Simon Jenkins: With every sneer, liberals just make Trump stronger
Insulting the president insults the white working class that voted for him
Trump supporters: Forty-two per cent of American adults are classified as white working class. For two decades they have seen incomes shrink in favour, as they see it, of welfare recipients, “identity groups”, graduates and the rich.
Did I tell you Donald Trump is a vulgar, foul-mouthed, meat-faced, 71-year-old redneck buffoon? To be honest, he is a fossil-fuel guzzling, Big Mac-eating, pussy-grabbing, racist dick. He has hubris syndrome with paranoid narcissistic disorder. Do you read his tweets? The English is dreadful. How can a man run the country who is so uncouth, with that hair, those ties, those baggy suits? He is a Ba’athist generalissimo, the president of a banana republic. He is anti-Christ. There. Does that make you feel better?
All the above phrases are culled from a brief Google scan on the current American president. They reflect a melange of national shame, liberal trauma, snobbery and class hatred. They extend across the Atlantic and around the world. They assume two things. One is that Trump is so appalling it is inconceivable he could win a second term in office. The other is that deploying the same language as he did to win office is the best way to send him packing.
I hope the first is true, but I am not sure about the second. The comparison this week between Trump’s scripted and spontaneous reactions to the Charlottesville riot spoke volumes of his technique and his appeal. He failed to fully address the one aspect of the riot where attacking the left might have had traction, its Orwellian “history scrubbing” of the Confederate hero General Robert E Lee. Instead he used the occasion to denigrate the “alt-left”, and ramp up his appeal not just to the “alt-right” but to the silent right that, perhaps ashamedly, sympathises with it.
Trump made it almost arrogantly clear that his formally scripted criticism of the right was merely to appease Washington’s “liberal elite”. He promptly erased it in the sort of street fight with the media that his followers love. Every time this happens, Fox , Drudge , Breitbart and his social media operators gleefully edit clips and feed them to his millions of supporters. A BBC documentary by Jamie Bartlett this week showed how Trump may be a gastronomic and sartorial throwback, but he is a master at social media. The 1990s thesis that the internet would turn the world into one vast lovable, liberal community has never looked less likely than today. It plays into the hands of the political polarisers.
Trump’s approval rating is at a historic low for a first-year president of 34 percent . Republicans are almost as appalled by him as Democrats, since they fear he may lose them votes in next year’s mid-terms. This is even though they have not done badly in recent byelections. Hence the two former Bush presidents issuing a joint statement denouncing racism. The basis of Trump’s second-term appeal is already emerging: the tried and tested technique ( see Margaret Thatcher ) of taking on his own government and keeping up the fight.
Eliminating Trump will depend not on making liberal America feel good, but on detaching him from the bulk of his conservative support. The battle will not be for the elusive centre of American opinion, an entity that political scientists such as Jonathan Haidt and others have declared non-existent. It will be over a group that both Trump and the failed Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders identified as the white working class, urban as much as rural. Sanders did astonishingly well, given his socialist credentials.
Forty-two per cent of American adults are classified as white working class. For two decades they have seen incomes shrink in favour, as they see it, of welfare recipients, “identity groups”, graduates and the rich. Defining them as racist xenophobes and “deplorables”, as did Hillary Clinton, when they craved jobs and income security, was a sign of the “class cluelessness”, analysed by Joan Williams in the bestseller White Working Class . Written like a Victorian explorer encountering unknown tribes on the Congo, it has joined JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy in charting the origins of Trump’s appeal.
These people made up the bulk of the 63 million who voted for Trump. Insulting him insults them. When the insults carry a tinge of cultural, intellectual and class superiority, they bite deep. As Edward Luttwak points out in the Times Literary Supplement , liberal America finds it hard to believe that since the crash “the median American family cannot any longer afford a new car”. That is the key to Trumpism, not the loud-mouthed spoilt brat but the word “JOBS” with which he ends his tweets.
In New York recently I read in the New York Times each day pages of columns competing with each other not just in criticising but in jeering at their president, to the point where I could understand his paranoia. Articles in the New Yorker discussed his mental health, his impeachment or his dismissal for incapacity under the constitution’s 25th amendment . It was all preaching to the converted.
Meanwhile a deafening wall descended somewhere beyond the Hudson river, where there lay a frightened, puzzled, increasingly poor America, one that had put its faith in a man who seemed to speak its language and address its fears. No one was reaching out to them, calmly explaining that others than Trump felt their pain. Trump does not appeal to the Republican wealth nexus, as did Ronald Reagan. He appeals to those whom the left thought were its own, and whom it has long neglected. Hence perhaps the fury that lies behind the insults.
Trump is easily depicted as a man whose narcissism renders him unsuited to the presidency. He is testing America’s constitutional power balance to the limit. Pundits assume that his ineptitude will be curbed by the “grown-ups” now gathered around him and by the weight of congressional opposition. Either by unforeseen accident, or by the rise of rivals, they predict he will be a one-term nightmare.
But Trump and his supporters thrive on the venom of their liberal tormentors. The old maxim should apply: think what your enemy most wants you to do, and do the opposite. Tolerating Trump may stick in the craw, but it must be counter-productive to feed his paranoia, to behave exactly as his lieutenants want his critics to behave, like the liberal snobs that obsess him.
If Trump wins again, it will be by convincing voters “the system” still cares nothing for them. He will say that it will be an eight-year job to bring his anarchic rage to bear on a smug establishment, and let him “finish the job”. I would rather not help him to that ambition.