Echoes of Brexit in the US presidential campaign give no cause for comfort

I doubt if I’m alone in feeling as dissatisfied with the coverage of the US election as I am on tenterhooks about the outcome. One problem has been the requirement of the media I respect to preserve some sense of balance amid the horrors the campaign. It is not true that each candidate is as bad as the other, whatever is going on in American society.

Whoever wins the presidency, the political fulcrum has shifted further to the right and may stay there for some time. Even the Republican establishment does not favour this, as it has fragmented their party. In spite of the Facebook revelations, it would be wrong to blame social media. This was a campaign fought on the stump, on platforms, on TV. It needed no reinforcing.

While Obama’s first win produced impossible expectations, the best  to hope for this time is that the abysmal character of the campaign will  produce a reaction to deny the worst fears of gridlock and a divided America.

The campaign itself degenerated from the off and produced very little content for sane debate – on the impact of globalisation, the transition from a majority white to a majority diverse America, and growing isolationism. Reports from the grassroots  were too often crafted to reflect the raucousness of the stump. Weighing Trump’s awfulness against Hillary’s flaws has created real distortions.  Month’s ago it was Bernie Sanders who yelled at Hillary: “I’m sick of hearing about your damned emails.”

Trump, no slouch on spin, seized on the example to give him comfort.  In one of his last rallies he shouted: “ Tomorrow , we’re going to have Brexit, plus, plus plus…”  Tonight, Trump ended as Boris did on referendum eve. “Today is our Independence Day”. While it’s amazing for little ol’UK  to be  noticed at all, what does that say about Brexit?

The parallel Trump is looking for is of course the big upset that defies the predictions based on the hairline margins of the polls, mirroring the  supposed triumph of  the people over the elite in the UK.

  • That Trump is in a different category from previous candidates has registered to the point where it has become the new normal. There are dangers in this. The nature of his exception has become dulled in 24/7 coverage. The deeper analysis of Trump’s real character is left to the same  “ elite” which has been fighting what has seemed  like the rear guard action of a no longer dominant orthodoxy. The New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik spelt it out on Radio 4 ‘s Point of View this week, in a version of his classic article.

Trump is not normal. Nothing about him is. One need only look at his rallies, track the rhetoric they offer and the vengeful orgy of hatred and misogyny and racism they induce, to see just how different he is. His followers are not, shall we say, there to root on their favored libertarian in his pursuit of free-market solutions to vexing social problems; they are there to scream insults and cry havoc on their (mostly imaginary) enemies, to revel in the riot of misogyny and racism that Trump has finally given them license to retrieve from the darkest chapters of our past. (“Not politically correct” means openly brutal to minorities and women.) A ten-year-old screams, “Take that bitch down!” to laughter..

It will be scary too, as well as agonizing, for Clinton if she doesn’t make it. She is now fighting not just for the presidency but for the life and meaning of the republic itself.

She must know that if Trump wins, the blame—the disillusion with all things Clinton—will be unfathomable, in the nation at large and in her own home. Thanks to her run, her husband will have seen his own legacy sullied by the trashing of the foundation. And she herself will have plenty to brood over in his old infidelities, which blunted her ability to deliver the kind of powerful, heartfelt hurt to her supporters about Trump as a sexual predator that Michelle Obama has so feelingly expressed.

Already there are donors who vent about how a different, less-tarnished Democratic candidate could have flicked Trump aside and won the Senate, too. Her supporters have experienced a constant ebb and flow of despair and reassurance. Each time she aced it in a debate she reminded the country what a smart, cool, seasoned operator she is, how supremely qualified she is to be commander in chief in a crisis—only to have more foundation and email toxins infect the airwaves and reverse her momentum.

Not that Hillary had any right to an easy ride. Ace columnist Maureen Dowd is  a natural Democrat who has been a thorn in Hillary’s side. She  describes the flaws which evoke uncomfortable echoes of Richard Nixon.

