Alex Morton is Director of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies, and was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
The 45th President is a controversial figure – to put it mildly. Yet despite all his stupidity and crassness, he is reshaping the Republican party in his own image. There are still a dwindling band of ‘Never Trump’ Republicans. But they are growing rarer. If, as seems fairly plausible, his party retains control of Congress in his first mid-term elections (which even Reagan, Clinton and Obama failed to do), they will probably vanish.
America’s Institutions abandoned conservatism before conservatism abandoned them
Trump’s rise is partly about economics. But it is also about institutions, and a wider cultural revolt.
Republicans that claim Trump is not a true conservative argue that he is disrespectful of American institutions, is economically naïve, and neglects America’s global role. But America’s institutions long ago became hostile to conservatives. The American left has, through its long march through the institutions, ensured that new graduates are saddled not just with debt, but politically correct views. The courts have sought to expand Government power and impose progressive viewpoints. America’s elites often seem to view their history as shameful and the white working class as distasteful.
Economically speaking, ordinary Americans see little to gain in continuing policies that have brought barely any income growth, shrinking pensions and falling home ownership. In respect to America’s global role, it wasn’t the children of Washington pundits who returned home in body bags when overseas interventions failed. Trump attacks Nato underspending because most Republicans became tired of being told by Washington that they needed to accept more and more intervention overseas, while seeing fewer and fewer benefits for themselves.
The Trump revolt was a revolt among the majority of Republican voters who did not want the status quo to continue. They often felt distaste for Trump personally, but felt he was prepared to take positions that needed to be taken (his election day approval rating was just 36 per cent, yet he won 46 per cent of the vote). The fact no one in Washington saw him coming was a sign of just how out of touch Washington had become.
Trump’s rise is the most extreme version of a worldwide trend
The rise of Trump goes with the rise of right-wing populism in Italy, the fall of the pro-immigration Moderate Party in the 2014 Swedish elections and Merkel leading the CDU in Germany to its worst results since 1949. Successful centre-right politicians such as Mark Rutte or Sebastian Kurz might not borrow Trump’s aggressive rhetoric but are certainly firmer on immigration and integration than their losing counterparts – and they have no shame in championing economic growth as a positive, positioning themselves against a wealthy metropolitan middle class that agonises over everything from national identity to economic sustainability (while itself benefitting from trends like the increasing need for university degrees, the growing ranks of well paid public sector officials, or increasing numbers of compliance or diversity teams in large companies).
Trump’s electoral coalition replaced those who had been to university with those who had not. The same thing happened in Italy, where the centre-right won just 29 per cent of graduates, compared to the left’s 37 per cent. In Austria, Kurz saw support for his party and his Freedom Party allies come from across all classes. The split is particularly visible in the divergence between university attendees in the public sector and private sector workers.
Could it happen here?
The Conservative Party in the UK is not immune to all this. Much attention has been paid to the economic drivers of the Brexit vote – and to the way that the Conservative coalition has, driven partly by Brexit, become less wealthy, more working-class, less metropolitan, and more culturally conservative.
But one element that has been underplayed is that way that, as Brexit has demonstrated, our institutions are increasingly and aggressively progressive – from the House of Lords, to academia, to the endless quangos and NGOs. Yet in Westminster little thought is given to what all this means. Outside of the military or monarchy, which institutions are conservatives meant to cherish? A Bank of England whose governor presides over the destruction of the savings culture? A Church of England whose Archbishop who seems embarrassed by the Church itself? In part, the realisation of all this is radicalising many conservatives – just as it has in America.
The backlash that drove the centre right in America was created by the left’s seizure of both economic and cultural institutions. A backlash in the UK seems just as likely – if it has not already arrived.
Brexit is just one issue where a gap is appearing between MPs and our supporters
Some will say that this is a strange idea. They would point to a Conservative Party that, in the name of claiming the centre ground, appears to be moving leftward on multiple fronts: voices within the Party call for the abandonment of immigration targets and attempts to target illegal migration; higher taxes and spending; and an excessive and illiberal focus on identity politics.
But exactly as happened in many centre-right parties around the world, a gap is slowly opening between those who call themselves conservatives and those who are their elected representatives. The Brexit backlash, for example, has been partly caused by a feeling that yet again the Establishment has won and conservatism has lost.
The emergence of such a gap has not tended to end well for centre-right parties. It has generally led either to electoral defeat (across parts of the Continent), or a takeover by a small group who seek to purge the local equivalent of those labelled by their opponents as RINOs – Republicans In Name Only. Such a process is necessarily traumatic – whether it comes about within the main centre-right party (Trump) or outside it (Italy).
Wanted – a better version of Trump
Britain would never want to import Donald Trump. But we can certainly learn from other successful centre-right politicians like Rutte and Kurz, and the global trends they represent – including in the USA.
What is needed, and what Trump has not yet really shown, is a plan to reshape society as Thatcher and Reagan tried to do and partially succeeded. The shift to a low tax and less unionised society, built around greater mass ownership, fundamentally changed the UK. The task for British conservatives is not just to push the Left’s buttons, as Trump does, but to understand how to reshape the country for the better by changing the institutions and frameworks that exist to take control back from the left. Think hard, speak clearly, and rewire society.