Yes, unfortunately Donald Trump can be the next president

Confessions from someone who once supported a populist political outsider’ and what can happen when people give up on ‘politics as usual’.

The second US presidential debate. Photo: Voice of America

In less than a month, Americans will cast their vote. And barring another cliff-hanger result like 2000, the question of who will succeed Barack Obama will be settled.

As an American living in Sweden, I’ve been amazed by the level of US election media coverage here. But what was supposed to make this election historic — a woman competing for the White House — has been overshadowed by the unlikely rise and shocking behaviour of her opponent.

The latest “shock” (if one can still be shocked after so many unbelievable statements) from Republican candidate Donald Trump came in the form of an 11-year-old video clip in which he’s heard bragging about grabbing at women’s genitals.

The revelations came just days before Trump was to meet Hillary Clinton in their second televised debate — and it showed once again how Trump has reduced this campaign to ‘road kill politics’: when you know you should look away because what you see will give you nightmares, but you can’t help but looking in wonder at the horror in front of you.

But make no mistake — it is happening. Donald Trump is actually running for President of the United States — and he actually has a chance of winning.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked about Donald Trump by Swedes I know. How did he get nominated? Who exactly supports him? He can’t REALLY have a chance of winning…can he?

I usually try to broaden the conversation by talking about the diversity of the US and our complicated electoral system to avoid giving the honest (but slightly uncomfortable) answer: Yes, Donald Trump could very well be the next US president.

You see, I once voted for a bombastic, straight-talking outsider — who also happened to be a former reality TV star. I helped him win election to the highest office in the land. And if I can make a choice like that, than anyone can.

So how did it happen?

The year was 1998 and the place was my home state of Minnesota — a place where many Swedes put down roots after emigrating to American — and where politics as usual is, well, politics as usual.

It was supposed to be the year we elected an establishment candidate with a well-known name and impressive career in public service (sound familiar?).

The candidate-in-waiting then was Democrat Hubert ‘Skip’ Humphrey III, son of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who served under Lyndon Johnson before finishing his career as a senator. His name was by far the biggest in Minnesota politics — Republican or Democrat.

Humphrey was such a strong favourite that Norm Coleman, the Democratic mayor of Minnesota’s capital city St. Paul, actually switched parties in 1996, realizing his only real shot at becoming governor was as a Republican.

The race was already set to be an exciting one — especially by Minnesota standards. But then Minnesota ‘politics as usual’ suddenly got very unusual.

The turning point came when Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura — a former professional wrestler best known for parading around in pink tights and a feather boa — announced he too was running for governor.

Jesse Ventura in 2016. Photo: Jonathunder (GNU Licence)

I, like most Minnesota voters, had vivid memories of Ventura on TV body-slamming opponents and shouting at the camera.

While he had been elected mayor of a mid-sized Minneapolis suburb after retiring from wrestling, Ventura was very much a political outsider compared to the other candidates.

“Don’t vote for politics as usual” became his battle cry. To cement his outsider image, he’d show up to media appearances wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt. His casual attire, 6’4” frame, and unpolished language stood in stark contrast to the predictable talking points and drab grey suits of Coleman and Humphrey.

On election night, I was hosting live coverage of the results for a local radio station. I’ll never forget announcing on the air that “Jesse Ventura will be the next governor of Minnesota”.

It was a historic moment on many levels.

What had started out as a joke, a curiosity, a side show — had suddenly become a slightly unnerving reality (again, sound familiar?).

So what does the success of a washed up wrestler in 1998 tell us about the chances of a belligerent self-proclaimed billionaire in 2016?

For starters, Ventura’s victory shows that campaigning as a populist outsider can work. There are plenty of people out there who truly are fed up with ‘politics as usual’ and Hilary Clinton is seen by many as ‘politics as usual’.

However, unlike Trump, Ventura ran as a third-party candidate making it easier for him to claim he truly was an outsider. It also meant he was in a 3-way race and thus only needed 34% to win the election (he ended up getting 37%).

Ventura also attracted many first-time voters to the polls, resulting in a much higher voter turnout than in previous elections.

After finishing the broadcast on election night, a few of us wandered across the street to a bar frequented by motorcycle riding baby-boomers who were thrilled that ‘their guy’ had won. One leather-jacket, moustachioed fella explained to us that he’d never registered to vote until this election. Why? Because Ventura was “authentic; he’s one of us.”

Others — like me — sought more choice in politics and saw Ventura as a boost to establishing a serious third political party. Besides, his policy positions were generally palatable and I enjoyed his frank, no nonsense approach.

It’s only four years, I thought, and it’s only Minnesota — how much damage could he really do?

The question today is how many other first-time voters are out there — undetected by opinion polls — who are fed up with ‘politics as usual’ and want to see something different. And despite so many established Republicans having condemned and distanced themselves from Trump after his recent statements, how many still despise Clinton even more and are thinking, “It’s only four years. How much damage could Trump do?”

Looking back, Minnesota’s experiment in electing a populist outsider actually turned out alright, and the state is doing just fine today. Of course, there’s a massive difference between conducting real-time political experiments at the state or local level versus the national level. Minnesota doesn’t have a nuclear arsenal; nor is it a lynchpin to a smoothly running global economy.

But it’s entirely possible that political gridlock and playground-level spats have so soured enough Americans on ‘politics as usual’ that they are willing to gamble, reckoning things can’t get much worse.

And if those people happen to live in a few key voting districts and a few swing states, we could very well find ourselves in another real-time political experiment — but one that poses serious risks not only for Minnesota, but for the United States, Sweden, and the rest of the world.

This article was first published in Swedish on October 10th, 2016 by Utrikesmagasinet, the online magazine of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.