US Election 2016: Donald Up Close

James Astill is the Washington bureau chief and Lexington columnist for The Economist. He is a contributor to Open
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The Republican candidate is much more pleasant in private than in his snarling public performances. Our contributor gets closer to Donald Trump

A RELATIVE NEWCOMER TO America, I have never watched a whole episode of The Apprentice, the hit reality TV show in which Donald Trump starred for 14 seasons. I have only got halfway through The Art of the Deal, his best-selling business memoir, which Trump describes as the second greatest book after the Bible. I have never worn a Trump tie, knowingly sniffed Trump aftershave or, for that matter, eaten a Trump steak. I am, in relative terms, a Trump virgin, untouched by the attention-seeking tycoon’s commercial brand and the related spell he has cast, these past three decades, over American media. Yet the scene I encountered in Trump’s private office, on the 26th floor of Trump Tower in Manhattan, last week still seemed acutely familiar.

The tycoon, wearing his trademark business suit and a matching tie, was hunched behind a desk carpeted with piles of magazines emblazoned with his own image. It was as if he was gazing on one of those many-faceted mirrors that jewellers use to display the same object from different angles. From each magazine cover, a different version of Trump returned the 69-year-old’s gaze—even including a rare unflattering one, from an issue of the publication I work for, The Economist.

The issue had come out last September, shortly after Trump launched his presidential campaign and promptly surged to an unpredicted lead in the polls. The cover image depicted his weird bouffant hair being lowered by helicopter into the White House, under the heading, ‘Washington, we have a problem’. Inside, we had criticised Trump for his divisiveness—his attacks on illegal immigrants, his reference to Mexicans as “rapists” —and his expediency. Once a pro-life, anti-gun Democrat, he now proclaimed himself an anti-abortion, pro-gun conservative. We didn’t think much of his ideas, either: his costly protectionism, his knee-jerk xenophobia. Yet Trump appeared unabashed. He had our irreverent issue prominently displayed on his desk. “I put you up front,” he said sweetly: “I just hope people don’t read the story, that’s all...”

It was charming of him; Trump, unsurprisingly, is much more pleasant in private than in his snarling public performances. Yet the scene also encapsulated the extraordinary narcissism of a man who claims to be the world’s best at many things—doing deals, understanding finance, writing books, remembering stuff. That was one reason it had seemed familiar. The other was that Trump’s shrine to himself, high up in the New York skyline, with Central Haze visible in a green haze far below it, also resembles America’s media coverage over the past 11 months. Ever since he launched his campaign—at Trump Tower, of course—Trump has been ubiquitous in America.

With his 8 million fans on Twitter, he is a master of social media. With his ever-more-outrageous outbursts and proposals, he has dominated TV news channels, too. This has given him an enormous advantage. By one reckoning, his attention-seeking has earned him free coverage worth over $2 billion. It is a big reason for the astonishing triumph that Trump sealed a few hours after I left his office.

IN INDIANA, A Mid-Western state where he had until recently been expected to lose, he won big—with 53 per cent of the vote. That capped a run of seven consecutive state primaries in which he had won a majority of votes, something no candidate had managed in the previous 32 states. There was an unmistakeable sense in this of the Republican electorate, once divided between multiple candidates, having made its mind up for Trump. Exit polls suggested groups that had previously shunned him, including Republican women, had started voting for him in large numbers. He was clearly on track to win the 1,237 delegates, awarded state by state, that he needed for the Republican ticket.

To spare themselves further embarrassment, Trump’s two remaining rivals, Senator Ted Cruz and John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, pulled out. This makes Trump the party’s prospective nominee. It is remarkable. His candidacy was first ridiculed and then opposed by most Republican leaders. He has spent less than his rivals, burning through around $50 million, or about $5 a vote. By comparison, Cruz spent over $10 a vote, and Hillary Clinton, Trump’s probable Democratic opponent, over $15. Perhaps only Trump had seriously imagined his victory possible. As far back as 1988, he told Oprah Winfrey that if he ever did decide to run for president, he’d have “a hell of a chance” of winning. That prospect is now being viewed as a serious political risk for America and the world.

If he is to be believed, Trump would do real harm to both. He has vowed to scrap the health-care reform that was Barack Obama’s biggest domestic policy achievement, potentially leaving around 17 million people without medical insurance. He would also get rid of President Obama’s main effort to curb carbon emissions—unsurprisingly, given that he has suggested global warming is a hoax cooked up by China to destroy American industry. He would also get to work on his bigger pledges—to build a wall along America’s southern border and make Mexico pay for it; to expel some 11 million illegal immigrants and their children, many of whom have been living in America for decades; to bar foreign Muslims from America. None of this would go well; what Trump promises is plainly impossible as well as egregious. Mexico wouldn’t pay. Expelling the illegal immigrants, were it even possible, would cost $285 billion by one estimate. The Muslim ban would probably be illegal under American law, maybe unconstitutional, and anyway unenforceable. Or else what would the criteria for it be? Would everyone with a Muslim name be refused entry to America? Or only Muslims who admitted to believing in God?

