Something strange has been happening over the last six months. In focus groups I’ve been running on a range of issues, one politician has been surging in popularity. A year ago, almost everyone in every group agreed he was a clown or deeply unpleasant or both; now in any focus group you find yourself in, his name is raised with respect by half of those in the room.
The politician’s name? FT readers look away now: Donald Trump.
I have written about Trump on these pages occasionally over the last few years. I’ve always disliked his brand of politics. I hoped he’d never win the Presidency and I recommended here that the British Government either bin his proposed high-profile visit to the UK or seriously downgrade its importance. Whether you define as a libertarian or conservative – as most of us that read this site will likely do – he comes across as an ideological imposter. He doesn’t seem like “one of us”. His surging popularity in Britain is depressing but real.
Last week I wrote about how politicians’ moves to delay or derail Brexit risks turning Leave voters into the stereotype of angry Trump voters – people that reject “London politicians”, in the same way Trump voters reject Washington. But this doesn’t mean that British Trump fans are all hardcore Leave voters; on the contrary, in the groups I’ve been running, pro-Trump comments have been flying out of the mouths of people from across the political spectrum, and from those that voted both Leave and Remain.
I can still picture the voter who was must positive towards Trump: a man from the North West; from a C1/C2, BME background; who had voted for different parties over the years; and who voted Remain and who considered himself left-wing. He disliked Trump’s politics, but marvelled at the strength of his opinions and his decisiveness. “You might not like what he says, but he says what he thinks and he just does whatever he wants”. This man’s comments are typical – and it’s commonplace to hear statements suggesting that Trump would make a brilliant negotiator for the British Government in our exit talks with the EU.
The seemingly never-ending saga of our Brexit negotiations has made people crave strong leadership and decisive action, but so too has the fact that Britain appears to be making little progress of any real note on domestic issues. Things seem stuck in a rut, where they have been for many months. Again, regardless of whether people lean left or right, and whether they voted Leave or Remain, voters are desperate for the country to move forward again – and Trump is a politician that, in their eyes, seems to get the need for action and change. He doesn’t worry about offending people, they think, he gets things done.
Interestingly, as I indicated last week, people don’t draw simple comparisons between Trump and Theresa May; they don’t think that Trump is strong and May is weak. In fact, voters increasingly praise May for her strength and resilience; they think that she is doing everything possible to secure action on Brexit and that she is being undermined primarily by a mixture of Corbyn’s Labour and European politicians (not a great look for Corbyn, by the way). To more and more voters, she’s tough.
To restate: respect for Trump doesn’t mean the public are aligned to his politics and genuine British Trump voters are extremely rare (I can’t recall more than a couple). People are not desperately worried about political correctness here or the prospect of losing a culture war; you don’t hear people talk about Trump and in the next breath about the likes of Nigel Farage. Those that make pro-Trump comments are usually mainstream voters that want change and action – and that should provide us with some reassurance.
However, we can only reassure ourselves so far. For the respect that is building for Trump means more and more voters are likely to be open-minded to those that pledge change and action – regardless of whether they are conventionally respectable. While a delayed or derailed Brexit virtually guarantees at least some unpleasant outcomes at the ballot box, a general lack of political progress means that many voters are going to be sympathetic towards anyone that pledges decisiveness and an intolerance towards inaction.