As of this writing, Donald Trump trails Hillary Clinton by three points in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, while FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast gives the Republican nominee a 40 percent chance of winning the White House this November.
The fact that an emotionally volatile, authoritarian demagogue — who has campaigned on his contempt for minority groups and the norms of liberal democracy — could prove so competitive in a presidential race has led many pundits to accuse the news media of abject failure: Clearly, the fourth estate has not given the American people an accurate assessment of the choices before them.
There’s some sound evidence for this view. The media’s fixation on Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server has left much of the public ignorant of virtually everything else the Democratic nominee brings to the 2016 race.
Meanwhile, Trump is the most mendacious candidate in modern American history — and yet voters see him as “more honest and straightforward” than his opponent. What’s more, even though his economic program consists of supply-side tax cuts and deregulatory schemes that most Americans oppose — and his career in business has been marked by corruption and incompetence — many polls show a majority of voters saying Trump would be better at handling the economy.
Still, it’s hard to pin full blame for these latter misapprehensions on the media: Trump has been fact-checked with unprecedented aggression — by newspapers, cable news anchors, even chyron writers. The perception that he is more honest than Clinton likely stems from qualities that are immune to refutation: He often speaks off the cuff, shows little message discipline, and says things that seem both wildly offensive and politically useless. Such behavior is associated with honesty, even when the words being spoken are anything but.
And the idea that Donald Trump is one of the world’s most successful businessmen, and thus an expert on the economy, is a fiction that’s been built up over decades, through best-selling books and hit television shows. The myth is so potent, the Trump Organization’s core business has become licensing its own name as a signifier of great wealth and prestige. A political media that few Americans pay close attention to is ill-equipped to dispel a perception that entrenched.
But the Republican nominee boasts many deficiencies that are easy to convey. It’s not hard to show the public that Trump is bigoted, ill-tempered, and unpredictable in his behavior — you just need to broadcast his rallies. And, at that task, cable news has excelled. A pair of new polls show that the message of those rallies has gotten through to the electorate.
An Associated Press–GfK survey released Friday finds that a majority of Americans think Trump is at least somewhat racist, while 60 percent say he does not respect ordinary people, and nearly three-quarters say he is neither civil nor compassionate — a sentiment endorsed by 40 percent of Trump’s own supporters. Clinton earns kinder marks on all of those fronts, with 22 percent saying she’s racist, 48 percent that she doesn’t respect ordinary folks (and/or “deplorables”), and 58 percent that she isn’t compassionate.
A new SurveyMonkey poll shows Americans taking an even darker view of the Republican nominee. The pollster asked respondents to rate the likelihood of Trump taking various actions during his time in the White House, on a scale of zero to 100 percent. On average, voters said there was a greater than 50 percent chance that Trump would abuse the power of the presidency to punish his political opponents, allow the U.S. to default on its debt, inspire “race riots” in major cities, create a database to track Muslim Americans, and order air strikes against the families of terrorists.
Respondents, on average, said there was a 46 percent chance that Trump would detonate a nuclear weapon during his time in office, and a 44 percent chance that he will establish internment camps for illegal immigrants.
Now, there’s a significant caveat to these results: The poll was commissioned by the Lincoln Leadership Initiative, a group founded by anti-Trump Republicans. Still, SurveyMonkey is a reputable pollster and would not fabricate findings.
The upshot of both of these surveys, when taken together, is that Donald Trump has not been “normalized.” Most Americans see him as a racist would-be authoritarian who is highly likely to start a nuclear war. The trouble is, some voters apparently like that in a president.
According to SurveyMonkey, Trump supporters, on average, believe there is a 48 percent chance that he will create a database for monitoring Muslims; a 33 percent chance that he’ll let the government default on its debt; 32 percent chance that he’ll use the Executive branch’s authority to persecute political opponents and establish internment camps for the undocumented; and a 22 percent chance that he’ll start a nuclear war.
Due to a combination of party polarization, Hillary Clinton’s high unfavorable numbers, unusually popular third-party candidates — and an openness to extremism far more widespread in the electorate than most political observers had realized — it now seems possible that Trump could win the presidency this November, even as more than half the country sees him as a racist and likely tyrant.
If these polls are accurate, then the media has not failed to convey Trump’s abnormality, but, rather, the abnormal mood of the American people.