Freddy Gray is deputy editor of The Spectator. Before that, he was literary editor of the American Conservative.
As Trump put it in his victory speech in Las Vegas last week, ‘We’re going to get greedy for the United States. We’re gonna grab and grab and grab. We’re gonna bring in so much money and so much everything. We’re going to Make America Great Again, I’m telling you folks.’ The crowd screamed.
In Donald Trump’s America, viciousness is beautiful. As he put it in another victory speech in South Carolina, ‘There’s nothing easy about running for president. It’s tough, it’s nasty, it’s mean, it’s vicious, it’s… beautiful.’
Civility is for losers and outmoded establishment politicians. Former Governor Jeb Bush tried humility. He said he had ‘a servant’s heart’, and failed. Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon, appears to be self-effacing. He’s failing too.
The Republican electorate want an arrogant daddy-big-bucks instead. In Trump, they have found their man. Trump insulted most of his rivals into submission; candidates who haven’t been eviscerated by him have only survived by being as nasty as he is. Ted Cruz won in Iowa after his campaign spread a false rumour that Ben Carson had dropped out. Marco Rubio decided last week that he must try to compete with Trump in the rudeness stakes. He called Trump a ‘con artist’ and said he ‘should sue whoever did that to his face’. He insinuated that the Donald has a small penis. And then he lost, again.
What Rubio recognised (too late) was that Americans from all walks of life are attracted to Trump precisely because he is a rude thug. They want him to be their rude thug. As one Trump voter in Manchester, New Hampshire put it: ‘He’s a mobster, sure, but what’s the difference between a politician and a mobster? A politician is just a 25-cent mobster. Trump is the real deal.’
This postmodern attitude — Trump is good because he is bad — is more distressing than Trump himself. We might avoid a President Trump in 2017. But what about 2021 or 2028? If the seething rage of Middle America doesn’t abate, we could see an even bigger menace storm to power. Which is a scary thought.
It’s easy to forget that the relative peace and prosperity we have enjoyed since the second world war has been underpinned by America’s stability and its might, both economic and military. That might sound like neocon twaddle, but it’s true. America’s generous attitude to globalisation has helped us all become richer — the manufacturing boom in Asia and Latin America, for instance, came at the expense of American jobs, but America accepted it. While European governments have steadily slashed their armies to pieces, US military spending now makes up 73 per cent of Nato’s total spend. There’s no such thing as a free world, really. Uncle Sam always picks up the tab. As John F. Kennedy said: ‘The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it.’ Trump would say that sounds like a bum deal.
America’s sense of Manifest Destiny — the belief that the nation has been divinely appointed to redeem mankind — is always annoying and sometimes destructive. It has led to big mistakes in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. America can be hypocritical and self-righteous; but better that than not righteous at all. And when you think about how overbearing America could be, given all that power at her disposal, it’s remarkable how restrained she has been. America has always tried to do the right thing.
In return for this service to mankind, what thanks does the Indispensable Nation get? Europeans sneer at America’s patriotism, its gun laws, and the coarseness of its consumer culture. We titter at the stupidity of American Christians, while Islamic governments call the US the Great Satan. Can anyone blame the American lower middle classes, whose wages have stagnated while the world blossomed under Pax Americana, for feeling resentful? They feel America’s generosity has been exploited, and that with the rise of China and their failures in the Middle East, their country is losing. In Donald Trump, they have found someone who won’t let them be pushed around any more.
The term ‘fascist’ is overused, but it fits Trump nicely — and not just because on Sunday he retweeted a Mussolini quote and failed to distance himself from the Ku Klux Klan. Trump exhibits the major characteristics of the worst dictators. He prefers national socialism to free enterprise. His economic policies, in as much as they make any sense at all, are protectionist. Although he professes himself to be a Presbyterian, he’s practically amoral. He exudes machismo in a strangely camp manner. And he’s savage towards those who stand in his way.
A key aspect to Trump’s success is that he cuts through the pious baloney about America being ‘a shining city on a hill’. His foreign policy has nothing to do with being good. It’s all about winning, and being badass. He talks of ‘beating’ China, Mexico, Russia and Iran. ‘We’ll beat the shit out of Isis,’ he adds. Americans quite like that. Nobody cares that he can’t offer a coherent plan to bring down the Islamic State. He sounds tough: that’s all that matters.
To millions of voters, it’s a relief not to have to listen to a candidate who bangs on about America being ‘the watchman on the walls of freedom’. It’s also satisfying for Americans and others to watch Trump trample all over the corpse of the George W. Bush-era Republican party, which brought nothing but failed wars and financial crisis. In the build-up to the primary in South -Carolina, Trump turned on the Bush family for lying over Iraq. The kneejerk reaction on Fox News and conservative talk radio was to say that patriotic Republicans would not stomach such leftish talk. Wrong. Patriotic Republicans agreed with Trump and voted for him.
In place of the exhausted hypocrisy of the old elite, however, Trump offers only a sort of anti-morality. He brings nothing but narcissism and nihilism to America’s high table. His campaign is a great big joke — and is deadly serious. At his rallies, they play daft music on purpose. They put on Elton John’s Tiny Dancer and random bits of popular opera because it lends a certain unreal atmosphere. ‘Remember, the more inappropriate for a political event, the better,’ explained one of his volunteers. LOL! Young people smirk at the older rednecks in the crowd and hold ‘Make America Great Again’ signs upside down. Their support for Trump is anarchic; they enjoy watching the political order being turned on its head. Another word for it is decadence.
In many ways, the rise of Trump is a logical consequence of the Barack Obama presidency. In 2008, Obama was swept into power on a wave of demented hope. People talked about him as America’s saviour, a ‘post-racial’ figure who could heal the world. Inevitably, that led to disappointment. Like all political careers, Obama’s has ended in failure.
If Obama was the product of delusional optimism, Donald Trump is the opposite: an expression of exuberant negativity. He is the clearest sign yet that, after the crash and a non-recovery, the USA is losing interest in its civilising mission; that the American project is turning sour.