I am writing on the morning that President Obama is to deliver his last State of the Union address. You, reader, therefore know what he has said. I can only guess. ‘We have come so far… yet there remains so much to do.’ Did I get it right?
Yet ‘much to do’ only mildly describes the staggering array of crises that President Obama will bequeath his successor. Abroad: a crisis in the Chinese economy that is plunging into depression commodity exporters from Brazil to Brunei… a third war in Iraq, this time fought in undeclared association with Russia and Iran… a wave of refugees into Europe that threatens to smash apart the world’s largest economic union. At home: the typical American family is earning $4,000 a year less than in 2007 and unemployment is dropping partly because of a statistical illusion (the percentage of working-age men who are even looking for work has dropped to the lowest level ever recorded)… the wealth gap between black and white families has widened to an extreme not seen since the beginning of the civil rights era… even as a burst of drug and suicide mortality has reduced the life expectancy of non-college-educated whites — something that did not happen even during the Great Depression.
Under these grim circumstances, you’d think that the ‘out’ party — the Republican party — would be poised for victory. Instead, it is tearing itself apart. More than two thirds of Republicans tell pollsters they will never support Donald Trump. But like Greek city states warring as Philip of Macedon poised to pounce, the two thirds remains split between a fistful of conventionally credentialled politicians. A month before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, the Republican field remains dominated by a bombastic, populist, nationalist billionaire.
You can read my data-dense long-form explanation of how all this happened in the January issue of the Atlantic. But data isn’t everything. We feel events as well as think them. So: some feelings. For almost a decade now, I’ve been warning in every forum available to me that the US Republican party was turning its back on its middle-class voting base, that its policies were veering toward cultural reaction and economic exclusion. That kind of talk had some personal consequences, both for me and for those who now must carefully say, ‘Look, I’m no David Frum, but…’ before repeating some argument I made in 2010. I won’t recapitulate the whole story here: I put some of it in a 2012 novel, Patriots, and the rest I’ll save for the memoirs, if there are any.
The events of 2015 have horribly confirmed all those warnings, as Donald Trump chomps down one respectable Republican candidate after another, like a political version of Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring his Sons’. Scott Walker? Gulp. Chris Christie? Belch. Jeb Bush? Only the little feet still protrude, angrily waving from inside the gullet. And Marco Rubio? ‘I’ll eat thee last of all thy friends.’
I’m not here to say ‘I told you so.’ The situation is too serious for that — and after all, I’ve been wrong often enough myself. Who hasn’t? The point of all this political analysis shouldn’t be to score points in some self-congratulations sweepstakes. It’s to help save the American centre-right from its own demons.
The day after the State of the Union, I’ll take the train to New York to debate opposite David Miliband at the IQ Squared Series. The motion: ‘The United States should accept 100,000 Syrian refugees.’ When the debate was planned, sceptics of the mass resettlement of Middle-Easterners in the West were taunted by President Obama as ‘scared of widows and orphans’. A few weeks later, the government of Germany has been rocked by mass co-ordinated sex assaults by migrants and refugees on German women in Cologne and other cities.
The first response of the authorities was, of course, to suppress accurate information about what had happened. It was like Rotherham, only in full view of thousands of people in the centre of one of Europe’s greatest cities.
Only this time… the suppression didn’t work. The truth, or some of it, came into the light at last. Past evasions have served nobody — except of course the Trumps and the Front National and all the other extremist groups that have flourished because more responsible leaders have ignored or denied urgent voter concerns.
Will those responsible leaders now at last step up? Their weakness puts at risk not merely their own ambitions, but the whole political system.
My wife and I have recently embarked on a house renovation, confirming the perverse rule that middle-aged people make their dwellings larger as their children move out. Visitors gaze at the construction zone and wonder: ‘When will this mess ever be finished?’ When work began last summer, I answered with a joke: ‘Just in time for the Trump inaugural.’ The quip was not that funny then, and it gets less funny with every passing week.