This is the weekly newsletter from Iain Martin, editor of CapX. To receive it by email every Friday, along with a short daily email of our top five stories, please subscribe here.
Who takes Donald Trump seriously? The bouffant-haired buffoon is a television personality famous for being a television personality, and a businessman famous for self-promotion. In the US he has assorted towers with his name on and since the 1980s he has been keeping the tabloids busy. In Britain, he is known for his hair and for his antics when he built a golf course in Scotland. The Scottish government was first enamoured of Trump; and then, after it had dealt with him for a while, it wasn’t.
Now, for his next act, he is running for the Republican nomination ahead of the 2016 Presidential election and he is doing it in a particularly oafish manner. This week he insulted the Vietnam war hero John McCain, saying that he preferred war heroes who had not been captured. These comments were made by the same Donald Trump who managed to avoid the draft. The McCain imbroglio followed distasteful and disgusting remarks made by Trump about Mexican immigrants to the US.
To the horror of parts of the Republican Establishment, and to the delight of Democrats, all this has led to the political Apprentice polling well. Some voters, it seems, have had it with mainstream politics and want an alternative, any alternative, to the airbrushed offerings served up by the main parties. This is a trend discernible in other western democracies, in the rise of the anti-austerity Syriza government in Greece, and in the surge before the recent UK general election of the United Kingdom Independence Party. Crazy populism of several varieties seems to be in vogue with those voters who are angry at elites and resentful of the side effects of globalisation.
And yet, surely Trump won’t win. The early stages of any American race often take on the raucous characteristics of a carnival, in which the media revels in the spectacle, because the campaign season is so long and anything colourful that breaks up the monotony that follows the selection of the nominees, who after the conventions will each travel around for months saying the same thing over and over again, is to be welcomed. When the race gets serious, Trump will soon find out that self-funding his campaign leaves him without the resources to outspend his rivals. No serious estimate suggests that he has the $1.6bn or so in liquid assets required.
There is still serious alarm at the rise of Trump, however. The Wall Street Journal editorial page this week described his rise in robust terms and warned voters and those US conservative commentators flirting with Trump of the dangers: “If Donald Trump becomes the voice of conservatives, conservatism will implode along with him.”
Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, sounded a different note, responding to a claim by Rick Perry, former Governor of Texas, that Trump’s candidacy is a “cancer on conservatism.” “Nah,” said Kristol. “More like a colourful pimple, an unsightly growth that’s interesting but harmless.”
However, the danger is that the Trump circus could cause chaos at a critical moment. When the Republicans should be concentrating on revivifying the case for popular capitalism, on converting new voters, and on working out how to use reform and technology to produce smaller, better government, they are being forced by Trump to have an unedifying, moronic brawl that makes modern conservatism look dysfunctional.
Even if he crashes out, Trump is also considering running as an independent third party candidate if the Republican leadership disrespects him. If that happens, what started as a bad joke – a Trump run – could turn into a tragedy for the Republicans next year, if it splits or shaves off even a smallish slice of the Republican vote in states where the race will be close. To convince non-core voters outside its base, the party is going to have to disrespect Trump a lot, which might make him angry enough to run as an independent. The situation is combustible. Already, in the last week, in the wake of the McCain comments, some candidates have started to take him on more directly and the Republican National Committee issued a blunt statement rebuking Trump.
The problem with the Trump diversion is that America needs the Republicans to get serious, and the free world (western democracies and their allies) needs America to get serious.
Not only is ISIS on the rampage in the Middle East, creating misery and millions of refugees in the region and inspiring terrorism in the West, the current American administration has also cut a highly questionable deal with the Iranians. Even viewed charitably, the completion of the Iranian deal suggests that US policy is in flux, with America pivoting away from the Wahhabi Saudi Arabians, in search of a new dispensation in that deeply troubled part of the world. In this way, an administration which began by trying to retreat from international affairs, “leading from behind”, has been forced by developments to engage. Yet there seems to be no unifying idea or clear direction of travel beyond President Obama getting through the next 18 months.
These international challenges are not insurmountable in the next decade, but they will require the election of a proper US President. Anything Trump-shaped which gets in the way and makes that less likely, turning a race that needs to be meaningful because it is taking place at a critical juncture, is a menace. He might not look like it, in his “Make America Great Again” baseball cap, but Donald Trump is a menace to the free world.