October 20, 2016, by Charlotte Anscombe

End Game: Trump’s House of Cards

Professor Todd Landman reviews the last presidential debate ahead of the US election.

With only 20 days until polling day, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are on the last leg of the campaign to become the next President of the United States. It has been a long and tumultuous 18 months as the two most unpopular presidential candidates have fought bitterly to win the hearts and minds of American voters.

In my earlier post on the party convention period of the campaign – A Tale of Two Americas – I discussed the contrasting portraits of America offered by the two candidates: Trump’s dystopian vision of a broken America and Clinton’s plea for an inclusive and hard working coalition. In this post, I find myself once again relying on Charles Dickens in seeing Atlantic City and Las Vegas as useful frames for my analysis of the final presidential debate and the state of the campaign in the run up to the election.

As a second year political science student at the University of Pennsylvania (Trump’s alma mater), I took a job as a waiter in the summer of 1985 in the Atlantis Casino in Atlantic City. After a successful session of playing craps one night that summer, a work colleague and I booked a room at Trump Plaza, which opened the year before. The hotel and casino were what one would expect: a gleaming tower, plush carpets, low lighting, the hum of the slot machines, and the muted sighs of gamblers as they lost and won.

Reflecting on this brief time working in Atlantic City and that particular evening, I see in many ways, the plight of Trump Plaza as an apt metaphor for what has transpired over the long campaign for the US Presidency. The prospect of Trump entering the race created great excitement: an outsider, gleaming from a successful business and television career, promising straight talk, simple solutions to an array of complex problems, and a personal commitment to make America great again, including the a new construction project: a wall along the 2000 mile border between the United States and Mexico.

Trump Plaza struggled from day one with disputes between Trump and the casino operator Harrah’s. There were buyouts and further acquisitions, underperformance and empty high roller suites, and then closure and vacancy by 2014. The early campaign surged for Trump as he knocked out one Republican after another in unpredictable and confounding ways. He had the Teflon of Ronald Reagan and the bravura of PT Barnum, but his largest and most tragic mistake occurred when he finally offended the largest demographic in America: women.

His unguarded comments about women caught on tape created a crisis for his campaign, as he reeled from a disastrous attempt to dismiss the remarks and his attacks on a growing number of women who came forward alleging his sexual misconduct in a variety of settings over many years. His main line of defence – dismissing his accusers of being too unattractive to harass and assault – backfired and reinforced his reputation as a misogynist. In last night’s debate, while still protesting his innocence, he declared that his Supreme Court nominee would over turn the 1973 Roe v Wade decision that legalised abortion and pledge further to delegate the power to regulate abortion back to the states, where the Roe case originated in the first place.

The release of the tapes was a clear turning point in the campaign. There is in effect, no one left to offend other than his core base of supporters. Over the last two years, he has attacked Mexicans, African Americans, Muslims, the press, veterans (the attack on John McCain was particularly disturbing), fellow republicans, and Jews. He then turned on women, who make up 52% of American society and who cut across party and ideological lines. And more importantly, his attack on women took place at a time in American history when the very first nominee for President is a woman, to whom he referred in last night’s debate as ‘a nasty woman’. He has been successful in bringing gender politics centre ground again.

He had enjoyed strong support among conservative and evangelical women across different income and class groups, but as the revelations poured in, more and more senior Republicans withdrew their support, as did a growing proportion of undecided voters. A shrinking core of supporters sought to dismiss the maltreatment of women as a mere distraction from more important issues, and reiterated his strong language about law and order, border security, and economic success.

But his remarks about women reveal something very deep about his worldview. For Trump, people are instruments for his own gain. Whether it is the suppliers that remain unpaid from the days of Atlantic City or the bankers involved the financial shell game that props up his real estate empire, people for Trump are a means to an end, and not something for whom one is motivated to enter public life.

His campaign is now on the ropes as he withdraws from key states like Virginia and Ohio and cuts ties with senior Republicans across the country. The three debates are now over, where he survived a format unsuited to his style of engagement. Debates are not rallies as they ask the candidates to enter into dialogue about key issues facing the country, propose ways of tackling these issues, and persuade the audience to spend their precious votes on them.

Trump’s performance in the debates started well and then deteriorated dramatically. He survived the first debate with a reasonably strong opening performance. His second debate came on the back of the release of the tape, where he also pledged to appoint a special prosecutor that would put Hillary Clinton in jail. This undemocratic assertion raised large concerns among many, and in last night’s debate he declared that he could not confirm whether he would accept the outcome of the election on 8 November.

These astonishing developments relating to women, abuse of executive authority and failure to uphold a basic democratic principle will seriously undermine any possibility of being elected. Since the first debate on 26 September, Trump’s popular polling position has seen a slow but steady decline and a rising lead for Hillary Clinton that puts her nearly 7% ahead. But the real number to watch is the probability of winning based on the Electoral College, where Trump has gone from a high of 50.1% to the current low of 12.6%. This decline is largely owing to key swing states that have either flipped to the Democrats or are leaning to the Democrats. These include Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, and even Arizona, where Jon McCain’s senate seat is under increasing threat from his opponent Ann Kirkpatrick.

The smart money is now on Clinton to win. The attention on Trump from the first debate through the revelations on the tape and beyond has meant that the Hillary Clinton has not been significantly damaged by the emails released on WikiLeaks, and has been able to focus on preparation for the debates, making policy arguments, and standing by as the Trump empire crumbles.

It is in many ways fitting that the final debate was in Las Vegas, which like Atlantic City is based on gleaming towers full of empty promises and broken dreams. The rise and fall of Donald Trump will mirror the fortunes of these cities, which have both experienced economic downturn, loss of opportunity, and a fair share of scandals. The key for the electorate is to decide who best can represent those who have worked hard, want a better life for themselves, and a brighter future for their families and loved ones. The polls and the Electoral College projections suggest that despite questions about her honesty and unpopularity, it is now Hillary Clinton who is the clear favourite.

Todd Landman, Professor of Political Science and Pro Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Christopher Phelps, Associate Professor of American Studies will be hosting a session entitled US Election 2016: The Results on 9 November 2016, 5:30 pm to 6:30 pm in room A48 Sir Clive Granger Building, University Park. 

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