It was, in the end, the best possible night for Donald Trump. On Super Tuesday, 11 American states voted for Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. Trump won seven. That was enough to ensure he remains easily the frontrunner, but not enough to persuade his opponents to coalesce around one of his rivals. Had he won nine or ten, the Republican party might have fallen in behind the man in second place, Ted Cruz. As it turned out, Marco Rubio, the last establishment man standing, won one state, which has encouraged him to keep fighting. But Rubio’s reluctance to admit defeat means the anti-Trump vote will continue to fracture. His stubbornness is beginning to look like denial.
It’s time to face reality. Barring a dramatic and unprecedented reversal of fortune, Donald Trump is going to be the Republican candidate for the presidential election on 8 November. Which means that, by January, a fulminating demagogue with more than a whiff of the mad dictator about him could be in charge of the most powerful nation on earth. This says something disturbing about the state of America. The most benevolent superpower in history is turning nasty.
In Donald Trump’s America, greed isn’t just good — it is great. As he put it in his victory speech in Las Vegas last week, ‘We’re going to get greedy for the United States. We’re gonna grab and grab and grab. We’re gonna bring in so much money and so much everything. We’re going to Make America Great Again, I’m telling you folks.’ The crowd screamed.
In Donald Trump’s America, viciousness is beautiful. As he put it in another victory speech in South Carolina, ‘There’s nothing easy about running for president. It’s tough, it’s nasty, it’s mean, it’s vicious, it’s… beautiful.’
The Trump phenomenon seems too mad to be real. But it’s happening, folks, and it’s yuge. Pundits who dismiss Trump’s chances do so at their peril. In November, Donald Trump will almost certainly face Hillary Clinton, a woman who has not yet won a competitive major election and who is a perfect example of the fetid elite that American voters so detest. The odds are still against Trump. But then, a few months ago, he was a 50-1 shot to be the Republican nominee. Look at him now.
Trump’s critics compare his candidacy to that of Barry Goldwater in 1964, an insurgent campaign that wooed the radical right only then to be slaughtered by Lyndon B. Johnson, a machine Democrat. But the comparison misunderstands and undervalues Trump’s strengths. In his celebrity and ability to appeal to very different voters, Trump more resembles Ronald Reagan, a man who can remodel politics in his own image.
The depth and breadth of Trump’s appeal is endlessly surprising. He is more popular than other Republican candidates among men, women, whites, blacks, Hispanics, old, young, married and unmarried, evangelicals and non-evangelicals, those with college degrees and those without (‘I love the poorly educated,’ he said last week, a comment which prompted much chortling from the better educated). Trump has majority support among Republican voters who earn a lot of money and those who earn little, from self-described conservatives and moderates. As you might expect from someone who promises to build a wall to keep out Mexicans, he wins with people who worry most about immigration. But he also wins with those who cite the economy and terrorism as their chief concerns. In short, he wins a lot. Since the financial crash, and despite the so-called recovery, an ever larger number of Americans feel angry at the system. The Donald embodies their rage and multiplies it as in a hall of mirrors.
The consolation — and how people will cling to it in the coming weeks! — is that Trump probably won’t be president. According to the polls, a large majority of Americans hold an ‘unfavourable’ opinion of him. He may reflect the rage of Republican voters but no one in the history of the republic has been as reviled as Trump and reached the White House. Hillary should therefore win, because she is a bit less despicable. But when the good news is that the Clintons — a couple every bit as depraved as Trump in their way — are coming back to the White House, the world has a big problem.
Even if Trump loses in the end, his rise should be a cause of considerable alarm for those who believe in liberal democracy. Millions of American voters have made it clear that they don’t want a nice guy — or even a respectable one — in charge. Civility is for losers and outmoded establishment politicians. Former Governor Jeb Bush tried humility. He said he had ‘a servant’s heart’, and failed. Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon, appears to be self-effacing. He’s failing too.
The Republican electorate want an arrogant daddy-big-bucks instead. In Trump, they have found their man. Trump insulted most of his rivals into submission; candidates who haven’t been eviscerated by him have only survived by being as nasty as he is. Ted Cruz won in Iowa after his campaign spread a false rumour that Ben Carson had dropped out. Marco Rubio decided last week that he must try to compete with Trump in the rudeness stakes. He called Trump a ‘con artist’ and said he ‘should sue whoever did that to his face’. He insinuated that the Donald has a small penis. And then he lost, again.
What Rubio recognised (too late) was that Americans from all walks of life are attracted to Trump precisely because he is a rude thug. They want him to be their rude thug. As one Trump voter in Manchester, New Hampshire put it: ‘He’s a mobster, sure, but what’s the difference between a politician and a mobster? A politician is just a 25-cent mobster. Trump is the real deal.’
