Republicans have created a monster to fit the time
Published 06/03/2016 | 02:30
Still he keeps marching on, like Sherman's army laying waste to Georgia on their way to the sea during the American Civil War. And still many wonder why? It isn't the liberal-minded who are perplexed. Donald Trump's success validates every prejudice they've ever had about the Republican electoral base. No, the ones who are really horrified, and panic stricken, are the Republican establishment and that swathe of conservative America, the House members who rode to success on the Tea Party surge, which failed to take him seriously until it was too late.
Trump's distance from the Grand Old Party bosses and the 'insider' politics of DC make close to a sure thing for the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States. Trump is perceived as the outsider, the truth teller, not as the blusterer who will say anything, twist any argument, insult and abuse anybody, to get elected. Without necessarily meaning a lot of it. If Trump cannot be easily pinned down in debates it is because he is a man who has lived by the deal. If he can devour a smaller opponent he will do so. If not he cuts a deal. Or he cuts and runs. The crowds believe him, but there are strategic leaks that maybe everything is ultimately up for grabs.
Take immigration and that Mexican wall. It won't happen. Trump knows it. His opponents know it. But it sounds great to an audience that believes its prosperity has been stolen by immigrants.
The proposal to ban Muslims entering America? Trump knew it would never become policy. He is also clever enough to know that singling out a single religion in this way was playing toxic politics.
But that didn't matter. At a critical time in his campaign it allowed him to appear as the man who would say the unsayable. More important, he judged the mood of many in the Republican support base accurately. Not only would they tolerate him saying it. They applauded him. The poll numbers kept rising.
How does it feel to be a Muslim in America in the age of Donald Trump? I am reminded of Philip Roth's counterfactual classic, The Plot Against America, in which the Nazi sympathiser Charles Lindbergh comes to power, having defeated Franklin Roosevelt.
Now Trump is definitely not a Nazi. He is not really a true believer in any political idea. But his willingness to appeal to the most xenophobic elements echoes lines of Roth's Jewish narrator, who suddenly finds himself in a society where his religious identity is being targeted by the words of a powerful man.
"Our incomparable American childhood was ended . . . never would I be able to revive that unfazed sense of security first fostered in a little child by a big, protective republic and his ferociously responsible parents."
Trump's Republican opponents have struggled to make the case for the big inclusive Republic. Some because they have been so preoccupied with ideological battles against the Obama White House, others because they fundamentally lack belief in the idea. Trump exploited the noxious 'birther' movement which denied President Obama's American nationality, but it was created by the Republican party's far right.
Trump's rise is underpinned by a universal change in political debate. The political culture of Left and Right is being poisoned. Arguments are deployed as weapons of mass destruction. The opponent must be ridiculed, abused and battered into submission.
It is not enough to disagree with the substance of an argument. The enemy must be humiliated, called a fool, a lickspittle etc etc. If your opponent keeps talking, just shout him down.
Even better to 'no platform' the dissenting or contrary voice. Silence any idea that might give you pause for thought and luxuriate in the ecstasy of righteousness. These days to see both sides of an argument is the great treason. It is cage fighting, not debate.
In a time of optimism, Donald Trump would have come and gone early in the race for the nomination. But bad wars and recession have eroded American hope. There are enough frightened and disillusioned people to make his promise to "make America great again" seem plausible.
The most striking quote I read last week was from William Flint, a pensioner who lost $160,000 in a failed Trump real estate deal. "They want to believe him - they want it so badly they'll vote for him."
- I am loath to reopen a subject many of you will have hoped was long put to bed - the national anthem and international rugby matches. But a debate has started in England, with some asking if they need an anthem that is English and not 'British'. The great hymn Jerusalem has been suggested. This naturally raises the ghost of the Amhran na bhFiann versus Ireland's Call.
I was at Twickenham the previous weekend and made the best effort I could to sing along to the Call. My heart wasn't it. It is a good song for closing time, supported by rowdy yells and screeches. But it is not anthemic. At dinner the other night I asked the opinion of my old friend, Bill Whelan, composer and Munster man, and past pupil of the Jesuits, those masters of turning on the head of a pin. Bill believes in one anthem: "Having two only accentuates the division." But he has an inspired solution: keep the melody of the Soldiers Song but ask an Ulster poet, someone like the great Michael Longley for example, to come up with a new set of lyrics.
I can hear the howls of outrage already. "Why should we change?" I would refer critics to the spirit of generosity shown by the ANC in 1994 when it kept the old apartheid-era anthem Die Stem alongside the liberation hymn Nkosi Sikelele i Afrika.
We are a long way from an Ireland that is united politically, but there are important gestures to be made. Let us have a set of lyrics that speak to who we are now and where we want to go. New words for a new Ireland would be a good start.