In his own way, he’s very New York—and not really a Republicanby Andrew Stuttaford / December 20, 2015 / Leave a comment
At a lunchtime meeting in Manhattan a month or so ago, a prominent member of America’s conservative commentariat—it wouldn’t be fair to name him—was invited to give his predictions for the 2016 election. He laughed and said that, as he had been forecasting the imminent bursting of the Trump bubble for months, he might not be the best person to ask.
But no one, not even, I suspect, the Donald, had expected that his campaign would do as well as it has. Within days of announcing his bid for the Republican nomination back in June, Trump was running at 11 per cent, sharing the top ranking with two senators. And that was just the beginning.
At the time of that lunch meeting, Trump was leading in the polls, followed by Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, in second place and Carly Fiorina, a businesswoman, in third. What these three had in common was that they had never held elective office, which, our speaker suggested, showed that Republicans were very unhappy with the politicians they had. And so they were. And so they are.
Trump’s genius lay in spotting one of the issues that made Republicans unhappiest—immigration—and making it his own. The reluctance of the Republican establishment to respond to the anxiety on the right—and not just the right—on this topic had opened up a gap in American politics. And in politics, if there’s a gap that is big enough, and promising enough, someone will come along to fill it. Trump, never previously known as an immigration hawk, swooped on the issue that, more than any other, has made his campaign what it is, basing a good portion of it on something that is easy to understand, if difficult to build: a wall along the southern border of the United States. Message sent. Message received. According to an August survey by Rasmussen Reports (admittedly a Republican-leaning polling group) some 70 per cent of likely Republican voters supported Trump’s wall, as, incidentally, did 51 per cent of all likely voters.
The Republican establishment only has itself to blame. It ignored the warning signals sent by the collapse of George W Bush’s proposed immigration legislation in 2007 (it was scuppered by a revolt on the right) and by the failure of an immigration reform plan cobbled together by a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators in 2013.
Read more on the US Presidential race:
US Presidential race 2016: The Republican Party has hit rock bottom
Why Donald Trump is not a joke
Hillary Clinton: the true outsider
Reasonable people can disagree over immigration, but it says something that none of the career politicians running for the Republican nomination had the sort of track record that immigration hardliners were looking for. Some of the candidates for the Republican nomination have since developed a tougher stance on immigration, not least Marco Rubio, the young senator from Florida, but they were never going to be enough to please a constituency riled by Trump and inclined to distrust anyone who is, like Rubio, from within the Beltway. The fact that Trump has taken more moderate positions on this question in the past hasn’t mattered. Outsiders get a pass, it seems.
Viewed in this context, proposing a “total and complete” and whatever else you might think about it, clearly unworkable ban on Muslims entering the US “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on” was good, if brass-knuckled, politics. It linked the immigration controversy to security concerns sharpened by the Paris killings and a pervasive sense of a government that is not up to the job. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 59 per cent of Republicans (and 36 per cent of Americans) would support such a ban.
So what now? With (considerable) effort Trump can be found a place within the existing American political taxonomy. In his own way, he’s very New York, so much so that it has been claimed that he would do better to run against Gotham’s unpopular mayor, Bill de Blasio. Stretch a bit—no a lot—and Trump can be seen as an uncontrolled, un-PC and rather less intelligent version of former mayor Bloomberg, another authoritarian billionaire with just a hint (in Trump’s case in his pre-presidential political musings) of an early 20th Century Progressive about him. Quite a few Republicans have complained that Trump is not really a Republican, and not without reason. But then again nor was Bloomberg, yet he won his first two mayoral elections under that label.
Yes, Trump is, as the late Lord Charteris would have put it, “vulgar, vulgar, vulgar”, a hard-edged huckster with more than a suspicion of the bully and the charlatan about him. But his brash, opulent and narcissistic excess, sprinkled with the stardust of show business, and the gold dust of however many billions he has (characteristically, it’s disputed) plays in America in a way still unthinkable in Britain.
If I had to guess (and a guess is all it is, believe me), Trump has reached some sort of peak in the polls: When the serious business of the primaries begins, his appeal will start to fade. What I don’t have to guess is that Hillary is already very pleased indeed.