Let me vouch for Roger Franklin’s predictive power. We spoke two days before the US elections over the phone, and he forecast that Donald Trump would win handily. His article in this issue, which recounts his journey up the East Coast of the US in the final stages of the campaign, suggests that he was not so much forecasting as observing a surge of popular opinion likely to produce a Trump victory.
Other reporters saw the same signs but failed to make the same prediction. Among the very few who called it right was Quadrant’s own favourite US elections expert, Henry Olsen. Most observers saw that all the late polls had Hillary Clinton ahead by around four points, and concluded that a topsy-turvy race was veering back to a straightforward victory for the establishment’s favourite. Those who differed did so because either, like Roger, they felt the nation’s pulse in person or, like Henry, could see potential surprises in the tea-leaves such as “shy Trumpers” who had misled pollsters.
My own record is mixed. Until halfway through the primaries, I thought Trump had hit on the winning issue of immigration control by accident but had little chance of actually winning himself. By the time he was nominated, it was clear he had both the popular issues and the showman qualities for an upset victory. But chance and his own failings kept getting in the way—he threw away the first (and most important) debate with a rambling defensive performance; videotapes of his vulgar sexual boasting surfaced; and he claimed, then retracted the claim, that the elections would be “rigged”.
He would have been toast against any rival candidate other than Hillary Clinton who, in addition to giving the impression of a Madame Tussauds waxwork on wheels, suffered massive damage from her use of a private internet server that violated national security rules—of which the public was reminded daily by the leak, leak, leak of her private e-mails. For a long stretch the election became a contest between her leaks and his scandals or, in my favourite metaphor, a “fixed fight” in which the Mob has blundered and bribed both pugilists to take a fall.
But that raises a question for the days after the election: did Trump win? Or did Hillary lose? My rough judgment is that she lost more than he won. The evidence of polls, which may not be conclusive, is that almost any other Republican would have defeated Hillary still more heavily than Trump did. After all, most GOP candidates lower down the ticket ran ahead of him. And she was undoubtedly a bad candidate, stiff, awkward, dull, appealing to a narrow constituency, and damaged by scandals.
Above all, as I argued in a recent article in the Australian, she was the personification of the current politically correct, progressive, social democratic globalist, multicultural, post-American regime—which over-regulates lives, devalues citizenship, inverts traditional mores, arbitrarily refuses to enforce laws, criminalises discrimination (but also divides its citizens into groups with different rights), transfers power to global bodies, and maintains a constant barrage of hectoring moral propaganda on everything from obesity to suburban development. Her rejection was therefore a defeat—a narrow defeat in a narrowly divided America—for the politics of progressivism. It was also a defeat, as several commentators have suggested, for Obamaism without the protective carapace of Obama’s personal charm.
But though other Republicans might have won this election by the same or larger margins, Trump actually won it in a very different way. He won over a large slice of the electorate that had been neglected (and worse) by both parties. Media commentary has largely defined this group as “the white working class”, but it’s larger than that and it blends into other classes and other ethnic groups. Its members might best be described as the “invisible victims” of the social intervention rooted in identity politics—high and uncontrolled immigration, affirmative action, bilingualism, multiculturalism, gender quotas—that has been progressively imposed since the end of the Cold War. By a malign coincidence they are also among the victims of the “hollowing out” of US industry in the Rust Belt. So they’re the people who, if they lose jobs, find it harder than other people to get new ones.
Trump won these voters wholesale with a combination of nationalism and protectionism, and he did so without losing minority voters. In fact, he marginally improved the Republican share of African-American and Hispanic voters. His largest offsetting loss was of upscale white voters with degrees (I hesitate to describe them as “more educated”) who usually vote Republican but went elsewhere this time—most to the libertarian candidate.
Now, as President Obama says, elections have consequences. Consider the post-election strength of the Republican Party: it controls the US presidency, both houses of the US Congress, thirty-three governorships, and sixty-nine of ninety-nine state legislative houses, giving the party full ownership of government in half the states. Newly-elected President Trump will nominate a new candidate for the Supreme Court vacancy which will restore a shaky five-to-four conservative majority in the court. If more Justices retire (or die) in the next four years, as seems likely, he will add to that majority.
The GOP’s electoral landscape is also much more encouraging now. The bloc of northern “working-class whites”, including union voters, who were once the mainstay of the Democrats, are now solidly in a new expanded Republican coalition. Unless they are severely disappointed by President Trump, they are likely to stay there. Whites with degrees are similarly likely to return to the GOP in large numbers as the presidency gives Trump greater respectability. And if Trump pursues anything like a sensible immigration policy—one that reduces the overall level of immigration, both legal and illegal, while altering its composition away from “family reunification” to skills and replacing multiculturalism with patriotic assimilation—it will gradually slow down, halt and reverse the electoral balkanisation that has helped the Democrats.
Voting Republican was once a gesture of assimilation second only to joining the US Marines. It can be again if Trump listens to Senator Jeff Sessions, the US Senate’s best-informed member on immigration policy and, fortunately, the earliest Trump supporter at the top of the GOP. A “new Americanisation” policy would fill the gap in what is otherwise the GOP’s strong electoral redoubt—and it would also fit very comfortably in Trump’s overall “America First” outlook.
But what kind of Republicanism is likely to be the dominant ideology of this GOP, shared as it will be between President Trump (who is a philosophically protean character, to say the least), a business-oriented congressional GOP establishment, and a now divided intellectual “conservative” movement in the country? Each of these three forces will influence the other two. But what will the intellectual conservatives be saying? Many of them are now lamenting the death of the classically liberal American conservatism that has been the loudest philosophical voice in Republican counsels since Ronald Reagan. Are they reading the runes correctly? I don’t think so.
The debate provoked by Trump’s rise has been portrayed by an uncomprehending liberal media as a wild drift to a racist alt-Right which in reality is a fringe phenomenon. What began as a simple for-or-against-Trump battle has developed outwards into a ferment of serious political debate by some very clever people on important issues that had been either neglected or pushed to the margins of national politics. A ferment is a ferment and not to be defined too precisely. My take on it, however, is that it’s burning down to two general ideas.
The first is that, as John Gray has been arguing in Britain’s New Statesman, the free market is ceasing to be the central organising idea of centre-Right politics. That would be regrettable but not surprising since it’s been the dominant economic and political institution internationally since Reagan and Thatcher. Whatever goes wrong will therefore be unreasonably blamed on it—as was the 2008 financial crash, for instance—and “corrective” measures such as protectionism will be taken. Those measures will usually be mistaken and reduce economic freedom and efficiency, but they will also probably be very limited since most policy-makers have a much better general grounding in market logic than they had in the 1960s.
The second is that other issues are now emerging as more central to conservatism in response to events such as the refugee crisis, the growth of supranational institutions, terrorism, Brexit, the euro, Islamist radicalism, and indeed Donald Trump, that divide elites (including centre-Right elites) from most voters. They are a national conservative version of identity politics that stresses community, patriotism, democracy, sovereignty and security (both economic and national) over global governance, multiculturalism, open borders, and the rest. With elites openly resisting democratic decisions they dislike, this is an increasingly popular conservative cause.
As both National Review’s Charles W. Cooke and I (both English expatriates) independently concluded during an early stage of Trump’s rise, if the GOP were to adopt these kinds of ideas, it would come to resemble the old pre-Thatcher One Nation Tory Party with its infuriating aversion to economic logic, its amiable gestures of social harmony, and above all its almost permanent occupation of power as the natural party of government.