Donald Trump’s floundering presidential campaign is a self-inflicted disaster of the Republican Party’s own making
Of all the major American commentators, I think that Rod Dreher of The American Conservative comes closest to describing my own feelings about the rise of Donald Trump and the current wretched state of American conservatism.
Donald Trump is going to lose on November 8, and he is going to lose badly. He is going to be soundly beaten by a terrible Democratic nominee, a woman who is unliked, tainted by corruption, and the most divisive figure in public life other than … Donald Trump. I believe it is true that the Democrats are capable of engaging in voter fraud, and I take it as given that somewhere in America on election day, it will happen.
If the current polls hold up (Clinton ahead by seven points), the scale of Trump’s loss will far exceed anything that could be credibly attributed to fraud or any other kind of “rigging.” It is extremely reckless for Trump to be seeding the nation with doubt about the validity and legitimacy of the election. The only reason he’s doing it is to protect his own vanity when he is walloped, and walloped by a woman at that – and not only walloped by a woman, but walloped by Hillary Clinton, who would have been a pushover for any other GOP contender.
The Republican establishment has to realize that Trump didn’t rig or otherwise steal the party’s nomination: he won it fair and square, and he won it mostly because the party establishment itself fell badly out of touch with the mood of the country and its voters. You don’t have a fool like Trump defeating what was once touted as the deepest GOP candidate bench in history if Trump didn’t know something that that allegedly deep bench did not.
And yet, Trump has blown this race entirely on his own. In truth, he never really stood a chance, because the only way he was going to win it was to pivot towards being someone he’s not. No 70-year-old man is going to be able to do that, especially given that he has made his public reputation by saying outrageous things on camera. We all know Trump’s many weaknesses, so I won’t rehearse them again here. The point to be made, though, is that Trump gave Americans who might have been persuaded to vote for him 1,001 reasons not to. Hell, he rubbed the nation’s face in them.
Yes. Just as establishment Republican types must concede that Donald Trump won the GOP nomination fair and square – and then ask themselves some searching questions about how their “deep bench” of talent fell so flat with the primary electorate – so Trump supporters must concede that he is losing this election all by himself, through his own long-known and well documented personality flaws.
There have been occasional tantalising moments from the Trump campaign which hint at what a broad-based, anti-establishment candidacy might have looked like if it was headed up by a decent person of principle and moral standing rather than a vulgar and selfish man-child. Some of the stuff at Gettysburg was quite good. But Trump’s much-promised second, more presidential gear never materialised (as some of us warned it would not). And now Trump is thrashing around, lagging behind Hillary Clinton in nearly all polls and in most swing states, saying irresponsible things and weakening the collective trust in American democracy as a balm to his raw ego.
The great pity is that these anti-establishment moments do not always come around often. Britain was lucky inasmuch as that voting to secede from the European Union was a moral, democratic and small-L liberal thing to do; and because we were endorsing a political action, not electing any of the various goons who claimed to “lead” the Brexit movement. In America, no matter how much some conservatives may have agreed with Trump’s current positions (or the policies he now claims to support), the inescapable fact is that you don’t just get the policies. You also get the pugnacious, unstable man himself. For at least four long years.
And so whatever relief we might all feel when Donald Trump is defeated and the stench of his candidacy (hopefully) begins to recede, the fact remains that this electoral cycle has been a disaster for conservatives.
At a time of rising and often legitimate anti-establishment feeling in America and across the world (see Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Brexit) they put forward a man who embodies the very worst aspects of populism, and who actually manages to make morally compromised establishment cronies with 30-year Washington careers look like vaguely sympathetic characters.
With the economic recovery unfelt by millions of middle class Americans and Hillary Clinton representing nothing so much as Barack Obama’s third term with an additional steer to the left, this election should have been eminently winnable for the Republican Party. Even Mitt Romney would have been a lock for this one, gaffes or no gaffes. But through a toxic combination of abusing, mocking, ignoring and working against its own lower middle class support base, the Republican Party caused a mutiny which saw Donald Trump become the face of American conservatism. And Donald Trump, utterly predictably, has steered SS American Conservatism into the path of a giant iceberg.
I recently wrote:
This blog has been intermittently banging on about the need for small government conservatism to come to terms with our modern, globalised world – a world in which supply chains and labour markets are international, and the kind of mass, semi-skilled manufacturing work which once paid well enough to support a comfortable middle class life has either permanently disappeared, or else barely pays a subsistence wage.
This is a particular challenge for conservatives, who believe in empowering the individual and restricting the overbearing hand of government. Left-wingers can simply wave their arms and promise a new government programme to retrain vast swathes of the population, or buy their silence with benefits. Conservatives do not have this luxury.
But the eventual answer will, I am sure, have to come from conservatives. Cranking up the size of the state until it is all things to all people is unsustainable, squelching innovation at best and provoking economic crisis at worst, as proven every single time it has been attempted. Globalisation continues apace and the burning question continues to go unanswered.
This is what the Republican Party should be working on. The political party which cracks this issue, or which is the first to present a viable-looking policy solution to the American people (assuming either of the two parties step up to the challenge) could enjoy an entire generation in power, and the opportunity to permanently stamp their mark on both the economic and political life of America.
If the GOP could only find it within themselves to stop flirting with dangerous populists or reverting to type and promising their voters an unattainable land of milk and honey, then instead they could impose a new Thatcherite / Reaganite consensus on American politics, one which the more statist Democrats would struggle to defeat.
But now the Republicans are the party which nominated Donald Trump in 2016. Their moral and intellectual standing has never been lower. And the uphill climb back to respectability and influence is a punishing long one.
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