Lunatics with money are never ‘mad’, only eccentric. In America, they are also Republican presidential candidates. So Donald Trump, a barmy billionaire with a mouth bigger than his bank balance is leading the race to be the party’s next nominee. It’s a sad indictment of the American political process. And it is a distraction from how strong American conservatism could be.
More than a dozen major Republicans are standing. Jeb Bush is notable for his establishment support, Scott Walker for his credentials as a governor who took on the unions, Marco Rubio for his charisma and ethnicity. In such a wide field, however, polling points are spread thin. Trump’s on top with only around 18 per cent support — outpacing more serious candidates largely because people have heard of him.
Trump is famous as a businessman and a TV personality, and for having hair that looks like something which laid down and died on his head. His politics are capricious. He has in the past been an independent, a Democrat, one of Hillary Clinton’s donors, a Tea Party maverick and a birther who demanded to see President Obama’s birth certificate; now he’s an everyman who hates Chinese businessmen and illegal Mexican migrants. He launched his candidacy by saying that Mexico was sending its rapists across the border, and is now involved in a row about whether a man sexually assaulting his wife ought to qualify as rape. Senator John McCain, the former presidential candidate, said that Trump had ‘fired up the crazies’. Trump replied that McCain was only considered a war hero because of his time in a Vietnamese prison camp, adding: ‘I like people who weren’t captured.’ Trump has never served in the armed forces.
Donald will probably fade away by the end of summer. Freak candidacies always flare up in the months before the first contests of Iowa and New Hampshire. Fans of American politics may recall that about this time in 2011 everyone was worrying that Congresswoman Michele Bachmann might be a goer. She was the unblinking lady who once said The Lion King was gay propaganda. But she fizzled away as they all do, because Republican voters are far more rational than early poll numbers suggest. Their primary races come down to two candidates: the well-financed establishment moderate and the outsider conservative. The moderate almost always wins easily. True, right-wing messiah Ronald Reagan won the nomination as the conservative, but it took three goes and he was far more centrist than is generally remembered.
This year’s sane candidates are already piling in on Trump, condemning his remarks about Mexicans and McCain and demanding that he quit the race. In that same spirit, a few weeks ago the party responded to calls to remove the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina’s statehouse grounds with a surprising answer: ‘Take it down.’ The party that since the 1960s had courted white Southern voters by playing the Dixie card had — depending on your point of view — either surrendered to multiculturalism or embraced racial reconciliation. It is significant that the Republican governor of South Carolina is an Indian-American woman and its junior senator is an African-American. Those two are the future of the conservative movement.
A Republican party distancing itself from politicians who label Mexicans rapists, or gay people a threat to the American way, would be more in tune with a country trending left on social issues. It would be well positioned for next year’s battle against Clinton, who despite her seemingly inevitable nomination as a Democratic candidate remains unloved by a large proportion of Americans and vulnerable over her record as Secretary of State.
Moreover, the Grand Old Party’s more hawkish approach to world affairs might be popular again. After a period of non-interventionism in foreign affairs, US voters increasingly want to re-engage. The terms of the recent Iran deal may have spooked them. Many are concerned about Obama’s disengagement from the Middle East, a bold recalibration of policy that conservatives fear has left Christians, Jews and moderate Muslims at the mercy of radical Islamists.
At home, polling suggests conservatives are in a narrow popular majority when they warn that the debt is too great, that Obama has overspent, and that healthcare reform is becoming a long-term problem. All that disenchantment was expressed in last year’s midterm elections, when the Republicans swept Congress. Obama’s time in office has done little to transform the lives of the poorest, — as race riots have shown. Working-class blacks remain under-employed and over-imprisoned. Obamanomics has most of all benefited the businessmen on Wall Street. Donald bloody Trump.
The problem is that these are all problems. The answers aren’t so obvious and the right doesn’t even seem to be looking for them. American conservatives have become good at articulating the anger of a dwindling demographic — the 18 per cent who nod without thinking when Trump speaks. But that fury has hardened into a policy-lite dogma that pushes the Republicans further away from the White House with each passing year.
Back in 2010, it looked like the British Tories had sold out to the left to get in government, while the Republicans were sticking to their ideals. Now it is the Republicans who are desperately looking for more flags to lower because their reactionary politics has locked them out of power. Cameron’s Tories, by contrast, are setting out their most ambitious conservative reform agenda since the 1940s — enacting radical ideas that will help the poor into work and save taxpayers money. Compromising with modernity could help Republicans get conservative stuff done.
But we return to that old problem: what would they do? Daniel McCarthy, editor of the American Conservative, says that the size and loudness of the Republican field proves that no one part of the right has ideas compelling enough to break through — ‘which leaves room for an outsize, outrageous personality, in this case Trump, to grab attention’. He may be correct. At this stage in the contest good ideas are few and far between. But maybe some sense of direction could be gained by at least purging the bad ideas. Even if it can’t agree what it is for, the Republican party might find unity in stating what it is against. Crushing Trump under the right’s foot might be the beginning of the search for a moral platform that appeals to everyone.
Tim Stanley is a historian and a Telegraph leader writer