The pitch.

Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say China in a trade deal?

I beat China all the time. All the time.

Republican and US Presidential front-runner Donald Trump

When is Donald Trump going to stop embarrassing his friends, let alone the whole country?

Rupert Murdoch 18 July 2015

London elites, media, etc sneering at Trump, others. No understanding of mid-America conditions or politics.

Rupert Murdoch four months later

Mr. Trump, in 1999, you said you were, quote, “very pro-choice.” Even supporting partial-birth abortion. You favored an assault weapons ban as well. In 2004, you said in most cases you identified as a Democrat. Even in this campaign, your critics say you often sound more like a Democrat than a Republican, calling several of your opponents on the stage things like clowns and puppets.

When did you actually become a Republican?

Megyn Kelly at the Fox debate

It might seem to be similar. Like UK Labour, the US Republicans are now stuck with a front runner they don’t want and have been trying to get rid of.

But there the similarities end.

Corbyn’s election is about little more than the implosion of Labour, sucking all the left back in it as it does so, proving rats can return to the sinking ship. But the Republican party is a different beast. While Labour is grappling with little more than itself, the Republicans are dealing with something much more serious – US decline.

Trump’s pitch is fairly straightforward. US politicians are incompetent and in the pay of vested interests. As a self-funding successful billionaire he can make the deals that Washington can’t and will bring jobs back.

While this might assume a certain naivety over how the US state operates, and even greater naivety about how his business does, in itself it’s not that distinctive for a Republican front runner. Despite the histrionics, most of his polices are fairly moderate among the Republican candidates (on economics probably the most), and he is hardly the first Republican to stand up and attack the political class in Washington. But the disruption of Trump comes less from what he is saying but the febrile state of the Republicans, and the entire political class to which he is saying it.

The situation of the Republicans today can be traced back to the Nixon years and the subtle switching of place between the Republicans and Democrats that happened at the time, both domestically and internationally.

With the previous Democrat administration forced to dismantle the overt signs of segregation, under pressure from home and abroad, it undermined their historic grip on the South and allowed the Republicans to begin to make inroads for the first time since the Civil War. It allowed Nixon to construct a new constituency, his “silent majority” that underpinned his sweeping victory in 1972.

Internationally, this changeover in the South was also marked by a more interventionist Republican stance overseas, in marked contrast to the largely isolationist position against the “Democrats wars” of the first half of the 20th century. This strategy was to reach its apogee during the Reagan years when the Republicans’ revived Cold War coincided with them consolidating their grip on the South.

But there were weaknesses in the strategy. The first was that the US was in decline and the assertiveness of the Republicans on the world stage ended with the Cold War. It is why, excluding the one handed to them on a plate by the Supreme Court in 2000, the Republicans have only won one Presidential election since, the 2004 election in the midst of that faux Cold War on Terror after 9/11.

The problem was that while militarising the international situation supported US leadership, it was increasingly finding itself isolated as it did so. Reagan’s Cold War, the Gulf War, and finally, the Iraq war, saw the international coalition behind the US increasingly falling away, until by the end the Iraq was little more than the UK and a few middle-ranking states like Australia – leaving GW Bush to make a virtue of unilateralism.

But withdrawing has its problems too. In contrast to the British when they were a world power, the US’s political pre-eminence is declining faster than its economic strength. There has been no more damning sign of US decline, highlighted in the Republican race, and hinted in the Democrat one, of a barbaric rag-tag army like ISIS running amok in a region that any world power worth its name was supposed to be able to control.

Whether Clinton or a Republican takes the White House, it is inevitable the US will be more assertive again, but the basis for it looks increasingly uncertain. It was noticeable that Turnbull, leading a Coalition normally more comfortable with a hawkish White House, didn’t contact the two most hawkish Republican front runners on his first visit. This is at least not as tactless as eight years ago when Howard was so upset at the present incumbent’s intention to scale back the military presence that he called Obama “the preferred choice of Al Qaeda”. Now it seems the Coalition is becoming uncomfortable at US foreign policy swinging too much the other way.

