This little note comes as a response to my friend and regular Quadrant contributor James Allan, whose piece in the latest Spectator Australia takes Donald Trump to task for his personality and lack of credentials as a movement conservative. Jim isn’t alone in these charges, which also have been made rather grandly by National Review, the most influential US journal of conservative opinion. All are criticisms I understand and ones I’ve made myself.
I don’t blame anyone for thinking that way, especially when they’re not witnessing American politics up close and firsthand, as am I. Back home once more in my native land, I am thinking that way, and it’s why my opinion has changed. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not on the Trump train by any means — but it’s become impossible to ignore the mogul’s serious appeal to voters, not just as ‘an outsider’, a man who vows to throw a wrench into the machine, but for the priorities and anxieties he raises.
Attacks on Trump’s conservative credentials usually cite comments from years gone by about abortion and healthcare. Without going into those points too deeply, we can say quite confidently that those aren’t positions weighing heavily on the average Trump voter. They’re neither driving nor hindering his campaign. Rather, Trump is running on three issues: trade inequality, immigration, and the question of Islam’s compatibility with the West.
Australian conservatives might be shocked to find that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), supported so strongly by the Coalition, is considered a litmus-test policy dividing “moderates” and “conservatives” in the Republican Party. Labeled “Obamatrade” by conservatives, the TPP is strongly opposed by the GOP grassroots, who believe the US-China trade balance is skewed massively in Beijing’s favor. Again, it might be difficult to grasp from an Aussie perspective, but many American conservatives of late have come to embrace a sort of economic patriotism, placing the perceived interests of blue-collar Americans above the free-market orthodoxy advocated, if not always implemented, by the Reagan Revolution.
US manufacturing has steadily declined since the 1950s, and competitive agriculture has wilted. The service industries now account for about 80% of the US labor force. That’s not problematic in itself – services have always accounted for more of the workforce than goods – but the increasing inability of the US to manufacture goods is problematic.
China places high tariffs on imports, making it impossible for American-made goods to breach those markets, and so the equitable balance of international trade envisioned by Ricardo et al. is out the window. Meanwhile, the American worker – with his hard-earned rights, benefits, and decent pay package – can’t compete with Chinese wage-slaves. China is among the worst labor-abusers. Its workers accept far less remuneration, unsafe conditions, and virtually no benefits. And because striking is illegal in China, police can always be summoned to end labor disputes. Where there’s no real competition, there’s no real free trade.
Christopher Carr: The Appeal of the Appalling
Trump’s supporters, it has been noted, are largely blue-collar Americans with no strong ideological bearings. They’re ordinary Americans who realise a country can’t sustain itself by consuming without producing. They lack economics degrees, true. But this lack of academic credentials also may explain why they grasp the simple truth that the US economy and their standard of living can’t be maintained if Americans produce only boutique candles, BuzzFeed articles, and gender studies degrees.
Of course, Trump might not be the most articulate exponent of what might be termed “soft protectionism”, but at least he’s talking about it. Every presidential candidate goes on the stump about the need to grow jobs; only Trump points to the culprits – Nabisco, for instance, which recently outsourced 600 jobs from Chicago to Mexico. He’s the only one telling the whole story: outsourcing is the problem and stopping outsourcing is the solution. High corporate tax rates and union corruption are responsible, but so are the corporate executives who have given American workers their single-digit salute and shipped thousands of jobs overseas.
Whether or not his proposed resolutions (which include matching China’s tariffs) are feasible, we needed a Donald Trump to come along and identify the real problems, not just grumble about unemployment.
Then there is illegal immigration. A great to-do was made about Jeb Bush’s statement that South Americans enter the country illegally as an “act of love,” but Bush’s comment was taken out of context. What he said was that they come to the US looking for a better life for their families, even when they leave families behind and simply send money back home, which is very often the case. But Trump expressed (albeit roughly) a legitimate anger when he famously said, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Reasonable people feel a legitimate anger when illegal immigrants commit these offenses – an anger different from that felt when legal residents or citizens do so. Drug use, crime, and rape are societal cancers; but they’re made even more bitter by the knowledge that, had US borders been enforced, the perpetrators wouldn’t have been in the country to begin with. Rational immigration reform begins with acknowledging both Bush’s and Trump’s truths. The problem — the one which Trump audiences recognise and to which they are responding — is that, up until he uttered the unspeakable, only Bush’s narrative was being given a public airing by our politically correct censors in the media, the bureaucracy and legislatures.
Finally, there’s Trump’s infamous call for a temporary moratorium on Muslim immigration. As I’ve said elsewhere, I wouldn’t support the moratorium as such; I agree with Bush and Lindsay Graham, who have said that it would potentially alienate moderate American Muslims and Middle Eastern allies. Yet the extremity of the proposal is an instinctive reaction the horror show playing out in Europe. Who in their right mind wouldn’t be desperate to avoid more of the same in the US?
Now, very probably, a President Trump wouldn’t simply ban Muslims from entering the country. Very probably he’d halt Syrian/Iraqi refugee intake, suspend immigration from certain countries known to harbor terrorists, and drastically increase screening for others. But Trump had a moment of strange articulacy when he said the ban would remain in effect until we “can figure out what is going on.” That’s exactly the problem. We don’t know how to screen for religious extremism. We can’t tell the difference between a moderate and a radical Muslim when they appear on Europe’s doorstep without a passport, let alone a verifiable backstory.
As the link immediately above shows, the belief that the risks in admitting unidentified extremists is outweighed by the possibility of helping legitimate refugees has been an unmitigated disaster for the people of Europe. We don’t even know how to begin rectifying this situation. So it’s natural that some, like Trump, would want to take a step back and reassess the situation. This strikes his supporters as logical and entirely as the tally of “lone wolf ” attacks continues to lengthen.
So with all due respect to James and those who think like him, I can no longer write off Trump, dismiss him as an electoral aberration, because it’s not Trump himself that matters. Rather, it’s Trump’s supporters that matter and the thorny, formerly unutterable issues his bellicose rhetoric has captured. He is the mouthpiece for their anxieties and concerns for the direction this country is moving in.
Trump’s acolytes might not represent the wealthiest or best-educated segment of the American public, but they have been hushed and ignored for too long, their concerns swept under the carpet. They deserve a voice – to be respectfully listened to and thoughtfully engaged with. It might be difficult for those of us who read and write for Quadrant and other serious journals to imagine what suddenly being given a voice must be like. But the ordinary men and women that Trump represents find the experience of being heard both novel and exhilarating. Many feel they are being heard for the first time in their lives. If we can bring ourselves to take what they’re saying seriously – if we can find it in our hearts to forgive them for being a bit unpolished – we’ll find that we agree on far more often than not. Who knows? We might even learn something.