Ronald Reagan wooed America with sunny optimism. From the offset, Donald Trump has offered something much darker. He began his presidential campaign on 16 June by declaring that the ‘American dream is dead.’ He said that the country was being run by ‘losers’. ‘We have people that don’t have it,’ he said. ‘We have people that are morally corrupt. We have people that are selling this country down the drain.’ He insisted that only he, Donald J. Trump, had what it took ‘to make America great again’.
This was not ‘Morning in America’; more Midnight in America. Trump’s pitch was gloom, insults and arrogance. Strangely enough, however, that turned out to be exactly what millions of American voters wanted to hear. By trashing the United States and comparing his country unfavourably to himself, Trump tapped into something deep and powerful in the American psyche. Now there are only a few days left before the presidential election process starts, and ‘The Donald’ continues to storm the polls. He probably won’t be president, but it now looks as if he probably will be the Republican nominee — the heir to Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower. It’s a mind-boggling phenomenon.
In the early days of the Trump campaign, commentators on both sides of the Atlantic refused to take Trump seriously. They laughed at his vanity, his facelifts, his fake hair. Some said that he was running simply to promote his TV show, his businesses and his book (his earlier tilts at the presidency did appear to have been PR stunts). Others thought he was another Republican cabaret act; similar to Herman Cain, the pizza magnate who enjoyed a brief success in the 2012 race for the Republican nomination, but with extra ego on top.
Trump, however, soon recognised a weird link between his obnoxiousness and his popularity. Every time the commentariat thought that he had gone too far, he surged in the polls. He said that Mexican immigrants were rapists; his popularity went up. He made a sexist remark about a Fox News anchor’s menstruation; his popularity went up. He mocked a disabled New York Times reporter, his ratings wavered. So he upped his efforts and called for a blanket ban on all Muslims entering the US. His polls rocketed. The experts kept telling people not to worry: political gravity would bring this joker down to earth. Nate Silver, the famous statistician, told the media to ‘stop freaking out about Donald Trump’s polls’. The Trump bubble would pop, he suggested, when it hit the reality of the election cycle, because voters in American primaries don’t make up their minds until late. Others pointed out that in polls for the opening Iowa caucuses on 1 February, Trump had never been in the lead. But earlier this month, Trump moved ahead in Iowa. He is now on 35 per cent in the national polls — at least 15 points clear of his nearest rival, Ted Cruz. The Republican establishment is finally beginning to accept the once-unthinkable idea of a Trump nomination. It’s rumoured that, at a private retreat last week, Republican congressmen were given polling data suggesting that Trump would do better against Hillary Clinton than Cruz, who is associated with the Tea Party and the most toxic aspects of American conservatism.
The party cannot control the nomination process in the way that it did. The hierarchy’s chosen candidate, Jeb Bush, son of one president and brother of another, has failed to make an impact. Their back-up options — Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, John Kasich — have also struggled. One by one, the comforting theories about how Trump’s maverick candidacy might be stopped have been knocked flat. It was said, for instance, that Trump, a thrice-married New Yorker with wobbly views on abortion and gay rights, could not win over evangelicals in southern states. Yet he is now polling above Cruz, the son of a church pastor, across the south.
It was said that once the weaker candidates dropped out, sensible voters would consolidate their support behind one of Trump’s rivals. But the latest polls suggest otherwise: in a three-way race, Trump might pick up 45 per cent of the vote, while Cruz and Rubio would be on about 30 per cent and 20 per cent respectively.
If Trump fails in Iowa, or in New Hampshire eight days later, his candidacy could suddenly collapse. That’s what happened in 2004 to the Democratic populist demagogue Howard Dean. Yet Trump’s rise is a new challenge to electoral logic and common sense. How can so many Republican supporters pick such a preposterously smug man who surely — surely — has no chance of reaching the White House? This truth is that Trumpmania has nothing to do with ideology, since everybody knows that he has none. Polls suggest just one in seven Republican voters regard Trump as a ‘true conservative’; but a majority say he is ‘bold’, ‘strong’, and (best of all) a ‘Washington outsider.’ In the current climate, those qualities seem to be most important.
Trump’s anti-politics appeal makes him seem like an American version of the insurgent forces now dismantling established parties across Europe. In his willingness to tear down the party he hopes to lead, he is not all that different to Jeremy Corbyn. In his economic nationalism and anti-Islamism, he echoes Marine Le Pen. In his playing to the gallery, he resembles the Italian-comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo — though Silvio Berlusconi might make for a better like-for-like comparison.
But the Trump phenomenon is also uniquely American because it is uniquely angry. Trump’s greatest political asset is his rage at the broken promise of America. His ferocious denunciations of politicians and the media reflect the mood of the old American middle class, who increasingly feel that living in the greatest country in the world is not what it was cracked up to be. He appeals to the children of those aspirational Reagan voters who feel abandoned by globalisation and betrayed by Washington. In the 20th century, anger against ‘the system’ was mostly expressed through the American left. It was mixed up with civil rights activism and minority politics. But in the 2000s and early 2010s, what the American anthropologist Peter Wood called ‘the new anger’ moved across the political spectrum — and started to take over the soul of the Republican party.
Trump, more than any of his rivals, is able to tap into the deep wells of American fury — and he knows it. He never misses an opportunity to talk about China, for instance, which feeds the nation’s insecurity about becoming the world’s second-largest economy. ‘I will gladly accept the mantle of anger,’ he said last week. ‘Our military is a disaster. Our health care is a horror show… We have no borders. Our veterans are being treated horribly. Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people. And yes, I am angry. And I won’t be angry when we fix it, but until we fix it, I’m very, very angry.’
It doesn’t matter that Trump’s speech jumps about all over place: his inarticulacy is itself an expression of rage. Nor does it matter that his policies for restoring American greatness amount to little more than a few madcap ideas: building a giant wall against Mexican immigration, for instance, or turning himself into a one-man sales operation for all American industry. Angry voters don’t have time for details. They just want someone to share their frustration, even if that person is himself a grotesque example of a global elite that has grown richer as average American incomes stagnate. Trump was born rich, and has grown even richer outsourcing jobs to China and Mexico. But his supporters don’t care. On the contrary, as Trump repeatedly tells them, he’s got so much money he can’t be bought — unlike those politicians in Washington.
As a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele must have spent months wishing that the Trump phenomenon would die down. Last week he admitted that it was time to face facts: people are going to start voting soon. When asked if anyone could stop Trump, he said: ‘That window has closed and I think Donald Trump effectively closed it over the last couple of months… You tell me: who stops him and when do they do it? He’s polling anywhere from 33 to 36 per cent in every poll in the country… You think those percentages are just going to dissipate?’
In the next few weeks, America — and the world — will find out.