‘He won’t make it through the summer’, they laughed. ‘Once the field narrows he hasn’t got a chance’, they asserted. ‘Hillary will flatten him’, they say, with ever diminishing confidence. The great and the good of the beltway commentariat, the K Street lobbyists and the Capitol Hill grandees singularly failed to foresee the continuing ascent of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate for President of the United States. Polls now give him a very realistic chance of inheriting the White House in November’s elections. How did this happen? In particular, who is to blame for allowing this egomaniacal demagogue anywhere near power?
There is a maxim in politics for how to deal with electoral defeat (to whom it is attributable, if anyone, I am not sure): do not blame the electoral system, do not blame the media and, above all, do not blame the voters. It will be worth, then, explaining why each of these potential suspects ought not to shoulder the responsibility.
First, the voters. It should hardly need explaining that to ascribe blame to the electorate for an electoral defeat is to misunderstand democracy. Rule of the people exists precisely because we have found no other way of deciding what political ideas are right and wrong. To take it to the Rousseauian extreme, whatever is determined by the majority is the ‘general will’, and it cannot be wrong. Of course, voters can and often are ill informed, but that is the beauty (or horror) of universal suffrage. In the case of Mr Trump, he attracted millions more supporters than any other Republican candidate. They, mistakenly in my view, believe he is their popular tribune. Their right to vote for him is inviolable, though perhaps their motivation for doing so should point to where the blame lies.
Second, the electoral system. Mr Trump has in fact repeatedly railed against what he alleges is a fixed nomination system in the Republican Party. It is not fixed: he won by the far the most votes, the most delegates, and thus the nomination. He has won slightly more delegates than his vote share would have implied, but the will of Republican primary voters is clear. Nothing to see here.
Third the media. Opponents of Mr Trump may be on stronger ground here. Coverage of Mr Trump’s campaign has proved a constant dilemma for America’s notoriously ratings-hungry networks. When Mr Trump is mocking a disabled reporter or announcing preposterous policies, it is impossible for them not to cover him. The New York Times estimates that this coverage has amounted to $1.9bn of free advertising. You cannot, however, blame the media for covering a candidate who has undeniably stolen the political spotlight, and who has been the Republican frontrunner for months. Indeed, Mr Trump seems to be intent on fighting pitched battles with the ‘corrupt’ media – he clearly doesn’t think they’re on his side.
This brings us on to the obvious suspect: the Republican Party establishment. They have systematically ignored the economic interests of their voter base for decades. In return for the votes they need to promote their economic self-interest (ultra low tax, minimal regulation, free trade and open borders) they have offered their voters socially conservative policies – God and guns, essentially. These voters tend to be poorer, less educated, less urbane whites. There are many merits to a free market, low tax economy – but these voters have not felt them. Thoughtful Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan do seem to genuinely be attempting to offer meaningful policy for those at the bottom, but the message is not cutting through. It is too little, too late. These voters now see a candidate, in Mr Trump, who vows to defend their conservative values of nation, religion and constitution, whilst also promising to bring back their jobs from China, kick out job-thieving immigrants and protect their pensions and entitlements.
In addition, for eight years Republicans have been telling their voters to be angry: angry at Barack Obama and the Democrats for their healthcare law which takes money from hardworking Americans to give cheaper insurance to poor African-Americans and layabouts; at their immigration policies which do the same for Hispanics; at their gun control-mania and disdain for the Bible and traditional values. The voters certainly are angry, and not just at the Democrats. They are angry at the Republicans, who have failed to stop all these apparently awful things from occurring; who have failed to do anything in Congress to help them. The Republican elite has indulged racist smears and conspiracy theories against Mr Obama (of which Mr Trump was a major proponent). The Trump monster was inadvertently created by the very people now scrambling for a way to stop it.
Furthermore, the level of partisanship currently active in US politics has reached extraordinary levels. Negative partisanship – wherein partisans vehemently oppose the other party regardless of who their own candidate is – is particularly spectacular: and these forces in part are the construction of the Republican Party. Their consistent intransigence towards the Democrats in Congress and Mr Obama in the White House has given the impression that it is worth risking a sovereign default and shutting down the government if it means thwarting that gay Muslim communist Obama and his lackeys on the Hill. The strength of negative partisanship is now manifesting itself as ever more Republicans – to their great shame – are endorsing Mr Trump.
The Republicans are not alone, however, in their guilt. If Mr Trump (God help us) wins in November, it will have been because of the incompetency of Hillary Clinton (the likely Democratic nominee) as a competitor. To be sure, Mrs Clinton is a formidable policymaker and administrator, but a hopeless politician. She readily accepts that she lacks the charisma of her husband or Mr Obama, but her flaw goes deeper than that. Here in Britain we often struggle to understand how Mrs Clinton can be so deeply unpopular stateside: first woman president, record of defending women’s and minority rights, long record of public service, etc.… David Brooks of the New York Times posed a thought-provoking question in an attempt to explain this: ‘Can you tell me what Hillary Clinton does for fun?’ She is almost exclusively viewed as a professional politician, and nothing else. She is seen as untrustworthy, a sentiment only augmented by her role in an alleged cover-up over the 2011 attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi and by her mishandling of State Department emails. The hundreds of millions earned by her and Bill giving speeches to Wall Street banks doesn’t help either.
Mrs Clinton would, in my view, make a decent president. Her foreign policy instincts are probably somewhere between Bush jnr. and Obama – no reckless invasions, but more activist than the occasionally dithering Mr Obama. Her domestic and economic policies are sound, too. Her leftward movements in the face of Bernie Sanders’ persistent primary challenge are regrettable – scuttling free trade deals, soaking business with tax and imposing sky-high minimum wages are no way to grow an economy – but are unlikely to be at the forefront of her priorities if she wins. Her – and the Democrats’ – problem, then, comes not from a paucity of policy, but from a personality that is so viscerally disliked by so many Americans as to push them into the arms of a bile-spewing populist. In an era of hyper-partisanship, wherein opposing the opposition simply for their being the opposition is the order of the day, having a candidate as partisan as Mrs Clinton is foolish. One must wonder: can the Democratic Party find no one better?
Some argue that Mr Trump is simply the manifestation of an era of low rich-world growth, mass migration, Islamic terrorism and national identity crisis. That would be to absolve the above of the part they played in begetting The Donald. The hope must be that Mrs Clinton wins in November, but that the ‘establishment’ – of both parties, and others elsewhere in the world – learns its lesson. It only takes one rich loudmouth to animate the masses into putting into high office a person so unqualified to be president as Mr Trump is.