Is Donald Trump an idiot or a genius or a mad idiot genius? He seems driven by some demented force that even he doesn’t understand. What else made him come to Scotland on Friday last week? The ostensible reason, and probably the motive in Trump’s head, was that he wanted to reopen one of his golf courses. That’s weird enough in itself, given that he is the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, and in a few months could be leader of the free world. What’s he doing still jetting about promoting his businesses?
What’s even weirder is that The Donald landed on Brexit day, of all days. June 24, 2016 — the day the global markets freaked; the day that the poor and disgruntled, the same sort of people voting for Trump in America, told the political establishment to get stuffed; the day the world seemed turned upside-down. After a couple of bad weeks for his campaign at home, Trump’s entry into Brexit seemed to be exactly the sort of disruptive moment that he needed. It sent out a revolutionary message: the old order is collapsing, the angry populists are taking over.
Was Trump’s timing luck? Fate? Some mental PR ju-ju? Nobody knows. His presidential campaign is a mystery wrapped in an enigma inside a luxury golf and spa resort marked TRUMP. What’s certain is that Trump — being Trump — sensed his greatness in the hour. ‘I saw this happening,’ he said, modest as ever. ‘I could read what was happening… You’re going to see more of what happened last night.’
Asked if he saw similarities between Brexit and his campaign, he answered ‘I do,’ and gave the crowd one of his epic pouts. ‘I think I see a big parallel. I think people really see a big parallel. People want to take their country back… So, I think you’re going have this happen more and more. I really believe that, and I think it’s happening in the United States. It’s happening by the fact that I’ve done so well in the polls.’ Donald Trump has seen the future, and it’s Donald Trump.
What The Donald probably can’t see, because he wouldn’t want to, is that Brexit might actually be the perfect antidote to his politics. Trump and the Leave campaign do have striking similarities, but the differences are more interesting. Trump is a billionaire loudmouth outsider who has taken the American right by storm and proved that the establishment is disastrously out of touch with voters. The Leave campaign, by contrast, was a Tory party coup against David Cameron and Brussels. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove also took advantage of the fact that the establishment was disastrously out of touch with voters. But it was an inside job.
The Remainers grumble that, far from being a triumph for anti-politics, the Brexit result was a victory for the wrong elite. Look at Boris and Gove, they say, are they not the establishment? But the most fascinating thing about the EU referendum was that it could just be a victory both for the establishment and the people, assuming we are not all reduced to abject poverty (big assumption, I know). If our politicians can pull themselves together in the coming days (another big if), they can stop themselves falling victim to Trump syndrome.
Trump, like Ukip, feeds off a growing rage against the system. But the key point about Brexit is that it was no victory for Faragism. If the Out effort had been led by Ukip, it would have failed. The official Vote Leave campaign won because it tried, for the most part, to distance itself from Ukip’s paranoid nativism. Boris Johnson may have sounded at times like ‘Trump with a thesaurus’, as Nick Clegg put it, but he never really came close to doing a Donald. He didn’t say foreigners were raping people, for instance, or that David Cameron was a loser. On the contrary, he went out of his way to praise Cameron throughout the campaign. He was insincere, perhaps, but civil. The same cannot be said for Trump.
Of course, Vote Leave’s shrewd positioning only further enrages the pro-EU left. All that positive guff about Britain embracing the wider world, they say, was just a PC smokescreen which has allowed the hard right to take over. But that’s just another form of paranoia; the kind of conspiracy theory that goes down well at a drinks party in N1. The hard right is not taking over: Farage is actually less powerful now than he has been for a number of years; if the Conservative party is clever about Brexit — if it can be pro-European but anti-EU — the Ukip fox can be shot, which funnily enough was David Cameron’s idea when he called the referendum in the first place.
The sane British right should not delude itself, however. The Leave effort would not have won without its strong Ukippy element. That doesn’t meant the Brits are ‘turning racist’ — they are not — but it does mean that ever-larger numbers of people are feeling disenfranchised by remote politicians and shafted by inter-national financiers, and they are expressing themselves through the ballot. If the Labour party cannot reconnect with these voters, and the Conservatives cannot communicate with them, and nothing changes, would it be all that surprising if a populist zealot, someone worse even than the dreaded Trump, rose up? What’s needed now are Conservative politicians who can speak directly to people outside the Westminster bubble. Boris, in his better moments, can do that, which is why the polls suggested that voters trusted him twice as much as David Cameron to tell the truth when it came to Europe.
In this sense, Boris is like The Donald, who has the common touch. At Turnberry, he repeated himself so often that it started to sound as if he were malfunctioning. ‘What I like is that I love to see people take their country back,’ he said. ‘They’re tired of it. They want to take their countries back. …. The beautiful, beautiful, beautiful thing is your people have taken their country back, and there’s something very, very nice about that.’
It sounded stupid, as though Trump thought Brexit was a British U-rated version of Braveheart. But that’s half the trick. Trump knows or senses, just as Leave campaigners knew or sensed, that, the idea of taking back control is very powerful in these bewildering, fast-changing times.
It annoys politicians and most journalists, who like to think that they are in charge, but their irritation just makes the message more intoxicating to the masses. At Turnberry, the press pack shook their heads and called Trump rude names under their breath. But the locals warmed to him, and appreciated his many declarations of love for Scotland, which seemed somehow fake and heartfelt at the same time. The wizened Turnberry members, sitting in the front two rows, were disgusted when a show-off protestor interrupted proceedings by offering Trump a set of golf balls with swastikas on them. ‘G’away son,’ they said. ‘You’re embarrassing yerself.’
That’s the thing about populists — they’re popular. A new nationalist anger is thriving. It’s happening on left and right, up and down. The more the establishment sticks its fingers in its ears and shouts ‘la la la racism’, the nastier and more powerful the insurgent forces will become. Brexit is a strange historical accident, but perhaps it has given the Conservative party the fright it needed to survive. And the chance to avoid a fate worse than Donald.
Freddy Gray is The Spectator’s deputy editor.