Lunatics with money are never 'mad', only eccentric. In America, they can also class as Republican presidential candidates. Hence Donald Trump – a barmy billionaire with a mouth bigger than his bank balance – is currently leading the race to be the party’s next nominee. It’s a sad indictment of the American political process. And it disguises how strong American conservatism could be if it only tried harder.
So far, more than a dozen major Republicans have declared their candidacy. Jeb Bush stands out for his establishment support, Scott Walker for his credentials as a conservative governor who took on the unions, Marco Rubio for his charisma and ethnicity… and so on. In a field so incredibly wide, however, polling points are spread thin. So Donald Trump has jumped to the top of the pack even though he only has around 18 per cent support – outpacing more serious, more experienced candidates largely because folks have heard of him.
Trump is famous as a businessman, a TV personality and for having a mess of improbable hair that looks like something laid down and died on his head. His politics is equally dubious. He has in the past been an independent, a Democrat, a donor to Hillary Clinton, a Tea Party maverick, a 'birther' who demanded to see President Obama’s birth certificate, and now an everyman who hates Chinese businessmen and illegal Mexican migrants. He launched his candidacy by saying that Mexico was sending its rapists across the border, and is now involved in a row as to whether a man sexually assaulting his wife ought to qualify as rape. Senator John McCain said that Trump had 'Fired up the crazies' with those remarks. Trump said that McCain was only considered a war hero because he was in a PoW camp. He added: 'I like people who weren’t captured.' For the record, Trump has never served in the armed forces.
Donald will probably fade away by the end of summer. Freak candidacies always emerge in the months before the first contests of Iowa and New Hampshire because the genuine candidates haven’t got things sewn up yet. Fans of American politics may recall that about this time in 2011 everyone was worrying that Congresswoman Michele Bachmann might be a goer. She was the unblinking lady who once said The Lion King was gay propaganda. But she fizzled away as they all do, because Republican voters are far more rational than these early poll numbers suggest. Presidential races always come down to two candidates: the well-financed, establishment moderate and the outsider conservative. And the moderate almost always wins quickly and easily. One notable exception to this rule was the Right-wing messiah Ronald Reagan. But even old Ron took three goes to get the nomination and was far more centrist than is generally remembered.
No, the Republicans aren’t as looney tunes as the press implies. This year’s sane candidates are already piling in on Trump, condemning his remarks about Mexicans and McCain and even demanding that he quit the race. In that same spirit, a few weeks ago the party responded to calls to remove the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina’s state house grounds with a surprising answer: they said 'take it down'. The party that since the 1960s had courted white, Southern, conservative voters by playing the Dixie card had – depending on your point of view – either surrendered to multiculturalism or embraced racial reconciliation. It is significant that the Republican governor of South Carolina is an Indian-American woman and its junior Senator is an African-American. Those two are the future of the conservative movement.
A Republican party distanced from politicians who label Mexicans rapists or gay people a threat to the American Way would be far more in tune with a country trending left on social issues. It would be well positioned to take on Clinton, who despite her seemingly inevitable nomination as a Democratic candidate remains unloved by a large proportion of Americans and vulnerable to attacks over her record as Secretary of State, and win the next year’s presidential election.
Moreover, the Grand Old Party’s more hawkish attitude to world affairs might be popular again. After a period of non-interventionism in foreign affairs, US voters increasingly want to re-engage. The scale of the recent Iran deal may have spooked them. Many are concerned about Obama’s disengagement from the Middle East; a bold recalibration of policy that conservatives fear has left Christians, Jews and moderate Muslims at the mercy of radical Islamists. At home, polling suggests that conservatives are in a narrow popular majority when they warn that the debt is too great, Obama has overspent and that healthcare reform is metastasizing into a long-term problem. All that disenchantment was expressed in the 2014 midterm elections, when the Republicans swept Congress in a shock landslide. Moreover, Obama’s time in office has done very little to transform the lives of the very poorest – as race riots have shown. Working-class blacks remain underemployed and over-imprisoned. The folks who have benefited the most from Obamanomics are the businessmen on Wall Street. Donald bloody Trump.
The problem is that these are all problems. The answers aren’t so obvious and the Right doesn’t even seem to be looking for them. American conservatives have become very good as articulating the anger of a dwindling demographic – the 18 per cent who nod without thinking when Trump speaks. But that fury has hardened into a policy-lite dogma that pushes the Republicans further away from the White House with each passing year. Consider this switch. Back in 2010, it looked like the British Tories had sold out to the Left to get in government while the Republicans were sticking true to their small government ideals. In 2015, it is now the Republicans who are desperately thrashing about looking for flags to lower and Mexicans to canvas because their reactionary politics has locked them out of power. David Cameron’s Tories, by contrast, are setting out on their most ambitious conservative reform agenda since the 1940s – enacting radical ideas that will help the poor to get into work and save taxpayers some money. Compromise with modernity could help the Republicans get conservative stuff done.
But we return to that old problem: what exactly would they do? Daniel McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative, writes that the size and loudness of the Republican field proves that no Right-wing ideological faction has produced ideas that are compelling enough to break through – 'which leaves room for an outsize, outrageous personality, in this case Trump, to grab attention.' He may be correct. At this stage in the contest good ideas are few and far between. But maybe some sense of direction could be gained by at least purging the bad ideas. Even if it can’t agree what it is for, the Republican Party might find unity in stating what it is against. Crushing Trump under the Right’s foot might be the beginning of the search for a decent, moral platform that appeals to everyone.