20 January 2017

How Trump has rewritten the political rules


Tim Montgomerie spent much of the past year in the United States covering one of the most extraordinary presidential elections in history. This is the second in a three-part series, summarising what he learned. (The first part can be found here and the third part here.)

The weaknesses of the mainstream American media have reached a critical, democracy-endangering stage

The mainstream media plays a vital role in democracy. It educates the public about what politicians are doing (and not doing). And almost as importantly, it educates politicians about what is happening in the country they seek to serve, and what they might be missing.

But for year after year, in this age of hugely disruptive internet-based competition, the mainstream media – especially what online insurgents call the “dead tree press” – has been in a fight for its economic survival. Newsrooms have shrunk as reporters have been fired to cut costs, and it’s often the higher-paid and more experienced reporters who get dropped first. Some of the best journalism has become hidden behind paywalls.

At the same time, the tendency of media organisations based in New York and Los Angeles – both bastions of liberal leftism – to employ like-minded people has accelerated. Hard data about the ideological composition of newsrooms is difficult to come by, but research during the recent campaign by the Center for Public Integrity found that 96 per cent of political donations by journalists were to the Clinton campaign.

The executive editor of The New York Times recently admitted that “we don’t get religion”. Not getting religion in one of the most religious nations on earth is not a minor journalistic failing. And what about not getting people with guns, or people who work in coalmining, or veterans who’ve served in the military?

Some newsrooms have been so busy recruiting more women and ethnic minorities – very correctly – that they have forgotten other forms of diversity which ensure that groupthink doesn’t compromise editorial decisions. The result is the equivalent, if we were to put it into a British context, of an editorial conference full of Remainers: they can try their best to reflect the views of the rest of the nation, but it won’t be easy or complete. On top of which, such journalists often choose to think the worst of people they don’t naturally agree with, or even mix with. This is one reason why wanting your country to govern itself – the dominant motivation of Leavers in the UK – is regularly and disproportionately portrayed as racist or xenophobic.

These two key trends, of tough revenue models and ideologically monochrome newsrooms, have reached a point in America (and the London-based media may not be so very far behind) where the press can’t afford to do its work of reporting the nation – a nation which it doesn’t even know half of as well as it should.

An environment is created where large numbers of voters stop trusting the media and choose instead to read fringe alternatives: the Age of Breitbart.

 ‘Liar, liar, liar’ turns into ‘Yawn, yawn, yawn’

One of my favourite moments during the confirmation hearings now taking place on Capitol Hill (and I know I shouldn’t laugh) was when Rex Tillerson, the ex-Exxon chief, friend of Vlad-the-Bad and nominee for Secretary of State, was asked by one Senator about lobbying against sanctions on Russia by the company he ran until very recently.

Tillerson, wearing a face as straight as a pipeline, replied by saying that he had not been aware of any lobbying. Er, said Senator Corker, the foreign affairs committee chairman, I remember you lobbying me at the time.

Tillerson’s Trump-like relationship with the truth probably won’t do him much harm – just as Mrs Clinton’s endless attacks on Mr Trump’s Pinocchio-isms made little difference during the campaign. While Trump’s PolitiFact score is much worse than Mrs Clinton’s was, voters’ expectations about political truthiness are not high. Not high at all. Only 1 per cent of Americans think members of Congress have “very high” standards of honesty and ethics. In fact, they come just below car salespeople, insurance traders and advertising practitioners in a Gallup league table.

I should add at this point that this lack of faith is unfair (as the figures here show) but as I wrote on this site in December 2015, Mr Trump’s supporters weren’t unaware of his “little lies”. They were more interested, however, in what they saw as his “big truths” – big truths like the years of high immigration flows from Mexico, the existence of unfair competition from China and the real-world inexperience of the politicians who had been running Washington.

Trump’s critics can keep throwing the “pants on fire” attack at him. But it’s not going to get them very far – especially if they are politicians themselves.