But if a more assertive international stance is disruptive, what makes Trump especially so is what he is doing to the Republicans’ domestic arrangements.

The Nixon coalition straddled the wealthier segments of US society and some of its poorer states. If Nixon’s majority was “silent”, they stayed that way. The Republicans really had nothing much to offer than aggressive foreign policy and a few winks on race and “white flight” that became close to being explicit with the notorious Willie Horton campaign of 1988. It was a coalition that was vulnerable to being eaten away once the Cold War ended. Clinton was especially effective at capturing the ‘Bubba’ vote in the South in the aftermath.

The coalition began falling further apart after the disappointment of the Bush years with the rise of the Tea Party. But the nature of it was obscured.

A feature of anti-politics that often confuses politicos is that it can emerge around an issue or an agenda that is taken at face value, rather than seeing what lies behind it.

For example, leftists in Europe saw the coming to power of Syriza in Greece a year ago as a radicalisation of society against austerity rather more the disowning of the past political order it really was. So they were taken by surprise with the ease with which Syriza could do U-turns on the program several times during the year, and be equally surprised how it could stay in power regardless, as long as there was no going back to the parties of the past. Similarly, the left rushed up to Scotland to join the socialist revolution after the Scottish referendum, again missing the anti-Westminster sentiment behind the No vote.

Similarly for the US right, it saw the Tea Party being mainly about the conservative agenda rather than the more important anti-Establishment agenda behind it – just as the Australian right saw Abbott’s victory in 2013 as a vindication of his agenda rather than a reaction to the chaos of Labor.

If anything, while the Tea Party’s conservatism was a headache for the Republican leadership, it was the glue that held the party together, since the main claim of the conservatives was that the leadership was not Republican enough. Trump has blown that apart.

While the evangelical (and generally more middle class) section of the Tea Party has stayed, the incoherence of Trump’s political agenda, borrowing bits from the left and the right has seen him cut swathes through the south and east which were brought into the fold under Nixon and consolidated during the 1980s as the Reagan Democrats. It is the south especially, which makes up nearly half of traditional tea party supporters where Trump has had the biggest gains.

So the real dynamic in this candidate race is not between Trump and the Republican Establishment, but between Trump and the conservative leadership of the Tea Party over an overlapping audience. This has been a running theme throughout the race but is only coming fully to the surface now.

It was nevertheless clearly evident in the first leadership debate hosted by Fox, the watchdog of Tea Party orthodoxy, when the panel set out to destroy Trump candidacy: first by drawing him out as willing to run against the Republicans should he not get the nomination, then attacking him from the right over his previous closeness to the Clintons and support for abortion, single payer healthcare and gun control, and then turning to the left, attacking him over his attitude to women, all with not much effect.

It is Trump’s ability to blow the ideological cover of the rebellion against the Republican leadership, and the need to keep this together that has necessitated Cruz staying close to Trump as long as he could, when on policy he should have been the least likely. That came to an end in the last debate they both attended, when the two fell out. What was telling was the mistake Cruz made over “New York values” – a dig in a language that made perfect sense inside conservative circles but of course left it open for Trump to bring up what it means for many others, the city’s indomitable response to 9/11.

Since then it has become open warfare both with Fox and with all the candidates now openly doubting Trump’s conservative credentials, just as Murdoch’s Fox team tried in the first debate. A good example is this effort from what was supposed to be the Establishment’s mainstream choice, Jeb Bush.

But it looks too late to stick things back together. At the moment it would seem the only way it could happen would be for the Republican establishment to eventually move towards Trump and paper over the differences. This might not be easy for the Republican leadership given those differences, unlike with the Tea Party, are not about ideology but about them.

