Once upon a time, there was a man by the name of Nate Silver. The United States was a normal country back then. It followed logic, respected the rule of law. The data its government provided was reliable. It adhered to scientific models, and to the algorithms that Nate Silver – that young genius pollster – used to predict, months in advance, who would be the next president of the U.S. or the next champion of the NBA. In the age of Silver, the U.S. was still an accountable country. Sure, Nate Silver was a nerd then, and his blog, FiveThirtyEight, was mythical when it was still part of the New York Times. Or was it vice versa?
Then something happened.
As previously calculated and predicted by Silver, Barack Obama won the 2012 election. Americans decided to give him a second chance. But soon after, they regretted it. How do we know that? Because as soon as Obama returned to the Oval Office, the media focused their attention on the next presidential election. As I wrote in our newsletter a month ago, ”This time in particular, the 2016 campaign started right after the previous elections ended and before President Obama could even swear in his second term. As if the media was bored with the newly re-elected president, they started a guessing game about candidates for the next elections, while the presumed candidates acted accordingly, posturing and looking to improve their starting positions.” President Obama, who was the center of attention in 2008, started his second term farther from the limelight. After Hillary Clinton abandoned Obama to enable herself to run in 2016, an unidentified number of the president’s staff members started to drop out of the federal administration, looking for better jobs. A year before the new campaign started, Nate Silver left the New York Times for ESPN – presumably for a larger amount of money. At his new job, Nate Silver has a much bigger team. It took him a year to set up a fresh operation. He wanted to be ready for the 2016 elections. But is he ready? Are the other media outlets ready?
In June this year, Trump announced that he was running for president. By August, the real estate tycoon was ahead in all national polls, and the nation was torn between joy and panic. That same month, I was in the outskirts of Kingston, New York, on the side of an empty road, waiting for a truck to pass. The truck stopped. I crossed the street carefully, and once I was safely on the other side, I waved to the truckman and thanked him. “Trump for President!” he shouted, waving back to me. It was that exclamation on that hot summer day in an empty town that made me think that something was happening.
Soon the media started to discuss Trump, the candidate: everyone sort of knew about him, but no one had really considered him before. There were first analyses and guesses. The buzz started to grow. “Is he a candidate?” ran the headlines. “Should we worry about him?” “How long will he last?”
It was the sober voice of Nate Silver that once again told the media to calm down, that Trump could never win. Silver did not know exactly why, but he was thinking within the framework of the Republican Party. “I don’t think that Donald Trump is very likely to win the nomination in part because he’s not really a Republican. … People haven’t given [the candidates] more than two seconds’ worth of attention … Calm down — it’s not a tennis match where you’re going back and forth all the time,” Silver said in an interview last September. Then, during the first two debates, the scores of other Republican candidates tried to sink the impostor, while media outlets from all sides tried their best to point out Trump’s contradictions and his talent for opportunism. The Democrats have actually enjoyed Trump’s success, since they are always hopeful that reason will prevail – that in the end it will benefit a Democratic candidate.
But Trump, the man who promises to make America great again, continues to rise in the polls. He offends journalists; he makes racist remarks; he points fingers at politicians, saying loudly in front of countless TV cameras that, “I gave you money.” None of his fellow Republicans – nor his potential rival, Hillary Clinton – dare to deny this. It’s an embarrassing silence, and it makes Trump rise in the polls, no matter what he says.
Things are getting dramatic, so the calm and balanced Silver comes out with more figures:
Lately, pundits and punters seem bullish on Donald Trump, whose chances of winning the Republican presidential nomination recently inched above 20 percent for the first time at the betting market Betfair. Perhaps the conventional wisdom assumes that the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris will play into Trump’s hands, or that Republicans really might be in disarray. If so, I can see where the case for Trump is coming from, although I’d still say a 20 percent chance is substantially too high.
Quite often, however, the Trump’s-really-got-a-chance! case is rooted almost entirely in polls. If nothing Trump has said so far has harmed his standing with Republicans, the argument goes, why should we expect him to fade later on?