This would leave a lot of Trump’s supporters feeling aggrieved. For these are his signature pledges—crowds holler for a mention of them at his rallies. (“What are we gonna build?” Trump shouts out to appease them, “A WALL!” the crowds reply. “Who’s gonna pay for it?” “MEXICO!”) To assuage the griping that would result, Trump might be expected to deflect it onto some of his remoter targets, potentially including any country America trades with: he contends that America makes “the worst trade agreement in the history of trade”.

The tycoon was hunched behind a desk carpeted with piles of magazines emblazoned with his own image, including a rare unflattering one. The cover image depicted his weird bouffant hair being lowered by helicopter into the White House

China, with its keen memories of the exploitative 19th century agreements America and other Western powers foisted on it after the Opium Wars, might disagree with that. But this would not prevent Trump, who accuses China of defying America’s military writ and “raping” the US economy by manipulating its currency, going after it. He seemed almost to promise this in his office: “Let’s say we’re going to have a 10 per cent tax on goods coming in from China.” The trade war that would almost inevitably result would hurt both countries.

Given its much smaller trade with America, India has less to fear from Trump. Though Indian BPO firms are rendering obsolete lots of inefficient American jobs, this disruption is on a tiny scale compared with the migration of large parts of American manufacturing to China and other low-cost countries. Indeed, Trump has sounded friendly towards India in the past. Having sold his name to two skyscrapers, going up in Pune and Mumbai, he may hope for more such opportunities. But Indian companies that rely on America’s H-1B skilled worker visas—to move their staff in and out of the country—should be worried; Mr Trump has made contradictory remarks on this provision, first vowing to restrict it, then to leave it be. Moreover, the wider disruption that Trump promises to America’s place in the world is a matter for Indian—and all nations’—concern. After he bad-mouthed the United Nations, I asked him if he would be prepared to withdraw America’s membership; “You always have to be prepared to walk,” he said.

There is an optimistic view that Trump is bluffing—that he is too successful to be so impractical, that he doesn’t really mean much of what he says. He is a businessman. Businessmen prize stability. Yet Trump is unusual. He appears to be genuinely egomaniacal— possessed of a self-belief so gargantuan that he is at least half-sold on his own schtick. It is not only his supporters who consider the boardroom tyrant he played in The Apprentice—from a leather chair that now sits in a corner of his office—to be a real character; Trump seems to believe that too.

To ‘Make America Great Again’, as his slogan promises, he argues that America needs a great deal-maker, himself, to knock the rust off. In the political realm, there could be something to that; Congress, for so long gridlocked by ideological grandstanding, from both parties, is crying out for compromise and pragmatism; Trump is a negotiator and no ideologue. Yet when it comes to diplomacy, his notion of statecraft as deal- making seems inappropriate.

HE HAS SUGGESTED, for example, that to pare down America’s $19 trillion debt, he would lean on America’s creditors to take a hair-cut. Were a President Trump even to broach that seriously, the panic on financial markets would be tremendous. Or else, consider his plans to extract much more money from America’s allies to help cover its huge military costs; and if the cash-strapped Europeans refused, as they would, he might advocate leaving NATO, the US-led multinational organisation that has been the main guarantor of peace in Europe for over six decades. Countries, especially strategic allies, are not like duelling real-estate tycoons; walking away from one another is rarely a good option.

It still seems unlikely he can win. Trump has won over 10 million votes in the primary, an impressive haul. Yet, to win the general election in November, he would need to win around 65 million, and it is not easy to see how he could. He is likely to launch his post-nomination campaign as the most unpopular candidate either party has fielded since polling began. Around 65 per cent of voters have an unfavourable view of him. He is even more disdained by two groups, women and Hispanics, whom Republican strategists covet especially; 70 per cent of women have a poor view of him, 80 per cent of Hispanics do. This could change, of course. Hillary Clinton is also unpopular; 55 per cent of Americans take a dim view of her. And Trump is already trying to woo both groups. Yet, given his rudeness to them in the primaries—for example, he suggested a TV anchor had asked him searching questions because she was menstruating— they may take some wooing. Republican Congressmen who are up for re-election in November in places with lots of Hispanics are already warning of a ‘Trump effect’ that could cost them their seats.

A few are likely to join the two former Republican presidents— the George Bushes—and a handful of Congressmen who have already suggested they will not support Trump as their party’s candidate. Even the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, the most senior Republican in the government, might end up there. He currently says he cannot back Trump yet—which is fairly dramatic, given that he is expected to chair the party convention, in July, at which Trump is expected to be formally named as its candidate. Without the support of his party, it is hard to see Trump raising the $1.5 billion he says he needs to fight the general election; or to imagine him winning it. Especially if he does badly with Hispanics, one of America’s fastest growing electoral groups, he would need an exceptionally high turnout of White Republicans to have a hope of victory.

In short, as the election moves from the primary to the general, Trump is once again a long-shot. But it seems he doesn’t mind those odds. It truly is astonishing that he has got this far. Unlikely as it might seem, he could clearly go further.