Hillary started as a young lawyer on the House Watergate committee, yet she never learned how paranoia can act as an acid on dreams. She couldn’t dismantle her wall of secrecy and defensiveness and level with the public and the press; instead, she built the wall higher and clung to attack dogs like David Brock and Sidney Blumenthal, needing to surround herself with people, no matter how dubious, who would walk the plank for her.

In the leaked emails, Hillary’s advisers also worried that she has an apology “pathology,” as Tanden put it to Podesta, fretting about Hillary’s inability to offer a sincere apology for putting classified information at risk with rinky-dink servers.

They worry that her battles have made her so guarded that she can’t convey authentic emotions.

“Eventually she will sound like a human,” Tanden said.

Her staff tried to script spontaneity. Tanden suggested having a party where Hillary could “let loose” to music and have a beer and maybe it would go viral.

And even Chelsea was concerned about the foundation’s ethical morass.

The problem with Donald Trump is: We don’t know which of the characters he has created he would bring to the Oval Office.

The trouble with Hillary Clinton is: We do know. Nobody gets less paranoid in the White House.

Michael  Gove is one of two Tory politicians who has  demonstrated that being a commentator is a whole lot easier than putting your money where your mouth is as a minister.  Back on the road for the Times, Gove the intellectual doesn’t go so far as actually to support Trump. But he envies the brazen appeal of the Strong Man, a characteristic which when he tried to find it in  himself  at the last minute, went badly wrong.  His piece reveals as much about Gove than about Trump. Michael has yet to fully discover who he is.  What is worrying is that this is in the pathology that won the Brexit referendum. And just might win the White House.

….What he had to do was much more visceral than intellectual. He had to deliver a series of appeals to the gut of his audience and blows to the solar plexus of his opponent.

Indeed there was something raw, physical and impetuously pugnacious about his whole pitch from the start….

It is hard to imagine a British politician endearing himself to the crowd by speculating on whether he should have warmed up for his speech by going mano a mano with a Marine commando. But it is precisely the sort of “let me at ’em” stance you’d expect from Vladimir Putin or, a century ago, Teddy Roosevelt.

That is at the heart of the Trump appeal. Even though he is a paunchy 69-year-old he exudes vigour and communicates a sense of determination to get things done, brutally but effectively.

What matters more than obsessing over details is being clear that you will not be bound by squeamish political correctness. So, “Hillary Clinton can’t say the words Radical Islamic Terror. Anyone who can’t name the enemy can’t lead the country.”

Nobody could say that Mr Trump was a gifted orator or a gilded phrase-maker. He doesn’t use language to soothe, move to pity, extend empathy or invite reflection. But he is, in a very special way, the pretty great messenger he says he is. He takes big crude blocks of anger, passion, resentment, anguish and yes, from time to time, hope and optimism and hurls them, on behalf of his audience, at the enemies they share.

Mr Trump may have his own set of, equally distinctive, character flaws. They certainly include a certain recklessness in making claims about himself and others that do not always stand up to scrutiny.

But there is a reason he is considered more honest than Mrs Clinton by more voters. They believe that he is candid about what has gone wrong with America’s economy, its foreign policy, trade agreements and political leadership in a way no one else with power and wealth appears to be. They are tired of the carefully crafted and evasive political language that passes for deft communication skills in Washington. And they want the hot and strong blow torch rhetoric of a man who wears Washington’s scorn as a badge of honour.

All feel profoundly unhappy with the condition of their nation. They have flocked to the man, symbols and stances that advertise how angry they are. They are unhappy with a president who they feel has been apologetic about America and hostile to its traditions. They feel unhappy that the Democrats have chosen a candidate for the presidency on the basis of her wealth, connections, husband and sense of entitlement rather than picking a fighter for America. They feel unhappy that just when America needs an injection of confidence and vigour, that it may get another eight years of scandals, cover-ups, investigations and evasions, drift and introspection.

So they are prepared to take the momentous step of backing the first person who might be elected president without either having held high elected office or won a war. It is one thing to kick the establishment, quite another to take a gamble of such epic proportions. But that is what America might very well do.





Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London