“I’m a Trump guy,” tweeted former Illinois representative and talk show host Joe Walsh, “but, man, that’s not right.”
Walsh was referring to how, “For 9 days, over 20 million people early voted thinking the FBI had something big on Hillary.” It was a surprising break from reflexive partisanship, especially puzzling given Walsh’s other recent tweet about armed rebellion against a President-Elect Clinton.
Disappointingly, the tweet turned out to be in service of Walsh’s criticism of early voting. “Stop this early voting crazy. Quit making it so easy to vote,” he said. No joke: It is too easy to vote for Joe Walsh. Not too easy to commit voter fraud, mind you—too easy to vote. (Smarter men than I have written about how Republican-supported obstacles to voting, not near-imaginary voter fraud, represent the true threat to the electoral process. “Rigged” indeed.)
But, along the way, Walsh had a point: Elections must happen at a given time, and the proximity of news-cycle-altering events to that time can be frustratingly arbitrary. In his substanceless and maybe willfully dishonest letter to Congress 11 days before the presidential election, FBI director James Comey thrust his agency, and Hillary Clinton’s scandals, into the headlines for the campaign’s final stretch. News outlets from the predictable (CNN) to the baffling and disappointing (the New York Times) breathlessly covered the “development” for days, focusing not on the details of Comey’s letter but on self-fulfilling prophecies about how it would impact the polls.
Sure enough, though voters had absolutely no new information about Clinton’s behavior, the non-fire apparently had enough smoke to send undecideds scurrying to Donald Trump, who, to his tactical credit, uncharacteristically kept his mouth shut long enough for the spotlight to scorch his opponent. But, as polling aggregators FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics reveal, Trump had actually been gaining ground since his debate-induced nadir around Oct. 18.
In fact, Trump’s support since clinching his party’s nomination has followed a predictable pattern. It rose after events like Comey’s highly critical non-indictment of Clinton, the Republican National Convention, and Clinton’s Sept. 11 health scare. It plummeted after such obviously disqualifying moments as when he delegitimized a federal judge based on his parents’ nationality, mocked the grieving parents of a fallen soldier, or crumbled in a debate, and of course after the Billy Bush tapes were released. Other than the Khan debacle, which coincided with Clinton’s “convention bounce,” Trump’s numbers largely rose and fell not against Clinton’s but against those of Gary Johnson and “undecided,” evincing that the voters causing these swings weren’t moderates but rather Republicans at the margins of Trump’s base, some of whom decided after each implosion that they couldn’t tolerate his racism/unpatriotism/immaturity/sexual assault.
But in between these turning points, Trump’s support ticked back up, a tenth of a percentage point at a time. After each incident, five to seven percent of the country dropped Trump in disgust, only to pick him back up over the next few weeks. What the hell gives?
I don’t know, of course, but one explanation makes sense to me. When Trump shatters each of these political norms, he remains, well, a major party’s nominee for President. In a strange tautology, whatever he does becomes part of the range of normal presidential-candidate behavior. As the norm adjusts, the voters who instinctively rejected his violations no longer see them as violations. For the polls to make sense, millions of Americans must exist who decided they could not stomach a man who brags about getting away with groping married women, only to decide—within weeks or days—that they could, after all, even before Comey’s letter.
That is, in a word, horrifying. In one wild ego trip of a campaign, Donald Trump—and, never forget, the establishment Republicans who enabled him—has already made sexual assault, overt prejudice, and indifference to reality more acceptable to his tens of millions of supporters and, probably, to future candidates on both sides of the aisle. He could lose by 10 and still have done incalculable damage to the political process and to the social fabric tenuously holding the country’s angry factions together.I cannot even imagine what he would destroy if he wins.
Trevor J. Levin ’19 is a Crimson Arts executive living in Mather House. His column usually appears on alternate Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @trevorjlevin.