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Turn the corner onto Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue at 12th Street and you run into Old Post Office building, which is in the middle of being transformed into a hotel. It is festooned with giant billboards in Republican blue featuring the name of the property magnate responsible for the venture. “Coming 2016” it says in small letters. And underneath that in giant capitals is one word – TRUMP – a name that either pumps you up, makes you laugh or chills the blood, depending on your view of the world.
The positioning of the hotel itself or the billboard messaging is hardly subtle. At the top of the street sits Capitol Hill, the seat of American democracy, while nearby is the White House. This, the poster suggests, is Donald Trump’s year and the Trump Organization, which has its roots in New York, is taking over the US capital. Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who is is leading the Washington hotel project, said this week’s announcement that the renovation is running ahead of schedule had nothing – absolutely nothing, you understand – to do with the Presidential race or the New Hampshire primary that took place a few days ago. To which the response must be: “Yeah, right… how stupid do you think we are?”
Of course the hotel announcement must have been connected to the campaign. The timing was perfect for Trump. The speedy completion of the project fits perfectly with the story the golf-obsessed poltroon tells his supporters and voters, that here is a man of business who gets stuff done, ahead of time to the enhancement of his fortune and greater glory of America. What he does for himself and his customers, he will do for America. That’s the pitch.
And after the events of the last week there should be no doubt that his story resonates with large numbers of American voters who have had enough. In Washington and New York this week I encountered plenty of otherwise reasonable people who thought the anti-Trump analysis in the mainstream media in the US and beyond is overdone. They say he is just saying crazy things to get noticed and then if he wins the nomination and becomes President he will move to the centre and be curtailed by the constitution. Trump is no Adolf Hitler. But… members of the German elite used to say something similar in the early 1930s about someone with a moustache and he proved not so easy to control once they had installed him in the Reich Chancellery.
Mercifully, large numbers of other Americans are appalled by the rise of Trump, and the fashion for 1930s-style demagoguery that seems to have gripped their fellow Americans just at the moment when the world economy and geopolitical situation sit on the edge of a precipice. I generally try to maintain a sense of humour about politics (otherwise one might go mad) but I must admit for the first time in my life to being properly concerned to the point of terror about a US presidential race.
In part that is because the widely-aired expectation just a week ago that sensible Marco Rubio was about to emerge as the clear moderate alternative to Trump and the populist Ted Cruz on the Republican side did not survive contact with the reality of Rubio’s robotic performance in a TV debate. “Marco was tired,” is how one of his friends explains the repetitive spiel. After that, Rubio failed in New Hampshire and Trump won convincingly. A moderate revival under Rubio or the impressive Governor Kasich of Ohio may still happen, but it is by no means certain and the notion of Trump becoming the Republican nominee cannot be dismissed.
But Trump’s lead in the Republican primary process is not accidental. He leads precisely because he is prepared to speak plainly about the concerns of many Americans who are what Scots call “scunnered” (a great word meaning disgusted and disaffected) with the political and financial elites.
There he is helped by his potential opponent. The likely Democrat nominee is still Hillary Clinton because of her money and clout, but she was heavily defeated in New Hampshire by Bernie Sanders (think UK Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn crossed with Statler and Waldorf from the Muppets). Not only is Clinton actively disliked by a lot of Americans, she is the quintessential personification of the entitled elites that voters resent so fiercely. An attendee at one of her speeches to the global investment bank Goldman Sachs delivered for a whopping fee before she launched her campaign was quoted this week in the US press saying that she spoke and looked at the event like a managing director of Goldman Sachs. That is not a good look in the current climate, and even if the self-made multi-billionaire media baron Michael Bloomberg comes into the contest as a third party candidate he will face similar barriers.
Take a look at the numbers behind Trump’s surge and you see what, I think, is driving this rebellion against the system. This week, in association with YouGov, CapX launched Portrait of America, which provides daily polling on social attitudes and political trends. It is being edited for us by my friend Tim Montgomerie and it offers fascinating insights every day. For example, the latest findings demonstrate how deep the distrust of Clinton’s friends on Wall Street runs. Two thirds of Americans polled think that Wall Street is “a place of too much greed that could easily be the cause of another Great Recession.” The market turmoil of the last week will hardly make voters better disposed.
Many Americans are also deeply concerned about security and terrorism. Gun-buying is in fashion and our poll suggests that of those who don’t already own a gun, a quarter of Americans are considering it. When asked if the Obama administration has done all that it reasonably can do to make America secure and safe from terrorism – a prime task of the US government – only 48% say it has and 44% say it has not. This is a perfect set of circumstances favouring a master manipulator and performer who claims there are simple answers to complex problems. Hence Trump.
By a serendipitous accident of history, that Trump Washington hotel I began by describing will open in a building owned by the very US government that Trump hopes to run. A government agency is leasing the Old Post Office to the Trump Organization for 140 years.
In the year 2156, after we’re all gone, what will historians make of this crazy, weird period we are living through? Did “The Donald” become President Trump? Did we all survive the resulting Third World War of 2017? Or did a sensible person somehow win in 2016 and set about introducing the reforms of America’s gummed up labour markets and tax system, and unclogging regulation, so that the US and the rest of the West might harness properly the great opportunities available – in commerce, medicine and military capability – from the ongoing technological revolution? We’re about to find out.