Donna Shank and her husband Dwight tucked into snacks at a Republican Party picnic in western Pennsylvania as people queued around them for Donald Trump signs, voter registration forms and hotdogs.
“We are tired of government the way it is. He tells it like it is and it is what we think. It may be a little crude but it’s what’s on our minds,” said Donna (68).
Sitting out in warm Appalachian air one early evening in August, she lamented to The Irish Times that her son, grandson and three great-grandsons had to leave this once booming steel-milling and coal-mining part of the United States, a one-time engine of American manufacturing, to find jobs in Virginia.
“Trump will shake up the good old boys down there in DC that got it made all these years,” said Dwight (67). “They keep getting re-elected and re-elected, and they don’t want to do nothing.”
The Shanks are typical of working-class white Americans across the Rust Belt and beyond who see a hero in the rich New York property magnate. They believe Trump can bring his supposed skills in the boardroom, as seen in their living rooms for more than a decade on reality TV, into the Oval Office.
This Pennsylvania couple will be among the millions of voters backing the Republican nominee in this Tuesday’s election.
Trump has lit a populist inferno on the highly flammable anger of Americans frustrated that their incomes have stagnated for 15 years and that the recovery from the 2008 financial crash, regularly touted by President Barack Obama, has passed them by. Acute income inequality has shrunk the middle class to just half the population for the first time in at least four decades, leaving blue-collar Americans clamouring for change.
Enter Trump. “The American Dream is dead,” he declared, launching his presidential campaign 16 months ago at his Trump Tower skyscraper in Manhattan, on a promise to “Make America Great Again”. His bumper-sticker proclamation has distilled the hopes of disgruntled Americans into a simple, effective message.
Clinton entered the race two months before Trump with the promise to be “a champion” of “everyday Americans” but with heavy political baggage from three decades in the public eye and shifting policy positions that left a majority of Americans distrustful of her and her promises that she shared their values.
From the outset, Trump struck a vicious tone that would make this the ugliest election in decades, driven by nationalism, protectionism and xenophobia. He has played to the alienation felt by the older, whiter, more religious and more conservative voters at new gender norms, social changes and a more diverse racial kaleidoscope, as America heads towards becoming a mostly non-white “majority-minority” nation.
In his meandering campaign announcement, Trump called Mexican immigrant rapists, criminals and drug smugglers, and promised to build a “great wall” to prevent them entering the country. Trump has evoked a period of American greatness when the country basked in post-second World War glory, before the disruption of globalisation, a time when the country was wealthier, whiter and more confident of its place in the world.
“There are almost two different Americas,” says Roger Daniels, emeritus history professor at the University of Cincinnati. “The fundamental divide is between those trying to live in the 21st century and those trying to remain in the mid-20th century, that golden age that people look back to.”
Trump took advantage of his outsider status in a packed Republican primary race at a time when the vast majority of the party’s supporters were angry or dissatisfied with the federal government and Washington politicians. A splintered field meant that Trump, a master of the soundbite and the television put-down, dominated a field of Republican career politicians with name-calling and antics more suited to his TV show.
The Republican primary descended into farce as Trump unleashed attacks on Florida senator Marco Rubio “Little Marco”, and Texas senator Ted Cruz, “Lyin’ Ted”. Rubio, like Trump, eventually decided to “go low”, teasing the businessman about his “small hands” and the size of his penis, an issue Trump felt the need to address in a nationally televised debate by answering that there was “no problem” down there.
“We put the fun in dysfunctional here in America,” said former top Republican congressional aide John Feehery about one of the most topsy-turvy presidential elections in generations.
Not even Trump’s mocking of a disabled reporter, his questioning the Vietnam war hero status of former Republican candidate John McCain, his mocking of the face of rival Republican Carly Fiorina, his suggestion that Fox News host Megyn Kelly gave him a hard time in a debate because she was menstruating, or his plan for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration into the US could derail him.
The Republican establishment under-estimated his appeal. “I love the poorly educated,” the unfiltered Trump bragged after taking the Nevada caucuses in February.
Trump secured 14 million votes, the most ever by a candidate in a Republican primary, though not a majority, just 44 per cent of primary votes cast. To his supporters, he represented the interests of the people; to others, he was a dangerous demagogue fanning the worst impulses of an angry electorate.
Hillary Clinton's expected coronation as Democratic presidential nominee was complicated by Bernie Sanders, the curmudgeonly septuagenarian backbencher who surprised many as the energetic alternative in the race. Pushing her to the left, Sanders railed against the special interests of Wall Street and big companies, reminding voters of Clinton's past corporate ties.
Ultimately, Sanders, despite victories in 22 states, could not grow his support beyond mostly white voters and young people, but Sanders and his grassroots “revolution” exposed cracks in the winning Obama coalition that Clinton was banking on.
