Despite the shifting themes and political events Donald Trump remains the lead candidate in the polls for the Republican Party nomination. There are a myriad of reasons to think that this won’t translate into him actually becoming the nominee but then again there have been a myriad of reasons to assume that he would peak weeks ago.
In the meantime simply saying whatever he likes continues to work as a strategy. He has entrenched support in a section of the Republican Party base and this were a numerical quirk in our thinking can be misleading. If Trump has cornered off a section of Republican primary voters of a particular ideological bent then the poll numbers represent the upper limit of his support. Appeal to a small group and never compromise in pursuit of support beyond that group and you can create incredible enthusiasm. Trump, perhaps accidentally, has found that group – and they represent about 35% (possibly as high as 45-50% if we assume some overlap with Carson etc) of a section of US politics (say about 25-30%). Take the upper limits of those figures (50% of the 30%) and Trump’s views are centred around a core 15% of the US population.
In the UK the nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-European Union ‘UK Independence Party’ tends to poll around 15% and that is worth remembering. Trump’s support in itself is worrying but it isn’t by itself signs that the US population has gone mad. The outer 15% fringe has got active – the question is how influential can they be?
Here there is a problem. In Britain the rise of UKIP occurred as a section of the British right found themselves marginalised by a more centrist bloc in the Conservative Party. In the US political parties are much loser entities and the primary system encourages active public participation. That in itself isn’t a problem, it is how the US system negotiates its own political coalitions. However, the electoral systems used mean that there can be an amplification effect. At anyone point it is the candidate with the most that wins (for different kinds of most). If you have 35% of something and everybody else has no more than 34%, then you win and typically you win the lot of whatever it is. In other words it is exactly one of those cases were a strong well disciplined minority of voters can amplify their impact by wiping out at each stage a more diverse spread of voters.
So the possibility of Trump winning the nomination remains something that can’t be discounted. The positive side is that the loose-coalition nature of the US political parties means that Trump winning the Republican nomination doesn’t mean he magically wins Republican votes. However, political campaigns are fickle things and in an era of disenchantment with establishment politics Hillary Clinton (assuming she is the Democrat nominee) may face some difficulties. In addition the US electoral college system for Presidential Elections is exactly the kind of electoral system that can amplify marginal victories into an absolute victory. Trump can afford to alienate votes in many states so long as he can win enough of the other states.
It is in this context that is notable we saw very recently Republican’s using the word ‘fascist’ to attack Trump. This is both welcome and extraordinary. US conservatives do not tend to punch right or use the ‘f’ word except as a way of a-historically insulting people on the left. Calling Trump a fascist is a surprise but it is worth considering why Republican’s worried about Trump’s continuer popularity are using such loaded language.
Firstly, it is a fair description of his rhetoric – at least if we accept the ‘Ur-Facsist’ criteria I posted yesterday from Umberto Eco. However the other problem they have is that much of what Trump says is just plain stupid. His plans to build a huge wall between Mexico and the US is stupid and his claims that he will make Mexico pay for the wall are equally stupid. ‘Stupid’ is the most relevant point about these policies rather than ‘fascist’ because they clearly aren’t ever going to actually happen. The problem for Trump’s rivals (at least the ones with at least some sense that political policies at least need to seem feasible) is the one thing they can’t say easily is that an idea is ‘stupid’.
This takes us back to the Eco essay. Point 4 of Eco’s criteria was the rejection of analytical criticism. Now it is important to remember that Eco is not saying that any one criteria is specifically fascist but rather that adopting a majority of them tends to make something highly resemble fascism. Eco ties points 2, 3 and 4 together to link the rejection of modernism with irrationality, irrationality with actions for its own sake without consideration of whether it achieves its aims (e.g. building a wall to stop immigration) and the rejection of critical thinking. This nasty nexus has been rife in the Republican party for decades. For example the Iraq War had a strong element of action for its own sake (something to do as a reaction to 9-11 but not actually tied to any clear strategy in the so called War on Terror).
Consequently calling even an overtly stupid idea ‘stupid’ is breach of the social compact within the modern US right. To attack the feasibility of an idea too harshly is taken as an attack on the intelligence of the people who find the idea appealing. It is a kind of reversal of the argument ad-hominem i.e. an attack on an idea is taken as an attack on the person. Of course the people who might find Trump’s idea attractive (or found the Iraq War a sensible reaction – which was a much bigger and politically diverse group) the problem is not that they are stupid but that they are engaging with the idea critically. The notion of action for its own sake has taken hold and hence it isn’t just unnecessary to pull the idea apart and see if it works but actively seen as morally wrong to do so.