Donald Trump has made a whirlwind start to his presidency, acting much as he did on campaign. This has provoked predictable moral outrage from liberals across the globe. This leaves me with foreboding. It will not stop Mr Trump, or the political movement he represents.
As a Briton I feel a sense of deja-vu. It reminds me of 2010 when the Coalition government took power and launched an aggressive austerity programme, cutting many public sector jobs, benefits and grants to NGOs. There was moral outrage on the left. I remember screaming protestors at the Liberal Democrat conferences in Liverpool and Sheffield in the year that followed. The Lib Dems were particular victims: they were nearly wiped out at the subsequent General Election, and are only just starting to recover, thanks to the distraction of Brexit.
But all that fury came to nothing. The beneficiaries of the Lib Dem meltdown were their Conservative coalition partners, who gained a parliamentary majority as a result. This led to redoubled austerity and Brexit. The left’s response was then to move into even more extreme outrage, by selecting Jeremy Corbyn as Labour’s leader. This has only made the Tories look even more entrenched. For all its outrage the left has lost the argument amongst floating voters.
The left was convinced that the people were behind them in their anger. And, critically, they thought that they did not have to win over conservative floating voters. They dreamt of two things: attracting disillusioned Lib Dem voters; and getting people out to vote who had not voted before. Both strategies failed. Labour did manage to convert large numbers of Lib Dem voters – but in the process they weakened the party so much that many Lib Dem voters switched to the Tories to keep Labour out. And, anyway, since most Lib Dem seats were Conservative facing, weakening the party tended to benefit the Tories. And inasmuch as new voters were found, it was not Labour that benefited. Instead many disaffected voters turned out for the populism of Ukip, and then to vote for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. There is no army of left-wing non-voters waiting to be mobilised.
The hard lesson from this is that in politics passion cannot substitute for savvy. And it is no use just talking to people who agree with you already. That may boost your own feelings of self-confidence, but it will not help persuade the people who need persuading. Interestingly, this is not symmetric. The populist right have succeeded by stoking up anger, and loathing for “liberal elites” – and not attempting to persuade liberals. Such tactics in reverse are ineffective on the left.
I fear liberals in America are making the same mistake with Trump as the left did with the Coalition. Their outrage at Mr Trump’s actions is certainly justified. But to Mr Trump’s voters, many of them former Democrats, what he is doing must look like a breath of fresh air. A politician fulfilling campaign promises! Urgent action on trade and immigration! That there is a lot of outrage and not a little confusion will not concern them. On campaign Mr Trump was repeatedly outrageous, and that harmed his standing not at all. It doesn’t matter if liberals hate him.
And it will be hard for liberals to win the propaganda war. There will be successes for Trump. Look at how the motor companies are changing their tune about jobs in the US; and NATO countries are talking more about their defence budgets; the economy looks just fine. And failures can readily be blamed on the usual suspects. Likewise some distinctly questionable handling of conflicts of interest will arouse shrugs: people sort of knew that would happen when they voted for him.
The smart people in all this are the mainstream Republicans, who control both houses of Congress. They are keeping their heads down and taking the credit as much as they can. It is by no means clear that Mr Trump will last the course. He is old for a first-term president; he is not grounded in the ups and downs of politics; an implosion of some sort cannot be ruled out. But the Republicans, and especially with Vice President Mike Pence, will be there to pick up the pieces, and create a more sustainable version of the Mr Trump’s politics that will lock the liberals out of power.
You can’t, and shouldn’t, stop people being angry of course. But opposition also needs to do two things. First is to avoid personal attacks, on Mr Trump or his supporters. Jokes about the size of Mr trump’s hands, or accusations that those that voted for him were bigots or idiots, need to be toned down and reserved for private conversation. Second, which follows, is that the conversation needs to be about competence rather than morals. The Trump administration (unlike the Coalition, by and large) is astonishingly incompetent at actual policy, as opposed to messaging. To give this criticism credibility it means acknowledging the government’s successes when they occur.
Remember George W Bush. He was the target of a torrent of sneering attacks from liberals – but his power only grew. But when he appeared utterly incompetent in the face of Hurricane Katrina, and then Iraq,that’s when his popularity fell off a cliff. And yet his incompetence had been evident for years before that. I have read a similar account of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. Personal attacks did not harm him; scrutiny of his policies did.
So far, opposition to Mr Trump has failed these tests. The president’s executive orders have been badly drafted and are leading to muddle and injustice. But he is able to shrug all this off while liberals indulge in ill-directed anger. While liberals congratulate themselves on the size and noise of their protest marches, Mr Trump’s relationship with his base is intact.
What the left lacks is leadership, both here in Britain and in America. A liberal fightback can be successful. Demographics are in their favour. But they must rally around a clear and competent alternative. Alas none is in sight.