One fairly common presupposition, including by myself so far, is that both of the candidates running for presidency in November are so well known that it is unlikely that many people will change their opinion. I am probably given to expecting bigger changes than others, in favor of Trump, if only because I expect that many conventional Republicans will start thinking more favorably of him now that there is no escaping Trump as their nominee, but even there, I can’t escape thinking that there will be a decent sized exodus.
But, this is predicated on a peculiar supposition: that we know Trump the way we do Hillary Clinton, as a political creature, and the answer is that, actually, we don’t know a darn thing about Trump. Clinton has been at the center of Washington politics since 1993, when Bill Clinton became president. Since then, she has come to embody everything that is conventional wisdom inside the Beltway. Since stands for everything that the current political class thinks is the way the world should be run, with free markets, free wheeling high finance, worship of high technology, permissive social norms, and American economic and military power imposing western values around the world, there is no reason for the political creatures to not believe that she is the most prepared president-in-waiting.
But most voters, in fact, are not political creatures. The gap between the political universe and the masses has been growing precipitously and, quite frankly, that is the story behind how two totally unknown senators, one from Illinois, the other from Vermont, pushed her around in 2008 and 2016. Without the symbolism of Barack Obama, Sanders has fallen short, but, having seen this twice, we should think that it wasn’t so much Obama’s unique charms that won the day in 2008 but the fact that many voters, even Democrats, really don’t like Washington insiders exemplified by the Clintons. In other words, Clinton is both well-known for her politics and a lot of people don’t like what they see.
Now, Trump is well known for reasons other than politics. He is a boorish supposed billionaire. He certainly is a very skilled PR man. He is a self-made man not in the usual sense of making his fortune on his own–we know he inherited at least his capital–but in that he created his own public reputation and used it as the means of gaining leverage in business and elsewhere. Or, in other words, we know nothing of him that he didn’t invent himself. He is a sort of ultimate Jay Gatsby, except, unlike the young James Gatz, Trump really began with a lot of money and he had no trouble hobnobbing with the Buchanans of the world.
This strikes me as, at least, rather peculiar: Trump is well-known, but, at the same time, a total unknown. We know Clinton’s political script and she cannot credibly depart from it. All we know about Trump is his boorish and bigger than life personality, that he has a knack for doing something totally out of blue sometimes, and he has a way of connecting with people at a level that most politicians cannot. There are two recent political examples who did have that people gift: Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. In an odd way, Bill Clinton is strangely similar to Trump, at least in broad outlines–even if they might seem totally different stylistically: they are both naturally gifted communicators with far greater intellectual gifts than it might appear superficially who still manage to rub many people the wrong way. It is worth remembering that for all his personal magnetism, Clinton remained–and remains–a controversial figure whom Al Gore tried to distance from in 2000. (In a like vein, I think of Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton’s foil in 1990s, as a sort of male Hillary Clinton, except with a bit more intellectual dynamism and creativity perhaps and a little lazier–he was a legitimate academic by training rather than a lawyer, after all. Both are probably deeper intellects than Bill Clinton, who was quick rather than deep given to policy details and single-minded seekers of power who probably did not believe in much of what they said who nevertheless had the unfortunate tendency to drop the ball at the inopportune times.)
It is difficult to expect that Trump will surprise us in the future, by seizing any respectable shares among the segments of electorates that seem hopelessly lost to him: the professional women and minorities. But, at the same time, it is not clear if we actually know anything about Trump at all, at least when it comes to anything political.