US Elections: Missing the Leader

James Astill is the Washington bureau chief and Lexington columnist for The Economist. He is a contributor to Open
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The rise of Donald Trump is a sign of deep conflict and malaise in the Republican Party. Still, it is premature for Hillary Clinton to smile
As I write, Donald Trump is jetting down the spine of the Rocky Mountains aboard his ostentatiously monogrammed jet, an absurd flying signature of a plane, bound for Boulder, Colorado, and the third televised debate of the Republican primary campaign. It is amusing to picture him, kicking back on calfskin cushions, diet coke in hand, chuckling to himself as he gazes over the cloud-covered middle of America. He must be wondering as much as anyone at how it has fallen at his feet.

When Trump announced three months ago that he was standing for the Republican nomination, it was widely dismissed as a joke. Or, at least, as the sort of publicity stunt the billionaire real estate developer and reality television show star has been titillating America with for over two decades. Because if anything seemed predictable in this febrile, chaotic, perplexing Republican primary, it was that, as a pro-abortion, irreligious, Democrat, so far as anyone could surmise from his occasional political utterances, Trump could not win it.

In the decade since the Republicans last won a presidential election, the party has been tugged by a minority of noisy ideologies relentlessly towards the Utopian right—a place where taxes and the budget deficit can both be slashed and the guns that killed over 33,000 Americans last year are keeping people safe, including from the enemy within, the killjoy Democrats who want them off the streets. Most Republican voters are more moderate. Yet, as in any such internal party contest, because the extremists are most committed, they dominate the primary.

There are many reasons for this rightward lurch. They include the political polarisation that the complacent leadership of both main parties has allowed to build over decades. Even as each demonised the other, they gerrymandered the congressional district boundaries to the extent that four-fifths of districts now have no serious prospect of changing hands at an election. A frightened, angry repulse by social conservatives against growing secularism and gay rights is another reason for the lurch; so, too, is the disgust fiscal conservatives feel over a big expansion of the state under the ill-starred presidency of President George W Bush and in the bank bailouts occasioned by the financial crisis that followed soon after. Pre-Trump, these intemperate right wing politics were expected to make the primary a sort of purity contest, whose many participants—Trump is one of 16 rivals for the nomination—would be forever amplifying their professions of love for God, guns and private enterprise.

But, then, how do we account for Trump’s success? He arrived in Boulder as the clear leader of the Republican field, as he has been for three months, with currently around 30 per cent of primary voters favouring him. His closest challenger, Ben Carson, a genius neurosurgeon, who, like Trump, has no political experience, has a bit over 20 per cent of the vote. The rest are trailing. Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida, younger brother of George W, and son of President George H Bush, who many expected to breeze the primary, is on 7 per cent. Though not quite sunk, his campaign is fast taking in water. Last week Bush cut its payroll by 40 per cent, giving his staff the choice of working for less or elsewhere.

It will be interesting to see how many of them stick with Bush, an earnest, old-fashioned establishment conservative, utterly at odds with the iconoclastic American mood. A pre-debate gathering of the Bush clan in Texas, planned as a multi-million dollar fundraiser, turned into a crisis meeting, at which worried Bush retainers chuntered nervously about the need for a pick- up in the polls that hardly anyone seems to expect. The main reason for their man’s failure is Trump.

A populist of awesome temerity, ‘The Donald’, as his aides like him to be called, has sought to nullify his glaring disadvantages in this contest by three means. First, he panders shamelessly to whatever audience he finds before him. On immigration, he rouses the nativist Republican base with racist invectives against the Mexican immigrants upon whom America’s economy depends. He calls them spongers, rapists and murderers and vows to build a border fence to keep them out (which he would make Mexico pay for), and also to deport around 11 million undocumented immigrants. Yet in interviews with liberal journalists, Trump peddles a softer version of this fantasy: only some areas of the border need fencing, he suggests; only some of the undocumented must go.

On abortion, a front-line issue in America’s left-right culture war, he was for years a supporter of women’s right to choose: “I believe it is a personal decision that should be left to the women and their doctors,” he liked to say. Now, he claims to be passionately pro-life.

Manifestly irreligious, he tells the white Evangelicals who dominate the Southern Republican base that the bible is his favourite book: “You can’t beat the bible!” he says—but, alas, when challenged, Trump has proved unable to cite any verse of it.

On tax, trade and foreign policy, he has remade his position not once, but almost whenever he is quizzed on them. He wants to simplify the tax system, abolish income tax, or, maybe, to retain it as a flat tax. He wants to ignore the Islamic State, because he thinks China is a bigger threat to US interests; he also wants to send in American forces, at the expense of Middle Eastern countries, to beat up the Jihadists and grab whatever oil there is to be had. “I would knock the hell out of them but I’d put a ring around it and I’d take the oil for our country,” he says.

