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First things first. Donald Trump could beat Hillary Clinton. To many Americans, mere talk of it is preposterous. They should get used to it. At some point, Mr Trump is likely to take a lead in the polls. It might last for two days or persist for weeks. Liberal Americans should steel themselves. As author Nancy Isenberg put it: “When you turn an election into a three-ring circus, there’s always a chance the dancing bear will win.”
Mrs Clinton, moreover, is capable of squandering her inbuilt advantage. Whatever happens at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia this week, the next three months will be the battle of her life.
What should most concern the anti-Trump forces? Mrs Clinton’s biggest hurdle is the depth of hatred for her across large parts of America. Personally, I have always found Hillaryphobia hard to fathom. As first lady in the 1990s, she was hated for being a creature of the left — her supposed radical feminism and her push to enact leftwing healthcare reform. Nowadays she is reviled for the opposite reasons.
The Hillary Clinton of 2016 personifies Wall Street values and an entitled global elite. The common thread between these two phases, briefly suspended when she was Barack Obama’s secretary of state, is the view that every move she makes is for political gain. Nothing is authentic. Even Mrs Clinton’s gender is a kind of calculated ruse.
Most foreigners — and many Americans — might shrug their shoulders. Elections are about choices. If this is a race between a career politician and a demagogue, it should be no contest at all. The problem is that big swaths of the US electorate, possibly a majority, view Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump as equally flawed. “They’re both corrupt so we might as well gamble on the outsider,” is a sentiment often heard outside the Washington beltway.
If Mrs Clinton loses in November, it will be because she failed to overcome this lethal equivalence. It only takes you so far to point out — as Mr Obama has done and will doubtless reiterate in Philadelphia — that Mrs Clinton is the most qualified person in years to run for the White House. Mr Obama is right. But to many voters, the very word “qualified” is disqualifying.
Nor is it sufficient to scare people about the risks of a Trump administration. To be sure, it would be negligent not to spell out what could happen. It is still hard to digest that America’s Grand Old Party cheered its heart out last week for a 70-year-old property developer who thinks he alone can fix America’s problems. Yet more than a year’s worth of hard-earned derision has done Mr Trump no harm at all. He has only grown stronger.
Mr Trump does indeed betray traits of a political megalomaniac. He is intolerant of dissent, treats facts as beneath him, and presents the will to power as his case for the White House. His foreign leader of choice is Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. As Mrs Clinton observed, Mr Trump is the man on the white horse. Yet a strongman is what many Americans say they want. A prince should be feared, says Machiavelli. Trying to frighten voters may even serve Mr Trump’s purposes.
How, then, should Mrs Clinton respond? The first rule is do no harm. Her choice of Tim Kaine as running mate prompted yawns from many quarters. Journalists yearn for Sarah Palin-type excitement. Mr Kaine was a safe choice. He has blue-collar roots, knows how to win in a Republican state — as Virginia was when he first ran — and has the experience to take over should Mrs Clinton trip under a bus. He is one of just 20 people in US history to have been mayor, a governor and a senator. Sometimes boring is good. Nice is too. “Trying to count the ways I hate Tim Kaine,” tweeted Jeff Flake, the Republican senator from Arizona. “Drawing a blank. Congrats to a good man and a good friend.” In today’s polarised climate that carries weight. Besides, Mr Kaine’s bilingual announcement speech was anything but dull.
The second rule is to make an energetic case for governing. Mr Trump’s biggest cheer in Cleveland was when he said: “I am not politically correct.” It is hard to escape the suspicion that Mrs Clinton is banking on non-whites to win in November. Relying on ethnic coalitions is also known as the Chicago model. It is a lazy form of politics always vulnerable to tokenism.
What is glaringly absent from her campaign is an economic message people can recall. It is a mystery Mrs Clinton does not stage a photo-op every week in front of crumbling infrastructure and vow to fix it when elected. People would remember that. Even better were she to stage an event next to Mr Trump’s gated apartment blocks. “Look: he can build a wall around his luxury condos,” she might say. “But he doesn’t give a damn about your bridges.”
Perhaps the Philadelphia convention will breathe life into a hitherto listless campaign. We can bet Mr Trump will tweet what it takes to steal Mrs Clinton’s publicity. Grabbing headlines is his core skill. What is Mrs Clinton’s? If it is politics as usual, we should prepare for a very tense election.
Playing safe will be her natural instinct. But in these times that is the highest risk approach. If there is one thing that unites most Americans it is a visceral disdain for the status quo.