Donald Trump’s approval ratings have dropped in every single state. He has failed to repeal Obamacare, build a wall or move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Trump has also lost his chief strategist, chief of staff, deputy chief of staff, four communications aides, three security advisers, an FBI director, a US attorney, a cabinet secretary, and his ethics director. After the torch-lit rally in Charlottesville, he managed to stick up for white nationalists, distance himself from them, and stick up for them again in the space of 48 hours. So what all-conquering, gravity-defying, poll-shifting political machine could possibly get this president re-elected? Step forward, the Democrats.
The New York Times reports that the party’s liberal old guard is desperately fighting off new, populist-left grassroots set-ups that want to haul the Democrats in a more radical direction. Following Trump’s improbable victory last November, a rambling creature calling itself ‘The Resistance’ sprang up to oppose his presidency. Not yet a movement, this group included those who challenged the legitimacy of the election, those who believed Trump could be prevented from taking the oath, and those who were more realistic and took to the streets on marches. The left has tapped into these sentiments and the desire among Trump opponents to do something more than spend their time weeping and gnashing their teeth.
The megabucks liberal advocacy groups are looking leftwards too. One of these, the Democracy Alliance, used to fund what the Times calls ‘pillars of the Clinton-aligned establishment, like the think tank Center for American Progress’. Now, the Alliance wants to capitalise on the progressive activism that has surged since Trump’s election, and help turn this ‘anti-Trump energy into electoral wins’. The talk, says the Times, is that just as Trumpian Republicans are threatening to oust incumbent senators and congressman insufficiently loyal to the president, leftist Democrats could take out moderate legislators and substitute more ideologically committed figures in their places. The Democrat Party is on course to be Corbynised.
American politics, like politics across much of the Western world, is so volatile that predictions and appeals to received wisdom are fraught with risk. If the land of the free was ready for authoritarian nationalism in 2016, maybe they could be convinced to give socialism a go four years later. It’s unlikely, though, and in large part because of what Trumpism is.
Trump is not a conservative. He doesn’t place individual liberty or the Constitution at the nucleus of his worldview. America is exceptional to him only in the sense that it has the best hotdogs and fighter jets. There is nothing approaching a philosophy of restraint, preservation or virtue. Trump is a nationalist and won as a nationalist; he affects populism and it is that populism that attracted voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin who last voted Republican when the Gipper was on the go. This is, in large part, because Trump does not present himself to voters as a Republican but more simply as ‘Not The Establishment’. Perhaps after four years in power, he will lose this edge (though in Scotland, for instance, it took ten years before rabble-rousing nationalism began to lose its shine) but Democrats cannot fight the Trump they want to fight. They have to win an election against the Trump the voters actually see.
For the Democrats to lurch to the left then would hand Trump an instant advantage. Just as in the contest between two unloved, wealthy New Yorkers, an election between two extremists will be for the more cynical candidate to lose. Trump understands this. He is familiar with the basest of prejudices and panders to them effortlessly. What’s more, despite his present woes, Trump may be difficult to beat because incumbent presidents usually are. He has institutional power, name recognition, and the power of the federal purse. The best chance the Democrats have of defeating him is not by moving left but by clinging to the centre. Hillary Clinton — for all her many flaws — won 66 million votes in 2016 and she did it from within the mainstream of the Democrat Party. A candidate with Clinton’s politics but without her negatives would have a fighting chance. An American Jeremy Corbyn would all but guarantee Trump a second term.