public trust and disapproval is only slightly lower than the same for Trump.
But that should not deflect from the other main problem at the moment, which is that Trump stands for a reversal of the historic 1960s and 1970s rights revolution, where women and African Americans and many other minorities won rights. What he stands for is really a reversion to the 1950s – he’s a person who appears to wish that the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement had never happened.
The election of an Africa-American president for the first time in 2008, and now the prospect of a woman president in 2016, has sent a signal to a lot of people who are very deeply conservative, who opposed the rights revolution from the very beginning, and have chipped away at those gains ever since. The level of vitriol against those changes and the effect that they are now having in the 21st century, has reached such a high point that Trump is able to sustain support despite everything he’s said and done.
Trump continues to garner support at between 40 and 42% in opinion polls, which appears at odds with everything we know about his businesses, his taxes and his attitudes towards women. On the other hand, it must be remembered that his popularity still puts him near the lower end of support achieved in previous election campaigns. We could see something similar to Republican contender Barry Goldwater’s spectacular defeat when, in 1964, he was thoroughly trounced in the electoral college, resulting in a landslide victory to Lyndon Johnson.
It is said of Goldwater that he lost the election but won the future – a victory that resonates with the anti-rights appeals of Trump. But 2016 is not 1964 and the demographic future of America is against the Trump tide. When national opinion polls are translated into electoral college votes in the key swing states, it will probably be a handsome victory for Clinton, leaving a Trump rump that will maintain that the election process was rigged all along. Expect more thunder from the Right.
Inderjeet Parmar is Professor and Head of the Department of International Politics, City University of London, and chair of the Obama Research Network