Who governs America matters to every citizen of the world. Yet a bigoted demagogue stands a real chance of being elected President
In many ways the Republican Party deserved to be Trumped. For a few decades it promised its long-suffering voters that it would curtail illegal immigration but it has always found excuses not to. In return for the greatest mobilisation of Christian voters in American history, liberal Supreme Court justices would be replaced with constitutionalists who would return the formulation of abortion laws to individual state legislatures. The Grand Old Party also constantly promised to champion the ordinary Joe but in designing tax policies, the biggest beneficiaries have nearly always been large corporates or the already rich — the same powers in the land that, depending upon cheap imported labour, have stopped stricter border laws and, entirely coincidentally, bankroll the election efforts of every senator and congressman.
As one Trump supporter explained when we chatted at one of his rallies in Virginia, reasons are always found to explain why causes dear to rank-and-file conservatives fail to progress — but if the US Chamber of Commerce needs a new law or tax loophole the same Republican politicians find the will and a way to enact even the most electorally controversial decision.
This is not to say that Democrats are not as equally magnetised by the donorcrat pole. For most of this presidential campaign, as if to prove every criticism directed at her by Senator Bernie Sanders, Mrs Clinton has attended many more private fundraisers than public rallies. At a swanky New York restaurant in front of rich Wall Street supporters and in between coughs, she gaffed that “half” of Trump’s supporters were “deplorables” — “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic,” and “Islamaphobic”. Like the Republicans in the primary election process who might as well have burnt the greenbacks they deployed to zero affect against Trump, she is gambling that a massive war chest will buy her four years at the world’s most expensive rented property — 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
I didn’t predict Donald Trump’s extraordinary rise and hesitate, therefore, to offer an authoritative explanation of it. We shouldn’t, however, be surprised that the candidate who offers most change — in policy, style and resumé — appeals to a nation where, by 64 per cent to 28 per cent, voters judge that their country is on the wrong track. And after years of stagnant wages and job insecurity for blue-collar workers, 47 per cent worry that they’d struggle to get hold of $400 if hit by an emergency. With many communities in the grip of addictions to prescription drugs, and overdoses rising, America is the only advanced nation in which, for middle-aged whites, the rise and rise of life expectancy has reversed.
Forget the ban on Muslims entering America or even the wall with Mexico. A more popular Trump policy is that — unlike nearly every member of the Republican establishment — he promises to protect entitlements. Don’t believe that this land of the free wants the deficit brought under control and government shrunk. By 71 per cent to 20 per cent, most Americans reject “some reductions in the sickness, family, health or retirement benefits that the government provides to you and your family” to help cut government borrowing. And then there’s free trade. That Trump has an outside chance of winning states like Michigan and Pennsylvania owes everything to his lack of interest in his adopted party’s economic orthodoxies. I see a mix of good and bad in Trumpist policies but whatever the rights and wrongs of his cautious approach to overseas military intervention, his relaxed attitude to transgender rights, and his preference for border security over accepting more refugees from Syria’s civil war, he’s closer to mainstream America than much of the country’s Republican and Democratic donor-shaped establishments.
The establishments are teetering because they are facing multiple tests at the same time. There is unfinished business stemming from the 2008 crash caused by large financial institutions. There’s the likelihood that growth will be much weaker than in the postwar era. There’s the end of the old media’s monopoly and the new alternatives — online, on radio and on TV — that will tell folk whatever they’d like to hear. There’s the global terror threat, and accelerating technological change that may disrupt white-collar workplaces as much as it has already upturned blue-collar jobs. In this environment, there is a hunger for Trump’s strongman aura — modelled, perhaps deliberately, on the political persona of a man he regularly praises, Vladimir Putin. When Americans see Trump using his Twitter account or his campaign rallies to traduce other politicians, big names in the media or foreign governments, they hope that the same fearlessness will be deployed against IS, judges who, as they see it, erode traditional American values, and the chequebook lobbyists who manipulate Congress.
Unfortunately this isn’t a political strongman’s fearlessness. It is, at best, uncultured rudeness and, at worst, bigotry, demagoguery and the outpourings of a man who struggles to control a dark side.
I won’t waste much space listing his inflammatory and inaccurate attempts to blame minorities for awful crimes, his encouragements of violence against opponents or protesters; his crude misogyny; or the way some of his questionable business ventures have hurt small investors or communities who could not afford to lose what he caused them to lose (including Atlantic City in new Jersey and the participants in Trump University). The biggest victims of his tongue haven’t been Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Megyn Kelly or other powerful individuals, but social groups like refugees and the disabled, which the political correctness that he despises — but which should properly be called basic courtesy — helps to protect.
