Donald Cameron and David Trump. Or is it the other way around?
In many ways, you couldn’t imagine two politicians more different than Donald Trump and David Cameron.
The British prime minister (despite his best efforts) exudes an air of privileged, private school entitlement at all times, and has a reputation for making withering (if cruel) put-downs of his opponents in the House of Commons. The increasingly presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee, on the other hand, takes pride in being brash and boastful, and his claim to “have the best words” is as laughable as it is factually inaccurate.
Furthermore, David Cameron was quick to weigh in against Donald Trump when Trump made sweeping and inaccurate generalisations about Britain and Muslims, stopping short of the shrieking and hysterical calls for Trump to be banned from entering the UK, but still condemning him in strong words.
And yet, the two politicians – one seasoned in Westminster politics, the other making a virtue of his inexperience in the ways of Washington – are more alike than it first seems.
In seeking to understand the persistent appeal of Donald Trump to a large and broad swathe of the Republican Party base, Einer Elhauge argues that Donald Trump wins because he promises to be The Great Protector, keeping Americans physically safe and financially secure in an uncertain world.
Elhauge writes in the Atlantic:
The message of his Republican opponents has effectively been: We are more faithful to conservative principles. Trump’s message has been entirely different. He essentially says: I will protect you. I’m conservative, but if protecting you requires jettisoning conservative ideology, I will do so. Protecting you is the prime directive. This message has powerful resonance, especially for voters who feel the Republican Party has failed to protect their interests.
You see this pattern in all of Trump’s deviations from conservative orthodoxy. Take the debate over Planned Parenthood. Like all conservatives, Trump opposes abortions. But he stresses he does not want to stop funding their wonderful work protecting women from cervical and breast cancer. The other Republican candidates simply express a desire to destroy Planned Parenthood outright. Trump’s message to voters: The other candidates will adhere rigidly to ideology, even if it needlessly fails to protect millions of women from cancer. I won’t.
[..] Trump’s signature policy is to build a wall to protect his voters’ jobs. What could evoke protection more than building a huge wall? His opponents quibbled about its feasibility but ultimately adopted the same position. Trump’s message to voters: I care about protecting you enough to propose huge historic projects. The other candidates begrudgingly agreed, but their heart is not in it, so they are less likely to follow through.
Free trade is great, Trump says, but it has to be fair. His opponents just adhere to pure free trade, which does increase the economic pie. But economic research shows that free trade harms some subsets of voters, particularly the working-class voters flocking to Trump. The message to his voters: I will favor free trade only to the extent that I can protect you from harm, perhaps by compensating you using the gains of trade. My opponents will favor free trade even if it harms you.
And as it goes for policy, so it goes for style. Trump consistently eschews the hard-headed statements of fidelity to conservative principle or the Constitution which voters hear from Senator Ted Cruz, focusing instead on cultivating the same “your safety first” narrative:
Trump talks endlessly about his polls, because the polls stress that he is strong enough to protect his voters. He speaks extemporaneously and often crassly in a stream-of-consciousness way, which has many pitfalls but emphasizes that his views are unprepared, authentic statements of his views and that he will thus carry out his promises to protect his audience. He responds aggressively to every attack, no matter how minor, conveying the sense that he will also aggressively protect his voters.
It is hard to deny the success of this approach. Many voters, feeling let down by the stewardship of both President Obama and the reactionary Tea Party dominated Congress which followed in 2010, have lost faith in politicians selling explicitly ideological remedies for America’s ills.
Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum got nowhere this election cycle, suggesting that the public’s flirtation with Constitutional libertarianism and social conservatism respectively are not the vote-winners they once were. And the same goes on the Left, with Hillary Clinton now pulling clear of Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, despite the huge achievements of Sanders’ campaign.
The situation in Britain is strikingly similar. David Cameron’s general election victory – at Labour’s expense and despite the rise of UKIP, the SNP and Green Party on the radical Right and Left – suggests that while a minority of voters (this blog included) crave stronger ideological differences and a move away from consensus politics, a larger number of people looked at the two main parties and went for the option which they believed would deliver them the most security.
Having secured his coveted Conservative majority government in the general election, David Cameron declared in his victorious 2015 party conference speech:
I tell you: our party’s success in growing our economy and winning the economic arguments has never been more vital.
Nothing less than the security of every single family in our country depends on it.
And now with couples married because of us, working people backed because of us, the NHS safe because of us and children in the poorest parts of the world saved because of us, everyone in this hall can be incredibly proud of our journey – the journey of the modern, compassionate, One Nation Conservative Party.
This was not the speech of a flinty-eyed ideologue yearning to roll back the frontiers of the state. It was the speech of a leader who calls himself a conservative, but is perfectly willing to use the machinery of government to deliver the social and economic outcomes that he wants – in Cameron’s case, building an election-winning coalition by promising physical, social and economic security over and above freedom and individual liberty.
Ed Miliband, to the extent that his weak leadership stood for anything, ran on a platform of fairness and equality, emphasising entitlement over strength and security. And it got him absolutely nowhere.
David Cameron and the Conservatives, by contrast, ran on a platform of stability and security as the only objective. It wasn’t thrilling, inspiring or glamorous, but given the weakness of his opponents, it was enough to deliver a parliamentary majority that almost nobody predicted.
You can argue that David Cameron represents everything that is ideologically vacuous and wrong with modern British conservatism – as this blog does, loudly and often. But what you cannot do is deny the fact that Cameron has hit on a winning electoral strategy.
That’s why David Cameron ran for re-election with a manifesto pledging a creepy, statist “plan for every stage of your life”.
That’s why the Conservative Party talks about creating a strong economy not as an end in itself, but only in the context of generating more taxes to pay for ever more public services.
That’s why there is not an ancient right or civil liberty that David Cameron and Theresa May will not gladly crush in their effort to be seen as strong in the fight against terrorism.
Sure, they may look and sound different – almost complete opposites, in style and temperament. But both Donald Trump and David Cameron are both essentially playing the same trick – or perpetrating the same fraud – on their respective electorates, depending on your outlook.
Donald Trump was once a Democratic Party supporter and donor, talked up his great friendship with the Clintons and held positions which are diametrically opposed to his current conservative stances. David Cameron, meanwhile, calls himself a Conservative but is busily implementing Tony Blair’s fourth term New Labour agenda.
Neither man is what he publicly claims to be. And certainly neither Donald Trump nor David Cameron can fairly be described as small-c conservatives.
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