Donald Trump is President of the United States. Two years ago that sentence would have got a good laugh in a late night satire. Climbing up the ranks to secure a major party’s nomination to the United States is an exceptional achievement. But it would have been considered an absurd notion for a complete outsider, entirely untrained in politics, without any experience of elections and elected office, to secure the highest office in the land.
And he did even as the cadres of the GOP saw their party taken over by a blundering pirate.
Trump tapped into the anger and disappointment of a great chunk of Republican Party supporters. That is not surprising in itself. That is what politicians do: contrast themselves with the other side, stir up anger against the other side, and ride on the losses of the other side. But now for a change the leadership and the ideology of the Republican Party was made to be the other side.
When Trump told his supporters he would be clearing out the swamp he did not only mean to dump the lily-livered, tree-hugging, anti-gun, abortionist Democrats. That was par for the course. It was time to clear out the suited, professional Republican political operatives who continued to earn a handsome living even as Democrats won elections.
It was time for the redneck stereotype of the American heartland to take possession of the Republican Party and make it in its own image.
It was time for the anger and disappointment to be placed at the centre of the agenda and no longer mediated and softened by the moderation of the party leadership eager to compromise and to preserve the status quo.
In the 70 years of his private existence Trump dodged taxes, bullied smaller businesses in hostile take-overs, mistreated staff, spoke of and treated women as objects, and dodged every opportunity of public service in favour of making more and more money. Any one of the more minor of these infractions in the history of any other career politician seeking their party’s nomination for the presidency would have doomed any campaign.
As more of these stories came out, more pundits continued to predict the inevitable meltdown of Trump’s campaign. They were aided in that view by Trump’s own spectacular mishandling of these situations. He did things no politician would have ever done and lived to tell the tale. He attacked journalists for asking him tough questions by attributing a political agenda to them or simply by dismissing them as hysterical witches. He mimicked in mockery a disabled journalist. Political experts looked on in shock and bemusement at Turmp’s survival no doubt recalling Howard Dean’s collapsed campaign in 2004 because he yelled strange.
But Trump’s melting campaign did not go away. The more damning the stories being published about him, the more his supporters refused to even hear them assuming they were lies or exaggerations designed by his party rivals in order to preserve their power. The harder the questions by journalists, the louder the booing as the independent press was branded fake and untruthful. The more lunatic Trump’s reactions, the more his supporters rallied behind what they considered a refreshing and honest unorthodoxy.
The more senior Republicans lined up at the last panicked stages to say that Donald Trump was not qualified to lead the party of Lincoln – and the country – the more Republican grassroots firmed up their belief that it was time for the familiar faces of the serial losers in Washington had to be thrown out and replaced by someone completely new who had no problem denouncing the old ways and promising a new way instead.
No one could be sure how representative of the party membership all those angry Republicans at the Trump rallies could have been. But they were enough for Trump to win and to now be in office stumbling from one catastrophe to the next: his inexperience, incompetence, short-sightedness, inability to compromise, inability to grasp the complexities of the issues, isolation from any political allies he might need showing up every week in which a new political low is reached.
And now, to comfort himself, he runs away from his party in congress, from the press, from other world leaders, from the truth and from reality by convening rallies of support: where his complete lack of self-awareness and his brazenly disingenuous interpretation of facts are still applauded as refreshing and a version of the truth that is easier to understand.
And in that version of the truth the complex principles of the Republican Party are ditched in favour of the whims of the hero who has taken possession of it. Out of the window free trade if protectionism is more convenient. Out of the window sustainable development if drilling in Alaska and pumping oil through Dakota cuts the cost of driving. Out of the window cooperating in a global effort to fight global warming if it’s cheaper to burn coal. Out of the window building America on the dreams of immigrants if it’s more popular to build a wall.
If this could happen to the US Republican Party, it could happen to any party no matter its size. Supporters get angry when they lose elections. They want managers fired and replaced. They get angry when policies are nuanced and complex and hard to grasp in a world where political battles are fought in less than 140 characters. They find political compromise and esoteric etiquette as fussy and archaic: indeed a swamp to be cleared and, to mix metaphors, replaced with a new way.
For that new way they are willing to close an eye, even two, on things they would never have forgiven their politicians for before. This is a war and the winner will be the cavalry that does not stop for cucumber sandwiches at tea time.
But if all rules and good sense are tossed out in the interests of a win, the inevitable catastrophe will follow and there will be no one left to blame.