My hope, which enjoys scant encouragement from opinion polling, is that it will be Trump’s character that prevents most thoughtful American conservatives from backing a man that, very regrettably, nearly half of Republican primary voters nominated. It is perfectly possible for political conservatives to hold opposing views on trade, tax, or foreign policy. What no conservative can be indifferent to, however, is the importance of character. While socialists and liberals have designed political systems that barely consider the virtues of a nation’s citizens and often, in unintended ways, discourage responsible behaviour, a conservative knows that entropy is inherent in all human institutions. It is why conservatives worry about centralisation of power and prefer a diffusion of responsibility. It’s why small-scale institutions — the family, the local school and charity, the church, mosque and synagogue — matter so much to conservatives. Or, at least, should do. In those institutions, unlike in a state bureaucracy, there is regular and close contact, and from social intimacy flows understanding, accountability and forms of care and discipline that are personalised rather than standardised.
In The Anatomy of Thatcherism, the best book on the subject, Shirley Robin Letwin explained the politics of the grocer’s daughter from Grantham, Lincolnshire, by directing us towards her belief in the “vigorous virtues”. For Margaret Thatcher a nation needed to maximise the number of its citizens who were self-sufficient, energetic, adventurous, robust against enemies, brave, patriotic and loyal to friends. These vigorous virtues mattered to a nation as much as “softer virtues” like kindness and neighbourliness.
It may have been her project’s biggest weakness that Mrs Thatcher assumed that virtues buried under the welfare, tax and declinist policies of postwar Britain would quickly reassert themselves once the frontiers of the suffocating state had been rolled back. Some of the vigorous virtues were still strong but, contrary to her hope and expectation, many enriched by her reforms, notably in the City of London, did not give large slices of wealth away or form philanthropic trusts as Americans often did and do. Many Brits had come to believe that in paying their taxes they had fulfilled their social responsibilities.
Conservative intuitions about the importance of the family to a child’s education, health, sociability and resilience have been confirmed by decades of social research. There is almost nothing a parent won’t do to get their son or daughter into a good school or help them recover from setbacks. That contemporary political movements which call themselves conservative do so little to build up the social capital of communities — or at least take care to avoid doing harm to social capital — is a topic for another time but, at an absolute minimum, America’s conservatives should not be suggesting to impressionable young minds that a man who has plumbed new depths of dishonesty and attempted to set communities against each other should be rewarded with the nation’s biggest pulpit — as well as the nuclear codes.
Many Republican politicians have not enhanced their own reputations as they’ve first fought and then endorsed Trump. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana will have confirmed every cynical voter’s low view of the political class after he backed a man who, months earlier, he had described as a “madman who must be stopped” and “an egomaniac who has no principles”. By contrast, Ted Cruz has not jettisoned his principles. Describing the Republican nominee as “utterly amoral” the Texan senator had good reason to reach that conclusion. [After this issue of Standpoint went to press, Ted Cruz did in fact endorse Trump.] Without any evidence, Trump had accused Cruz’s father of involvement in John F. Kennedy’s assassination and also threatened to spread unspecified gossip about Mrs Cruz’s mental wellbeing across the American media.
Interestingly, in the most persuasive political ad of recent times, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has understood how Trump undermines the best parents. In an ad you can watch by searching for “Role Models”, children are pictured watching TV screens while the Republican nominee celebrates violence against his opponents, uses offensive language, smears ethnic minorities and mocks a man’s disability.
A Clinton presidency will hurt the causes that matter to the centre-Right — especially because she is likely to be pulled leftwards by the Black Lives Matter movement, who can be credited with the steep rise in the murder rate since they effectively demobilised Chicago’s police, and the modestly-titled “Our Revolution” organisation formed by Sanders.
So Hillary Clinton is, of course, no angel but her flaws are modest in comparison to Trump’s. I’m more worried about who is standard bearer for global conservatism than who represents international liberalism.
Who governs America matters to every citizen of the world. In 1984 Ronald Reagan mustered a majority of young Americans, but the longer Trump, backed by only 20 per cent of under-35s in one poll, continues as conservatism’s public face, it risks bearing an indelible stain in the minds of millennials.
On conventional political grounds Trump is a massive gamble for American conservatives. Within the last few years he has backed abortion, Barack Obama’s fiscal stimulus, socialised medicine and even Mrs Clinton as an excellent Secretary of State. Before “clarifying” his position, he has suggested he would order the Pentagon to break international law and torture people deemed to be an enemy. He has also recommended America becomes the world’s biggest pirate by stealing the oil of sovereign states like Iraq as payment for past services.
What will Trump say next? The answer to that question will not be of grave importance if he loses on November 8. But if he beats the tired ideas of Mrs Clinton? In the words of Paul Ryan, Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, the person likeliest to set the global mood for four years will be someone guilty of “textbook racism”. The great task that falls to all parents — that of civilising the next generation — deserves better.