Donald Trump may seem like a throwback to earlier, uglier times, but he is actually a very modern phenomenon. He is easy for opponents to hate, ridicule and throw insults at – from 'fascist’ (which he most certainly isn’t) – to racist, misogynist and demagogue which, whether they are right or wrong, get in the way of understanding his politics and their widespread appeal.
Donald Trump is favourite to win the US Republican nomination to be president of the United States, the most powerful nation in the world. This wasn’t meant to happen. The Republican establishment thought that he would blow himself up or go away after he had his fun and enlarged his fame. With it more than likely that he will face a damaged, discredited Hillary Clinton on 8 November, there is a chance next January will see the inauguration of President Trump. Did someone say season four of 'House of Cards' was unrealistic? It hasn’t got anything on reality.
How did the United States end up in this mess? First and foremost, Trump cannot be seen in isolation. Instead, he is the cumulative creation of 30 years of toxic Republican right-wing delusion and fantasy. Once upon a time in America lunatic paranoia was the preserve of the revolutionary left: think of the Black Panthers and the generation of 1968. Now it is anchored in and has taken over acres of the right, won large parts of the Republican grassroots, and has support in numerous shock jocks and outlets such as Fox News.
It is impossible to comprehend the degree of right-wing extremism which has tainted and tormented the Republicans since Ronald Reagan. It vilifies and refuses to understand opponents, stigmatising welfare, poorer people, and black and ethnic minorities. Government is seen as an organised conspiracy, taxes evil, while almost anything is legitimate to win elections – from depriving millions of citizens of the right to vote, blatant gerrymandering, and stopping a state count via the Supreme Court (Gore v Bush 2, 2000).
The Economist recently devoted pages to dissecting Trump. They showed that he is not a very good businessman. That if he had invested the fortune he inherited from his father in the US stock market he would be massively richer than he is now. Nor is it very surprising that most of Trump’s claims turn out not to be true. He repeatedly promised to invest £1bn in his Menie golf and hotel development (brilliantly documented in Anthony Baxter’s award-winning and non-Creative Scotland-funded film 'You’ve Been Trumped’), an amount widely parroted by mainstream media for years. It actually turned out to a mere £25m. No clarification was ever issued by Trump or any of his associates.
Why he can get away with this and still be standing was given a glimpse in a reply to The Economist’s coverage when a Trump supporter wrote in to dish their coverage. Mark Kraschel from Portland, Oregon said: 'Government isn’t working for us. There are few good jobs, we’ve been stuck with a joke of a healthcare system, the few rights we still enjoy are under siege and the future looks dim for our children'. He continued: 'We are powerless to foment a revolution while working two part-time jobs to make ends meet, so all we can do is register a protest against the Dickensian nightmare that the elites have created for us by voting'. But it is easier for The Economist and Obama to dismiss Trump supporters as 'disaffected bitter-clingers’ when they were mostly 'disaffected people who haven’t been doing well over the past eight years, and in case you haven’t noticed, they are mad as hell’.
Trump’s populism is in the deep well of American populism of the reactionary, xenophobic, isolationist right. It has echoes of George Wallace’s racially-charged campaign in 1968 – which began inside the Democratic Party, but ended up outside it. Wallace was defeated and like Trump he was a candidate against change, peddling simplistic, nasty solutions, stoking up racism and divisions, and for a future which was an invented past. One difference is that Trump has more resources and a chance of becoming the official Republican Party candidate.
There are shards of rhetoric and demagoguery taking us back to 'Citizen Kane’ and an age when media and political moguls thought they could manipulate and shape public opinion like plasticine. This most definitely is not fascism, but something much more incipient and nearly as dangerous: a messianic, megalomaniacal mixture of populism, prejudice and hatred, which could in these troubled times end up as head of the world’s most powerful country and military.
Throughout his campaign Trump has invoked bigotry, prejudice and the language of violence, lashing out at immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims and anyone who gets in his way or who he objects to. He has refused to play by any conventional or decent standards, toying with the KKK’s endorsement, threatening to attack protesters at rallies, and inciting others.
Not surprisingly, playing with this toxic brew produced ugly results when real violence came to Trump rallies. With echoes of the chaos of the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, across a number of cities and states – Chicago, Illinois, Missouri and Kansas – there were scenes of violence. It is fortunate that at least until this point, no one has seriously been injured or killed.
