The first in a series of three pieces from Tim Montgomerie on what he learnt from spending much of the last year in the United States covering one of the most extraordinary of presidential elections. In each piece he’ll offer five thoughts. (The second and third pieces can be found here and here.)
1 We shouldn’t have been as surprised about the election outcome as most of us were
My posting to America started in November 2015 and the last task I completed before jetting across the Atlantic was a global survey of attitudes to economic policy for the Legatum Institute. It found that Americans were less optimistic about the future than any of the other six nationalities that YouGov polled – those others being from Britain, Germany, Brazil, India, Indonesia and Thailand. So much for America being the land where dreams come true!
That Legatum finding chimed with the answer to the regular polling question on whether voters think their country is on the right track. Two-thirds of Americans are now consistently concluding they’re collectively heading in the wrong direction.
It’s hardly surprising. This, after all, has been a country that has invested huge resources in overseas wars that went badly, that has seen its great Wall Street banking institutions precipitate a global economic crash and its political institutions in Washington become gridlocked and hyperpartisan, while gun crime, the offshoring of jobs, and the decline of national infrastructure all seem to be getting worse.
When Donald Trump promised to Make America Great Again and gave a massive boost to manufacturers of baseball caps at the same time, he was speaking to a nation in the grip of fears that decline was becoming inevitable.
Despondency has worsened over the last eight years, partly because Obama was more about hype than hope. He promised to “heal this nation” and “repair this world” but the percentage saying that America is not great anymore or has never been great is 75 per cent. It’s China and Russia that are resurgent.
If you see the election in this context and in the context of despondency with the political class, in particular, the Democrats were taking a huge gamble in nominating a candidate who had been at the heart of the DC Beltway for a quarter of a century and whose fingerprints were all over the immigration, trade and financial policies that voters are blaming for many of their ills.
2 Mr Trump knew that a new message of security, rather than the familiar Republican message of freedom, was necessary
Mr Trump, with his casino businesses and colourful private life, was expected to turn off large numbers of the Republicans’ evangelical voters, but they largely stayed loyal because of his unwavering promise to appoint judicial conservatives to the powerful Supreme Court.
Republican voters also liked his opposition to the Iraq war – revealing themselves to be as intervention-weary as Democrats.
But it was on the economy that Trump’s willingness to tear up conservative orthodoxies was most controversial and electorally resonant. Up until his ascendancy the GOP leadership was in favour of free trade, hawkish on borrowing and often ready to side with corporate rather than main street America on the level of immigration.
Trump understood that Republican voters tended to be as unhappy about their entitlements being cut as any other US voter and he also understood that they blamed lost manufacturing jobs on China, Mexico and immigration.
It would be an exaggeration, however, to say that Mr Trump is burying the Reaganite free markets era. The era of big government never ended – despite claims to the contrary. The size of the US public sector is only about 2 per cent smaller than those in the EU if you add in spending on private healthcare. Congress has signed off five times as many budget deficits as surpluses since 1945 and then there’s protectionism.
Tot up the export subsidies, bail out funds, public procurement privileges for domestic firms, import bans and other interventions that boost and protect a country’s native industries, and Credit Suisse calculates that America is twice as protectionist as Europe. Trump hardly uses the word “freedom” because like David Cameron and Theresa May, both much more likely to promise “security” to voters, we live in an age when a majority of people do not feel unfree but do want protecting from economic and other uncertainties.
3 Overall, Donald Trump was not the game-changer and performed less well than other Republicans
For some of you, this statement will be not just uncontroversial but bleedingly obvious. However, it isn’t so obvious now that Mr Trump won the election against all expectations. On the day after that victory, Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives and until then a persistent critic of Mr Obama, described the result as “the most incredible political feat I have seen in my lifetime.” Ryan continued: “Donald Trump heard a voice out in this country that no one else heard. He connected with—he connected in ways with people no one else did. He turned politics on its head.”
It’s important that such hyperbole is challenged. Mr Trump clearly understood many things that his opponents and fellow Republicans did not – and he was especially adept at using his huge celebrity status and a calculated willingness to say controversial things to get more free media from the TV networks than any of his rivals combined.
But, as is Tweeted by Democrats on an almost hourly basis, he lost the popular vote to Mrs Clinton by three million or so votes AND what isn’t Tweeted so much by the Left is that Congressional Republicans beat Congressional Democrats in the national popular vote by about two million.
Although the electoral landscapes are different and comparisons of the presidential and congressional tallies is somewhat simplistic, we are looking at a five million vote gap between what Trump achieved and what more conventional Republicans achieved. Furthermore, with one or two exceptions, nearly all Republican Senate candidates got bigger wins in key states than Trump.
Yes, Mr Trump did take the party into new electoral territory, like Michigan, with his protectionism; but Mr Trump’s victory in a state like Wisconsin owed much to that Republican Governor’s job creating and union-neutralising reforms. In Ohio, a reforming governor and a brilliant multi-district ground campaign by Senator Rob Portman were the key facts.
Mr Trump would like people to think it was all him. It wasn’t. People voted for him despite his crashing through so many codes of civilised behaviour and not because of how he conducted himself.
4 Democrats should not rely upon America becoming less white and less religious for victory
Democrats are still hoping that demography will ensure they are soon returned to the White House and that they also start winning back state legislatures, governors’ mansions and US Senate and House races. Their hope is that as trends continue to make America less white, less religious and better educated (all trends that are usually also associated with moving leftwards), they will ensure their current plight of having fewer elected representatives than at any time for a century will begin to be reversed.
The Republicans and Mr Trump certainly can’t afford any complacency. The GOP has only won more than 50 per cent of the national vote in one of the last seven presidential elections. It won the popular vote in 2004 largely because of Karl Rove’s decision to hold referendums on gay marriage in swing states. These referendums were enough to turn out Right-of-centre, socially conservative “values voters” in huge numbers and saw George W Bush re-elected.
But in what is only a dozen years since then, public attitudes to same-sex relations are being transformed and it wouldn’t work again today. Have we also reached high water mark for Trump’s tactical dependence for victory on white, poorer, less educated workers? Is population change going to overwhelm what might be a one-time-only-trick? Not necessarily.
The challenge for the Trump administration is to find policies that will also appeal to insecure African and Hispanic Americans and there’s also every likelihood that technology’s coming impact on white-collar jobs might swell the world-go-away sentiment in the electorate.
5 And the Democrats have a bigger problem – the Left is on the march
Given the whole Trump phenomenon, we can be forgiven for having paid less attention to growing indications that the same radicalisation of the Left seen in most advanced countries is also underway in America. It is evident in the Black Lives Matter movement that has legitimate complaints about incidents of police racism, but the launching of a more general war on the police has led to cities such as Chicago see law and order erode and murder rates shoot up.
The American Left is also adopting positions on environmentalism and energy that will put the Democrats on the wrong side of working-class, manufacturing voters who blame associated regulations and costs for pricing them out of jobs. And, in what should be called “illiberal liberalism”, we are seeing younger, Left-of-centre Americans beginning to insist that full recognition of rights for gay and transgender people is not enough – and that more socially conservative people be pushed outside of public life if they still hold traditional views.
The attacks on free speech on university campuses are spreading beyond them and this is not helping the Democratic Party’s electoral prospects. A leading candidate for the Democratic National Committee sits very much on the Left of his party and a slate of Bernie Sanders-supporting candidates have just swept internal party elections in California. There is every possibility that Trump is encouraging Democrats not to get even but just to get very mad.