Many British Conservatives will have experienced transatlantic difficulties at one time or another. Because we and the Republicans are each the centre right of our respective nations, there’s a tendency to assume that one’s party leaning in the UK reads across directly to one’s sympathies in the United States.
Sometimes, that’s generally true – it would have been relatively hard to find a Tory in the Thatcher years who wasn’t also a Reagan fan, as the two worked closely together to win the Cold War. But in recent years, the relationship has become more complex. There are still many Conservatives who feel a natural sibling affinity to the GOP, but there are a growing number who don’t. The growing importance of religion and, with it, issues of social paternalism in American politics since the 1990s is a rather alien concept in British politics, where faith is much more rare as a primary political indicator. The Bush years, with their foreign policy crises and fiscal looseness opened the policy gap further. Like it or not, the wider trend in the UK was that Dubya and his Party were unfashionable, and that had an inevitable impact in Tory circles, too.
While that experience hasn’t destroyed the relationship between American and British conservatives, it has certainly dented it. What will the rise of Donald Trump to become the 2016 Republican Presidential candidate do to those weakened links?
The Special Relationship still has some strength – witness Cameron’s recent insistence, only a few months after calling Trump “stupid and wrong”, that as nominee he “deserves our respect”. The fundamental closeness of the transatlantic alliance means that British Prime Ministers must work with American Presidents whether they like them personally or not – Cameron has wisely not slammed the door in the face of someone we may have to work with from next year. But it would be hard for many Tories to summon up great enthusiasm for a man whose proposals about Mexicans and Muslims leave a bad taste in the mouth, and who has allowed serious questions to hang over the future of NATO, the keystone of our national defence.
For some Conservatives, his flaws are sufficient to make them hope for a Clinton victory – even despite her long history of divisive identity politics, her looming security scandal and her sometimes troubled relationship with the truth. For plenty more, the Presidential race feels increasingly like the Iran-Iraq war as described by Henry Kissinger: “It’s a pity they can’t both lose.” Still others worry about the knock-on effect of Trumpery on British politics – with a tendency in some circles to spit the word “conservative” already, having it tied to another unpopular figure is unlikely to help, while many Eurosceptics had to stifle a groan last night as he came out in support of Brexit.
Still, if we think this is a dilemma for us, spare a thought for American Republicans. Many made no secret of their dislike for Trump during the primary process – and their quotes about him have now been used in a Clinton attack advert. Some now argue that for the sake of party unity, they must rally round their nominee, love him or loathe him. Newt Gingrich, for example, has appealed to GOP supporters to “unite or die”.
At least one recipient of his email replied: “I choose death, thank you.” There is a burgeoning #NeverTrump movement, including people like Louise Mensch, who argue that Gingrich has got it wrong – that uniting around a candidate who alienates large swathes of the Hispanic, female and young votes will in fact guarantee the death of the Republican Party. As one friend of mine, a long-standing activist who campaigned for Rubio, recently put it: “I will not support the nominee of the Democratic Party. I will not refuse to vote. But if the election were held tomorrow, I could not in good conscience entrust the presidency of the United States – with all of its awesome power and responsibility – to Donald Trump.”
That leaves them with a huge problem. Clinton, of all possible Democratic nominees, is an utterly unappealing alternative – many Republicans have spent decades loathing her, and could not bring themselves to place their cross next to her name. And yet they also cannot bring themselves to support the alternative – because they believe it would be bad for their nation and for their Party. Some hope against reasonable hope that a way can still be found to avoid having Trump on the ballot, while others are casting about for an independent to support. Some – including various figures at the top of the Party – whisper “Never Trump” while hoping that in fact they can encourage him to moderate in return for their support, which seems extremely optimistic.
As Fraser Nelson argues in today’s Telegraph, simply pulling the duvet over your head and hoping Trump will go away is an insufficient response – not least because if the man himself were to vanish, the voters enthused by his angry rallying yell would still be there. Like the UKIP challenge to the Conservative Party here, it isn’t good enough to paint this chunk of the electorate as somehow unacceptable or contemptible – rather, a centre right party which wants to have a future should ask itself why such voters feel left behind in the first place, and what it could do to win them over (crucially, with UKIP and Trump, the correct phrase is win over, not win back – many are entirely new recruits rather than defectors). In the British example, that meant the Conservatives seeking messages – like the prospect of a Miliband/SNP coalition – which would at least blunt an outside threat. For the Republican establishment, it requires them to find a platform and a person to harness what has become a force internal to their party.
In that sense, the closer analogy is the challenge currently faced by Labour’s so-called moderates. Many former Blairites and others of somewhat centrist persuasion feel their home island has been invaded by a horde of yahoos, who have put an incompetent in charge and now threaten to throw anyone who criticises him into the sea. Like the #NeverTrumpers, they can clearly see the likely electoral consequences of this error, and fear it will take years to recover from it, but find it almost impossible to scry out a way to take back control. Is loyalty in the short term the route to an opportunity to save the situation in the long term, or will it simply allow irreversible damage to be done? Will abstention in the short term change anything, or is it an abdication of responsibility? Alternatively, will active resistance from the outset secure victory at the earliest possible opportunity, or does it simply invite a final massacre?
Compared to mainstream Republicans and moderate Labourites, Tories agonising over their relationship with their cousins in the United States have it easy.