Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is How we invented Freedom and why it matters.
It must now be reckoned more likely than not that Donald Trump will win the Republican nomination, and so put Hillary Clinton in the White House. Like many conservatives, my attitude to the self-absorbed tycoon has shifted over the past six months from amusement through alarm to weary resignation. I kept waiting for the polls to turn – plenty of Republican candidates are anti-Establishment radicals without being foul-mouthed narcissists – but nothing seems to dent the Donald. One hundred and sixty-nine days have passed since he first moved ahead in the national polls and, during that time, his lead has widened by ten points. Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
I can’t think of a more unlikely candidate winning the nomination of one of the big parties. There have been presidential contenders from one end or the other of the spectrum – Barry Goldwater in 1964, George McGovern in 1972 – but these were former servicemen with solid records in office and charisma on the stump.
Then again, in a world where Jeremy Corbyn can become the head of a major party, Donald Trump surely can. The rules have changed; and you’re looking at the thing that changed them. The Internet has disintermediated politics. No longer does a clique of political correspondents get to decide what is mainstream. All sorts of opinions that were previously considered too bizarre to merit coverage turn out to be more popular than was thought. It won’t do to snort incredulously when Trump says he wants to build a wall along the Mexican border, on when Jeremy Corbyn refuses to condemn the IRA. Plenty of people agree – minorities, to be sure, but not insignificant minorities.
In 2008, I co-authored a book with Douglas Carswell called The Plan which, among other things, forecast that the web would finish off top-down politics and top-down punditry. Believe me, having predicted the phenomenon doesn’t make it any less weird when it happens. The Internet is an unequalled equaliser, which is bad news for many previously closed professions. All sorts of things – conveyancing, travel agency, academic research – are now within reach of any informed citizen. We are all journalists; we are all photographers; we are all politicians.
When politics was a cartel, some opinions could be completely disregarded. Rank had its own authority, and a party spokesman on widgets could expect to have his speeches covered simply because of his position. Not any more. Now, politicians must compel attention by virtue of what they are saying, not what office they hold.
Trump and Corbyn remind people like me – people, that is, who started out when the old rules held – how narrow the parliamentary spectrum is. It is human nature to imagine yourself closer to the middle than you really are; but, if I’m honest, the centre of gravity is probably quite a lot more authoritarian than I am. I suspect most people are to my Right on social questions, and to my Left on economic ones. Indeed, you could argue that the most under-represented position in Parliament is the kind of traditionalism associated with patriotic Old Labour, or with working class Toryism: high-spending, moralistic, anti-banker, anti-immigration, tough on law and order, mildly homophobic. It’s not my cup of tea, but it’s by no means a fringe position.
Trump’s detractors like to say that he sounds like an online comment thread. They’re right, but perhaps not in the sneering way they intend. The people who post the angriest comments feel ignored, taken-for-granted, disdained. As they see it, a gang of unpatriotic snobs occupies the main sources of opinion; only below the line do “real” views get voiced. Trump has surged on the back of their frustration.
In The Plan, Douglas and I argued for open primaries as the way to air all views. As J.S. Mill used to say, the best approach to politics is to let good ideas drive out false ones.
Has Trump proved us wrong? Has he discredited the primary system? Not yet. Look a little closer at the numbers and you’ll see that the reality TV star is better placed in states that hold caucuses or closed primaries; among the general population, his support is far flimsier. He may yet deflate, as Howard Dean did. And, if he does, it will because anger takes you only so far.
Even if the Donald does win the nomination, it won’t be the end of the world for the Republicans. Sure, they’ll lose the presidential race, but they have reason to be confident at state, congressional and gubernatorial level.
Contrast this with the awful predicament in which Labour finds itself. Jeremy Corbyn, too, benefited from a closed rather than an open primary: had the entire electorate had a say, it’s hard to imagine that he’d have won. But, under Britain’s relatively centralised political model, the well-intentioned old duffer now gets to define his party. It’s not just one man who favours pacifism or renationalisation – it’s Her Majesty’s Official Opposition.
It’s a foolhardy thing to make predictions, given what has happened so far, but two conclusions seem ineluctable. Donald Trump won’t be the 45th President of the United States; and Jeremy Corbyn won’t be Labour’s seventh Prime Minister. You might almost say that, despite everything, the system works.