 Trump’s wealth is another line of attack that’s unlikely to bear much political fruit

Trump’s critics might dispute this observation – and, indeed, the argument I made in my previous point. Mr Trump did, after all, lose the popular vote in last November’s election, and he begins his presidency with lower favourability ratings than any incomer of modern times. At 40 per cent, he is the only president-elect (of the last seven for which numbers are available) who finds less than half of Americans positively disposed towards him.

Nonetheless, I’d argue that a dominant theme of network TV – that Mr Trump is set to misuse the presidency by profiting financially from it – is likely to be politically unproductive for his critics. Night after night, there are justified attacks on his failure to adequately separate his administration from his business interests.

But my experience of attending more Trump rallies than I care to remember is that people believed his personal wealth was a huge asset – not just because it was a sign of accomplishment, but because it meant he could not be bought by the special interests which are perceived to “buy” so many other politicians.

Hillary Clinton suffered a great deal from her highly-paid speechmaking on Wall Street – and the suspicion that she was consequently in the pockets of big banks. The media focus on Mr Trump’s business interests and the idea that he’s gone into politics to make money doesn’t ring true for his supporters – or for me. It’s the politicians without independent wealth who US voters fear will have their heads turned.

When you need so much campaign cash to win US elections, it’s the money-needy you worry will become servants of K-Street lobbyists, instead of servants of the public.

Trump is not Reagan – but the new Cabinet does reflect the conservative movement that took off in the 1980s

Yesterday I noted a number of ways in which Donald Trump was not a conventional Republican – especially on deficit reduction and free trade.

The striking feature of his nominees for his Cabinet, however, is how ideologically right-wing they are. The man tipped for Labor Secretary is a sceptic on the minimum wage.  The environmental nominee is a climate sceptic. The Treasury candidate is a low-taxer. The energy secretary was a big deregulator when governor of Texas. The congressman tapped for health is the most studious opponent of socialised medicine. The ex-general chosen to run the Pentagon takes hawkish lines towards Moscow and Tehran.

I could go on – but the point is that while it is true that Trump is very un-Reagan in his dark clouds rhetoric (although we shouldn’t forget the positive power of the Reaganesque “Make America Great Again”), and has not got the experience of governing or of involvement in the conservative movement that the post-war period’s most popular Republican president had, he is benefiting from seeds sown during that extraordinary 1980s period.

Reagan, like Thatcher, had to staff his government with many people who had not grown up with exposure to conservative books, think-tank reports and right-wing TV. But the people and donors inspired by his two-term presidency have produced a different generation – who are set to sit around Mr Trump’s top table.

This partly reflects the huge influence of Trump’s Vice-President, Mike Pence. Pence is a conservative movement man and Trump, untrusted by many conservatives, picked him because of a need to reassure that movement. Working with other products of the Reagan era, notably Speaker Paul Ryan and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, the administration almost inevitably has to be staffed by people who learnt their politics a long time before the new regime began to reshape things.

Trump’s main enemy is expectations

Relatively few Americans, as noted above, have a favourable view of Mr Trump – and attendance at his inauguration today may be only half of the nearly two million who attended Barack Obama’s first signing-in.

So the 45th President isn’t facing a “yuuge” expectations problem – but he shouldn’t forget the anger out there about jobs and the political class.

Many blue-collar Democrats voted for Trump in desperation, deserting their party and ignoring the unions that were begging them to vote for Hillary. They don’t want that risk to have been for nothing.

Meanwhile, many conservatives are exhausted by politicians who promise to deliver change but don’t. And Mr Trump’s great opportunity – having Republicans in charge of the Senate and House of Representatives – could become a great problem if he and the leaderships of those two chambers fail to translate this dominance into action.

If their legislative accomplishments are limited by the time of 2018’s mid-terms, a “shellacking” could be in store. Mr Trump may, unusually, be taking his first two days of being president off, but he shouldn’t dilly-dally. Congressional time will be eaten up by scrutiny of Cabinet nominees, his looming choice for the vacancy on the Supreme Court and efforts to repeal Obama-era statutes. He’ll be surprised at how little time there may be for new laws.

See also: Trump told America what it wanted to hear (part one of this series) & Where will Donald Trump take America? (part three)

Tim Montgomerie is a Conservative commentator