The US media is presenting the outcome of the midterm elections as a political version of the Battle of Gettysburg, a decisive turning point for Donald Trump after his forces were repelled with heavy casualties all along the line. Moreover, it was supposedly Trump’s culpable ineptitude as Republican commander-in-chief that turned a potential victory into a smashing defeat.
There are calls for Ron DeSantis, fresh from an effortless re-election as Governor of Florida, to replace Trump as the Republican standard bearer. Absurdly, the Democrats are doing victory laps despite losing control of the House of Representatives and barely holding the line elsewhere.
Normally, it is election losers who minimise their failure and point to dubious silver linings. On this occasion, however, it is the Republican leadership talking up defeats in order to blame them on Trump and discredit him as a vote loser. Former Trump acolytes shamelessly turn their coats overnight and denounce him as a political liability.
They are not entirely wrong, but the negative spin is excessive and misleading: the decisive issue of the midterms was not Trump and his wrongdoings, but the Supreme Court decision on abortion in June reversing Roe v Wade.
Young unmarried women a crucial game changer
Some 27 per cent of voters said that abortion was the most important issue for them and 76 per cent of these voted Democrat according to the exit polls. Many pundits said at the time that the decision would transform the election and they were correct – despite the current spin that everybody expected a “red wave” or “red tsunami”. Young unmarried women voting overwhelmingly for the Democrats was a crucial game changer come election day on 8 November.
The Trump agenda is in reality the same as the Republican agenda on all the main issues: crime, inflation, gun control, abortion and immigration. When announcing his candidacy for the presidency in 2024 on Tuesday, he repeated his old dirge about American decline, speaking of “the blood-soaked streets” that are “cesspools of violent crime”. Nonsense though this is, since violent crime has fallen sharply in America since the 1990s, it was a main feature of Republican campaign advertisements aimed at frightening voters by pretending there is a crime wave and proposing more policing and incarceration as the solution.
Encouragingly, talking up crime did not work as well as Republicans had hoped, aside from in New York where it was relentlessly promoted by the Murdoch-owned media. Yet here, as with most other issues, Trump’s lies were just the same as Republican Party lies and Trump’s failures were the same as Republican Party failures. Though he is being blamed for backing unelectable crackpots, these candidates were all the choice of Republican voters in the primaries.
Impossible for Republican leaders to defenestrate Trump
Trump was always more of a symptom than a cause of what is wrong with American politics and society. Demonising him as the source of all evil is a gross oversimplification and not a good way of understanding the Republican problem. Less popular than he used to be, he still has an estimated 30 to 40 per cent core support in the Republican Party, making it impossible for Republican leaders to defenestrate him, as much as they would like to do so.
Probably, his political appeal was always overstated and his one great victory in the 2016 presidential race would not have been won without Hillary Clinton’s dysfunctional campaign handing him the race. But he still attracts millions of voters as well as repelling millions of others, something the Republicans cannot ignore.
When Trump announced his candidacy this week, he guaranteed the next presidential election will be watched with obsessive, if baffled, interest by the rest of the world. Governments will try to calculate what would be the impact of a second Trump presidency on the war in Ukraine and relations with China. They will sigh with relief every time his campaign falters or pundits declare that he cannot survive the latest scandal or court case. Public attention will be riveted, as it was in 2016 and 2020, on the ups and downs of the world’s greatest celebrity.
Britain’s unhealthy relationship with America
Nowhere is this foreign attention to be more intense than in Britain, which enjoys a peculiar and at times unhealthy relationship with America. I do not mean the close political and military alliance between the two countries, which has existed since 1940 and is a matter of sensible realpolitik.
I want to make a different point, which is often overlooked: it is frequently claimed that Britain has been held back by nostalgia for a lost empire, but I doubt if that is really the case. The British gave up their empire far more easily than the French.
The danger is rather that Britain behaves as if it was a mini-America. Political and cultural trends over there are replicated enthusiastically here and, on rare occasions. vice-versa. We had Margaret Thatcher and they had Ronald Reagan. They had Donald Trump and we had Boris Johnson. But lost in these parallels is the simple fact that the two countries are very distinct. What works in the US may not work in the UK and may do it serious damage instead.
US culture wars have little relevance here
Sophisticated discussion of the US-UK relationship often passes over the point that one country is much bigger than the other. Had Britain’s population and economy been five times larger than they are, then Brexit might have made sense. In the event, it meant that Britain always has the weaker hand when dealing with the EU.
Even the calamitous mini-Budget of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, inspired by crude US-derived neoliberal ideology, might have worked if Britain had the size and strength of the US. Those speaking glibly of Britain as a Singapore-on-Thames failed to notice that Singapore is a small country and will inevitably be pushed around by bigger and more powerful ones.
The Conservative Party has in many respects become an English nationalist party, yet it pursues culture wars that originated in the US and have little relevance here. “Woke-ism”, for example, is mainly to do with American racial and cultural divisions, and the conflict over statues in the US is fuelled by the fact that they are often of heroes of the Civil War whose legacy is enduring.
Paradoxically, the prospect of Trump returning to the White House and the Truss debacle may do Britain some good if they put an end to its self-destructive imitation game with America.