Never mind a week. For Donald Trump, a few seconds in politics can be a dangerously long time. Less than three months before Americans go to the polls, as Republican campaigners wait with dread for his next verbalized brain cramp, the party’s nominee keeps showing the speed and ease with which he can demolish all effort to make him seem credible. You’d think he was doing it on purpose.
Trump’s recent suggestion that gun rights supporters might take matters into their own hands to keep Hillary Clinton out of the Oval Office was the appalling case in point: mere hours after delivering a speech in Detroit, one meant to cast him as an informed and responsible steward of the U.S. economy, he blew apart that spadework with his smirking aside about the threat Clinton posed to a constitutional right to bear arms. “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” he shrugged, before adding: “Although the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know.”
There was no denying how badly the statement scanned, and coming hard on the heels of his attack against the family of an Muslim American soldier who’d died in Iraq, it added to the aura of irresponsibility surrounding his campaign. With each racially charged remark, with each thinly veiled exhortation to violence, one wonders what kind of country Trump hopes to govern should he defy the polls and win.
The question applies to his actual platform as surely as to his inflammatory musings. One regrettable outcome of the Second Amendment uproar was that it pre-empted serious examination of Trump’s speech in Detroit, where he doubled down on proposals to scrap NAFTA, pick a trade war with China and force Mexico to pay for a wall on the southern U.S. border. Trump offers such ideas in the name of “protecting American jobs.” But they’re so unworkable, and so potentially damaging to the interests of voters Trump claims to represent, that long-time campaign observers like Stephen Craig are warning of a failed presidency should he try to enact them. “Who’s going to support the Muslim ban? How are we going to get this wall built?” asks Craig, a political scientist at the University of Florida who has studied the impact of campaigns. “How much energy if he becomes president is he going to put into trying to get these things done?”
If Trump seems unworried by such mundanities, perhaps it’s because voters in the U.S., and throughout the Western world, seem increasingly comfortable with the politics of non-accountability. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, the two most visible leaders of the “Brexit” campaign, spent weeks making sweeping claims of what the U.K. stood to gain by leaving the European Union—and dark forebodings of foreigners stealing jobs from native-born Britons if it didn’t. Farage’s campaign had claimed, among other things, that decoupling would free up some $500 billion annually for Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), an assertion they had emblazoned on the side of bus.
To the world’s astonishment, Britons bought it, voting 52 per cent in favour of abandoning the EU. But with the actual process of Brexiting suddenly in motion, the principal proponents of the idea shrank from the task: Johnson sloughed off calls to run to replace David Cameron as Conservative leader and prime minister, while Farage quit his position as leader the U.K. Independence Party, saying he needed “a break.” As for that NHS promise, Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith, a key Leave supporter, waved the number off as “an extrapolation,” adding with breathtaking levity: “Our promises were just a series of possibilities.”
Not, in short, an inspiring example of leadership. Yet the success of their campaign has inspired demagogues of a purer strain, who are keen to capitalize on the anxiety. In the Netherlands, Party for Freedom Leader Geert Wilders has proposed a “Nexit” for his own country, working diligently to fuse Euroskepticism with anti-Muslim tension. In a newspaper op-ed last month, he claimed the EU’s mishandling of “the immigration crisis” had allowed Muslims to pour into the continent unchecked. “Islam does not belong in Europe,” Wilders wrote. “We must stop all immigration from Islamic countries and start de-Islamizing.” In France, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front Party is polling as high as 35 per cent with its warnings that Muslims will impose their religious values in France if allowed (though Le Pen’s proposal to take France out of the EU, à la Brexit, is less popular).
That kind of messaging has lifted leaders like them and Trump from their status as political provocateurs to legitimate contenders for power. But what happens if they take the next step? Governing, notes Craig, is a lot harder than stirring up hostility: unless they plan to tear up their countries’ constitutions, he says, they’ll soon find that forging their rhetoric into viable legislation demands self-restraint, consensus-building and tolerance for others’ views. In short, the opposite of what’s gotten them to where they are.
