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Wed Dec 07 20:18:17 SAST 2016

Opinion: A smack in the mug

SIMON HEFFER | 2016-11-01 07:51:46.0
STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: Trump flags support from unexpected quarters.
Image by: CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS

Donald Trump doesn't do understatement, so it was predictable on Friday evening that he should liken to Watergate the reopening of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton's supposedly insecure use of her private email server.

But this was more than the latest twist in an unpleasant campaign that has little to do with policy or a vision for the US, and much to do with the character defects, real or imagined, of the two candidates. This could change a race that appeared, otherwise, to be over.

Since Trump faced embarrassment with the disclosure of a tape of him expressing repulsive sentiments about women, followed by a parade of females alleging he had attempted sexual improprieties with them, the Clinton camp had treated their victory as a fait accompli.

The opinion polls had shown a narrowing, but still significant, gap between the candidates in the days before the FBI announcement. Now, voters have a Democratic candidate who, if elected, could before long be on trial and, if convicted, in jail.

Given the shallow nature of Clinton's support, the FBI decision could torpedo her chances. It is not that her supporters will switch to Trump, who remains anathema to a large proportion of the electorate: it is that they won't vote at all. Even before Friday, a substantial number of Bernie Sanders' supporters were abstaining. Now, the Trump rhetoric about Clinton being corrupt resonates as more than just hyperbole. It starts to seem that there might be some truth in it.

Certainly, the FBI's announcement has electrified a Trump campaign that was beginning to seem defeated, despite the infinite ebullience of the candidate. Vindication is a powerful stimulant: and even just the decision to reopen this investigation provides Trump with that. There is no chance of the FBI coming to any decision before the poll, in seven days' time. But Trump will exploit and capitalise upon the uncertainty it causes in voters' minds: he can only benefit from what is happening.

There are two other considerations. James Comey, the director of the FBI, would not have reopened the investigation at all, let alone so close to an election, without exceptional cause. Rumours include those of the threat by some of his senior staff to resign if the case were not reopened, so significant was the evidence of malfeasance.

Comey would know he was signing his career death warrant to have brought this up now without the best imaginable grounds. Democrats say that he is simply doing Trump's bidding.

Well, they would say that, but given the distaste the Republican establishment feels for Trump it is hard to see why it should want to do him any favours.

The polls had started to narrow even before this disclosure. There have been repeated stories about the source of funds for, and use of funds from, the Clintons' charitable trust. Nor was Clinton regarded as having performed especially well in the three televised debates in which Trump began, each time, on the defensive. Her failure to land a killer blow simply reminded much of the US of her sheer mediocrity and a lack of charisma.

Much has been made of how coarse and boastful Trump is, how unworkable and foolish his policies are (the wall with Mexico, the ban on Muslims entering the US and his commitment to protectionism) and how he has alienated much of the electorate by attacking women and minorities.

Because of heavily biased media, in broadcasting and in print at least, and to an extent on the internet, less had been reported about the unpopularity of Clinton, the toxicity of her personality in the eyes of tens of millions of Americans, the distaste with which Bernie Sanders' supporters still generally regard her, and the nature of her links with very rich people and institutions whose bona fides do not always bear the fiercest scrutiny. Yet all these things are true, and explain in part why she had so modest a lead over a candidate as controversial as Trump, who has broken every rule in the campaigning book, and whose party had largely disowned him.

Before Friday the Trump camp argued, with some plausibility, that the polls were wrong; that they routinely oversample two overlapping groups, Democrats and university graduates. If that assertion is true, then the reopened FBI investigation could kill Clinton's hopes of the White House. She will be tarnished by the ancient principle of no smoke without fire: or by the conclusion that tens of millions of voters may now reach, that the FBI would never have acted as it did so close to polling day without very good reason.

Add to that a phenomenon that the decision to vote by people who never normally do, but who see in supporting Trump an opportunity to smack the smug, internationalist political elite in the mouth - and the idea of a President Trump starts to look possible. He has not yet won, and may well not: but these events play into his hands, and his chances have never looked as good as they do now.

- ©The Daily Telegraph

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