Did he really mean it? The mushroom cloud that has risen over American democracy is a question mark. Did Donald Trump mean the hatred, the belligerence, the racism, the boasting and the lies? Was his witches’ Sabbath of a campaign all a gigantic act, a ritual wallow in mud before the cleansing douche of the ballot? Is a man so incapable of courtesy and human kindness remotely suitable to lead a nation?
I have the answer to all these questions. Nobody knows. No one has a clue – probably not even Trump. It may soothe the fevered brow of snowflake liberals to outbid each other in abusing “the Donald”. But abuse has not worked. He is to be president. That’s it. Get a life.
One of Trump’s last predictions was that his election would be “Brexit, plus, plus, plus”. It was code for the shock given to politics in Europe four months earlier, when voters rejected the failure of a perceived ruling class to deliver on its duties and promises. For decades an elite of the urban, educated and self-righteous had merely made itself richer and the poor poorer. A peasants’ revolt of the sort that periodically jolts democracy out of its comfort zone was the result.
Both Trump in America and Brexiters in Britain may be unclear what they really want. That is often the case with uprisings. But they knew what they did not want. Trump told them.
For two decades, half of all Americans had become poorer. They were frightened by the world round them, in all its guises. They were told they had been cheated and the system that cheated them did not care. Hillary Clinton’s appeal was to the young and minorities, it ignored the old, white and dispossessed. This was “whitelash” time.
I noted back in June that of 700 primary Democrats voting for the socialist Bernie Sanders, a phenomenal 60% said they would prefer Trump to Clinton. They said they liked his “honesty”, by which they meant his brash language. “He may be a horrible, racist, misogynist idiot,” said one woman, “but he is our kind of idiot.”
Novelist Dave Eggers likewise sensed the appeal of Trump’s “crazy shit” to a people fed on years of political correctness and “inappropriate” language. His populism was that of the bar room rather than the Tea Party. He was what the sociologist Daniel Boorstin called “the celebrity as pseudo-event, his relation to morality and even reality highly ambiguous”. His son called him “a blue-collar worker with a bank balance”.
To see Trump as a conventional rightwinger is stupid. The left-right spectrum should be in the dustbin. The new politics is that of insider v outsider, city v province, success v failure. At present, it is outsiders who are in the ascendant, in Europe as in America.
Trump is a New York wheeler-dealer, not a redneck from the backwoods. He is no Reagan ideologue. When he called for more public spending, the rightwing National Review called him “a menace to American conservatism”. His policies are inconsistent. He has been for and against gun control, for and against abortion, for and against free trade, for Medicare and against Obamacare. When a man is so all over the shop, we can at least bank on his inconsistencies.
Much is being made of the American constitution as a check on Trump. That would be easier were his Republican party not now firmly in control of Congress. He is also likely to secure a supreme court majority. But America remains a federation. These institutions have their sovereignties, and many remain sceptical about Trump. So too will many states, governors and mayors.
Trump will not rule unchallenged. He has promised to clean the Augean stables of Washington’s “donor politics”, and will find his hands full with that. He has declared war on bureaucracy at home and abroad. Others have tried and failed. His supporters will be watching, suspicious of any sign that the outsider is going native in Washington.
The man’s impetuousness, his shooting his mouth off, must horrify Americans accustomed to some dignity in their commander-in-chief. But they have voted for a joker, an entertainer-in-chief. They must now take the baggage that comes with it.
The outside world has other priorities. It must wander the campaign battlefield gleaning bloodied fragments of what passes for a Trump foreign policy. Not much is new. His antagonism to free trade and hostility to Kipling’s “lesser breeds without the law” echo the isolationism of George W Bush’s 2000 campaign. But Bush is a man Trump calls “a liar and war criminal”. Trump’s opposition to the Saudi alliance and to meddling in the Middle East appears sincere – even if he would somehow “bomb the shit” out of Islamic State.
There is sense in Trump’s desire for rapprochement with Putin’s Russia, and in his plea for greater realism in European defence. The intellectual tundra that is Nato’s worldview has long been in need of a thaw. As Britain’s former defence chief, Lord Richards, told the Times last week, a Russia-enforced victory for Assad in the Syrian city of Aleppo would enable intervention to concentrate on Isis. “The world could, ironically, be safer with Trump in the White House,” he said.
In victory Trump seemed all amity and concord. “We must bind the wounds of division,” he said. “We must come together as one united people.” We can only wait and hope. Trump was right to claim that America is stuck, constitutionally as well as politically. As the historianArthur Schlesinger liked to recall, American democracy often flies close to the flame and gets itself scorched, but it escapes the stronger for it.
This is not about sanitising the unthinkable. It is about adjusting to a new reality. Trump is not the worst candidate to become president. He has to beat Andrew Jackson, Warren Harding and Richard Nixon for that title. He is unknown and unqualified rather than proven to be incompetent.
America is a cultural blood brother to Britain, and an important ally. The very least Britain can do is wish it well as it emerges from the politics of hysteria and embarks on a longer voyage of discovery, into the mystery of its political soul.