Doanld Trump, the property-magnate, serial business failure, and occasional game-show host, is standing to be the Republican Party's candidate for President of the United States. Remarkably, he's doing well in the polls, regularly getting figures of close to a third of the votes in the field, leaving his many rivals - Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorentina, Jeb Bush and many more - trailing. Let's remember, of course, that when we say 'votes' we're only talking about people voting for the unappetising group of GOP candidates - there's no indication that he would get anything like that in a full Presidential head-to-head. And let's remember too that not a single actual vote has been cast yet. It's all polls and speculation.
But still, it's a remarkable position for him to be in, particularly because through his campaign he has regularly, on numerous occasions, said things that the conventional political wisdom tells us should end someone's political career, let alone their campaign.
- He announced his candidacy with a rambling speech that included the pledge to build a wall along the 2000 mile US-Mexico border, which he would make Mexico pay for, designed to keep out Mexican immigrants, who, in the same speech, he denounced as criminals, drug-dealers, and rapists.
- He mocked John McCain's claim to be a war hero. McCain was shot down in Vietnam in 1967 and spent two and a half years being tortured or in solitary confinement; The Donald, coevally, managed to avoid the draft entirely.
- He claimed that he was getting tough questions from the Megan Kelly, Fox news presenter and debate moderator, because she was on her period.
- He claimed to have seen Muslims in New Jersey cheering the destruction of the Twin Towers and when a disabled journalist called him on it, he did a 'hilarious' mocking impression of a disabled person.
- Shortly after the November 2015 attacks in France, without indicating how such a policy could possibly work, he declared that the US Government should impose a ban on Muslims entering the country.
Trump has always been, certainly from the relative safety of Britain, a comic character. But it's the last of these policies that suddenly seem to suggest that he is not just foolish, but dangerous.
He's not dangerous because he's going to win. It seems close to certain that if he were picked by the GOP voters, in a head-to-head with Hillary Clinton (or even Bernie Sanders) he would lose and lose badly. But he's dangerous because he is stirring up atavistic, misanthropic, fearful and hateful impulses among the voters, people whose livelihoods were hit in 2008 and have not fully recovered; people who perhaps do sense that white privilege on which they used unthinkingly to rely is now being challenged; people who are scared of terrorism even though they are personally untouched by it.
And let's be clear, Trump is only doing this because he is an extreme narcissist. He doesn't want to be President. Why would he want that? He likes swanning about, playing golf, looking at pretty girls, shooting his mouth off. He has;'t got time for executive orders and budget strategies and diplomatic visits. He doesn't want to be President. What he does want is people to talk about him all the time, to know who he is. The mockery and the praise, the think-pieces and the cartoons, the interviews and the debates, the ads and the rallies - they are not the means; they are the point.
Genuinely, I'm not sure he has any serious political beliefs. He's just saying and doing things to get attention. If saying something outrageously racist will get him airtime and column inches, he'll do that. If childishly insulting his opponents draws people's attention, he'll do that. They're all the same to him. As has been revealed recently (to no apparent effect on his supporters) he has changed his views on dozens of issues: drugs (he used to say legalise them, now he doesn't); abortion (he was pro-choice, now he's pro-life); gun (from gun controls to gun rights); Syrian refugees (from 'you have to accept them' to 'ban them all'); gay rights (he was in favour, now he's gone cold on that). He'll just say whatever he thinks will get him attention and he is so self-interested he doesn't care what cultural damage he leaves in his wake.
He is going to disappoint his followers because, I suspect, they aren't really hero-worshipping him; they are inspired by the thought that he might be able to do something, cut through the usual political compromises and do something. But he's not going to get into power and at some point this will be obvious. It might be that his fellow candidates decide to step down in favour of the one of them that they think can beat him - and he'll either give up petulantly or try running as an independent (both of which will annoy people). It may be that somehow he ends up on the ballot paper but when he loses he'll do so with bad grace and without any vision for how he can help the country. He doesn't want to be President; he is trolling the American people. He is literally wasting everyone's time.
I'm struck by some similarities with the brief rise and fall of General Georges Boulanger in France of the 1880s. Boulanger was a popular, charismatic French General promoted to the Cabinet where he served as War Minister. His popularity derived from his hostility to Germany; in a France still reeling from their humiliation in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, his call for 'revanche' [revenge] struck a nerve and led to his popular nickname Général Revanche. His popularity (and his arrogant individualist manner) started to cause tensions in the Cabinet who were shocked when at an election for the prefecture of the Seine he gained 100,000 votes without even being on the ballot paper. As a result he was sacked and, in an attempt to neuter his influence, redeployed to the provinces. As he tried to board the train at the Gare de Lyon a huge crowd of thousands tried to stop him, insisting 'il reviendra!' [he will return].
