Trump at the Congressional Picnic on the South Lawn. Credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

July 9, 2019   4 mins

We’re more than halfway through Donald Trump’s first term as President and he’s still very much in place. Recently, he officially announced that he is running for a second term. So far he faces no significant challenge for the Republican nomination.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. His victory in 2016 was regarded as a freak event. Conspiracy theories were rife and allegations of collusion with foreign powers became the subject of high-powered official investigations. These haven’t produced the result that so many were hoping for. Prospects for impeachment are receding.

But, now, as Democrats debate the best way of defeating the President by electoral means, the truth about how he won in 2016 has come to light.

Writing for Vox, Matthew Yglesias argues that Donald Trump triumphed because he was “perceived by the electorate as a whole as the most moderate GOP nominee in generations”.

Yes, really, that Donald Trump.

Has Yglesias taken leave of his senses? I’d say not. For a start, he acknowledges and clearly condemns what he calls Trump’s “extremely offensive rhetoric on racial issues”. He then goes on to explain that, on other issues, Trump ran to the Left of previous Republican candidates Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W Bush:

“Trump ran as an Iraq War proponent who vowed to avoid new Middle Eastern military adventures, as an opponent of cutting Social Security and Medicare (and Medicaid), and as the first-ever Republican candidate to try to position himself as an ally to the LGBTQ community — going so far as to actually speak the words ‘LGBTQ.’”

The article reproduces 2016 polling from the Pew Research Centre, which shows that 40% of voters saw Trump’s views as a “mixture of liberal and conservative”. The equivalent figure for Hillary Clinton was just 28%. In fact, she was seen as liberal on “almost all the issues” by 32% of voters, while only half that share saw Trump as correspondingly conservative. Overall, she was perceived as more extreme than he was.

So Yglesias believes that the Democrats are drawing the wrong lessons from 2016. By focusing on the extreme aspect of Trump’s message and platform, they may be tempted to radicalise their own platform:

“If Trump is president, the thinking goes, it’s the ultimate proof of ‘lol nothing matters’ politics. And if anything does matter, it’s riling up your base to go to war, not trimming and tucking to persuade precious swing voters. The old rules no longer apply, or perhaps they were never true at all.”

Yglesias fears that by giving their activists something radical to fight for, the Democrats might end up motivating Republicans to fight back harder. But there is a counter-argument, one informed by events across the Atlantic.

In 2015 (and again in 2016), the UK Labour Party opted for the most Left-wing leadership candidate. Yet, in 2017, Jeremy Corbyn defied expectations by boosting Labour’s share of the vote by a stunning 10 percentage points. Despite a lot of expert scepticism before the election, it was clear that Corbyn had motivated people to vote who didn’t normally turn out – helped along by an enthused army of Left-wing activists.

So, contra-Yglesias, doesn’t the example of the UK show that the best chance for the Democrats in 2020 is to lead from the Left?

Perhaps not, because there’s a different way of interpreting what happened in 2017.

Theresa May’s campaign slogan was “strong and stable” – apparently a message of continuity, subsequently reinforced by her solemn reassurance that “nothing has changed”. But continuity in what exactly? Though the messaging was meant to convey a continuation of Theresa May’s approach to Brexit (still popular at the time), it was understood quite differently.

Over the last few decades, ordinary people have been subjected to multiple forces of continuous change: Globalisation, financialisation, automation, immigration, military intervention and, in Europe, trans-national integration. With case-by-case variations, these have been presented as part of an ‘open’, liberal and centrist political agenda – when in fact they add up to a series of disruptions whose costs and benefits are unequally distributed.

It’s not that voters’ minds are entirely closed to change, just that they want it to happen at a manageable pace. They want government to act as a moderating influence not as an accelerator. Which is why Theresa May’s earlier message of an “economy that works for everyone” was such a hit with the public. The contrast to George Osborne’s Darwinian “global race” was a refreshing one – until, that is, it became apparent that nothing had changed.

Across the West, the established parties of the centre-Right and centre-Left have doubled down on their respective flavours of neoliberalism – presenting radical discontinuity as sensible, and calls for moderation as extreme.

Out of desperation, differing groups of voters, with differing motivations, have turned to mavericks like Trump and Corbyn. Eccentricities and insanities, which used to be thoroughly off-putting, have become signals of opposition to the establishment.

But beyond that, it is not the radicalism of such figures that wins them mainstream support, but their hoped-for moderating influence on the actual, established forces of change. Even a metaphorical spanner-in-the-works doesn’t seem so bad when your life is being disrupted by the unstoppable machine of globalisation.

That’s why Clinton lost to Trump – and it’s also why a radicalised version of the Democrats could lose too. If all they promise is a different kind of disruption, then the risk is that Americans will vote for the spanner – again.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.