It is the season of bed-wetting. For those who follow politics closely – we anxious few – every new poll, whether from the UK or the US, is arriving freighted with apocalyptic significance.
It’s true that the stakes are high. In five months’ time, we could be standing among the smoking ruins of liberal democracy. The Trump coat of arms will be emblazoned on the dome of the Capitol. The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, will be making tinny jokes about bulldogs as Vladimir Putin moves tanks to the Finnish border.
On the other hand, the post-war order may be looking remarkably intact, Britain having voted emphatically to Remain, a liberal Atlanticist with unexciting ideas installed in the Oval Office, and the England football team having returned home from France after three matches of unbearable mediocrity.
I think the second of these scenarios is much more likely. I won’t detain you with my analysis of England’s problems at the back, but let me explain why I think Clinton will win and Britain will vote to stay In.
Before doing so, let me acknowledge that this is not a thrilling topic for a blog post. ‘Why the Conventional Wisdom is Probably Right’ is nobody’s idea of clickbait, and nor is ‘Undramatic Outcome Most Likely Outcome’.
But of course, that’s the problem. The media-industrial complex has a bias to drama. Make a surprising or scary prediction and people are more likely to click, so we end up seeing more headlines and reading more opinions than the probability of that thing would otherwise justify, thus making it seem more likely than it is.
There is a bias at work, too, in social media. We use our publicly expressed opinions to signal our intelligence (as well as our virtue and our allegiances), and predicting the more surprising or pessimistic outcome usually makes you seem smarter, at least before the event. I’m not sure why that is, but I know it portends the decline of everything we hold dear.
Anyway, to America first. Two significant things have happened since Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination. The first is that senior Republican figures have slunk into line behind him with a surprising – even for them – lack of forethought. The second, and more significant development is that, despite this, Trump has got more, not less, Trumpy.
A couple of months ago, the smart thing to say (and I said it myself) was this: “He may seem crazy but that’s for show. Once he gets the nomination he’ll pivot. He’ll drop all that stuff about a wall. He’ll stop with the racist batshittery. He will acquire the aura of a plausible president.”
Er, no. In the last two weeks Trump has viciously and repeatedly abused a Mexican-American judge, who ruled against him on a law suit concerning his fraudulent ‘university’, as being unfit to pass judgement because he has Mexican parents. The very definition of racism. He followed that up by referring to a supporter as “my African-American” – pretty much the dumbest thing a white American can say. Those senior Republicans who, like Paul Ryan, trusted they would civilize the savage, are already looking foolish. So are those of us who thought there was a Trump beyond the Trump we have.
I think Josh Marshall is right, and that Trump is essentially trapped inside his own invective. The more violently he attacks Clinton, the more unstable and unlikeable he seems. He does not have a plan B. He is not thinking coolly or strategically. He is a dyspeptic gorilla in a cage, and on the evidence of a very effective opening salvo, Clinton knows exactly how and what to poke through the bars.
Electorally, that means that Trump is not going to expand his appeal greatly beyond his existing constituency. Of course, he will pick up some of the Republicans who didn’t vote for him in the primary but will take the party line whoever the candidate, especially when the alternative is Hillary Clinton. But he won’t make in-roads into independents, among whom he only gets more unpopular, the more they see of him.
He certainly won’t make progress with non-white voters. If he wins as many Hispanic and black votes as Romney did – and he very probably won’t – he’ll have to win nearly two thirds of white voters to get to a majority. I just don’t think there are nearly enough angry racist white men in America to get him to the White House.
It will soon become apparent that the big mistake of this whole electoral cycle was not, “We had no idea how popular Trump could be.” It was, “We had no idea how removed a large segment of the core GOP electorate has become from the rest of the nation.”
Another factor is that the American media – finally, belatedly – have him in their sights, and they smell blood. Befuddled and dazzled by his rise, they didn’t scrutinize him aggressively, or call out his racism (and neither did his political rivals). Eager to make amends, they are now starting to make up for it. Interviews like this or this are just the beginning.
This will only make him madder, in both senses of the word. Trump’s constant bitching about the media isn’t strategically calculated – it’s from the heart. He is genuinely thin-skinned, and harsh criticism makes him angrier and more volatile. He and we ain’t seen nothing yet.
We haven’t even got time to discuss the vast differences in organizational capability between the two camps, or the fact that Trump is an almost spookily perfect opponent for Hillary Clinton, throwing her strengths into relief and compensating for her weaknesses by being such an enthusiasm-generator for Democrats.
By the end of this campaign I suspect Trump will regret ever having got into politics. Even if he only loses by a few points, his name will be permanently toxified. His TV career will be in jeopardy, as will his property business, which is dependent on his personal brand. In fact, I’m still not entirely sure that he is going to be on the ballot come November – he may engineer his own departure from the race.
Let’s move to Britain’s Trump: Brexit.
The golden rule of politics is that most voters don’t care about politics. Everything follows from this first principle.
Since most voters don’t care about politics, and don’t want to have to care about politics, they vote for the option that presents the least hassle, the least risk, and the least politics.
This immediately makes the sovereignty argument irrelevant, and possibly counter-productive. People are not longing for more democracy, because more democracy sounds suspiciously like more politics. And even the Brexiteers cannot conceal that the process of untangling ourselves from the EU will take years. That’s to say, it will involve more politics.
Opinion polls can hardly help but over-sample people with opinions. Many voters will put off having an opinion until the last minute, and when they do they will look for the option that involves the least thought, and the least risk, possible. That usually means sticking, not twisting. Historically, referendums tend to show late swings to the status quo.
There is no powerful countervailing drive to “do something”. To state the obvious, this referendum was not called because of some great national upswell of anti-EU sentiment. Despite the best efforts of the Daily Mail, most people do not feel assailed or constrained by European bureaucrats in their everyday lives. To most people, the EU is an abstract, faintly comic entity, good for the occasional joke about odd shaped fruit, but that’s it.
Many voters are opposed to immigration, and this is where the Leave campaign or campaigns is/are, quite sensibly, focusing. But as Atul Hatwal shows, immigration is more bark than bite: most voters who think immigration is an important issue for the nation don’t think it is crucial to them and their families.
Once you see that this is really all about the economy, and that most voters use their vote to minimise risk and hassle, then you’ll see why I’m confident about a win for Remain. You’ll also feel more relaxed about how David Cameron or Michael Gove does in a TV interview that hardly anyone who hasn’t already made up their minds is watching (incidentally, commentators are wrong to conclude that if Gove answers all the questions in an interview brilliantly and wittily his side wins. Forget about the words. The more Michael Gove is on TV, the better for Remain).
We’re at the April 2015 stage of this campaign. Many of us who instinctively found it implausible that the British would vote to make Ed Miliband Prime Minister brutally suppressed our own intuition with the words “But the polls say…”.
The voters who haven’t already made up their mind are doing all they can to avoid having to think about this referendum. When they finally, reluctantly turn their minds to it, the golden rule will kick in.
If the polls show a consistent and sizeable lead for Leave for a seven day stretch, I may revise my priors – in normal language, panic.
But until then: calm down, dears.