The grandstanding businessman’s presidential campaign broke all the norms of political discourse. What comes next?
By Jared Keller
Curt Schilling. (Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM)
It is extremely, almost undeniably likely that Hillary Clinton will be the 45th president of the United States. Major media forecasts from the New York Times and FiveThirtyEight have the former secretary of state on the cusp of a resounding electoral win, and to nobody’s surprise: Donald Trump has trailed Clinton in most major general election polls for more than a year, per RealClearPolitics. Victory, it seems, is at hand.
So what happens to Trump? With a defeat all but certain, the Republican nominee has aggressively questioned the legitimacy of the entire electoral college — “I’ll keep you in suspense,” he said of accepting the election results when questioned during the third presidential debate. And for a man dead set on flamboyantly proving his aptitude, a loss on Tuesday may deal a crippling blow not just to his self-styled persona, but also to his psyche. “If I don’t win, I will consider it a tremendous waste of time, energy, and money,” Trump said on Election Day in a sort of closing argument on Fox News. “I will have spent over $100 million of my own campaign … I will not consider it great if I don’t win.”
Trump’s candidacy has plainly exacerbated an irrevocable fault line between pragmatic establishment Republicans and the party’s far-right base, and if those conservative Americans aren’t ripe for exploitation as voters, they certainly appear to be devout viewers. It’s no wonder rumors of Trump TV persist, bolstered by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s backroom business maneuvering and, more importantly, the drafting of Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon to head up Trump’s campaign. And can we really dismiss the possibility that Trump TV was the businessman’s goal all along?
But Trump’s impact goes beyond business: He has undeniably transformed the nature of American politics. Yes, Trump’s unabashed xenophobia and campaign-long rebuke of “political correctness” has emboldened white nationalists and other fringe political movements once resigned to the margins of American politics, but his impact goes far beyond the electoral calculus of the state-by-state horse race. Trump has broken every norm of contemporary politics — and, in turn, opened the floodgates for a new brand of politician. He has, as I wrote in the Village Voice, taken the transgressive, maddening combativeness of, your uncle’s Facebook rant and turned it into a coherent political strategy. He has, in short, weaponized trolling.
Trump’s mastery of the fragmented, sensationalist media has empowered him beyond all expectations. With every full-throated speech and despicable salvo on Twitter, Trump earns himself free airtime — over $2 billion in free media, per the New York Times, more than any other candidate in American history. He possesses an undeniable brilliance for transgressive politics, playing on our (Internet-enabled) sense of outrage while downplaying his vile comments as “just a joke” or “locker room talk” or whatever. Establishment media and politicians have no idea what to do with a candidate who keeps violating contemporary political and social norms around civility and discourse.
Free media built on appealing to a homogenous block of working-class white Americans, of course, hasn’t been enough to ensure the populist victory Trump might like: His fiery Republican National Convention speech actually hurt him among GOP voters, the first time a convention performance has significantly damaged a candidate’s standing in decades measured by Gallup. And, according to exit polls on Election Day, a significant portion of American voters are absolutely terrified over the prospect of a Trump presidency. On a national stage, appealing to a country in the middle of a massive demographic transition, Trump’s brand of political trolling only goes so far.
But, on a state level, Trump’s campaign of transgressing on political norms might prove a valuable blueprint for a brand new breed of celebrity-inflected, grievance-culture-driven candidates. Consider Curt Schilling, the one-time Boston Red Sox star pitcher turned conservative pundit who announced a challenge to Senator Elizabeth Warren in October. Schilling’s political make-up resembles Trump: Wielding regional name recognition and waving a banner of “free speech” in politically correct Massachusetts, Schilling may actually prove a slippery challenge to Warren, especially among white, working-class voters.
Only in a post-Trump environment can a candidate think it’s a good idea to proclaim that lynchings are “so much awesome” (which he justified as “sarcasm”) or wage war on transgender bathrooms. Who cares if his failed video gaming company lost $75 million in Rhode Island taxpayer dollars? If Schilling can effectively pick up the playbook of the culture-war crusade that Trump pioneered, he may prove a formidable challenge to Warren in the state. It certainly helps that Schilling has already joined Breitbart.
To gauge Trump’s impact on American politics, political observers should consider keeping a close eye on Schilling’s campaign in liberal Massachusetts. Should Schilling gorge on free media and close the gap between himself and Warren, Trump may have to eat his words: Rather than a waste of time, Trump has sowed the seeds for an entire new generation of insurgent political outsiders tearing down the traditional political and social mores that have governed American politics for decades.