How did Trump respond to this? Did he trundle out his unconvincing 'I am a unifier’ trope? No. Instead, he walked away from any responsibility, declaring: 'I’m just a messenger. There is a lot of anger in this country'. This produced disbelief in the remaining Republican candidates, with Marco Rubio condemning Trump saying that he resembled a 'third-world strongman’ who has turned 'the most important election in a generation into a circus'.
Sadly this poison and politics of hatred goes way beyond Trump and appeasement of it and even touches British shores. American right-wing commentator Ann Coulter announced on twitter: 'I would like to see a little more violence from the innocent Trump supporters set upon by violent leftist hoodlums'. Coulter has 803,000 twitter followers.
In Britain, Freddy Gray in the Spectator attempted to see the violence and hatred whipped up by Trump as a lesser evil compared to the intimidation of anti-Trump supporters. He wrote: 'Lots of people who previously might have not voted for Trump will now do so precisely because they don’t want to be told what to do by a bunch of snarling, smug left-liberal millennials'.
Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie showed that the US was divided on who was more culpable – 55% thought anti-Trump supporters were largely responsible for the recent violent scenes while 62% thought this was true of Trump supporters (including 31% saying this of Trump himself); the two main figures tallying because 21% identified both groups as equally responsible.
We might like to think that the UK is profoundly different. The British Conservatives don’t have the same bypass from reality that the US Republicans do. The history of American populism is very different from the UK: Nigel Farage and UKIP are civilised compared to some of the right in the States. Then there is the strength of American religious feeling, and the zealotry of the right-wing, born-again, evangelical Christian movement, some of which has provided a base for three times married, non-Bible-quoting Donald Trump.
With all these obvious differences (and Britain’s first-past-the-post system is another), there is clearly a vicious, nasty culture of blaming and searching for easy targets brewing across the Western world. In the UK, barely a day goes by without some base debate about the perils of immigration, welfare or state support of some kind for vulnerable people who might not deserve it. Islamaphobia and fear of 'the other’ is everywhere.
This is the age of vilification, quick judgements and glib solutions, and where UKIP, whatever the result of the European referendum, have shifted the whole of British politics to the right. Solidarity, compassion and empathy for others are little on display. Who can say with sureness that Britain is completely immune from even more virulent, hateful strands of political expression than the mostly mild mannered UKIP?
We are witnessing before our very eyes the decline and potential demise of the old European traditions of the 19th and 20th century, social democracy and Christian democracy, which shaped so much of our lives. In an age which Colin Crouch aptly calls 'post-democracy’: the collusion of interlocking elites in politics, corporate business and media, a very different kind of politics emerges. This is a culture shaped by fear, foreboding, anxiety about the future, pessimism in young people and a tangible crepuscular quality with a sense of shadows lengthening and darkness about what comes next.
The first response to this was the politics of the self-interested elites (New Labour, Cameron Conservatives, the Clintons): attempting to keep the show on the road in the good times, and moderate it in in the leaner times and accommodate powerful forces: whether 'the global race’ in Cameron’s rhetoric, or populism and xenophobia. The allure of Tony Blair’s bright, confident morning seems a distant world today.
Second, there are the variants of 'outsiders’: from the reactionary populism of Trump, Alternative for Deutschland and UKIP to the radical left version of Bernie Sanders and Syriza. Both are filled with elemental betrayal and anger, the first, a pessimistic fury which is incomprending and incomprehensible to others at times; the second, raging against the pseudo-market machine; neither so far have been able to sum up the intellectual coherence to make a convincing alternative to the forces of the first.
Donald Trump as a person is a one-off, but his politics are not unique or unrepeatable. Instead, the US presidential race of 2016 in its horrid, fascinating and gripping nature is a grotesque inversion of the 60s, and the 1968 presidential contest in particular. This is the politics of a divided nation, of moral tribes who cannot understand each other or bear the sight of each other. It isn’t pretty, could easily get worse this year, and in future years degenerate further.
Donald Trump is a warning from the future of a world gone wrong. Sadly part of that world is already here today. And if we carry on as we currently are not only will the politics of Trump be our future, but something much nastier and much more dangerous will follow.