Keeping the heat on

Obama's success - like Bill Clinton’s - is rooted in an uncanny sense of the electorate's mood, and

Dressed in blue jeans and a black jacket, Obama braved the cold rain falling in Pennsylvania today, and held his scheduled rally - outdoors. “A little bit of rain never hurt anybody,” he said to the thousands who showed up as he embraced the weather conditions.

“I just want all of you to know if we see this kind of dedication on election day – there is no way that we’re not going to bring change to America,” he said as the soggy crowd cheered.

Obama delivered his “closing argument” speech in full - even though his teleprompter seemed to give out midway due to the rain. Glancing down at a hard copy of the speech on the podium, he began the speech, summarising and contextualising the themes of his campaign since it began 21 months ago.

Obama’s remarks drive home one of the under-appreciated aspects of this amazing campaign: The similarities between Obama and Bill Clinton, and between their respective readings of the electorates each man sought to win over.

The speech showed, again, that Obama rivals (and perhaps surpasses) Clinton as one of the great public communicators of the last few decades. But their similarities run deeper. Obama's success - like Clinton’s - is rooted in an uncanny sense of the electorate's mood, and of what it's looking for in its next leader. Crucially, Clinton sensed that the electorate was looking for a clear signal from its next President on just how the nation would be moved from the 20th Century to the 21st at a time of rapid global change.

As his speech makes clear, Obama's reading of the electorate is in some way very similar today to Clinton’s 16 years ago. In the speech, Obama revisited his decision to run for President against tremendous odds, and alluded to the drift he sensed - as did Clinton - among voters.

"We weren't given much of a chance by the polls or the pundits, and we knew how steep our climb would be," Obama said. "But I also knew this. I knew that the size of our challenges had outgrown the smallness of our politics. I believed that Democrats and Republicans and Americans of every political stripe were hungry for new ideas, new leadership, and a new kind of politics - one that favours common sense over ideology; one that focuses on those values and ideals we hold in common as Americans."

"Twenty-one months later, my faith in the American people has been vindicated," Obama added.

If Obama should win he will have outworked McCain in a similar fashion to the way Clinton outmanoeuvred Bush Sr. Like Clinton, Obama has sensed that the electorate is looking for something larger than a set of policies or personal attributes. Unlike McCain, who has proven utterly incapable of grasping the public mood on so many levels, Obama has sensed that the electorate wants to know how we will remake our politics - domestic and international - for the next century.

Clinton famously envisaged his presidency as a "bridge" from the 20th to the 21st centuries in terms of keeping America at pace with globalisation. Obama is presenting his presidency as Act II in that drama - now that we've crossed Clinton's "bridge," he is promising to transform politics in kind. In essence, Obama is promising a true 21st Century politics.

"As I've said from the day we began this journey all those months ago, the change we need isn't just about new programs and policies," Obama said. "In this election, we cannot afford the same political games and tactics that are being used to pit us against one another and make us afraid of one another. The stakes are too high to divide us by class and region and background; by who we are or what we believe."

Obama has sensed this state of affairs for years. Today's message, really, hasn't changed much from the vision Obama articulated in his famous 2004 convention speech. It just took a while for Obama to come within real striking distance of implementing it.

In what is likely to be his final campaign event in Pennsylvania, Obama urged his supporters to be as resolute in the coming days as they were today, braving the elements and keeping their eyes firmly on the possibility of victory next week.

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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism