We now know it’s folly to rage against Trump

The Guardian - Journal - - Opinion - Si­mon Jenkins

In the spat be­tween Don­ald Trump and a CNN re­porter on Wed­nes­day, I would bet most Amer­i­cans sided with the pres­i­dent. Who was this rude man re­fus­ing to sit down be­fore his head of state? No leader lost votes in­sult­ing the me­dia. The fact is, be­ing rude to Trump hasn’t worked. Hurl­ing abuse for two solid years was sup­posed to hu­mil­i­ate him, or at least turn his sup­port­ers against him. He was taunted as bel­liger­ent, racist, a liar, a sex ma­niac, a fraudster, a de­ranged nar­cis­sist. But he is shameless, and still there.

This week Trump’s Repub­li­can party lost con­trol of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, but held on to the Se­nate and did well enough for him to de­clare it a tri­umph. As for at­tacks on him from the me­dia, he rightly called it “very good for me po­lit­i­cally”.

My file on Trump is crammed with ma­te­rial, on his men­tal in­sta­bil­ity, his fi­nan­cial du­plic­ity and his Rus­sian deal­ings. It por­trays a man both un­qual­i­fied and un­suited for high of­fice. None of the ma­te­rial ex­plains why this does him so lit­tle harm. When Peggy Noo­nan of the Wall Street Jour­nal calls him “weak and sniv­el­ling … whiny, weepy, self-pity­ing”, vot­ers seem to sense a fel­low spirit. The daily sav­aging in the New York Times in­vites sym­pa­thy. “I am sure ev­ery­thing you say about him is true,” a Trump voter tells a re­porter, “but the econ­omy is fine and I think he is a good pres­i­dent.”

The US has two po­lit­i­cal lan­guages, of the mostly lib­eral city and of the mostly con­ser­va­tive small town and coun­try­side. At elec­tions, they shout at each other across a con­tested sub­ur­ban bat­tle­field. But con­ser­va­tive Amer­ica cur­rently holds the pres­i­dency, and the city has to learn its lan­guage or we have six more years of Trump.

Con­ven­tional wis­dom holds that democ­racy in both the US and Europe is threat­ened by so-called pop­ulism. Ra­tio­nal and cour­te­ous de­lib­er­a­tion is be­ing smashed by short-term dem­a­goguery and white iden­tity pol­i­tics. In Na­tional Pop­ulism: the Re­volt against Lib­eral Democ­racy, the aca­demics Roger Eatwell and Matthew Good­win warn against the myth that pop­ulism is “a refuge for ir­ra­tional big­ots, job­less losers, rust belt rejects and an­gry old white men who will soon die”, to be soon re­placed by lib­eral-minded grad­u­ate mil­len­ni­als.

None of this is true. The aver­age in­come of Trump sup­port­ers is above, not be­low, the US aver­age. Over

40% of white mil­len­ni­als voted for Trump in 2016. The same is true of Brexit in the UK. A fifth of grad­u­ates voted for it, and a fifth of un­der-35s. So did half of all women, a third of city dwellers and a third of eth­nic mi­nor­ity vot­ers. “Peo­ple are vot­ing for [im­mi­gra­tion con­trol] be­cause they want it,” says Good­win, not be­cause of their so­cioe­co­nomic group. It is dan­ger­ous to as­cribe stereo­types to peo­ple be­cause you dis­agree with them.

We anti-pop­ulists can­not have it both ways. I may feel that the US will see out Trump and sur­vive, like it sur­vived Nixon and the younger Bush. I may even look on the bright side, and see in Trump’s pres­i­dency a re­fresh­ing ap­proach to North Korea and Rus­sia, a re­set of world trade, a re­al­ity check on Nato. Or I may agree with Trump’s most sav­age critic on the right, David Frum, that he rep­re­sents “the most dan­ger­ous chal­lenge to the free govern­ment of the US that any­one alive has en­coun­tered”. Ei­ther way, the more apoc­a­lyp­tic the fore­cast, the more crit­i­cal is an ef­fec­tive re­sponse.

My lit­mus test of democ­racy has long been cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. Un­til opin­ion turned just three years ago, a ma­jor­ity of Bri­tons wanted it back, but were de­nied it by those claim­ing it was im­moral. For half a cen­tury, lib­er­als re­lied on pop­u­lar def­er­ence, in­deed qui­es­cence, to have their way. Trump – and Brexit – show that pop­u­lar qui­es­cence can no longer be taken for granted. Peo­ple get an­gry and want to be heard.

The si­lence of the ma­jor­ity was a fa­mil­iar po­lit­i­cal trope. But so­cial me­dia has given it a voice – the same so­cial me­dia that lib­er­als thought would her­ald a new demo­cratic dawn. It has brought the an­ar­chy of the mob. As the au­thor David Runci­man says, “Mark Zucker­berg is a big­ger threat to Amer­i­can democ­racy than Trump.” Just as free speech needs edit­ing and me­di­at­ing if it is not to be­come a daily lynch­ing, so does democ­racy, through its rep­re­sen­ta­tive in­sti­tu­tions.

A cen­tral prob­lem is that, while the right tra­di­tion­ally thinks the left is wrong, the left thinks the right is im­moral. Thus the anti-Trump, anti-Brexit cham­pi­ons have found it eas­ier to aban­don rea­son for moral dam­na­tion. Trump will never be out-ranted. Now he has half of Congress against him, it must be wiser to de­ploy ar­gu­ment than abuse. Mean­while he has taught us an awe­some les­son. Let rea­son go and there will al­ways be a Trump wait­ing in the wings.

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