This postmodern attitude — Trump is good because he is bad — is more distressing than Trump himself. We might avoid a President Trump in 2017. But what about 2021 or 2028? If the seething rage of Middle America doesn’t abate, we could see an even bigger menace storm to power. Which is a scary thought.
It’s easy to forget that the relative peace and prosperity we have enjoyed since the second world war has been underpinned by America’s stability and its might, both economic and military. That might sound like neocon twaddle, but it’s true. America’s generous attitude to globalisation has helped us all become richer — the manufacturing boom in Asia and Latin America, for instance, came at the expense of American jobs, but America accepted it. While European governments have steadily slashed their armies to pieces, US military spending now makes up 73 per cent of Nato’s total spend. There’s no such thing as a free world, really. Uncle Sam always picks up the tab. As John F. Kennedy said: ‘The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it.’ Trump would say that sounds like a bum deal.
America’s sense of Manifest Destiny — the belief that the nation has been divinely appointed to redeem mankind — is always annoying and sometimes destructive. It has led to big mistakes in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. America can be hypocritical and self-righteous; but better that than not righteous at all. And when you think about how overbearing America could be, given all that power at her disposal, it’s remarkable how restrained she has been. America has always tried to do the right thing.
In return for this service to mankind, what thanks does the Indispensable Nation get? Europeans sneer at America’s patriotism, its gun laws, and the coarseness of its consumer culture. We titter at the stupidity of American Christians, while Islamic governments call the US the Great Satan. Can anyone blame the American lower middle classes, whose wages have stagnated while the world blossomed under Pax Americana, for feeling resentful? They feel America’s generosity has been exploited, and that with the rise of China and their failures in the Middle East, their country is losing. In Donald Trump, they have found someone who won’t let them be pushed around any more.
The term ‘fascist’ is overused, but it fits Trump nicely — and not just because on Sunday he retweeted a Mussolini quote and failed to distance himself from the Ku Klux Klan. Trump exhibits the major characteristics of the worst dictators. He prefers national socialism to free enterprise. His economic policies, in as much as they make any sense at all, are protectionist. Although he professes himself to be a Presbyterian, he’s practically amoral. He exudes machismo in a strangely camp manner. And he’s savage towards those who stand in his way.
A key aspect to Trump’s success is that he cuts through the pious baloney about America being ‘a shining city on a hill’. His foreign policy has nothing to do with being good. It’s all about winning, and being badass. He talks of ‘beating’ China, Mexico, Russia and Iran. ‘We’ll beat the shit out of Isis,’ he adds. Americans quite like that. Nobody cares that he can’t offer a coherent plan to bring down the Islamic State. He sounds tough: that’s all that matters.
To millions of voters, it’s a relief not to have to listen to a candidate who bangs on about America being ‘the watchman on the walls of freedom’. It’s also satisfying for Americans and others to watch Trump trample all over the corpse of the George W. Bush-era Republican party, which brought nothing but failed wars and financial crisis. In the build-up to the primary in South -Carolina, Trump turned on the Bush family for lying over Iraq. The kneejerk reaction on Fox News and conservative talk radio was to say that patriotic Republicans would not stomach such leftish talk. Wrong. Patriotic Republicans agreed with Trump and voted for him.
In place of the exhausted hypocrisy of the old elite, however, Trump offers only a sort of anti-morality. He brings nothing but narcissism and nihilism to America’s high table. His campaign is a great big joke — and dead serious. At his rallies, they play daft music on purpose. They put on Elton John’s Tiny Dancer and random bits of popular opera because it lends a certain unreal atmosphere. ‘Remember, the more inappropriate for a political event, the better,’ explained one of his volunteers. LOL! Young people smirk at the older rednecks in the crowd and hold ‘Make America Great Again’ signs upside down. Their support for Trump is anarchic; they enjoy watching the political order being turned on its head. Another word for it is decadence.
In many ways, the rise of Trump is a logical consequence of the Barack Obama presidency. In 2008, Obama was swept into power on a wave of demented hope. People talked about him as America’s saviour, a ‘post-racial’ figure who could heal the world. Inevitably, that led to disappointment. Like all political careers, Obama’s has ended in failure.
If Obama was the product of delusional optimism, Donald Trump is the opposite: an expression of exuberant negativity. He is the clearest sign yet that, after the crash and a non-recovery, the USA is losing interest in its civilising mission; that the American project is turning sour.
‘America is the most grandiose experiment the world has seen,’ said Sigmund Freud. ‘But, I am afraid, it is not going to be a success.’ For decades, that quote seemed to be an example of how great minds can talk rot. But the pathology of the Donald Trump movement suggests he might have been right.
Freddy Gray is deputy editor of The Spectator. Before that, he was literary editor of the American Conservative.