Donald Trump is down big in the polls — after a week that ought to have lifted his presidential prospects.
First, the Orlando terror attack proved his warnings about Islamic terror to be correct, sadly. Then, Hillary Clinton — whom he shamed into saying, finally, “radical Islamism” — tried to exploit the attack for Democrats’ gun control agenda, a gambit that has backfired repeatedly. Next, President Barack Obama himself lost his temper at Trump, temporarily uniting Republicans behind their likely nominee.
Trump’s only stumble was to suggest that Obama might secretly be on the terrorists’ side: “He doesn’t get it — or he gets it better than anybody understands.”
The media pounced on that remark — which, while offensive, is no worse than Obama’s claim last year that Republicans were making “common cause” with the Iranian regime, the biggest sponsor of terrorism in the world.
(Hillary Clinton had no objection to Obama’s attack then — in fact, she joined in Obama’s talk of treason.)
Still, there is panic among some Republicans, with opportunistic politicians and pundits in safe-red or safe-blue states stating that they cannot support their party’s nominee (after the party made him sign a loyalty pledge). There are also deep worries about Trump’s small and fractious campaign, about his horrid unfavorable ratings, and about Hillary’s massive swing-state ad buys. There is also renewed talk among insiders about stealing Trump’s delegates at the convention.
But Hillary’s rise relative to Trump was entirely predictable — and probably temporary.
The most important political event of recent weeks was the California primary, which effectively ended the fight between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The Democrats are rallying, as they did in 2008, to their presumptive nominee. (Sanders’s talk of a “contested convention” is as hollow as his whole campaign, which never seized on Clinton’s disqualifying email scandal and had never intended to win.)
Furthermore, the media game has changed. Journalists always rally to the Democratic nominee, no matter how friendly they may appear to Republicans in the primary. They grade GOP candidates on a curve, as long as they are only competing with each other. When the general election begins, the Republican nominee always faces the near-impossible task of disproving the media’s presumption that the Democratic candidate is entitled to the job — especially when that candidate is an historic “first.”
The Orlando attack has also made Trump’s task harder simply because in the face of such unspeakable horror there is intense public pressure to do something — even if that “something” would not have made a difference.
Democrats are very good at coming up with “solutions” in moments of crisis — though these usually just create new, and often bigger, problems. The fact that radical Islam is primarily at fault is frustrating, because the fight against it does not yield the simple answers people want.
So as polls go up and down, it is important to see the 2016 race in context: this is, and always was, Hillary Clinton’s election to lose.
Nearly the entire political and media elite believe it is “her turn,” either because she was cheated in 2008, or because she has paid her dues.
She would also be the first female president, and while fewer Americans than expected seem to care about that yet, it is a powerful argument for her candidacy, and offers voters the opportunity to be a part of history once again, just as they were for Obama.
She is also the first major party candidate to be nominated for president while under FBI investigation for serious crimes. But her closest supporters seem unaware that she could be indicted for mishandling classified information, or that she apparently abused her position as Secretary of State to enrich her family foundation.
(Trump may inadvertently have made her indictment less likely, since he is probably less palatable to the administration than any other Republican alternative would have been.)
At the same time, Trump is better placed to oppose Clinton than any other Republican would have been.
In the primary, he proved himself to be the only candidate willing and able to take on the media, which is the Republican Party’s most powerful opposition. He showed more cross-party appeal than any Republican candidate since Ronald Reagan. Trump’s approval ratings among minority groups are bad, but little worse than other Republicans’ have been, and sometimes far better than expected.
In addition, if Republicans are doomed to lose — which they may be (see above), better that it be with Trump than with any other candidate. Some believed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) could lead conservatives to the Promised Land of power, but the more likely result — especially after “New York values” — was that he would have lost, and conservatives would have been blamed. Trump’s outsider candidacy is enough of a singular event that no particular wing of the party would bear the burden of defeat.
But defeat is not inevitable. The question is how Trump can win.
And the answer is to build on what has worked for him in the past, not to invent the new-and-improved, “presidential” Trump that the candidate himself has largely failed to deliver.
Of course, Washington’s tactical experts are full of advice. Karl Rove, for one, wrote in the Wall Street Journal Thursday that Trump “can’t win from a TV studio” — that he needs an expensive ad campaign and a ground game in swing states.
Those assets might prove helpful, but in the primary Trump defeated millions in attack ads by anti-Trump super PACs, and he overran Cruz’s data-driven micro-targeting campaign by bringing new or lapsed voters to the polls.
Unlike other candidates — including Clinton — Trump does not need to identify his voters. They are identifying themselves.
And even if he were to build a big campaign infrastructure, it is too late to catch up with Clinton, even with the help of the Republican National Committee.
Trump’s best bet is to continue to run a lean campaign, and to speak directly to voters again — not through the press.
He must also make one point clear: this is the best, and possibly the last, chance that voters will have to elect a political outsider in their lifetimes.
That, after all, is the only reason Trump is here today. If Clinton wins, Washington returns to business as usual — or worse, since her malfeasance will have been excused. This is the only chance to take the red pill and fight the Matrix.
As for those of us who would prefer to see Trump win — and we are still far more numerous than those Republicans who do not — we would do well to keep three things in mind.
First, Clinton’s indictment would not, by itself, save Trump. Even if she is prosecuted, the Obama administration will rescue her with a plea deal — or pardon her outright — and the media will convince voters that her flaws are not so important after all. Trump is going to have to win through effort — not by default.
Second, Republicans are not going to unify around Trump, except in the most superficial sense — and that is a good thing, not a cause for regret and recrimination.
If he does win, Trump will need to be checked by a vociferous, albeit loyal, conservative opposition. It is good that such opposition begin now; it will be more difficult to build it once Trump is in office. Furthermore, the fact that so many Republicans are on record opposing Trump may help some down-ticket candidates for the House and Senate.
Finally, it should now be clear, if it was not before, that the task of governing is too important be left to the executive branch alone, or to the federal government as a whole. It falls to us, as citizens.
The choice voters face in November is one of the most unpleasant in recent memory, and political rhetoric has fallen to what is perhaps an all-time low (thanks in no small part to Obama’s hyper-partisan presidency).
If our country is to have a future, it will not be because of how we vote, but because of what we do afterwards.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. His new book, See No Evil: 19 Hard Truths the Left Can’t Handle, will be published by Regnery on July 25 and is available for pre-order through Amazon. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.