5 August 2015

We need to talk about Donald

By Hugo Winn

Brits tend to ignore popular politicians that shovel hate; Berlusconi, Putin, Donald Trump, as the product of a poorly educated electorate. But could they reveal something deeper about the modern voter, one with direct implications for the U.K.?

Donald Trump is angry. Very angry.

“They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” He roars to a crowd of anti-immigration supporters, last week. They love it.

The outspoken property tycoon and now Republic presidential candidate is angry about a lot of things. On topics as diverse as US-Chinese trade, the strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia, and captured war veterans (POWs), it has become a regular feature on American TV to see the would-be president rallying off.

His statements are inflammatory, falsehearted and in some cases cruelly insensitive. They seem from out an outsider’s perspective like self-inflicted punches, which make Trump the political equivalent of an imploding atom bomb.

Yet he is not. Rather, Trump is exploding, currently leading the Republican field and with a genuine shot at the GOP nomination. Most incredibly, his share of the vote has gone up 7% since he made his immigration remarks.

Trump is unlikely to make it all the way to the Oval Office. Whilst his ego and aggressiveness are music to the ears of the tea-party faithful, his offering will fall flat in the liberal swing states of Iowa, New Hampshire and Ohio, whose voters have the final say. But, the surge in his support – albeit with a vocal minority – tells us something strange about the modern voter. Something with resonance on both sides of the Atlantic.

Listening to his supporters explain what they find appealing about Trump, which is admittedly very challenging listening, one word recurs: “Strong”.

Republicans everywhere are turning to Trump as the only candidate strong enough to stand up to China, stand up to Iran, and stand up on immigration. For many he is increasingly the antidote to Obama’s ‘soft’ liberalism and moderated politics.

Trump’s bravado is extraordinary, but it is far from exceptional. Frank Bruni at The New York Times makes a great comparison to Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi, who is obsessed with being portrayed as tall, a “mountain amongst midgets”, despite his diminished stature.

Another comparison is Russian president Vladimir Putin, famous for increasingly audacious strong-man stunts: Shirtless horseback riding in Siberia; Whale shooting; leopard releasing; polar-bear hugging and “Saving” a television crew from a tiger attack. It is perhaps no surprise Mr. Trump recently said he would get along “very, very well,” with Mr. Putin when questioned earlier this month.

The Western press commonly claims that Putin clings to power through fear and exploitation alone. This is fiction. Putin is fantastically popular, with public approval ratings most democratic leaders who give their right leg for. It’s an uncomfortable truth but Russians love and support their president, who they call batyushka, the Holy Father.

Putin is not first, nor will he be the last ‘strong’ leader in Russia. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Josef Stalin were all revered as autocrats. Indecisive, if compassionate, leaders and those like Gorbachev who tried to please everyone, never inspired respect.

We do not share this lineage. Anglo-American politics is more consensual than its’ Russian counterpart. But, the strength of our leaders still plays a critical role. British politicians are continuously slandering their rivals as ‘weak’. Describing John Major, Labour leader Tony Blair famously said, “I lead my party. He follows his”. David Cameron adopted similar tactics with Ed Miliband desperately trying to make the ‘weak’ epithet stick. Miliband himself retaliated in kind several times, but to lesser effect.

The issue with strong leadership is simple. It is antithetical to responsibility and compassion; surely the primary leadership qualities we should look for in our elected representatives. Every time we say we want a ‘strong’ politician, we are essentially electing someone who centralises power and wields it decisively, rather than carefully. This is not semantics; it is a choice over the direction of a country.

“It is commonly assumed” says Archie Brown, Professor of Politics at Oxford University, “that strong leadership, which places greater power in the hands of one individual, is worth doing in a democracy…Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership in Britain from 1979 until 1990 is an obvious example. Thatcher may be regarded as one of a minority of party leaders and prime ministers within democracies who radically redefined the terms of the political debate, but whose style of leadership, nevertheless, led to hubris and her downfall”.

Politicians are human beings. They may not look like it, or act like it sometimes, but they are. The sooner we accept that the sooner we will elect leaders who rule effectively, without the fear of appearing weak and without the inflated trump-sized egos that cloud their judgement.

We are all limited by human imperfections. Anyone who purports not to, including Donald Trump, is lying. Yet we consistently expect our leaders to wield unnatural power or have the answers to every problem? Surely it is not a sign of weakness to put your hands up when you don’t understand something, nor Mr Trump, is it a step down to apologize when you are wrong.

Mahatma Gandhi once said “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” This is not just humility, but common sense. Reminding ourselves of that is more important than ever.

Hugo Winn is a political consultant at Weber Shandwick specialising in campaign strategy and political risk.