How is Donald Trump changing the American Right and what will this mean for conservative politics in the US, and for the world?
The more I pondered this question in the light of the Trump-Hillary Clinton debate this week, watched by 84 million Americans, the more I realised that Trump is much more effect than cause, mirroring changes in US society. Equally important, the US Left is changing and becoming just as radical as anything on offer from Trump, though it as yet has no national spokesman as bad-mannered as him.
This US election is complex and difficult to interpret. Although Trump and Clinton are the two most unpopular major party candidates ever to run for president, I’m not sure they aren’t a fairly good representation of modern politics.
Consider the wonderful weirdness of just one of the minor, albeit much publicised, controversies of the week.
One of Clinton’s most grievous charges against Trump was that he once called the 1996 winner of the Miss Universe pageant, Alicia Machado, Miss Piggy. According to Trump’s defenders — and I have no reason to believe anything good about him — Machado put on almost 30kg after she won the pageant and was generally uncooperative.
After the normal media psychobabble and celebrity melodrama, Trump and the pageant organisers apparently decided to “work with” Machado, help her lose some weight and keep her title. It’s all pretty tacky, of course, no doubt about it, but not exactly a crime against humanity, you wouldn’t think.
The very business of deciding to run for Miss Universe involves subjecting your body shape to some sort of scrutiny, I suppose.
Also this week, however, ageing pop star Madonna posted a photo of herself naked to join the Nude Vote for Hillary movement. She was following the example of Katy Perry, who posted a nude video of herself to encourage people to vote for Clinton. There are loads of photos of (a clothed) Perry with Clinton and Barack Obama. Perry, being Left-liberal, is thoroughly White House approved.
A cynic might think this was an exploitation of a woman’s sexuality to get cheap media attention. Imagine if Trump convinced a few Hollywood starlets to pose naked for him. The International Criminal Court surely would be convened. But Perry and Madonna flaunting their stuff for Clinton is hip, transgressive, daring, cool, above all offensive to some imagined middle-class morality, the repeated outrage of which is the true life’s calling of the contemporary leftist.
My deeper point is not the obvious double standard of the commentariat so much but this question: are these two incidents related? Could it be that both Right and Left in America are becoming not only more extreme, disconnected from their historical programs, but also a bit nuts?
Consider another straw in the wind. One of the most odious trends in recent American life has been for certain high-profile, very highly paid professional African American athletes to refuse to stand for the US national anthem, in protest against racism.
Obama, the avatar of identity politics whose presidency, far from healing American racially, seems to have exaggerated racial tensions, defends their constitutional right to do so. Yet nothing could be more offensive to mainstream America.
Australia imports all American trends, so naturally Anthony Mundine idiotically requests Aboriginal footballers to similarly boycott our national anthem at the weekend’s AFL and NRL grand finals.
Clinton, who in her own way is as polarising as Trump, buys into all of the reckless, destructive, deeply illiberal identity politics.
She declares, against all evidence, that the US justice and law enforcement systems are “riddled with racism” and that police, like the whole of society, suffers from “implicit bias” against non-whites.
This is an up-market version of identity politics demagoguery just as foolish, dangerous and intolerant as all the foolish, dangerous and intolerant things that Trump says.
You can have a chicken-and-egg argument about this, but it seems to me the modern Left begets the Trump Right.
If the Left becomes the new identity-politics Clinton and the Right becomes the new nativist, know-nothing Trump, America is in for some deeply unpleasant times.
A fascinating piece in the latest issue of that brilliant journal The American Interestcontains some rare straight reportage. David Blankenhorn, best described perhaps as a moderate conservative, had written pieces denouncing Trump. But he realised that among all his Washington Republican and Democratic friends he did not know a single person who supported Trump. Yet Trump’s support in the polls was within a couple of percentage points of Clinton.
So he did what a good reporter should do. He spent a few weeks driving through the American southeast talking to Trump voters. His resultant article is fascinating. Many Trump voters utterly detest Clinton. This is especially true in the case of white evangelicals.
Most Trump voters think their country’s politics is absolutely broken and needs shaking up by an outsider. Many are impressed that Trump is a successful businessman and knows something about money. Many are concerned by the size of their country’s debt.
The sample of voters was not scientifically chosen, of course, but here is something I would not quite have predicted. Almost every Trump voter Blankenhorn spoke to expressed regret, reservations, unhappiness with Trump’s sometimes foul mouth and needless insults. They were all polite people themselves.
In other words, they are voting for Trump despite his bad manners, not because of his bad manners. Yet Trump’s foul mouth and personal insults (which I find utterly offensive in a public figure, but then I don’t get to vote in American elections) have been such a strong feature of his persona throughout his entire candidacy that this seems to be a contradiction.
Perhaps it is just a paradox. Let me suggest this possible, partial explanation. Trump performed brilliantly well in the first 30 minutes of the television debate, then poorly in its last hour, allowing Clinton to distract him into extravagant defences of obscure episodes in his past.
Friends of the Trump family tell me that none of them ever believed The Donald’s candidacy would capture the nomination and become a serious shot at the presidency. It was conceived within the Trump family as a clever branding exercise by a gifted publicity seeker and manipulator.
Some moments of Trump’s campaign — such as some parts of the TV debate — have been so bad they remind me of the classic Mel Brooks comedy The Producers. In this splendid movie, a couple of corrupt theatre guys decide to defraud some gullible elderly investors by putting on a Broadway musical so terrible it will crash for sure.
They select the inimitably titled Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden — and then, to their horror, it is a wild success.
Something like this thesis is lent some credence by Trump’s apparent unwillingness to put a serious amount of his own money into his campaign.
In the end I reject this hyper-cynical interpretation. Trump is trying to win, and may yet win, though the odds must still favour Clinton.
But the rambling lack of focus from Trump in the second part of his debate with Clinton does reinforce one of his central messages: he is not an insider in Washington politics, while Clinton is the quintessential insider. In America, sadly and unfairly, everyone hates politicians, but not so many people hate billionaires, notwithstanding the growing inequality of wealth distribution.
So his supporters may genuinely not like his insults but those insults confirm his authenticity as a non-insider.
It’s easy to cite sociological factors that have helped give rise to Trump and undermined the traditional Right. The mainstream American Right embraced three traditions: free-market economics, strong defence and muscular international posture, and moderately conservative social values.
During the past 20 years, muscular internationalism, in the eyes of many voters, has resulted in equivocal entanglements such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
More important, the economy has been pretty stagnant for two decades and the benefits of the continued but slower economic growth have accrued disproportionately to the top third of society, especially those with four-year college degrees.
The decline of organised religion is the drying out of a central glue that held society together. The rise of Islamist terrorism and anti-Americanism, and the unwillingness of Centre-Left and some Centre-Right leaders, and above all the cultural mavens of Hollywood and New York, to discuss it directly and honestly, leaves people feeling deserted. Similarly the embrace of divisive identity politics by formerly sensible politicians such as Clinton alienates many mainstream Americans.
But here is the worst fault line: race. Clinton was propelled to her party’s nomination by poor blacks, who will vote for her overwhelmingly in November. Trump was propelled to the Republican nomination by poor whites, who will vote for him overwhelmingly.
Don’t ever write off America. But this is a badly divided society.