Boulanger initially had the support of leftists and republicans, but soon started to gather Bonapartists and monarchists around him. Expelled from the army for political activities he ran in a number of seats in 1888. In the event, while his group were successful they were still a tiny minority in parliament and the Boulangistes made little impact - and Boulanger himself was revealed to be an orator of very limited appeal. So he resigned his seat in a sort of protest and stood again, this time as Deputy for Paris, which he won in January 1889 with a huge majority. His supporters were divided: the militarists urged him to mount a coup d'état, which concerned the monarchists who wanted him to restore the King. At the election, a crowd of 50,000 gathered to toast his victory at the Cafe Durand on the Place de la Madeleine (now a branch of Ralph Lauren, fact fans), ready to march on parliament. In the event, Boulanger seemed uncertain what to do and the moment was lost. He declared an intention to take power legally in the forthcoming elections, which created a pause in which his opponents acted, accusing him of subversion. Fearing arrest - and to the horror of his supporters - Boulanger fled to Brussels and then to London where he held court at the Hotel Bristol on Burlington Gardens in Piccadilly.
His candidates continued to rally and campaign, but the absence of the charismatic general pulled their punches and they were strongly defeated at the election of July 1889. support dwindled and his remaining supporters were subject to prosecutions for conspiracy. Two years later, in September 1891, Boulanger went to the Ixelles cemetery in Brussels and shot himself on the grave of his mistress.
There are some obvious parallels between Trump and Boulanger. Both men seemed to be somewhat without strong political beliefs of their own. At the start of his political career Boulanger was mistaken for a left-winger; by the end his support came entirely from the right. Boulanger's policy platform was the famous Revanche, Reforme, Restoration (Revenge [against Germany], Reform [of the constitution] and Restoration [of the monarchy]), at least two of which were extremely vague, as were the famous slogans 'Boulanger is the People' and his call for a 'True Republic' and an 'Honest Republic'. He was widely seen as embodying inchoately - in the words of a more recent commentator - the 'restoration of French national grandeur',* which we might rephrase as the slogan 'Make France Great Again'. It was easier to say what he was against: he was against the political system and against foreigners. He whipped up suspicion of religious groups who might be thought to be infiltrating the country - in Boulanger's time it was the Jews (just as now, a similar demagogue might choose to pick on Muslims). He was a clumsy orator a defect he made up for by a tireless appetite for self-advertisement. He had little patience or capacity for the hard work of political office, resigning when he wasn't sacked. Finally, when faced with a choice between the causes he supported or his own interests, he chose himself.
Boulangisme might have seemed like a blip in French history, a passing fad that left little trace in French politics and society. But I'm not sure that's true. While Boulanger's end was ignominious - committing suicide in self-imposed exile over his mistress's grave - Boulanger had an effect on French society, and not a good one. The Right during the nineteenth century had tended to rally around the various restorationist factions - the Orléanists, the Legitimists, the Bonapartists - each of which favoured a different candidate to restore as ruler of France. These were mostly terrible bloody people and they held back democratic reforms and the growth of a truly successful Republic for many decades. There was a good deal of popular support for the Bonapartist cause, while the monarchist Organists and Legitimists tended to have more bourgeois and former-aristocrat support.
But Boulanger messed with the alchemy of French politics. He killed off the monarchist groups by abandoning them just at the moment that they signed up to him. He whipped up enthusiasms that he was incapable of satisfying, fostering a contempt for the political establishment that outlasted him. Most particularly, he turned a blind eye, at the very least, to the anti-semitism of his allies (like Henri Rochefort), and Boulangisme was a gateway to overt far-right, anti-semitism for many others (like Maurice Barrès). Boulanger left the French royalist right in tatters, with a new cause in anti-semitism on the rise. The Boulanger Affair was, then, a stepping-stone on the way to the horrors of the Dreyfus Affair, in which the anti-semitism bubbling up in the late 1880s was given full expression.
This is why Donald Trump is not just a joke. The crude, narcissistic path that he is cutting through American political culture and discourse is absurd but, in the process, this stupid, ugly-hearted man is stirring up racial hatreds that will overshadow the small stain he otherwise will leave on history. The things he is saying about Muslims are ignorant lies but they are resonating in a scared culture and there are numerous examples of the vilest expressions of anti-Muslim hatred to be seen every day. Anyone with the slightest sense of responsibility would caution wisdom and intelligence and evidence, but Donald Trump doesn't care about these things. Wisdom and intelligence and evidence aren't going to get him talked about.
And so he continues to whip up blind hatred, hatred that will outlast him, even if, some time soon the news arrives that, on a golf course somewhere, clutching a picture of Ivana, he has taken his own miserable life.
* Irvine, William D. Royalism, Boulangism, and the Origins of the Radical Right in France. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 4.