If Trump does get the nomination, then it leaves the other question whether he could win the Presidency. One of the other confusions of anti-politics is to too much read the fractures that are primarily within the political system into what is happening in society as a whole.

What we are talking about here is how US decline is eroding the coalition that held the Republican Party together for the last 40 years. Trump’s success in exploiting that breakdown may not translate to the electorate at large, where it would be expected normal rules of governance would still apply.

But there are some warning signs that are evident in the political culture more broadly. The first is the extent to which political commentary is increasingly defined in an irrational way against Trump that often obscures not only what Trump is saying, but what they are as well.

Take for example, Trump’s proposal for a temporary ban on Muslims until “we know what’s going on”. It set off an online petition and one of those delightful exercises in British political hypocrisy of MPs debating banning Trump as though they actually would.

Calling for a ban on someone entering a country because of their religious faith is obviously nonsense. But it is hard to see the moral ground that is supposed to exist between calling for a temporary blanket ban on Muslims, and a permanent ban even on Muslims to be rescued from the Syrian hell-hole as advocated by Cruz, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, and our own fabulous Prime Minister.

In fact the whole discussion of this most urgent case of people to be brought into the US and Europe has been riddled with consideration, and concern, over their Muslim faith. This has especially been the case after the attacks in Cologne which has been used even by leftish commentators to make a verdict on the Muslim faith and sexism – unsurprising given the left’s aggressive turn to behavioural policing over the last two decades. This can lead into knots, as Cologne showed, where the commentary didn’t know whether to be more concerned about the sexist behaviour of Muslims, or the racist behaviour of everyone else if they pointed it out. Posturing about Trump may be a way of getting out of that difficulty in their heads, even if it looks like hypocrisy to everyone else.

This leads to the second biggest danger for the Democrats and the political commentary more generally – namely the contempt that is being openly expressed towards Trump’s supporters. This is not just the view that they are dumb, which has more to do with the ignorance of the commentary than the supporters. It was a contempt neatly summed up by the US Huffington Post, which had such a poor grasp of US politics that it could pompously assign Trump to the entertainment pages, then realising their disastrous mistake, just as pompously scream that he was fascist a few months later.

It also comes from an instinctive view of what Trump has represented in the Republican party that could potentially have broader implications. It is why Trump has been singled out as far more concerning than those to his right like Ted Cruz who wants to see the Syrian desert “glow”.

It’s not so much Trump’s policies, but the ‘populism’ that makes him seem especially dangerous to some, because he could unleash forces that could see the “silent” push back into a political discourse they have been excluded from. A more sophisticated way of managing this has been to call his supporters angry, as Trump himself does. But is that what’s decisive now? If they’re angry at, say, stagnant real wages, they’ve had 40 years to be so. Perhaps rather than angry, a better word for what is new might be “assertive”. Now that’s something else.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 1 February 2016.

Filed under International relations

Tags: , ,


6 responses to “The confusions of anti-politics: US edition”

  1. Sam Roggeveen on 2nd February 2016 7:33 am

    Thanks Shrike, thoughtful as always. A few questions:

    “… the US was in decline and the assertiveness of the Republicans on the world stage ended with the Cold War.”

    So you date US decline from the end of the Cold War? Why? There’s an argument that in purely economic terms, the US has been in relative decline since the end of WW2, since Europe and then Asia grew much faster and took a greater share of global GDP. But in strategic terms, the conventional view is that relative US power peaked in the early post-Cold War years because its communist rivals dissolved, and that this period has now ended (the exact date is uncertain) with the rise of China as a strategic power. So why date US decline from the end of the Cold War?

    “The problem was that while militarising the international situation supported US leadership, it was increasingly finding itself isolated as it did so. Reagan’s Cold War, the Gulf War, and finally, the Iraq war, saw the international coalition behind the US increasingly falling away, until by the end the Iraq was little more than the UK and a few middle-ranking states like Australia – leaving GW Bush to make a virtue of unilateralism.”