Sanders chose not to attack Clinton on her use of a personal email server as US secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, an error that has plagued her campaign. “There Is No Good Answer To This,” wrote Clinton staffer Philipp Reines in an email to other aides that was hacked and leaked to anti-secrecy website Wikileaks, courtesy of Russian government hackers trying to influence the US election.
In a fight between two deeply unpopular candidates (though Trump’s negatives outweigh Clinton’s), the race to elect the 45th US president has now come down to which candidate can successfully prosecute the case against their opponent, turning the election into a referendum on the other’s fitness to lead.
The much-anticipated pivot to a moderate, on-message Trump in the later stages of the campaign failed to materialise. Trump played harder to his base, and the election turned nastier. In a period of severe polarisation, where centrists have moved towards the ideological flanks of the parties, anything goes.
“In this day and age the process of political campaigning is very destructive,” says Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton. “There are really almost no boundaries about what people will say.”
Trump picked fights with a “Gold Star” Muslim-American family who lost a son in the Iraq war, a beauty queen, the media and anyone else who crossed him.
Clinton looked to Trump’s voluminous back-catalogue of insults to attack her opponent. She picked at his thin-skinned temperament to dominate the three televised debates and skilfully managed to make the election about the polarising Trump.
Clinton has had her slips too. The Democrat’s labelling half of Trump’s supporters as “a basket of deplorables” turned the gaffe into cottage-industry gold for the Republican’s campaign merchandise vendors, while the New York businessman’s “nasty woman” and “bad hombres” slurs returned the favour to the Clinton camp.
The best metaphor for this election is that of a “dumpster fire”, says William Galston, a fellow at the Washington think tank, the Brookings Institution, and a senior adviser in Bill Clinton’s White House. “It burns brightly but emits a foul odour.”
He sums it up as follows: “It has been unusually vituperative, focused on issues of character. The discussions of issues, except in the broadest and most caricature strokes, have been virtually non-existent. It will serve for decades to come as a dystopian image of what our national politics can descend to.”
Confused undecided voters and disaffected Republicans and Democrats turned off by their respective party’s nominee put the unpalatable choice facing many in Tuesday’s election down to the oft-quoted “lesser of two evils”.
A month out from the election, the leak of a 2005 recording of Trump bragging about being able to sexually assault women and “grab them by the p***y” – and the follow-up accusations from about a dozen women that he actually did sexually assault them – made that choice easier.
Nervous Republicans, notably those seeking re-election in the fight to retain control of the US House of Representatives and Senate next week, lined up to condemn and disown him.
But Trump brought the vitriol to another level. He invited three women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct to front-row seats in the audience of the second debate, promised to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton if he is elected president and said that she would be in jail if he was in charge. This delighted his supporters whose chants of "Lock Her Up" have become a catch-cry of his campaign.
When his poll numbers fell, Trump decried a “rigged” election and warned that he might not accept the outcome of the election, threatening to undermine the very foundations of the American democratic system. Clinton called it “horrifying” and Obama told him to “stop whining”.
Stretching her lead, the Democrat nominee dared to dream about even extending her advantage in the state-based electoral-college system by competing hard in ruby-red conservative states such as Georgia and Arizona that have not voted for her party since her husband was running for the White House.
Those hopes came to a shuddering halt when FBI director James Comey dropped his bombshell eight days ago. He announced, just 11 days before the election, that new emails had surfaced in a separate investigation, reviving the investigation into Clinton’s use of a personal email server.
That the emails surfaced in a “sexting” investigation into former New York congressman Anthony Weiner, estranged husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin, pushed this election further down the rabbit hole.
Now Clinton finds herself in that uncomfortable position: in the spotlight struggling to make the election again about Trump, his temperament and fitness to lead, not about her trust issues.
Polls have tightened again. A CBS News/New York Times poll on Thursday gave Clinton a three-point lead over Trump, though other polls this week have shown a much tighter race in the wake of the latest FBI email inquiry. The ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll on Tuesday showed the Republican leading, by one point, for the first time since May.
Clinton has even had to include strongly Democratic states such as Michigan on her final campaign stops to shore up waning support among black voters who supported Obama. Trump is scoring better than Clinton among voters who see the economy as the biggest issue of this election.
Her focus in the final days will be on reminding minority voters and women of the Republican’s most unpresidential remarks in the hope of turning out higher numbers of black and Latino voters in Florida and North Carolina.
Clinton will also target college-educated whites – consistent Republican voters turned off by Trump – in the suburbs of battleground states, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, to offset his appeal amongst blue-collar voters. Clinton can afford to lose two of these states. Trump must win them all.
“This all comes down to turnout and whether it is excitement of the Trump voter or the organisational strength of the Hillary campaign,” said Republican John Feehery.
“They may both cancel each other. The polls have been closing and that is not good for her. He has got the big ‘Mo’ [momentum]. The question is whether it is too late. I don’t think so.”
Expect three frenetic final days of campaigning before this strange, grotesque election draws to a close.
Full US election coverage at irishtimes.com/uselection