Sound crazy? Clearly, it is. Trump is not a serious candidate for any party. The problem is not only that his professed views are often objectionable. It is that, for professional purposes, Trump has no fixed views. He is a rank opportunist, making it up as he goes along.

He scarcely even denies the charge: he cannot. Instead, Trump offers his critics this rejoinder, which is the second plank in his strategy, articulable in the question: Then how come I am so rich? Trumpeting his personal success, on the one hand, then, on the other, comparing it favourably to the performance of the ‘incompetents’ he diagnoses at every level of the government is the conclusion to most of Trump’s incredible arguments. Want better trade terms with China or a new healthcare policy? Then trust the builder of Trump Towers, author of The Art of the Deal and presenter of The Apprentice: “I’ve made a lot of money, I mean A LOT of money, even I’m amazed by how much money I have.” Inheriting a slab of his father’s $200 million fortune helped, of course. In fact, had Trump, who has sought recourse in bankruptcy laws four times, put his inheritance into the Sensex instead of building mirrored-glass sky- scrapers bearing his name, he would have done just as well.

His third ploy, the one that has poleaxed Bush, the choice of the Republican establishment, is to rubbish his opponents. Trump insinuated that his only female opponent, Carly Fiorina, was ugly, for example: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”. This backfired, as Fiorina, who is principally known for the thousands of jobs she cut while serving as an unsuccessful boss of Hewlett Packard, briefly rallied irate women voters to her own flagging candidacy.

In his recent dog-whistling against Carson’s unusual Seventh Day Adventist faith—“I’m Presbyterian; boy, that’s down the middle of the road folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh Day Adventist, I don’t know about [that]”—Trump may have miscalculated once again. No one doubts Carson, who is leading in the crucial early state of Iowa, is a devout Christian. Yet every one of the barbs the Republican front-runner has thrown at Bush, his favourite target, has bitten deep, for reasons that are illustrative of both men’s prospects.

Trump derides the tall, ungainly latest scion of the Bush clan as being “low energy”; and he is. Bush is often caught wearing the anxious expression of a politician who would rather be anywhere but on the stump where he finds himself. And when Trump describes his rival’s fund raisers as a case of Bush running back to mom and pop, he again hits a nerve. Even establishment Republicans find the notion of dynastic politics distasteful and, increasingly bereft of his dignity, Bush is looking an especially bad advertisement for it. He is no Rahul Gandhi; coinciding with a strong economy, his two terms in Florida were in many ways successful. Yet Bush is a workaday candidate in an intemperate time, and Trump has made cruel sport of him.

That may turn out to be The Donald’s biggest mark on this contest, however. Because it still seems as likely as not that his extraordinary run will not last. His support makes no sense: Trump is leading among almost every segment of the Republican coalition, even those who should loathe him. No Evangelical Christian could take seriously his claimed religiosity. Indeed, when I recently watched Trump brandish a bible while addressing a hardcore Christian audience in Washington, a chorus of embarrassed titters rippled around the auditorium. The crowd was amused by his chutzpah, but semi-scandalised. It feared it might be a witness to heresy. Trump is box office, a celebrity entertainer whose conspicuousness gives him a big advantage in a crowded field. Further, his crude nativism, rudeness towards America’s reviled established politicians and the weakness of his rivals have prolonged his appeal. But he is not a serious candidate for president, and when Republicans are forced to choose one, it still seems likely they will elect a more plausible alternative. As Bush falls down the pecking-order, Marco Rubio, a 45-year-old senator from Florida, is currently rising. John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, is another, older and less obviously attractive, mainstream option.

That deduction is based partly on the Republicans’ past form for off-piste dalliances. Last time around, in the 2012 primary contest, Pizza king Hermann Cain, Tea Party queen Michelle Bachmann, and the adulterous Newt Gingrich all caught their eye before, reluctantly, they settled on the more marriageable Mitt Romney. But those who argue that this time will be different are at least half-right; because it already is. Trump has dominated the primary more than all of Romney’s rivals combined. In the process, he has done yet more damage to a Republican brand become toxic among the centrist voters the party needs to win a presidential poll. Even if he fails to secure the nomination, that damage will endure. For example, goaded by Trump, Bush and Rubio, both erstwhile proponents of sane and constructive immigration reform, have made their positions less tolerant and intelligible. For his part, Carson, who may well have a spell at the front of the pack if Trump fades soon, needs no help in being shunted to the margin. He recently suggested the Holocaust would not have happened had Nazi Germany had less restrictive gun laws.

This does not make a third successive win for the Democrats next year inevitable. It is still early days in America’s democratic tamasha. Moreover, Hillary Clinton, the expected Democratic nominee, has campaign problems of her own—especially concerning her peculiar use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. Rubio, against whom she might appear rather old and hide-bound, could present her with a serious test. All the same, the Republicans appear to be in bigger trouble. For now, America’s Grand Old Party is doing its utmost to avoid picking a presidential nominee capable of winning the White House. That is perplexing and moronic.