At some point today, we will know whether Donald Trump really is on his way to the White House. And if he does emerge the Republican winner of the Iowa caucuses, is it because Americans are, as many folk on this side of the Atlantic think, weird? No, most Americans are thoroughly decent people but their society suffers from a deep malaise, as does ours.
A permanent story of American politics is of the outsiders versus the insiders, the upheavers against the establishment, the changers challenging the no-changers. Much of this is rooted in the American revolution, the overthrow of the British imperial establishment – a “tyranny” as it says in the Declaration of Independence which goes on to famously guarantee the people with “inalienable Rights … to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”.
The Declaration also says “that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government …”, adding that when there is a “long train of abuses and usurpations”, it is the people’s “right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security”.
The words of the Declaration, and the US constitution, are deeply ingrained in American thinking to such an extent that it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to think of a comparable historical document that informs our political thinking. Even though the Treaty or Act of Union is very much a live part of contemporary debate, or at least its consequences are, few could recite a single sentence or a phrase, from it.
In the US, in effect, every presidential election sees challengers accusing the incumbent individual or party of a “long train of abuses and usurpations” and telling people it is their “right, their duty, to throw off such Government”.
You might say that every election here is like that. Not to the degree of polarisation that has occurred in the US they aren’t. Even rich Republican right-wingers will see themselves as oppressed victims when the Democrats are in the White House. Moreover, as with all types of people the world over, such rich folks regard themselves as epitomising normalcy and thus, when they are “oppressed” (whatever that might mean to them), that the whole country is oppressed and needs liberating. Such a liberator has to be an outsider, and Donald Trump is the ultimate outsider. He is self-evidently not part of the Washington political elite of either left or right. As both elites, the left in the White House and the right in Congress, have been in charge for the last eight years, then these elites are to blame for “abuses and usurpations” and are to be “thrown off”.
Neither is he in hock to rich donors because he doesn’t need donations. If he gets elected, there will be no need to compromise and backtrack on any promise he makes just to appease powerful donors or donor lobbies – the nemesis of many a newly-elected president. His very wealth, which in Britain would make him a political non-starter, is a big political asset.
Personally, I can’t stand the man and abhor the politics he seems to stand for. But it has gradually dawned on me that what appears to be rank crassness – the proposed ban on Muslim immigrants is a particularly nasty example – may in fact be rather clever politics, in America at least.
A vast number of Americans, the memory of 9/11 being still vivid, are fearful of Islamic extremism so such a ban may make sense to them even though it offends much of what American liberty is supposed to stand for. His railings against Mexican immigrants, and threats to deport illegal immigrants, are complete nonsense, but appeal to those who think a surfeit of immigrants is why they haven’t got a job or their incomes are so low.
In these and other rantings, he is speaking to the base fears of millions of Americans right across the political spectrum and as such, at least for now, taking the votes of as many habitual Democrats as Republicans. And he is doing so in such a colourful (putting it mildly) way that he is getting vast amounts of free advertising. So obsessed have people become with learning the latest craziness to come out of his mouth that it is estimated he is getting half of the media mentions and coverage of all the Republican and Democrat candidates.
What’s more, far from the media coverage forcing him to moderate his message, he may be dragging some sections of the media towards his extremeness. Talk radio, where there ain’t no such thing as political correctness, have been losing advertising revenues and audiences, but remain powerful with about 50 million listeners.
But Trumpery is a big draw and the hosts have been ramping up the rhetoric on subjects like immigration. And when people hear their own prejudices, however absurd they might objectively be, being confirmed on these shows, or on the proliferation of social media websites, it also serves to confirm that Mr Trump is right and his opponents are liars.
None of what he says, however, will deal with why Americans feel unhappy. The problem is that the American model has stopped working for the vast majority of Americans. Research by the Economic Policy Institute, a think-tank, has shown that since about 1979, the real incomes of middle- and low-earners have pretty much stopped rising but those of high-earners have grown massively.
Income inequality is getting worse and worse. Between 2009 and 2012, one estimate contends that the top 1 per cent of earners gained 95 per cent of all income growth. For 99 per cent, in other words, the American dream of hard work leading to prosperity has died.
The same problem, only to a lesser degree, exists here, as do the quack medicine solutions – Scottish independence or quitting the EU. Their advocates are right only insofar as a radical change is needed. And I fear that for the US that while Mr Trump would bring radical change, it would increase rather than diminish existing “abuses and usurpations”.