The best explanation for the Donald Trump phenomenon was given to me by a woman I met at one of his recent rallies. She’d spent the best part of three decades backing conventional Republican candidates. But, she said, ‘not again — not ever again’.
A good politician, she said, does enough unpopular things to make a difference to the nation — but not so many that they couldn’t be re-elected. The mark of a good politician is ‘which unpopular causes they choose’.
She had had enough of Republican politicians explaining to her that putting a time-limit on abortion was ‘too unpopular’. Why restricting immigration was ‘too hard’. Why cutting the benefits and entitlements of hard-working families was ‘unfortunate but necessary’. Yet those same politicians always found time, resolve and political capital to cut taxes for the rich and protect corporate perks. Republican candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, she explained, were in the laps of rich donors and the US Chamber of Commerce.
The rally in Manassas, Virginia, was extraordinary: one of the most electrifying political events that I have seen. Those present felt that they were part of something, that they had finally found a candidate whose anger matched theirs. Time and time again, the billionaire tycoon attacked big business — and the crowd loved it. Trump received sustained cheers for attacking Marco Rubio for missing Senate votes in order to attend a Californian fundraiser.
Other candidates claim to understand voters’ anger in some sort of detached, academic way. Trump embodies it. His promise to kick a system that large numbers of Americans think is rotten and corrupt rings true — because that’s all Trump does at every one of his rallies. He kicks the way Washington works. He kicks fellow Republicans. He kicks the media. And, yes, unforgivably, he kicks people like Mexicans and Muslims — scapegoating and smearing whole peoples for the sins of a few. But the more he says things that no conventional politician would ever say, the more he reinforces the idea that he’s not one of the conventional politicians who are so widely despised.
As I spoke to other Trump supporters, his campaign anthem blared out from the loudspeakers: ‘We’re not gonna take it / No, we ain’t gonna take it / We’re not gonna take it any more’. The song comes from Twisted Sister’s 1984 album Stay Hungry — which, again, captures something of the nature of the rebellion that is happening inside the Republican party.
Revolutions in history don’t normally tend to happen when peasants are starving. They happen after the worst of the crisis has passed, basic survival has been ensured — but while the memory of injustice is still strong. That’s where we seem to be now, nearly a decade after the economic crash, on both right and left. Now the ship has been steadied, people still think a reckoning is needed. Big business and big banks, in particular, need taking down a peg or two.
Conservative Brits may look on in amazement — but it’s worth remembering that Trump does have a point. It wasn’t Karl Marx who accused leading business people of being ‘all for themselves, and nothing for other people’. It wasn’t Friedrich Engels who condemned the ‘mean rapacity’ and ‘sneaking arts’ of many merchants and manufacturers. It was Adam Smith. The father of modern economics wasn’t an uncritical defender of free enterprise. He knew that markets could lead to extraordinary selfishness.
The Republican party is just one of many right-of-centre institutions that appears to have forgotten this centuries-old truth. Millions of its traditional supporters are currently providing the ‘Grand Old Party’ with a painful re-education in a basic point: what’s good for Wall Street isn’t always good for Main Street. This time, they’d like the lesson to sink in — and their vehicle for this lesson is Donald Trump.
Tim Montgomerie’s report for the Legatum Institute on the reform of capitalism can be read at Prosperity-For-All.com