Traditional parties are losing the middle class
Six months ago the ascent of Donald Trump to the Republican nomination was unthinkable. With hindsight, the political rise of the billionaire reality TV star now seems inevitable. This is not because he is the most qualified person to lead America. Far from it. He has benefited from the implosion of the Republican Party during the Barack Obama presidency, and his triumph may seal its destruction.
Republicans like to think of themselves as the heirs of Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves. Since the election of Mr Obama in 2008, the Republican base has been in the grip of a nativist fervour which depicts the president – born in Hawaii with the middle name Hussein and having spent part of his childhood in Indonesia – as a foreigner and thus unworthy to be president. This, of course, is a lie. But it has led the party to devote its energies to stopping him being re-elected in 2012 (it failed) and to bringing the government to a halt rather than working with the White House to fix America’s ills.
The poster boy for the campaign to isolate Mr Obama was none other than the Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who did more than anyone else to bring gridlock to Washington and prevent any cross-party deals in the Senate. Mr Cruz finally abandoned his quest for the Republican nomination on Tuesday after being soundly defeated in the Indiana primary by Mr Trump.
Mr Cruz’s failure is hardly a surprise – he is not an attractive or inspiring personality outside evangelical Christian circles and is loathed and despised by his colleagues in the Senate. Only 12 per cent of Indiana’s primary voters said they would be excited if he was elected president.
Mr Trump has now seen off all the Republican candidates with experience of elected office. The primary season always likes an outsider – typically a state governor rather than a senator – who claims to be about to clean up Washington, but this year is extra special in highlighting real outsiders.
Mr Trump has no history of Republican politics: he is a populist in economic terms and an isolationist abroad. The insurgent on the Democratic side, Senator Bernie Sanders, is an independent socialist – a super maverick on the American political scale.
Traditional parties are losing the trust of the voters all over the developed world, but the Republican party’s decline is of a different order. By pursuing ideological fantasies and failing to do anything for their voters at a time of stagnant wages in America, it is now being deserted by its old supporters. Not surprisingly, Mr Trump’s record as a dealmaker, rather than someone who takes pride in gumming up the machinery of power, is an inspiring characteristic. That it comes in a reality TV wrapper of racist and sexist insults, barefaced lies and cheap provocations is either an added bonus or a campaign ploy that can be forgiven.
The plight of US political parties can be simply explained by the former World Bank economist Branko Milanovic, author of Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization, who has compiled a graph setting out the winners and losers over the past 15 years of economic change.
According to his calculations, the poorest of the poor have not seen much change from globalisation. The global middle class – many of them Chinese – have prospered mightily, doubling their incomes. For the winners of the pre-1988 era, the opposite is true: the middle classes of the developed world – which in America used to include industrial workers – have seen incomes stagnate.
Not surprisingly, the global top 1 per cent have also prospered. So the effect of globalisation is to lift millions out of poverty in the poor countries at the cost of depressing the incomes of wage-earners in the developed countries. These are Mr Trump’s people and this is why they are angry.
The middle classes are the anchors that stabilise democracies. Now that they are coming adrift, and voters are empowered by social media, politics has become a crazy world of unpredictability. In Europe, the soft consensus in favour of further integration is being challenged in France, Germany and in the former communist states, with the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, now claiming that the EU is a threat to his country’s identity. The fracturing of liberal democracy will provide some comfort to the Chinese communist party, which likes to point out that democracy gives precedence to showmanship over strategy, in contrast to the meritocracy of one-party rule where the leadership is renewed every decade behind closed doors.
All previous predictions on the presidential race have been off the mark so it is dangerous to forecast the result. But all the polling evidence puts Hillary Clinton as a safe bet for the presidency. Mr Trump has alienated too many sections of the electorate, including Hispanics and women, to catch up with her, pollsters say.
Given that Mrs Clinton has been in the public eye for more than 30 years, it is unlikely that new information could emerge to change perceptions of her.
If by some fluke America ends up with a President Trump, the country’s global leadership will be called into question, prompting fear and ambition in equal measure around the world. Mr Trump is an isolationist – keen to build a wall on the Mexican border and keep out non-citizen Muslims – who sees US hegemony since 1945 as a cost rather than a benefit. Allies will be concerned about who will protect them against China and Russia.
But the more likely result in November must be a collapse of the Republican vote as voters punish the Grand Old Party for falling into the clutches of an angry mob that wants to roll back the 21st century. The GOP – and many others all over the developed world – will have to find a new way to connect with voters.
Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs.
On Twitter: @aphilps
Published: May 5, 2016 04:00 AM