As Donald Trump continues the self-immolation that began in the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton is rising once more in the polls. But Trump had pulled into a virtual dead heat before that debate, and could easily rise again if he ever stops torching himself.
This has once again raised a critical question: How can a candidate so clearly unfit for office, a foul, boorish cad who has insulted a majority of the voters and embarrassed the remainder, be so competitive with Hillary Clinton, one of the most experienced and prepared presidential candidates in history?
Writing after the first debate, Paul Krugman summarized the liberal punditry’s litany on this question. First, he argues, many voters are racist: “A lot more Americans than we like to imagine are white nationalists at heart.” Implicit racist appeals have been, as Krugman argues, a “core Republican strategy” for some time. Trump won the primary, he suggests, by trumpeting the signals Republicans normally transmit with dog whistles.
Second, and more important, the media did it. Clinton ran into a “buzz saw of adversarial reporting” that exaggerated scandals or invented them. The mainstream media’s “abnormalization” of Hillary Clinton,” to use Jonathan Chait’s phrase, is what gave Trump a chance.
Indeed, American politics is still stained by racism and sexism; sensible Republicans understand that the being the party of white sanctuary is a losing proposition in national elections. (Though it’s worth remembering that Americans twice gave Barack Hussein Obama a majority of their votes.) And complaints about the media, while not entirely without merit, are universal in campaigns. At least part of the value of this critique is simply working of the refs. Liberal howls about Matt Lauer’s slanted performance in the “Commander in Chief” forum no doubt led Lester Holt, the moderator of the first presidential debate, to direct three “gotcha” questions at Trump and none at Hillary.
What’s missing from these critiques: an accounting for the populist anger that has roiled both parties in this election. It’s a major force, fueled by a growing understanding among voters that the economy is rigged against them by a political system that’s been corrupted by big money. Americans are suffering through a second “recovery” where most people are losing ground. The middle class is getting hollowed out. Good jobs are scarce. The banks blew up the economy and got bailed out. The richest few pocket most of the rewards of economic growth. To omit this is to miss the entire context for this election.