Trump is a ‘Malignancy,’ GOP Strategist Tells AmCham

Former McCain campaign manager, in Jakarta, unloads on the 2016 race during breakfast gathering

By A. Lin Neumann, AmCham Indonesia Managing Director
Friday, November 4, 2016

With the US election just days away, AmCham Indonesia members were given rare insights into what may be the strangest American presidential contest in history at a breakfast this week with Steve Schmidt, a leading Republican strategist and John McCain’s 2008 campaign manager.

For the morning at least, the US campaign was front and center in Jakarta at the event hosted by the Indonesia office of Edelman, the global public affairs giant where Schmidt is now a vice chairman.

Having been a key part of putting former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin on the ticket as McCain’s GOP running mate in 2008, Schmidt knows a thing or two about odd political dynamics. His role in that campaign was a key component of the movie “Game Change,” in which he was portrayed by Woody Harrelson.

‘Too implausible’

For 2016, he is on the sidelines as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton battle down to the wire in a bitter contest that has featured bizarre claims and counter claims, accusations of Russian interference, anger over alleged sexual abuse, threats by Trump to jail his opponent and a split inside the Republican Party over its tycoon-outsider standard bearer. Democrat Hillary Clinton is herself so deeply unpopular that she has kept the race close, Schmidt says.

“If you brought this election to Hollywood as a movie script they would turn it down as too implausible,” the plain-speaking Schmidt said.

A fierce critic of Trump, Schmidt says the Trump phenomenon is a symptom of a deep global split between the people who benefit from globalization and the angry voters who feel left behind. “This has caused a political divide driven by the collapse of public trust in institutions,” he said.

He said the Brexit vote in the UK and rising rightist movements in Germany, France and elsewhere are all symptoms of this unease and anger.

The alienated voters drawn to Trump, he said, feel left behind by technology and change. He cited the defining moment of this shift as the 2008 economic crisis brought on by the collapse of the US housing market. While millions of people lost their homes and their jobs, he said, “No Wall Street banker went to jail.”

Adding to the anger, he said, American elites have become increasingly condescending toward American workers. “This is the backlash – the Trump candidacy.”

‘Unelectable candidates’

Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” Schmidt says, resonates with millions of mostly white Americans who feel isolated from the technology driven economy and other changes in society. This group, representing tens of millions of people, have flocked to the simplistic solutions and sloganeering offered by Trump.

This political divide, Schmidt says, gave Americans a choice between the two most unpopular candidates ever to run for national office during the era of opinion polling.

“The way an unelectable candidate can win is to run against another unelectable candidate,” he said.

Walking through the now-familiar litany of Trump’s gaffes and contradictions on women, race, immigration, disability, religion, nuclear war and even the body image of a Miss Universe and Clinton’s seeming inability to capitalize on much of it because of her own email scandal, he said the campaign is taking place in what he calls “post fact” America, a place where bitterness and name-calling have replaced policies or ideas as the dominant feature of a major campaign.

‘It’s over’

Schmidt, however, says he believes Trump has no chance of winning on November 8 despite recent shifts in the polls toward the Republican nominee. “The race is effectively over,” he said. “Trump will not be president.”

What will follow, he predicted, will be a political war. With Trump making the unheard of threat in US politics not to accept the result should he lose, the nation could be in for extremely damaging fallout from Trump backers who are not interested in the facts but instead believe whatever Trump and his allies in the conservative media say.

“This is a foundational assault on one of the pillars of American democracy,” Schmidt said.

The other outcome, he said, will be a shattering of the Republican Party as the fault lines revealed by Trump become permanent. “The political civil war that will erupt after a Trump defeat is going to be incredible,” he said.

The blame, he said, rests on a conservative movement that has lost its moorings and ideas and a party that could not find a consensus candidate early enough to stop Trump, who is “profoundly and manifestly unfit for the office.”

“The indecency of this candidacy,” said Schmidt, “is really something that is hard to wrap your mind around.”

Asked to imagine what a Trump administration would look like, he said nobody has any idea because the campaign has yet to discuss policies in any consistent manner, relying instead on “ignorance and intolerance.”

In the end, Schmidt, a lifelong Republican who also worked for former President George W Bush in 2004, said the nation itself has been deeply harmed by the bruising 2016 race.

“It is a total and complete malignancy,” he concluded.

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