Saturday 25 January 2020

Republicans have chosen a candidate who has crossed line from simplicity to utter stupidity

Women pose next to a life-size poster of the US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton outside New York's IFC Theatre before the debut of Michael Moore's documentary 'TrumpLand' Photo: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images
Women pose next to a life-size poster of the US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton outside New York's IFC Theatre before the debut of Michael Moore's documentary 'TrumpLand' Photo: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images

David Millward

Last night America staged its third and final presidential TV debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. It seems like an eternity since the scramble for the Republican nomination started, when there were around 20 "next presidents of the USA" squeezing the flesh in New Hampshire. The hopes of these next presidents bit the dust pretty quickly. Rick Perry's campaign never got off the ground. Bobby Jindal's didn't last very long. And whatever did happen to Rick Santorum?

But one name did stand out, even though he wasn't running: Ronald Reagan. Any self-respecting Republican candidate would make a claim to be the next Ronnie - the true conservative and great communicator who restored America's rightful status in the world.

I have to confess that, at the time, I personally bought into the narrative that he was a B-movie actor, best remembered for 'Bedtime for Bonzo' and, in short, not the sharpest tool in the box. My view has been changed on reading the excellent new biography by Iwan Morgan.

For a start, his Hollywood career was more distinguished than one is led to believe, and for a time it looked as if he was on course for stardom.

Even if his delivery was folksy, his understanding and knowledge of politics and political philosophy was not.

He was well-read and by all accounts an obsessive student of economists such as Friedrich Hayek. But he wore his knowledge lightly.

George W Bush had a similar reputation for not exactly being an intellectual. On the contrary, Keith Hennessey, his former economics adviser, paints a different picture, describing a man with a sharp, analytical mind.

"President Bush is extremely smart by any traditional standard. He's highly analytical and was incredibly quick to be able to discern the core question he needed to answer," said Hennessey.

There have been equivalents in Britain, the best being John Prescott. Numbingly inarticulate, his syntax verged on anarchic. However, those who worked with him closely said he was rather good when it came to the nitty gritty of getting things done.

All three men resonated with voters in a way that "conventional" politicians could not. Memorably, Labour's poll ratings rose when Mr Prescott thumped the egg-throwing protester in Rhyl during the 2001 general election. This is where Donald Trump comes in.

John Prescott lamped a protester; Donald Trump just said he would like to.

Still, the Republican rank and file saw in Mr Trump another "great communicator", a man with the common touch who could appeal to voters in a way in which the more cerebral Jeb Bush could not and more polished Mitt Romney did not. What message could be simpler than "make America great again" - especially if it comes from a reality television star who has made billions?

Millions of voters have not only lapped this up but many seem to believe a wave of outlandish claims which Mr Trump has made - often on Twitter.

For years he swore blind that Barack Obama was not born in the USA, before finally admitting he was. President Obama and Hillary Clinton were, of course, the founders of Isil.

During the primary campaign Mr Trump "threatened to spill the beans" on Heidi Cruz, whatever that meant. Now, of course, the Republican nominee claims to have inside knowledge about the state of the Clintons' marriage.

With polls showing that he could face a crushing defeat, Mr Trump is even trying to convince voters that the election is "rigged" and that there is a conspiracy to deny him his rightful place in the Oval Office.

But then the Americans love a good conspiracy theory. Cyberspace is full of them - many aimed at the Clintons, who, if they are to be believed, have been the most violent couple in the United States since Bonnie and Clyde.

Perhaps we really have entered the age of what some people call "post-truth politics" - in which the importance of verifiable facts has diminished to the point of insignificance.

Downright lies are established as "known facts" and, alarmingly, millions of voters accept this.

It does not help that the Clinton-Kaine campaign has not been averse to a little strategic massaging as well.

For example, Tim Kaine accused Mr Trump of saying that all Mexicans were rapists, which he did not.

And indeed, what Mr Trump does openly, on industrial scale, other, more careful politicians have always been doing in smaller ways. Arguably they have prepared the ground for him.

The reality is that voters want a simple message. Mr Reagan gave them one which resonated with the electorate and bore some relation to reality. The need for one became a political commandment.

Now it seems that, even in the age of post-truth politics, Republicans' search for simplicity has backfired. They have nominated a man who, on the basis of all available evidence, has crossed the line from simplicity to utter stupidity.

At one point it seemed as if shooting from the hip was a grand strategy; now it seems as evidence of amateurishness and a candidate who is out of control.

Of course, I could be wrong. We will find out in a few weeks' time.

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