How is it possible that Trump can still win?

The incumbent US president may be behind his rival in the polls but the difference can dwindle in the months ahead.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks
US President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus pandemic news briefing at the White House in Washington on July 21, 2020 [Reuters/Leah Millis]

Making predictions can be a columnist’s curse.

I have tried to avoid the tricky practice since, in all likelihood, my crystal ball is as unreliable as your crystal ball.

Still, I can confidently predict that by the time Americans vote on November 3, the fingernails of countless progressives, liberals and other largely sane people will have been gnawed to their root because, despite US President Donald Trump’s current political predicament, one question dominates: How is it possible that he can still win?

These days, oodles of columns are being written by oodles of commentators on oodles of avowedly progressive and liberal websites insisting with varying degrees of sometimes forced sincerity that Trump is headed for a much deserved and persuasive defeat.

Invariably, many of these columns – like this one – end with a telling caveat: Yes, Trump is losing, but it is still early and things could change dramatically and, of course, for the worse. Hence, the compulsive nail-biting.

Clearly, the trauma of 2016 remains embedded in their injured psyches. With a few notable exceptions, countless progressives, liberals and other largely sane people shared an often-cocky conviction that Hillary Clinton would prevail. Poll after happy poll fed that happy consensus.

The other prevailing sentiment fuelling the near wholesale and ultimately naive belief that Clinton would indeed emerge as America’s first female president was best conveyed by the man she sought to succeed: Barack Obama.

Obama was convinced that Americans would reject “a fundamentally unserious person” whose “standards of ethics and tolerance” were “corrosive”. In the end, Obama had faith that the inherent decency and wisdom of Americans would win out and, as a result, Trump’s manifest ignorance, incompetence and indecency would be rejected.

Obama was wrong, and he was not alone. The pollsters were wrong. The cognoscenti were wrong. The Clintons were wrong.

Scores of rationales and theories have been proffered to explain why almost everyone was wrong. The predominant explanation, I suppose, was that a complacent Clinton and her allies failed to acknowledge or convincingly address the distemper of the times, while Trump captured the zeitgeist and seething antipathy towards governing elites and the status quo.

Whatever the cause or causes of Trump’s astonishing victory, the grim, lasting residue of his shocking, disorienting presence in the White House has translated into another persistent question that hangs over the coming presidential election like a black, foreboding shroud: Could Obama, the pollsters, the cognoscenti, the Clintons and now, the Bidens, be wrong again?

Sentient Americans and much of the sentient world has had to endure the thicket of depressing, unrelenting ugliness emanating from Trump’s mouth and what haltingly passes for a mind.

Confronted by a raging, lethal pandemic he insisted would magically evaporate in the summer heat and a convulsive, nation-wide racial reckoning, Trump is, predictably, seeking salvation and succour in his deeply engrained white-supremacist and authoritarian disposition.  

Anger, fear, grievance and self-preservation are, as they always have been, the raison d’etre of his wretched presidency and motivate Trump to seek a second term.    

And yet, through all the madness and malicious mendacity, Trump has retained the allegiance of roughly 40 percent of Americans – mostly older, white, non-college-educated men and women, although there is evidence that Trump’s backing among white, working-class voters is eroding.

This is not, by any measure, a trifling figure. Today, Trump is only six points shy of the percentage of the popular vote he attracted in 2016 that was enough to secure 304 electoral college votes and the presidency.

Think about that. Despite the torrent of lies, outrages, insults, indignities, stunts and racist profanities, most of the 62 million-strong “Make America Great Again” loyalists have remained by Trump’s squalid side.

As an antidote to this dreary fact, progressives, liberals and other largely sane people cling like petrified shipwreck survivors to national polls that show that Democratic Party nominee, Joe Biden, enjoying a double-digit lead. The dread, however, that that comfortable divide will shrink in the weeks ahead is palpable.

So is the worry that some unforeseen domestic or international event will deflect attention from Trump’s and his administration’s ineptness, near-criminal negligence and rampant corruption. Although, it is hard to imagine, outside a nuclear or unexpected natural catastrophe, what could conceivably prevent the November vote from being, in effect, a referendum on Trump.

Voter suppression, foreign dirty tricks and the persistent, if not defining, inability of the bulky, byzantine US electoral infrastructure to permit one person to cast one vote, will surely be exacerbated by an out-of-control virus.

Taken together, these travails could stifle turnout, prevent or delay accurate election tallies and potentially render the entire chaotic exercise moot or illegitimate.

Progressives, liberals and other largely sane people are also, no doubt, fretting that in many volatile swing states, the former vice president’s polling cushion is in the mid-to-low single digits.

Chances are that as Trump’s hysterical, dystopian political ads describing what a Biden presidency would mean to America’s existing dystopian political and cultural landscape seep into voters’ consciousness, the Democrat’s swing-state margins may narrow, too.

That Trump could continue as president for four more years is not only a tangible and disturbing possibility but should finally torpedo that flippant notion – promoted by lazy progressives and liberals – that Trump’s supporters constitute a cult and he, by extension, is the cult’s leader.

The suggestion that Trump’s infuriating resilience is a consequence of his cult-like status implies that he exercises some mystical, otherworldly powers of persuasion and control that, at once, mesmerize and direct his Borg-like followers to do as he pleases – whatever the ramifications for the nation’s fate or future or, more particularly, their fates and futures.        

My view is that Trump is understood, admired and celebrated by millions of Americans as the personification of a much less sentimental construct of the mythical “American Dream”.

Trump’s almost primal evocation of the “American Dream” is predicated upon one existential pursuit: making as much money as you can and damn the human or natural consequences.

It does not matter how you go about making as much money as you can. It does not matter who you have to crush or betray to make as much money as you can. It does not matter how often you have to lie or cheat to make as much money as you can. It does not matter how often you have to bend or break the rules to make as money as you can. It does not matter who or what you have to smear or destroy to make as much money as you can.

If you can evade any serious responsibility – inside or outside a courtroom – for all your lying, cheating, betraying, smearing, crushing and destroying while you make as much money as you can, well, hoorah for you.  

Polite traditions, civility, empathy, social harmony, and the public good are silly and disposable anachronisms. The only thing that counts is making as much money as you can.

This is the ethos that binds Trump to Trumpsters.

That is why he can win. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.