EUAN McColm asks if politics can recover now the Republican candidate has shown how far you can get by stoking the incoherent rage and prejudice of ‘ordinary’ folk.
If liberal outrage was a useful political weapon, Donald Trump would have already retreated into the obscurity he so richly deserves to inhabit. His promise to build a wall on the US-Mexican border, his plan to ban Muslims from entering America, revelations about the shadier aspects of his business dealings – all of these would have played their part in ensuring that the Republican Party candidate in the forthcoming presidential election was stopped in his tracks.
Around the world, voters have thrown in their lot with non-politicians, candidates who present themselves as outside the mainstream
Instead, we’ve seen Trump move to within touching distance of the most powerful political position on the planet. Challengers for the Republican nomination – long-serving elected politicians with track records of service – have been swept aside by The Donald.
And every time we might have thought he’d blown it, he’s proven us wrong. People – or, at least, a very great number of them – lap up Trump’s hateful rhetoric. Finally! Someone who “tells it like it is” (by which I mean “who confirms people’s most deranged prejudices”).
But maybe the business tycoon and reality TV star has finally gone too far even for those who like their politics with a generous dollop of bile on top.
The Republican candidate’s response to an appearance at the Democratic National Convention of Khizr and Ghazala Khan – whose army captain son Humayun Khan was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2004 – was especially revolting. First, Trump suggested that Mrs Khan – who stood by her husband’s side as he spoke from the platform at the DNC – had remained because she had been ordered to do so. This, said Trump in a masterclass in weasel words, was only what other people had suggested.
Trump then attempted to draw some equivalence between the death in service of Captain Khan and his own past. The politician (how strange it still feels to think of him as such) said he had made huge sacrifices, such as creating jobs and building “great structures”.
It takes considerable imagination to see the construction of a gaudy hotel in the same terms as the loss of a son, but there you go: that’s Trump.
Trump has made considerable capital from demonising Muslims. We might, thee and me, with our comforting liberal values, have been appalled to hear him call for a ban on Muslims travelling to the States but we didn’t have a vote in the selection of the Republicans’ presidential candidate. A great many of those who did have a say were perfectly comfortable with Trump’s proposal.
But it is one thing to insult Muslims in front of conservative America and quite another to sneer at the parents, in their grief, of a war hero.
Having behaved dreadfully over the Khans’ intervention in the debate, Trump went to Virginia, where he picked a fight with a baby. Well, of course he did…
As Trump spoke at a rally, his speech was interrupted by the cries of a babe-in-arms. Initially, the candidate explained to the audience that he was delighted to hear the wee one. A healthy, noisy baby was a lovely thing.
But when the child piped up for a second time, Trump invited its mother to get it out of there.
It was excruciating to watch; even Trump’s most vociferous supporters must have wondered how to react. Politicians, after all, are supposed to kiss babies, not to chuck them out of events.
Having enjoyed poll leads in his race with the Democrats’ candidate, Hillary Clinton, for the White House, Trump saw his stock fall. Had he overstepped the mark, even in the eyes of the angry men who idolise him?
Perhaps even Trump, with his previously bullet-proof self-belief, reckoned he had.
The candidate announced that the election would “probably” be rigged. Powers unknown – you know, like the ones bampots on the internet tell us run the world – would probably see to it that Trump wasn’t elected. This sounds awfully like a desperate egomaniac getting his defence in early.
With some senior Republicans now declaring that they will not endorse him or even, in some cases, that they will vote for Clinton, Trump’s bubble may have burst. We should hope this is the case; the prospect of a Trump presidency is a terrifying one, indeed.
But even if Trump has blown it, the mark he has made on politics will take a long time to fade.
Around the world, voters in substantial numbers have thrown in their lot with non-politicians, candidates who present themselves as outside the mainstream, as standing with “ordinary” men and women against “the establishment”.
We’ve seen it here in the UK with the rise of the SNP and Ukip (and no, I am not saying that the SNP’s and Ukip’s policies are the same, I’m simply observing that both tell a story of a traditional political order that’s lost touch with people), and across Europe with successes for “radical” parties on both the left and right.
Trump has pushed the boundaries of what these outsiders may say and he’s got away with it. He has expressed a kind of incoherent rage (What are you rebelling against? What have you got?) that’s undoubtedly felt, especially in traditional working class communities where many people feel left behind.
As we’ve seen with the behaviour of some supporters of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, this anger often has a masculine profile. The angry, thwarted little man has found a voice to rage against all the progress, all the isms, that have made him feel powerless.
Only a reckless political commentator would write off Trump’s chances of becoming the next American president. We live in strange times and his victory, though depressing, would not be truly shocking. Politics – always a rough contact sport – is angrier and less concerned with facts than it was even a year ago.
But even if, as still seems likely, Donald Trump is defeated by Hillary Clinton, the politics he played his part in creating will abide. A monster formed of hatred, lies and bullying has been unleashed and it will not easily be brought back under control.