The method in Donald Trump’s madness

It is two months since my last post. This may be the longest period of silence since I started this blog in 2011. This is mainly because I have been consumed with the process of getting 39 local election candidates nominated for council elections here in Wandsworth, and all the attendent duties of being agent and local party Treasurer, officer and volunteer. Along with other duties as school governor and party officer at regional and, now, even Federal Party level. Plus the occasional bit of time off and some family care issues.

Meanwhile the newsletter section of the blog was subject to over 1,000 fake subscriptions consisting of Russian web addresses. This was only stopped by implementing Captcha, which was somewhat trickier (and more costly) than I expected. In any case, the oncoming election, and my senior role in one borough, has constrained my ability to comment as freely as I like this blog to be. And it isn’t over. The election itself happens in a week’s time. After that I have to prepare and submit 39 expense returns. All I will say on these elections for now is that I have been involved in local elections in Wandsworth for 32 years, and in that time they have proved a graveyard of predictions. I will comment when it is all over.

Meanwhile there has been plenty else going on. In Britain we have had a kerfuffle in Labour over antisemitism. And there has been the so-called “Windrush Scandal” in which the Home Office has hounded legal immigrants with incomplete paperwork. I want to comment on both in due course. And politics in America continues its sinister course, with the Trump administration subverting institutions of the Republican Party, the US Federal state, and the world’s trading and diplomatic architecture.

Which draws me to today’s topic. Looking back over the last two years it is striking how liberals and established politicians have consistently underestimated Donald Trump. It has been easy to dismiss him as stupid and immature. And yet he has proved wily and dogged and he has always ended up on top. His critics need to understand him better if they are to devise an effective counter.

The first thing to say about Mr Trump is that his intelligence is of a different type from that we are used to in our leaders. It is very right-brained. We have traditionally adored and respected the left-brained virtues of logic, computation, complicated language and rules. But the right brain handles values, emotions, context and seeing thing as a whole. A healthy mind keeps the two in constant dialogue. We see Mr Trump’s left-brain deficiencies as fatal flaws; and yet neglect of right-brained virtues by liberal intellectuals is just as serious a deficiency.

Now let’s be more specific. Mr Trump’s world consists of competing individuals and groups who win, or lose or strike bargains with each other. It’s a world divided between adversaries and trusted insiders. To the former you must be merciless; to the latter you must show and expect unquestioning loyalty. In this way of looking at the world, the liberal system of collaboration and shifting coalitions with its infinite shades of grey is simply weakness. There is an acute sense of victimhood: that honest Americans have been made monkeys of by outsiders who have outmanoeuvred the country’s establishment.

Another aspect of the Trump view is that rules are a means to an end, and should not be elevated to an end in themselves, as liberal intellectuals do when they set the rule of law on a pedestal. Liberals say that the rule of law protects the weak; but does it really? The Trump alternative is for people to be part of a group with strong mutual loyalty and leadership that focuses on results.

The problem for liberals is that the Trump view is very widely shared, especially amongst less-educated people, but, clearly, not just them. Liberals tend to worship institutions that favour educated people through an unseeing meritocracy. They then try to compensate for this by offering handouts to the less fortunate, which creates a patron-supplicant relationship that undermines human dignity. Many on the left, who rail against “austerity”, just don’t understand why so many poorer people hate state benefits.

A further problem for liberals is that Mr Trump’s methods will produce enough results to justify the faith his supporters are putting in him. The tax reforms in 2017 were a huge coup, whatever we my think of them objectively. The pressure he is putting on China, North Korea and Iran may well yield some short-term results. His approval ratings may not be good in comparison to other presidents a year into office, but they are not particularly bad in absolute terms; they may not suffer the sort of middle-term decay that those predecessors were subject to. And he knows how to rally the sceptical floating voters when he needs them, not least by casting doubt on his opponents.

So what could stop him? The pundits predict that the Republicans could lose their control of the House of Representatives in November, though the Senate looks more secure. That would limit his ability to pass legislation. And yet it will also give Mr Trump a scapegoat on which to blame his failures. Nobody knows how to milk victimhood like Mr Trump. It may even give him a chance to reshape the Republican Party into his instrument in time for the next round of elections in 2020.

A further problem for Mr Trump is a declining base. This base is core to the Trump phenomenon: it is the loyalty group that is central to his identity. It is white, working class and ageing. It will be impossible for Mr Trump to form such a strong bond with other voter groups, and these are growing faster than his base. But in the medium term Mr Trump can keep this threat at bay by suppressing it, through promoting scepticism and apathy, plus changing electoral rules through things such as voter ID. In the longer term Mr Trump bumps into term limits and old age. But he can do a lot of damage before then.

I think there are two more important threats to Mr Trump, because these concern his base. The first is trade policy. Mr Trump’s narrative on trade is very appealing, but if he follows through by starting trade wars it will threaten the working class jobs of exporters. In the Trump narrative, of course, many more workers will benefit. But in the short term these benefits will be much harder to see. Midwestern farmers, who have been strong supporters, are already starting to wonder. Still, Mr Trump loves brinkmanship, and he may well feel he can strike bargains and claim victories before any serious damage is done.

The second problem is health insurance. One of the driving themes of Mr Trump’s presidency is to dismantle anything his predecessor, Barack Obama, put in place. Mr Obama’s crowning achievement was his health insurance system, and Mr Trump is desperate to dismantle it. And yet Obamacare tackles a genuine working-class problem of basic healthcare becoming unaffordable. Abolishing it would cause anger and hardship. Replacing it is the sort of massively complex enterprise that the Trump White House is incapable of. And, unlike tax reform, there is nothing like a Republican consensus on what any replacement regime should look like. Mr Trump will try to blame the Democrats as Obamacare gradually breaks down through neglect – but for once this line of attack will be hard to sustain.

So Mr Trump’s revolution may fail. But liberals, and not just in the US, would do well to ponder how to broaden their appeal so that they are not so vulnerable to right-brained populists like Mr Trump.

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