In the Trump camp, there have been fleeting signs of that realization hitting home. In July, the candidate’s son and adviser, Donald Jr., reached out to Ohio governor and former Republican leadership candidate John Kasich, whose record of coalition-building and building support for his program might have lent some measure of coherence to Trump’s demolition-derby style of politics. According to media reports that were later confirmed by Kasich, Trump Jr. said his father would put Kasich in charge of both “foreign policy and domestic policy” if the veteran Republican joined the Trump ticket as candidate for vice-president. What, if any, responsibility that would leave Trump was unclear (his team denied the accuracy of the story).
In the end it didn’t matter. Kasich demurred, leaving the veep nod to Mike Pence, the rigidly right-wing governor of Indiana. Trump last week shuffled his campaign team, handing the top job to Stephen Bannon, an executive of the right-wing Breitbart News site and a self-professed fan of Trump at his most provocative.
The candidate himself, meanwhile, reverted to customary excess, repeatedly calling President Barack Obama the “founder” of ISIS and proposing an ideological litmus test for prospective Muslim immigrants. So the campaign of destruction continues apace, raising the question of what outcome it might produce in the hands of a more disciplined, less narcissistic leader. Trump might be headed for an election-day embarrassment. But he and others have elevated a new, zipless style of politics—one to which experts warn no Western democracy, not even Canada, should consider itself immune.
Kasich may have been scared off by the perplexing questions all this raises: why is such potentially destructive politics working? Do its adherents really want to see it in action?
About all we know at this stage is that they’re feeling threatened. In the U.S., as in Britain and Europe, the white, middle class has been hit hard by the exodus of manufacturing jobs to countries where labour is cheaper, and by historic shifts in income distribution. A recent analysis by the Pew Research Center, for example, found the share of American adults living in middle-income households decreased in 203 of the country’s 229 largest metropolitan areas, while the share in the lower-income tier rose in 160 areas. The median income also fell in all but eight of those areas, which comprise 76 per cent the population.
With disparity has come a sense of political impotence: mainstream parties increasingly assume that the influence of the white, working class is on the wane. Add the transformative effects of international migration, say experts, and voters’ feeling of helplessness can take on existential dimensions. Matthew Goodwin, co-author of a 2014 book examining the rise of extremist politicians in Britain, makes much of the disproportionate strength of the Leave vote in communities that have seen the greatest influx of EU migrants over the last decade. “Really, this was a case of identity trumping economics,” he says. “The outcome of the referendum was intimately tied up with our experience of the EU membership, and how people have perceived that to have changed their local communities.”
It also made clear that white voters are not the spent electoral force that party data-jocks assumed. In the U.S., according to a recent analysis by the New York Times, the sub-group of white, blue-collar electors from which Trump draws his support has been significantly undercounted, which might explain why so many pundits were caught off guard by his success in the primaries. The problem is that parties’ demographic models rely heavily on election exit polls that provide an incomplete profile of the electorate. During the 2012 U.S. election, for example, they suggested 23 per cent of voters were white, over age 45 and lacking college degrees; more recent research, based on census numbers and data from individual voter files, pegs their share closer to 30 per cent—a difference of about 10 million people in an election in which 129 million went to the polls.
The anger bubbling within this demographic was no secret. But even close followers of the political mood were surprised by the suddenness with which America’s better angels scattered. The taste for Trump’s name-calling, Muslim-bashing and mockery of civil debate has no precedent in presidential politics, says Craig, the University of Florida professor, and that’s exactly why it works: it’s a thumbing of the nose at convention that signals an abrupt break with the politics of the past, and never mind the consequences. The consummate conventionality of Trump’s opponent—a former first lady, senator for New York, secretary of state and all-round avatar of the ruling class—only feeds the syndrome. Fully 55 per cent of Republicans tell pollsters they see their choice less a vote in favour of Trump than one against Hillary Clinton.
At its worst, this antipathy lies beyond Trump’s capacity to contain. Supporters have been recorded at his rallies shouting “Hillary’s a whore!” and other misogynistic epithets at Clinton. Vendors outside last month’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland did brisk business selling a button featuring an unflattering photo of Clinton with the slogan: “Life’s a bitch. Don’t vote for one.” Others have directed their hostility toward Muslims and Hispanics. “Build the wall! F–k those dirty beaners!” hollered one man during a Trump appearance last spring in Dayton, Ohio.
