'The Donald' surfing on US waves of fear
Trump a symptom of failures in US politics on both Left and Right
Published 25/12/2015 | 00:01
The world needs to calm down about Donald Trump. He's not the anti-Christ: he's just a very naughty boy.
He's not going to win the Republican nomination or be President of the United States. And, while Europeans pour on the scorn with barely concealed anti-American snobbery, they miss what really matters about him. Trump isn't everything wrong with conservatism - he's a symptom of the failure of US politics on both Left and Right.
Yes, Trump is easy to dislike. He's been that way for a very long time. Matt Viser once wrote a revealing profile of 'The Donald' at college: walking around in "a two-piece burgundy suit with matching burgundy patent leather boots and - a particularly nice touch - a matching burgundy limousine".
He used his father's money and contacts as a slum landlord to set himself up in business, building an empire that glittered like Zircon. In 1996, Mark Bowdon interviewed him for 'Playboy' - opened him up and found nothing inside. "He was like one of those characters in an 18th-century comedy meant to embody a particular flavour of human folly. Trump struck me as adolescent, hilariously ostentatious, arbitrary, unkind, profane, dishonest, loudly opinionated, and consistently wrong. He remains the most vain man I have ever met. And he was trying to make a good impression."
What's most surprising about his 2016 candidacy is that he's stayed with it so long. Trump has threatened to run before, as both an independent and a Republican; he's previously backed Democrats (including Hillary Clinton) and has a long list of liberal positions.
Donald Trump, contrary to Western prejudice, is not another one of those ideological conservatives we've been trained to fear. He has no ideology and no party. He is a reality TV star who gets off on being discussed.
Like many, I assumed his candidacy was just a publicity stunt, that he'd drop out within weeks. But he's obviously enjoying himself and has decided to roll with it.
Whenever his numbers and TV coverage have threatened to drop, he's said something controversial. First it was "build a wall" to keep out "murderous" illegal Mexicans; then it was put Muslims on an anti-terror watch list; now it's build a wall around the whole damn country and lock all the Muslims out.
These positions are not as crazy as they first appear. Most Republicans want a wall along the southern border and the Obama administration has deported more immigrants than any other in US history. As for spying on American Muslims, the NSA scandal showed that all Americans are being spied on, and anyone who thinks the CIA and FBI aren't monitoring mosques is a fool.
Finally, Trump's proposed Muslim ban is awful - but Congress has already voted to restrict immigration from countries affected by the Isil conflict. So, on substance, Trump isn't quite as out of the mainstream as he first appears.
But on style, he is. And that's the secret of his success. There have always been populists in US presidential races. America, they always say, is great, and its people are the very best people in the world. So if there's something wrong right now, it can't be the fault of you or me. It must be the fault of an alliance of bad politicians and blacks, Jews, bankers, Mexicans, the rich, communists or Muslims (delete as appropriate). Break this alliance - return government to the people - and the USA will go back to being Number One.
To a timeless message, Trump brings something unusual: billions and billions of dollars. The money, unexpectedly, gives him an aura of integrity. Consider that Trump polls at around a third of the Republican primary vote and yet has only spent about $200,000 on ads in Iowa. His success is partly down to wall-to-wall coverage by a national media that thrives on controversy.
But people also prefer the images of him fighting and shouting on news shows to the soft-focused, manufactured ads that sell regular candidates like time-share.
Trump doesn't do rhetorical cliché. He doesn't really do rhetoric. If the standard political formula after a terrorist attack is to say "this has nothing to do with Islam", Trump says: "Dude, this has everything to do with Islam!" The position is dumb, ignorant and wrong. But it's fresh. It's different. And it offers tangible solutions, like keeping folks out with a great big wall.
Millions of Americans are sick of non-specifics and lies. The Right, in particular, regards the prospect of Hillary Clinton winning as End Times stuff - the woman who lied about Benghazi and, they say, embodies moral decline in public life.
But they are equally despondent about a Republican Party that has repeatedly promised to slash taxes, reduce the deficit, reform healthcare and control immigration - yet has done none of these things and blamed the inertia on Obama. Trump-supporting conservatives are tired of being taken for granted.
By contrast, they trust The Donald not to lie, in part because his casual offensiveness proves that he's no slave to PC. That's why he keeps dropping outrage bombs: it screams 'truthiness'. Focus groups actually become friendlier towards the billionaire the more they learn about his shifting positions and Gatsby-esque absurdity - because, well, who hasn't dreamed of building a golden hotel in the desert with a 24-hour shrimp bar?
Meanwhile, his money insulates him from the influence of lobbyists and casts him as "unbuyable". If big money is America's chief political problem - and it is - then, ironically, it's taken a man with even bigger money to confront it.
The bottom line is this: Trump's rise reflects the failure of everyone else. He's doing well because the Republican Party field is crowded with people who just aren't inspiring enough to offer a moderate alternative.
The GOP cannot decide whether to pander to its base or reject it - and somewhere between these two alternatives lies lifeless compromise.
Thankfully, Republican voters tend in the end to settle for compromise. This is the party of John McCain and Mitt Romney.
Trump will ultimately be beaten. The race will boil down to a contest between orthodox Right (polls point to Ted Cruz, who is now way ahead in Iowa) and moderate centre-Right (maybe Marco Rubio), with far-Right reduced to weeping on the fringes.
For the next two months, however, the world has to live with The Donald and the consequences of an establishment gone horribly wrong. (© Daily Telegraph, London)