On Sunday night, I went to my local cinema in northern Virginia. Not to see a film but to watch the second of the presidential debates on a big screen with nearly 100 of my neighbours. The cinema manager cheerily called the event “Popcorn and Politics”, and many were indeed eating popcorn. In the past, American presidential races have sent me to sleep but this time round it couldn’t be more compelling. The release of tapes in which Donald Trump boasts of being a serial sexual harasser, of attempting to seduce married women, and of grabbing women by their private parts, has turned the election into a strange kind of test.
The cinema audience was rapidly sucked into the drama of what has become the best reality TV show available. There were hoots and catcalls when Trump squirmed over questions about the leaked tape, shrieks of laughter when, like a man in the grip of a psychological disorder, he segued awkwardly into a monologue about Islamic State, and horrified gasps when he threatened Hillary Clinton with a “special prosecutor” after he won the election. That was the first time that anyone has heard a presidential nominee make such a threat on live television.
I hope I’m wrong about this, but I don’t think the leaked tape, appalling though it is, will make much difference to the outcome of the election. For those who already support Trump, it merely confirms what they already knew – that he is a regular guy who engages in locker-room banter (although, as a billionaire property developer, he may be less regular than he likes to seem). The real question is how many Republicans will be deterred from voting for him on 8 November. My guess is: not that many.
What does a Trump presidency hold for education in America? We can expect the US Department of Education, which distributes federal money for educational assistance to the impoverished, immigrants, Native Americans and those with disabilities, to be shut down. We can also expect an end to the Federal Student Loan Program, which guarantees financial assistance, at lower interest rates than commercial lenders, to university students. Effectively, Trump will privatise student loans. He also wants financial aid to be granted on the basis of a graduate’s potential future earnings – a move that would reduce the amounts given to “esoteric” liberal arts majors. The people likely to be most disadvantaged by these measures are those who are least educated and least affluent – precisely those most likely to vote for Trump.
Blue-collar America seems to love him. Why? It’s my contention – and has been since his campaign began – that he will get elected because he is a great communicator. Unlike Clinton, he has the common touch. When Clinton analyses the situation in the Middle East, she speaks with authority and knowledge, but much of what she says is so well informed it is comprehensible only to readers of The Washington Post. By contrast, Trump has USA Today appeal: “I will knock the hell out of Islamic State”. The nonsensicality of his argument that Clinton was somehow complicit in the creation of IS pales by comparison with the claim that the defeat of IS can be achieved only if the US allows Russia, Iran and President Bashar al-Assad to reclaim Syria. But then, how many Americans know where Syria is, let alone who is in power?
Many professional politicians in this country seem to have no idea of the cynicism and distrust with which they are regarded. Trump has styled himself as the antidote. He does not come from their ranks, and knows how to project to the American electorate the kind of tough, straight-talking, entrepreneurial charisma they so adore. And the truth is that what the chattering classes of Georgetown think has no traction in the wilds of West Virginia, New York, North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana, where Trump is likely to win next month. He may be pompous, bullying, self-serving, splenetic, bilious, dismissive, sexist, racist and ill-informed – he may also be a serial sexual harasser – but his status has been immeasurably enhanced by his celebrity within that waking dream we call television. He claims not only to have The Answer but to be The Answer, and many Americans will vote for him.
Most of those at the cinema last Sunday were Hillary supporters. They cheered, screamed and laughed at the appropriate moments, but lacked the inclination to perceive her inadequacies. That’s in part the by-product of the polarisation of the electorate; we have moved beyond the point at which anyone is capable of disinterested analysis. Political commentary is provided not by psephologists but by Sean Penn and Robert De Niro (who, in his latest video, describes Trump as “a punk, a dog, a pig, a con, a bullshit-artist, a bozo”).
But then, we are in uncharted waters. Who could have imagined, before now, the sight of the Republican nominee calling for civil disobedience were he to lose the election, which he has already described as “rigged”? Much though I love this country, I can’t bring myself to believe that he’s going to lose. He looks like a winner to me, but for all the wrong reasons.
Duncan Wu is Raymond Wagner professor of literary studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC.