Five weeks ago I summed up the state of the US presidential race in the Weekend Australian. After a long stretch in the primaries that had produced one surprise after another, I wrote, the Trump-Clinton battled had settled down to a surprising if unedifying stability:
Maybe the best metaphor for the current state of the race is one Trump himself has used: the “fixed” fight. On this occasion, however, the Mob has blundered and “persuaded” both candidates to take a fall . . . Each is fighting to lose, moreover, in his and her distinctive ways: Clinton is being undermined by the continuing drip-drip-drip of her own emails that show her to have lied and broken federal laws during and since her time as Secretary of State; Trump is being derailed at intervals by his own gaffes and insults . . . Both presidential candidates as a result are now two of the most distrusted people in America. Each overtakes the other at intervals depending on whether her lies or his gaffes dominate the headlines.
That pattern has continued to the time of writing which is just three weeks short of the election—and two weeks before Quadrant appears on the news-stands. Surprises still occur, of course, indeed more extravagantly than before, but they do so within this pattern of gaffe versus insult, or as the race deteriorates, scandal versus scandal. Just at present the accusations of sexual impropriety (and worse) by numerous women against Donald Trump dominate the headlines. But the steady flow of leaked emails from the Clinton campaign courtesy of Wikileaks, including dismissive remarks about Catholics and Latinos (supposedly constituencies within the Clinton camp) ensures that the candidates remain within hailing distance of each other.
Mrs Clinton is clearly ahead. Most pundits predict her clear victory, made sweeter by Democratic gains in the Senate. Her scandals have thus far been less scandalous than his scandals in the public mind—and less high-lighted by a largely partisan media. On the other hand it seems likely that Wikileaks’ supply of material will be at least as extensive as Trump’s legion of insulted women. And one less-noticed aspect of the campaign is the depth of consumer resistance to Hillary Clinton. Trump’s repeated comebacks from seeming catastrophe—the latest poll shows him trailing only four points behind his opponent despite the “bimbo eruptions”—are testimony to her dogged unpopularity as much as to his energy and media skills. Behind the sleaze factor, something deeper in American society apparently lies behind the resistance to Clinton and the refusal of the Trump rebellion to go away even as its champion implodes.
David Blankenhorn, the president of a small conservative think-tank devoted largely to reversing the decline of the American family, discovered that he didn’t know a single person who intended to vote for Donald Trump. He felt that was wrong in someone whose title was president of the Institute for American values. So he set off on a drive around America’s South-East—an electoral stronghold of Trumpism—to meet Trump voters and to find out what makes them tick. The results are collected in his article in the current American Interest magazine.
Among other things he found that the Trump voters were realistic, even cynical, about Trump. Those who supported him most strongly did so because they liked the fact that he was not bound by political correctness in speaking about immigration and similar issues. Paradoxically, some of the same people disliked his insults to others, his use of profane language, and his inability to control his own mouth–but liked what one might call his political profanities all the same. That lack of illusion about Trump helps explain why he has not been destroyed by the scandals plaguing him. They’ve been “factored in”.
Many of them were sceptical that Trump would do what he promised or succeed even if he tried. But they thought that he was much more likely than any other candidate to try and to succeed. As one voter said: “What’s the worst thing that can happen? He doesn’t do what he says he going to do? I’ve seen that for the last thirty years.”
Most of Blankenhorn’s interviewees, incidentally, were not badly off, not alcoholics or on drugs, and not unemployed. Not all of them are white or non-Hispanic (though most are). Many more are middle-class than underclass. But they are united by a feeling that the America they have known and loved, with its habits of trust and voluntary co-operation, is being replaced by a more stratified and less democratic society. If they are dispossessed of anything, they are culturally dispossessed.
This column appears in the November edition of Quadrant.
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Are they then populists or attracted by populism? Not if populism means a deep vein of wisdom in the common people. Almost all of them were coolly realistic in their assessments of people, including Trump, and their hopes for the future. What they asserted—and what pundits mistake for populism—is that there is a deep vein of arrogance and stupidity in the elites. Trump’s people do not glorify themselves but they are contemptuous of the elites, largely irrespective of party, that have governed America for decades.
They especially distrusted Hillary Clinton. Blankenhorn could not find a single person who liked or trusted her. At the same time they didn’t see her as anyone very different from those governing them now. She was simply the most representative person of the kind of elitist progressive politicians they disliked and feared.
It is worth adding to what Blankenhorn reveals that there are many ways of defining these voters more accurately and tellingly than as Trump supporters. One is that they are invisible victims of the social interventionism and control driven by identity politics that the US government has progressively imposed in the post-Reagan era. Most clearly, they are not members of the “protected” groups that benefit from affirmative action which has spread from African-Americans to almost all ethnic minorities, including recent immigrants, plus women (in short a theoretical majority of the US population.)
This identity regime also spread from bureaucratic arrangements across much of employment, academic, and public life to political rhetoric. As Professor John Marini of the Claremont Institute has pointed out, that kind of politics “requires the systematic mobilization of animosity to ensure participation by identifying and magnifying what it is that must be opposed.” And what must be opposed turns out to be the values, loyalties, interests, and even self-regard of the non-protected Americans—even if it takes plain manipulation or reversal of the rules and conventions of “diversity” to do so.
In this campaign, for instance, it would be odd if these voters did not notice the reluctance of Mrs Clinton and other progressive politicians to state plainly that “All Lives Matter,” let alone that “White Lives Matter,” in response to the pressure of the “Black Lives Matter” campaign. For whatever reason BLM has gone quiet in the last few weeks, but its success in getting an implicitly racist argument adopted by half the country is testimony to both the power and bad faith of progressive identity politics.
Still more telling, if also more complicated, is how Trump’s gross personal sins have become a progressive ideological campaign against the male “objectifying of women.” That argument expands a justified attack on the crudely offensive behaviour confessed by Trump into a general indictment of male sexuality. It required a woman, namely Heather Mac Donald in New York’s City Journal, to ask why men might focus on a woman’s sexuality rather than, say, her political opinions:
Surely the ravenous purchase by females of stiletto heels, push-up bras, butt-hugging mini-skirts, plunging necklines, false eyelashes, hair extensions, breast implants, butt implants, lip implants, and mascara, rouge, and lipstick to the tune of billions a year has nothing to do with it. Females would never ever exploit their sexuality to seek attention from men.
In other words sexual objectifying is an unavoidable part of the behaviour of both sexes which a decently organised society holds in check and balances against other aspects of marriage and sexual relationships. Earlier and better names for it ranged from sex appeal to romance.
Our society’s reliance on these rules, however, has been subverted by progressive policies over the years, by the tolerance extended to promiscuity by Hollywood and popular culture, and by bad example—from Trump certainly but also from Bill Clinton who is plausibly accused of the same or worse sins. That helps explain why Mrs Clinton (accused, incidentally, of assisting those sins) has been less prominent in upbraiding Trump than almost any other woman in America.
These culture wars might have gone on indefinitely without seriously obstructing either America’s long-term progressive revolution or Clinton’s likely short-term election victory if not for a major ideological development at home and abroad. Identity politics has crossed the floor. The Trump campaign, Brexit in the UK, and the refugee row in Europe have signalled the rebirth of patriotism and popular democracy against progressive global governance everywhere.
Yoram Hazony in Mosaic has given us the most comprehensive account of this new clash between two visions of national and global order:
For 350 years, Western peoples have lived in a world in which national independence and self-determination were seen as foundational principles . . . Since World War II, however, these intuitions have been gradually attenuated and finally even discredited, especially among academics and intellectuals, media opinion-makers, and business and political elites. Today, many in the West have come to regard an intense personal loyalty to the national state and its right to chart an independent course as something not only unnecessary but morally suspect. They no longer see national loyalties and traditions as necessarily providing a sound basis for determining the laws we live by, for regulating the economy or making decisions about defense and security, for establishing public norms concerning religion or education, or for deciding who gets to live in what part of the world.
Who will decide such questions in the US is the underlying issue in this election. Mrs Clinton is plainly a globalist like President Obama, Donald Trump an opponent—if not the best one. But this election will not decide the issue which of its nature pits most voters against the progressive elites. It’s your politics for the next century.
To get a firm grasp on what is at stake, please turn to our symposium “Civilisation—Does it Have a Future?” It brings together four important talks given at Quadrant’s sixtieth anniversary dinner. And the answer is that civilisation certainly has a future as long as you help Quadrant to defend it.