Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s Super Tuesdays put them on a collision course this fall. Betting markets make Clinton the strong favorite, given Trump’s high unfavorables, his incendiary comments about minorities, and the fact that members of his own party seem eager to disavow him. But Trump’s strengths and grand strategy make him considerably more dangerous in a general election than people seem to think.
There are two pieces of conventional wisdom about Donald Trump that don't fit comfortably together. On the one hand, people seem to think Trump’s appeal transcends the issues and that he doesn’t really care about policy. On the other hand, he’s considered unelectable because of his policies, like building a Mexican wall and banning Muslim immigrants.
But here’s the problem: If Trump doesn’t care about policy and his appeal truly transcends issues, what’s stopping him from becoming a starkly different person in the general election, the same way he's morphed, with convenient timing, from a moderate businessman—supportive of Canadian health care, a friend of Democrats, an admirer of Hillary Clinton—to a nationalist demagogue?
Trump’s most famous skill is self-promotion through bloviation. But his most underrated skill is he is a terrific panderer. He will say anything he thinks people want to hear, but he'll say it in a way that makes his pandering look like an act of courage. The ingenious subtext of much of his messaging is: “Nobody wants to hear this hard truth, but here it is: you’re right!” As a businessman, he had no problem hiring illegal immigrants. But when he sniffed out illegal immigration as a hot-button topic, he promised mass deportations, the most beautiful wall in the Western Hemisphere, and a punitive financing scheme: Mexico pays! He trashed former klansman David Duke years ago. But when he suspected that some voters in Super Tuesday states might be sympathetic to white supremacy, he scolded CNN’s Jake Tapper for asking him to disavow somebody he’d never met.
In all 15 states that have voted in the GOP primary, Trump’s supporters have named the same quality as most important in a president: Somebody who “tells it like it is.” Does it matter that Politifact determined that 76 percent of Trump's statements were errors, inaccuracies, or absurd lies? No way. Somebody who “tells it like it is” doesn’t have to “get the facts right.” Trump doesn’t need to be accurate, because he’s authentic. And yes, there is a difference. The difference between accuracy and authenticity is the difference between a British passport and a British accent. People with the former tend to have the latter, but the first is concrete and falsifiable, and the second is easily faked.
Trump will exploit this. He will fake it until he absolutely cannot make it. He’ll fib about policy, because he doesn’t care, and maybe voters don’t either. He won’t adhere too closely to what he’s already said, because he doesn’t care, and maybe voters don’t either. (What about that Muslim database? “Well, I don’t want to talk about it much now, I’m considering all options.”) He’ll borrow shamelessly from Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama—the two candidates who gave Hillary fits—by repeatedly slamming the establishment, talking about middle class pain and anger, and promising to be a uniquely unifying force in American politics. Consider the red-and-blue state unity messages in Chris Christie’s introduction speech last night: “Donald Trump has won Georgia and Massachusetts… Tonight is the beginning of Donald Trump bringing the Republican Party together ... Tonight is the beginning of Donald Trump bringing the people of our nation together to help America win again.”
Overall, Trump will continue to alight to the majority’s latent fears and frustrations and confidently promise magical solutions. It’s not hard to imagine him sounding like a palatable moderate Republican:
Take, for example, what he might say on income inequality: The middle class has been creamed in this country. Creamed. Hillary wants to raise taxes. She might even want to raise taxes on the middle class, you never know with Democrats. But I want a big, fat, beautiful tax cut for the middle class. It will make every American family richer. It will create jobs. We’ll win and win. It will be beautiful.
A tax cut? How would he pay for that without slashing spending on defense, Social Security, or Medicare? We’ll cut so much. There is so much waste and fraud. We’ll cut and cut. You’ll get sick of cutting.
And he may be surprisingly quick to answer questions about Black Lives Matter and criminal-justice reform: We imprison so many men in this country. It’s a disgrace. When I’m president we’re going to be a tough country. But a fair country. Because that’s who I am. It’s who I’ve always been. I’m a tough, fair guy. Hillary can’t do this. Her husband passed a criminal-justice law that even she considers a disgrace. Just ask her. A total disgrace.
Trump is also positioned to offer a devastating critique of Hillary Clinton—that she never wins: She tried to pass health care reform. Biggest disaster I ever saw in Washington. Biggest I ever saw. And that’s saying a lot. She wanted us to go into Iraq and then into Libya. Look at that mess. Worst decision in foreign policy history. Worst. NAFTA, prisons, welfare reform. You know that story about King Midas? Where he touches something and it turns to gold? Hillary’s the opposite. Everything she touches blows up. She’s a disaster.
Is it really so hard to imagine Trump peddling a populist message that keeps the Great Wall of America (he can’t disavow that wall), dials down on the dog-whistle rhetoric toward Hispanics and Muslims, and goes hard at the economic and cultural insecurity of the middle class by promising them a gorgeous new fleet of protectionist trade deals, a big beautiful tax cut, and all the social spending they’ve come to love? Pay Less, Keep More, Win, Win, Win. It will be a incredible six months of populist pandering. And what’s worse: If it produces results and he rises in the polls, the political media will paint Trump as a rapidly maturing centrist.
So, it is time for the to-be-sure paragraph. To be sure: Donald Trump faces massive impediments, many of which he put up himself. He’s spent the last nine months doing his best to alienate every minority group in an electorate that is more diverse than ever. He has a history of radically hypocritical statements. His business record is a massive, beautiful, terrific Jenga tower. He is also getting beat steadily and mightily by Clinton in early head-to-head polls. Although it’s reasonable to think the gap could close in a general election campaign, you have to begin to wonder how many Americans haven’t made up their mind about this guy, already, since Trump is a historically overexposed political product. An intended voter saying, “I’m still making my mind up about Donald Trump” in April 2016 is like a fully grown adult saying, “I’m still deciding if I like ice cream.” You kinda do or you don’t, by now.
Hillary Clinton is the clear favorite in November. But if you think Donald Trump’s past positions will make it hard for him to win a general election, recall that Donald Trump does not care about his past positions. He cares about winning. He’s going to spend the next few weeks figuring out what he needs to say to win, and when he thinks he’s found those things, he's going to say them, over and over, with shameless disregard for consistency, accuracy, or morality. Factuality will be sacrificed, over and over, on the altar of authenticity. He won’t tell “the truth.” He will tell “it like it is."
Pragmatists like to seek solace in the quote, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” The quote is falsely attributed to Lincoln (fooling people is easy, it turns out, if you just repeat the fib emphatically enough), yet I wouldn’t be surprised if the Clinton campaign used the line, to contrast the Republican forefather’s virtue with Trump’s chintzy salesmanship.
The thing about majoritarian government, though, is that nobody has to fool everybody all the time. Donald Trump’s objective couldn’t be clearer. He only has to fool half the people once.