4 March 2016

The four megatrends behind the Trump phenomenon


Get support from big wigs in the state Republican party – your Congressmen, the Senators, and, ideally, the Governor.

Amass a warchest – by endlessly robocalling donors and attending fundraising suppers – with which you can afford negative TV ads through which you define and destroy your opponent. You may need to spend up to 70% of your time raising funds – it’ll be at least 30%.

Get endorsements from local right-to-life chapters, the chamber of commerce, gun rights groups, evangelical charities and other conservative movement organisations by proving your ideological credentials.

Get articles in local newspapers and ideally positive coverage in the two pillars of the conservative media establishment – the Wall Street Journal and Fox News.

Recruit the best get-out-the-vote operatives before your rivals hire them – because turnout rather than persuasion is king.

These were the rules for aspiring Republican candidates before Trump. He has broken every one of them. He has almost zero endorsements from the great and good. He has spent almost no money on campaign ads. He has been repeatedly attacked by the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, the National Review and other guardians of “true conservatism”. He has offended key Christian and free market campaigning groups. But – according to PredictWise – he has a 70% chance of winning his party’s nomination. Barring divine intervention (and, I’m certainly praying) – the billionaire hotelier will become the Republican Party’s nominee for the presidential election due on 8th November. An already too-white-party that desperately needs to win the support of minority Americans will have chosen a candidate who wants to bar Muslims from entering America, hesitates about condemning the Ku Klux Klan and smeared Mexican immigrants as rapists. The sunny, optimistic party of Ronald Reagan will have, as its leading representative, a bullying vulgarian who opposes free trade, economic immigration and likes cuddling up to the world’s ugliest despots. It’s hard to exaggerate the significance of what is about to happen to not just one of America’s two principal parties but to one of the world’s greatest parties. Some have compared it to Barry Goldwater’s elevation fifty years ago but I’d argue that the Arizonan Senator was less frightening. Conservatism will have become more populist, more nationalist and also less electable if we believe the early head-to-head surveys. The Republicans will have forfeited the opportunity to keep the so-powerful Supreme Court balanced following the untimely death of the conservative justice and Reagan-appointee-Antonia Scalia. The Democrats – up against Trump – will have the opportunity to win the White House, retake the Senate and move the Court from a 5-4 knife-edge to a 6-3 liberal majority in favour of much greater government control of, and intervention in, US life.

It will be tempting for many to blame the Trump ascendancy on peculiarly American factors. And while Chris Deerin is completely correct to spotlight the relentlessly anti-government (and very dangerous) mood that repeated Republican politicians, donors and campaigners have helped to create, we should not think that what has happened in the US couldn’t happen in other democracies. On the back of four megatrends –the new normal of low growth; opposition to large-scale immigration; the growth of non-traditional media; and disrespect for elites – he has shown that the old building blocks of donors, endorsements and ideological purity provide the old politics with little or no protection. While the celebrity businessman Donald John Trump may be a unique phenomenon the four megatrends he has ridden are not.

The new normal of low growth: The anger that voters clearly feel towards the lack of post-crash reckoning (see Tuesday’s YouGov poll for CapX) might have been more manageable if the recovery from that crash had been more robust. But, as Larry Kudlow has catalogued, “after 25 quarters of so-called recovery under Obama, [the economy] has increased a total of only 14.3%. Compare this to earlier periods. After the JFK tax cuts of the early 1960s, the economy grew in total by roughly 40 percent. After the Reagan tax cuts of the 1980s, the economy grew by a total of 34%.” Growth in dysfunctional Europe is even weaker. Writing for Foreign Affairs, Larry Summers introduces us to the age of “secular stagnation”. Kudlow’s remedy is more tax cuts. I’m not so sure but, at least until a new recipe for growth is discovered, the mature western economies are closer to a zero sum game in democratic management where distributional questions over who gets a bigger share of the pie become more intense.

Opposition to large-scale immigration: This second global factor is not only powering the Trump phenomenon but also demands in the UK for Brexit and Angela Merkel’s dipping popularity. Blue collar voters, in particular, no longer think that either immigration or the current free trading settlement work for them as much they work for the already prosperous and powerful.

The growth of non-traditional media: All countries, first of all, have seen old media monopolies broken down. News now happens faster, often without being fact-checked and there’s much more room for extreme, diverse views to reach large audiences. In low turnout elections the difference between winning and losing can depend upon reaching unrepresentative activists groups that spend a lot of time on social media. Often more important today than newspaper endorsements is whether you have Twitter followers or Facebook friends who are recommending you to others – or mobilising to oppose you.

Disrespect for elites: The final disruptive force – as relevant to Brussels, Ottawa and Tokyo, as to Washington – is the double-edged sword of transparency. If elites open up to inspection by old and new media they are revealed to be as imperfect, and sometimes corrupt, as every human institution has been since the Garden of Eden. Don’t open up to inspection and people assume you have dark secrets. Elites are damned whichever way they turn.

Britain, of course, has a parliamentary rather than a presidential system of government. America has no gatekeeping broadcaster as powerful as the BBC. Thankfully, money isn’t so dominant in our elections. But let’s not assume that we are as immune from Trumpism as some of us would like. All of the megatrends are present in the UK. One of the main UK parties is led by an IRA-sympathiser who hasn’t had a new idea since 1917. Another is led by someone who – on the most fundamental issue of national self-determination – is not only at odds with most of his party but is fighting against Brexit with “smears”, “threats” and “scaremongering”. Not just my view but Iain Duncan Smith’s too. Established British politicians shouldn’t assume that they couldn’t get “Trumped”.

Tim Montgomerie is a columnist for The Times and Editor of CapX's Portrait of America.