The depth of the fervour has some in this country wondering whether it might take hold here and, if so, how to head it off. It’s thought that Canada’s positive experience with immigration mutes the politics of xenophobia: thanks to geography, the country sees nothing like the waves of migrants landing in Europe, or crossing into the U.S. from Mexico. But David Green, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver School of Economics, suspects Canada’s recent resource boom played no less a role, forestalling the increase in inequality seen in other countries by preserving high-paying jobs for people without college degrees. “Those middle-income guys don’t feel like the world is turning against them in the same way,” Green says, noting that employment in Alberta and Saskatchewan surged just as Ontario’s manufacturing sector was nose-diving.
The acid test, he warns, is yet to come. Western Canada now lies in the throes of an oil bust, while there’s no sign of recovery in central Canada’s manufacturing sector. Soon, says Green, Canada’s white working class could feel severe pain, “and that’s when you start getting angry white men looking around for [political] options. To me, the danger lies in Canadians doing something we do fairly often, and that’s look south of the border and decide we’re better, we’re fundamentally different. We’re not.”
We’re certainly not immune to the allure of populists and iconoclasts. Rob Ford won the Toronto mayoralty in 2010 by setting himself up as a foil to articulate, well-groomed candidates whom he portrayed as creatures of the system, beholden to “unions and special interests.” Working-class voters—many nursing grievances toward the city’s downtown elite—were delighted by his refusal to play by the unwritten rules, mocking his opponents and brushing off media; they turned out to the polls in unprecedented numbers to support him. Another outlier, Kevin O’Leary, the venture capitalist known for his part on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, has been mooted for the federal Conservative leadership in part because of his undeniable similarities to Trump. Like the Republican nominee, he’s built an enormous following on reality TV, where he excels in the delivery of glib judgments. But O’Leary has shown no appetite for Trump’s brand of ethnic and gender chauvinism. And Ford, who died of cancer in March, never seemed bent on laying waste to the political landscape. Though plenty divisive, he practised populism in the name of winning power and trying to enact his program of tax cuts and spending curbs.
Canadians’ apparent faith in that quaint model, where leaders present platforms they imagine will serve the common good, may be what sets them apart from their counterparts in other Western democracies. A Quinnipiac University poll released in June found that fewer than a quarter of U.S. respondents said they believe that Trump, if he wins, will be able to build his vaunted wall and have Mexico pay for it. Fully, 39 per cent said he will try and fail and 29 per cent said he won’t even try. Just 19 per cent believed he’ll be able to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, as he has vowed to do.
The same air of disbelief has emerged in Britain, with one in 10 poll respondents saying they don’t believe Brexit will be implemented, as if the whole campaign had been nothing more than theatre. They might yet prove correct, because in the same survey, published by the Independent newspaper, seven per cent of Leave voters said they’d reverse their choice if they had a do-over—almost enough to erase the decision—while some four million people have signed a petition calling for a revote. Khembe Gibbons, a lifeguard from Suffolk, summed up the sentiments of the “mulligan” crowd when he told surveyors he now feels misled by the Leave campaign’s claims and promises. “I personally voted Leave believing these lies, and I regret it more than anything,” he said. “I feel genuinely robbed of my vote.”
It’s an encouraging sign for fans of sober second thought, if not for the idea that campaigns matter. And there are indications that similar doubts will prevail in the U.S., where poll averaging suggests Trump’s rhetorical excesses have dearly cost him. By the end of last week, he trailed Clinton by 10 points, and was openly acknowledging the prospect of defeat, raising more questions as to whether he ever imagined his toxic campaign would carry him to the White House. “It’s either going to work, or I’m going to, you know, I’m going to have a very, very nice, long vacation,” he shrugged to CNBC.
Still, there are miles to go before voting day, and plenty more ground for Trump to scorch. That he keeps burning himself makes him no less a menace to everyone else.