Getting ready for Trump
There is a growing realization, not to mention a creeping fear, in the upper echelons of the American political establishment that Donald Trump might actually win the Republican Party nomination for President in 2016. There is less fear that, if he does so, he will then go on to win the Presidency itself: Republican Party primaries and the US General Election are still two rather different things. But then, only two months ago, nobody gave ‘The Donald’ much hope of winning the Republican nomination either. In times as political volatile as these, all bets have to be thought of as ultimately off: which is why it is time for all of us to take a serious look at Donald Trump the politician.
It is a pretty scary look, all things considered. For the following three reasons at least
His misguided analysis of why Washington is broken.
The way Donald Trump tells it, America is in decline because Washington DC is not working, and not working for two main reasons. One is that the existing political class is not very bright. The other is that those same people – bright or otherwise – are beholden to big donors and special interests. The first of those assertions is at best offensive and at worst counterproductive. The second may well be true, but in no way gets to the root of why Washington DC is currently so gridlocked.
It is the case, of course, that there is a long tradition in US presidential politics of candidates presenting themselves as, worthy of support precisely they are not part of the Washington political establishment. The ‘outsider’ card can often work as an electoral strategy, but as a governing strategy it invariably generates initial under-performance and ultimate failure. Outsiders coming into Washington take time to find out how to make the city work and, in the process of eventually discovering how to bend Washington slightly to their will, invariably fail to change the ways of Washington in any significant fashion. Donald Trump is playing that card again, with no doubt the same likely outcomes; but being Donald Trump, he is playing it with a new twist.
He is not only criticizing Washington for political gridlock. He is also insulting the key players there by questioning their intelligence. Presumably the one thing of which we can be certain is that a campaign built on insulting Washington insiders is even less likely to make Washington DC more responsive to a White House under Donald Trump than it has been to outsiders before.
That might matter less if the other Trump assertion – that the existing political class is effectively bought, and in hock to money and interests – was the correct explanation of why Washington is currently so stuck. But it is not. Money and interests do have massive influence in Washington. On that Donald Trump is right. But Washington DC is not currently politically gridlocked for that reason. It is gridlocked because it is ideologically divided; divided primarily by the force of a set of Republican beliefs in the undesirability of strong federal government. That gridlock will not be resolved by a candidate who is himself so ideologically inconsistent. Nor will it be resolved by a candidate who, whatever else his faults, believes in strong and active leadership – namely his own.
Donald Trump may be a closet Democrat – Jeb Bush may be right on that– or he may be a late convert to many core Republican beliefs, as he himself asserts. But whatever party label he should properly carry, Donald Trump is no shrinking violet. Small government and The Donald do not go together; and because they do not, a Trump presidency would likely intensify political divisions in Washington rather than transcend them.
The superficial Trump grasp on how to fix America’s current difficulties.
Then there is the question of the skill-set that Donald Trump is proposing to bring to the presidency, should he be elected. The way he tells it, the big problem of the current Administration – and indeed of many of his fellow aspirants for high office in the Republican Party – is their lack of negotiating skills. The way he tells it, he would have got a better deal with Iran, and under his presidency ISIS would already be defeated. The way he tells it, he will be the “greatest jobs president that God ever created.”
There are at least two problems with his view of what is wrong with America, and how it is to be fixed. The first is that it is exclusively and excessively an “agency” explanation of what is currently going wrong. It puts the entire explanatory focus on the skills of a single individual, rather than on the underlying “structures” (institutions, groups and trends) to which those skills have to make a response. The Trump solution to America’s current difficulties is in that sense a view of politics as magic. Find a different wizard with a different wand, and hey presto, if the wizard’s magic is stronger than anyone else’s, the problems will all be quickly put to rest.
But America’s condition is not so simply analyzed, let alone so simply solved. On a global stage, the United States lives in a multi-polar world in which other actors have resources beyond America’s control, and a world in which American actions have long-term ramifications and push-back. Abroad, unless Donald Trump is envisioning using nuclear weapons or launching a third large-scale American ground war, it is hard to see how simply replacing Obama with Trump will (as Trump promised) “make your head spin.” And at home, the depth of the social divisions that now beset us, and the entrenched nature of the poverty and urban deprivation that surrounds and underpins increasingly insecure middle-class life, cannot be blasted away by the force of a President’s personality or by the immediate impact of new and so far unspecified policies, no matter what a bombastic Donald Trump might regularly claim..
The Trump propensity for bombast over policy.
For here is the ultimate danger in the Trump candidacy: its propensity for bombast over policy, and its associated assertion of Donald Trump’s own superiority to anyone else currently holding or seeking political office. This excessive degree of arrogance and self-belief shows itself mainly in the Trump determination to focus the campaign on personality and personal capacity, rather than on policy per se. The full Trump agenda of legislative proposals may eventually be forced out of him, but it is not there yet. What we have instead is political theatre, regularly-provided grandstanding for the attention of a flaccid media – grandstanding that, when it gets down to specifics, has so far only stirred some particularly unattractive mud.
The Trump demonization of Mexican immigrants is the major case in point. It legitimates and reinforces the very racial and ethnic stereotyping that is currently souring relationships between key groups of the American poor – between white, black and Hispanic Americans. The linkage that Donald Trump regularly draws between immigration and crime is entirely false and profoundly dangerous. Donald Trump is currently exploiting, for his own short-term political ends, the fears and insecurities of a predominantly white lower middle-class in contemporary America, galvanizing their support by talking over and over again about immigrant criminals. In doing so, he is not only failing to get to the heart of why certain kinds of crime are again on the rise in America. He is also reinforcing the underlying racism that remains America’s key internal weakness and source of shame.
Those of us who live in America have the greatest cause to worry at the prospect of a Trump presidency. But given the danger of an over-arrogant President sitting with his finger on the nuclear button, the rest of the world ought perhaps to worry too.
First published in the UK on the political economy blog of SPERI, the University of Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute: available at
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.