One problem with this is that it’s not enough for Trump to merely avoid fading. Right now, he has 25 to 30 percent of the vote in polls among the roughly 25 percent of Americans who identify as Republican. (That’s something like 6 to 8 percent of the electorate overall, or about the same share of people who think the Apollo moon landings were faked.) As the rest of the field consolidates around him, Trump will need to gain additional support to win the nomination. That might not be easy, since some Trump actions that appeal to a faction of the Republican electorate may alienate the rest of it. Trump’s favorability ratings are middling among Republicans (and awful among the broader electorate).
Since Silver is a brand, his audience often feels as though they simply have to agree with him. But not everyone does. There are more and more voices who think that Trump is here to stay, and that he is a racist and a fascist. Slate gives a long list of reasons why Trump is a Nazi. And David Neiwert denies that Trump is a fascist, but tells us why the real estate mogul is leading America down the drain, fascist or not. Dave Winer wrote a short and very lucid note for Medium, saying that Trump is actually becoming an American:
We in America tend to paint the past as a Norman Rockwell painting. White, suburban, not too rich, but not poor either. Everyone dresses well. Grandpa smokes a pipe and grandma makes great apple pie. The kids play musical instruments and baseball.
But that is not our past.
We brought Africans to America to be our slaves. They didn’t need yellow stars because their skin color was enough of a label. We beat them, chained them, murdered them, all the things Nazis did to Jews, over a much longer period of time.
We took our land from Native Americans and killed them too.
We victimized people because of where they come from, how they dress, what books they read, even for being too liberal. We have done some terrible things here. So you don’t have to go to Germany for prior art. There’s plenty of it right here in the U.S. of A.
The problem isn’t Trump. He’s an opportunist. If people voted on issues, he would be a fountain of issues. But they don’t. They vote for people who make them feel good and powerful and deserving of love.
The problem isn’t Trump, it’s America.
True. But even these noble remarks no longer serve a purpose. They refer to the past, to a human consciousness, to pondering creatures. Trump is trying, step by step, to destroy all this. He did something that is bringing America back to ground zero. Americans no longer hear his lies; nobody pays any attention to what he is saying. And what is he saying? “We have to be heard now, folks, because our country’s going to hell.” “I’m not here to entertain folks; I’m not an entertainer.”
A few days ago, during a massive political rally in Virginia, a young boy asked him what the wall along the Mexican border would be like. “Hardened concrete, Rebar and steel!” answered Trump.
This is the kind of situation where even people like Silver lose their point of reference. The phenomenon of Trump is already beyond the primaries. It is no longer an issue for the Republican Party alone. It is like a genie who escaped out of a bottle. Common sense, parameters of judgment, the meaning of words have all moved away on some sort of a cloud. Jay Rosen has some words on this, especially for the media that follows the Trump campaign – words that would be good for the rest of this country, and perhaps beyond.
The whole system rested on shared beliefs about what would happen if candidates went beyond the system as it stood cycle to cycle. Those beliefs have now collapsed because Trump “tested” and violated most of them— and he is still leading in the polls. The political press is pretty stunned by these developments. It keeps asking: when will the “laws of political gravity” be restored? Or have they simply vanished?
It is hard to predict where Trump’s bulldozing method may take this country. Can he win more political points by presenting himself, after he created chaos, as a leader with an iron fist? I somehow don’t believe that Trump is an authoritarian. It is more likely that, like Berlusconi in Italy twenty years ago, Trump is proposing his own model: I am a successful businessman, he is saying, and since I am managing companies well, I am more than qualified to run this country. Who else could do it better than me?
Well, in Italy this turned out to be a disaster. The prime minister or president of a country is not at all like the CEO of a company. Berlusconi never understood that. He paralyzed institutions’ ability to function, eliminated the potential for political debate, and introduced corruption to every level of society. He completely eroded the government and turned the whole country into a garden of his own pleasures. Nothing similar is possible in the U.S., but Trump’s disrespect for the country’s established institutions might please the corporate interests and create a collusion that might have even more unpredictable developments.
Also published on Medium.