2 May 2016

Is Donald Trump’s rise really an extinction-level event for US democracy?


A Republican party that should have done a better job preventing the rise of Trump, via offering a narrower and better field, is fighting a brave rearguard action attempting to prevent Trump become the candidate. Yet it looks as though Ted Cruz (who is redeeming himself a little by his patriotic battle to avert a global catastrophe) will fail, as early as this week when Indiana votes on Tuesday. If Trump wins there it is all but over. It is then Hillary v Donald.

To any pro-American Westerner, that is an awful prospect. The realisation that the task of stopping Donald Trump becoming President probably falls to Hillary Clinton is unsettling for a simple reason. She is a terrible candidate. Not only is she the embodiment of the elitism detested  by many voters during this latest populist uprising, she has also been around for ever, in the public eye for 25 years. US voters began being highly suspicious of her motives in the early 1990s and it pretty much went downhill from there.

All logic suggests that Hillary should defeat Trump in the general election in November, because his numbers are awful, particularly with women voters. In a country that has undergone enormous demographic change, there are insufficient numbers of angry, white, working class American voters to secure him victory. But oh dear, it’s Hillary he’s up against, and she has proven herself in 2008 and in the last year against the ludicrous Bernie Sanders to be quite exceptionally rubbish at political campaigning. She should be able to stop him, but…

During this highly addictive and disturbing roller-coaster of a campaign, billions of words of analysis and reportage have been written by reporters working at high speed, but the campaign has been so discombobulating that very little has been published that makes sense of what is happening as a coherent whole. Andrew Sullivan – a writer I certainly don’t always agree with – has now written that long view piece for New York Magazine, and what a humdinger it is.

It is worth clearing some time and reading his essay –  “Democracies end when they are too democratic” – in its entirety. Plato warned about the susceptibility of total democracy to tyranny. It can erode elites (in this sense meaning those with the experience that equips them for office) to the point that the conditions are created in which a demagogue, offering easy answers and hatred of others, can prosper. Trump is that man. He is inherently unstable and narcissistic; he will do or say anything to further his own interests; he is a real threat to the US constitution and liberal democracy. As Sullivan says in conclusion:

“For Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.”

I offer a word or two of hope though to sane people everywhere. While the fashion is for noting the rise of populist parties, and I’m one of many who has been doing it in recent years, it can be overdone. Yes, there is backlash against the serious side effects of globalisation, which I would characterise as being rooted in the following:

  1. Concern about the exclusive opportunities it (and overlooked Western debt-driven policies) offer a small, mobile globalised elite to prosper when a lot of middle ground and working class voters feel life is being made tougher.
  2. We are at the beginning of epic migratory flows, as access to travel and communication in developing economies increases. Incidentally, people who worry about this and think it mad to offer open borders and uncontrolled immigration are the ones being sensible. There will be a lot of migration; the question is how one manages it to balance the benefits with the need for social cohesion and democratic consent. In opposition to that stands a bizarre alliance of free market ultras and “come all ye” anti-Western types. The EU’s policy looks madder with every passing year.
  3. Concern about the rising power of supra-national bodies, and the way they are eclipsing or over-riding nation states. On the Left, concern first surged almost two decades ago with the anti-globalisation protests. Since then the trend has accelerated. It is as common now on the centre-right as it is on the centre-left to hear concern about the implications, and a reluctance to simply be carried along on this tide.

But for all the panic about populism, when it came to it in Britain after several years of populist UKIP hype and Labour agitation, the winner of the 2015 general election in convincing style was the Conservative party led by David Cameron. Of course the quirky UK electoral system is unique, but UKIP hit a ceiling of support and got stuck there. Likewise, even though in France Marie Le Pen is on the rise, it seems highly unlikely that she can win the presidential election next year even if she makes it into the final two. The mainstream candidate should be able to hoover up enough votes from their ideological opponents to stop her.

For all the fatalism, there do seem in established democracies to be sufficient numbers of non-ideological, reasonable people who when it comes to it make a binary choice in favour of someone who looks as though they won’t blow the world up or sink the economy. That theory is about to be tested in the US.

Iain Martin is the Editor of CapX