    I’m not sure about ‘increasingly’. The US engaged in a number of unilateral or near-unilateral military interventions during the Cold War too: Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, various Central American coups, the backing of the Afghan Mujahedeen etc. And the US global alliance structure is pretty much undiminished from Cold War years.

    “There has been no more damning sign of US decline, highlighted in the Republican race, and hinted in the Democrat one, of a barbaric rag-tag army like ISIS running amok in a region that any world power worth its name was supposed to be able to control.”

    What about that barbaric rag-tag army known as the Viet Cong? Did American defeat at their hands presage American decline, or merely reflect the timeless truth that great powers struggle to overcome asymmetric opposition? I’m not dismissing the idea of US decline, but I question whether ISIS is a sign of it. Better to look in the South China Sea for that.

    “Whether Clinton or a Republican takes the White House, it is inevitable the US will be more assertive again”

    If Clinton wins, or any Republican but Trump, I suspect you will be right. But Trump is not much of a foreign interventionist, is he? Isn’t that part of his anti-establishment appeal?

  2. Luke on 8th February 2016 10:32 pm

    Perhaps given the recent rise of Bernie Sanders against the apparent ‘inevitability’ of a Clinton nomination, it would be better to re-evaluate the idea that the US will be more assertive – militarily – in the next administration.

  3. Oldskool on 9th February 2016 11:56 am

    This is the second look at ‘Anti Politics’ campaigns one talking about Corbyn (and Trump) and this one about Trump (and Corbyn), but no mention of Sanders…

  4. The Piping Shrike on 10th February 2016 12:29 am

    Just coming back on a few things. (Apologies Sam for taking so long to reply).

    On the issue of decline, I think it’s difficult to see it separate from the system as a whole.

    So on the economic side of US decline, the historical tragedy (if you like) of US dominance is that it occurred at a time when the international system was at its weakest after World War II. So the US may have been relatively dominant, but it effectively had to rebuild its own trading partners. So it is hard to talk of economic dominance separate from the global system it was operating in.

    Similarly I think in political terms, it may have stood alone as the only superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union (but given the real state of the SU, it long had been), but the end of the Cold War saw the end of the political framework that its dominance had been asserted over the West as well.

    The crucial thing of the Cold War was that it gave a framework both internationally, but could also be used internally by Western governments, so it gave it cohesion. After its end it was hard to recover that framework. I see the first Gulf War of 1990-91 being about trying to recapture that alliance, and the 2003 Iraq war trying a similar thing, but with much less success.

    In this context, to answer your second point, I would see the alliance building emphasis of the two Iraq wars being of a different nature than the more unilateralist Cold War interventions in Nicaragua, Panama etc.

    I think the Viet Cong was a major blow to US prestige, and I would not argue against say the 1968 Tet offensive being a starting point of decline, although Reagan did recover somewhat with the Second Cold War.

    However, I see a qualitatively different importance for the Middle East. The reason why the two Gulf Wars were more alliance building is the crucial strategic role played by the Middle East in global politics compared to say Indo China. After the US loss, Vietnam could be contained and isolated (with the help of China) but I think is much harder to do in the Middle East.

    It is why the Republicans keep gnawing at this bone through the current race. Trump was critical of the Iraq War, but mainly of its incompetence. His promised “dealing” with foreign powers looks very interventionist, and certainly his talk of ISIS sounds like he will be in the ME. Some would say it’s the oil, but that’s more a historical factor, it has a left a political legacy of importance that has a life of its own – much to the misfortune of people in that region.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 10th February 2016 1:12 am

    On Bernie Sanders, I see there more similarities to Corbyn, as although against “traditional politics”, his response is very political in itself (almost pure politics). The confusions over Trump are of a different order.

  6. jeff holland on 17th February 2016 11:29 am

    Is Billy Joels Allentown the theme song for the election?

    The comments on songs like this always say a lot of what people are feeling and thinking.

Comments are closed.