Donald Trump is a quintessentially American figure. He speaks for millions of people and has democratic legitimacy: he won an election.
It would be an error to brush these points aside when reacting to the President’s comments on the riots. His manners may, as ever, leave something to be desired.
There is often something repulsive in his tone, as when he tweeted of the protesters outside the White House:
“Nobody came close to breaching the fence. If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least. Many Secret Service agents just waiting for action.”
In an earlier tweet he used the expression “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, a phrase which could be traced back half a century to Walter Headley, chief of police in Miami, who in 1967 declared:
“There is only one way to handle looters and arsonists during a riot and that is to shoot them on sight. I’ve let the word filter down: When the looting starts the shooting starts.“
This harsh doctrine divided opinion in 1967, and divides opinion now. But if one declares that only brutes and racists believe in shooting looters, one commits a political blunder.
During the 2011 London riots, I found myself discussing how to regain control of the streets with one of the kindest and gentlest people I know, a man of immigrant descent, a devout member of the Roman Catholic Church and a firm supporter of the Labour Party.
He replied that anyone on the streets should be shot.
“But what if they only went out to buy a pint of milk?” I objected.
“I don’t care,” he said. “They shouldn’t be on the streets.”
The riots terrified him, so he called for stern measures, regardless of the injustices these would entail.
It is generally noticeable that the nearer a riot gets to someone’s house, the more authoritarian he or she becomes.
The President understands this. In another tweet, which included a swipe at Joe Biden, his rival in this year’s presidential election, Trump demanded:
“Get tough Democrat Mayors and Governors. These people are ANARCHISTS. Call in our National Guard NOW. The World is watching and laughing at you and Sleepy Joe. Is this what America wants? NO!!!”
In any difficulty, Trump looks around for someone else to blame, and makes unsubstantiated allegations against them. The great denouncer of fake news himself disseminates fake news to his 81 million Twitter followers.
It is easy to become so angered by his behaviour that one overlooks his cunning. He wants his opponents to fly into a rage and hurl moral condemnations at him, for he calculates that while condemning him, they will imply that anyone who voted for him is a disgrace to humanity.
That is the trap into which Hillary Clinton plunged when she said “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables”, went on to describe them as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, islamaphobic—you name it”, and added that “thankfully they are not America”.
Fatal words. Who is she to decide who is an American and who is not? People see in the liberals a bunch of hypocrites who have no interest in their fellow citizens, but wish to use their superior morality as a club with which to beat their compatriots into submission.
Trump begins, in these circumstances, to look attractive. He too is looked down upon by these grand and prosy liberals. He too knows what it is like to be scorned for being fat and never having read the right books, or indeed any books.
Herbert Butterfield identified, in The Whig Interpretation of History, the tendency of Whig historians to see the history of England as a glorious progress towards ever greater freedom.
Someone should write a similar essay on the liberal interpretation of American history, in which everything that does not form part of a glorious progress towards ever greater liberalism is treated as an anomaly which somehow does not count.
One of the odd things about this interpretation is that the liberals are at the same time anxious to emphasise all the shameful aspects of American history, including the horror of slavery, and the failure for a hundred years after the Civil War to ensure that liberated African Americans enjoyed equal rights with poor white southerners.
This looks like, indeed is, a grave inconsistency. But through every exploration of this perplexing history runs a guiding thread. In the eyes of the liberal historians, their moral superiority, their right to judge, remains self-evident.
No one can write, say, a Confederate history of the United States, a lament for the lost code of the Virginia gentleman, without being driven out of decent society. The only question, debated with ineffable earnestness, is whether the Confederate statues should be torn down.
Yet Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe were all from Virginia, and without them the United States would not exist. One of the pleasures of writing a volume of brief lives of all the American presidents, published in March, was reading about these remarkable men.
The election in 1828 of Andrew Jackson, a born fighter who represented the ruthless and brutish strain in American life, was the first of many revenges taken by outsiders, men of whom polite society did not approve, but who had what it took to win a raucous, vacuous and demeaning presidential campaign.
Trump is the most recent of these vengeful outsiders. He came as a dreadful shock to the liberals, who had studied neither his predecessors in American history, nor the state of mind of his supporters.
In From the Other Shore, Alexander Herzen examined the failure of the European revolutions of 1848, and gave this account of the 18th-century origins of liberalism:
“The thought of the injustice of the social order, the thought of equality, flashed like an electric spark through the best minds of the last century. In a bookish, theoretical way, men realised the injustice of the times, and tried to redress it, bookishly. This tardy repentance on the part of the minority was called liberalism. In a genuine desire to reward the people for thousands of years of humiliation, they declared it sovereign, demanded that every peasant should become a political person…abandon his work, that is, his daily bread, and…concern himself with general matters. To the question of daily bread liberalism did not give much serious thought. It is too romantic to trouble itself with such gross requirements. It was easier for liberalism to invent the people than to study it.”
Something like this has happened in the United States. American liberals have a fervent belief in equality, and will do everything they can for the American people short of spending any time with them, when it might become possible to ascertain what the people actually want.
The liberals seem to have espoused, in the name of the people, a morality which has the unfortunate effect of cutting them off from the people. Trump with his brutal intuitions fills the resulting gap.
Nobody knows what will happen in the presidential election on Tuesday 3rd November. But it is rather extraordinary that after making such a hash of his response to the Coronavirus, Trump is still in with a chance of a second term.
Andrew Gimson is the author of Gimson’s Presidents.