The Blog

A Tall Poppy: Donald Trump in a Field of Professional Politicians

That is the lesson for mainstream politicians from the rise of Trump and people like him. They don't need to change course and pander to every whim and prejudice of the electorate; instead they need desperately to rediscover the ability to inspire, to excite and to lead.

As usual on a Sunday I enjoyed a quick blast of the Mail Online yesterday morning. Amongst the usual sidebar-of-shame fare lurked an opinion piece by Steve Hilton, "former advisor to David Cameron", dealing with the 'Trump phenomenon'. There are a growing number of articles by commentators explaining how The Donald has taken the Republican primaries by storm; given his reputation as a "political Svengali" I settled down to read the Hilton contribution to the canon with interest.

His central point is, increasingly obviously, correct: dismissing Trump as a blow-hard populist whose campaign will ultimately sink under the weight of its own contradictions is short-sighted and appears not to be even slightly true. It is understandable that the chattering classes, and particularly the Republican elite, originally made this ultimately patronising assumption. Not only did history suggest that the normal order would eventually be restored, but political scientists claimed to have numerical and other evidence to back up this presumption. But everyone seems to have been wrong. The question is: why?

Hilton's thesis is that Trump's success stems from a rebellion against a "technocratic agenda ... implemented by politicians of both Left and Right". He argues that the political class "favours big business over small, fetishises globalisation, and is relaxed about immigration - regardless of the consequences for working people". Voters have "had enough of being dismissed and patronised by the elite", and are turning instead to figures like Trump, and Sanders, and presumably Syrizia, Podemos, Alternative für Deutschland, Jeremy Corbyn and so on and so on to give voice to their anger.

It is of course more than a little ironic when someone who has so directly benefitted from the upsides of globalisation and from the "revolving door between Westminster and Whitehall and the boardrooms of big businesses" complains so vociferously about it. More importantly some of Hilton's arguments are at the very least questionable. Some might argue, for example, that globalisation has done more to fuel growth in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere recently than any number of years of aid and development support. Others may feel that there is little evidence of politicians favouring big business; in fact, as I have argued many times before , the reverse is far too often true. But Hilton is absolutely right that people feel patronised and more and more alienated from politics.

This is not completely surprising. If people see their jobs being taken by workers here or in far-flung lands who are manifestly being paid much less or who face less stringent environmental, health and safety, and other regulations they will naturally be resentful. But America has faced this crisis before: in the 1970s and 1980s jobs were apparently pouring over to Japan and the US was soon to be eclipsed as the world's dominant economic power. Not only did it not happen, but Americans continued throughout to vote for mainstream politicians like Reagan. And migration to richer countries has been going on for decades. In the UK it became a powerful political issue in the 1960s and 1970s and yet we too carried on voting for Labour and the Conservatives, just as we always had. No, there is some additional factor at play.

My feeling is that the additional factor is one that Hilton, as a former adviser to current leading political figures, cannot say: that many politicians these days are just not that great. That is not to say they are not hard-working and sincere: in fact the vast majority of MPs in the UK act diligently and effectively for their constituents and I am sure the same is true of US Congressmen and women and elected representatives the world over. And some of today's politicians are 'big beasts', particularly by comparison to their current peers. But it is instructive to ponder how many current British Ministers would have made it into the Cabinet in 1981 or 1956, and how many of the Labour frontbench would have been frontline Ministers in 1997, let alone 1976 or 1965. Our political class in 2016 is all too often safety-first, painting-by-numbers and frankly not what it used to be.

So I would argue that the key reason Trump stands out and has done so well is that everyone else is so lacklustre. Marco Rubio is hardly on a par with Reagan, or Eisenhower, or even Nixon. And Hillary Clinton, despite her considerable accomplishments, seems unlikely to be a new Kennedy or Roosevelt. She may or may not be as good as Bill, but I doubt very much she will be the American Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir or Margaret Thatcher. Compared to Trump the rest of the field is bland and uninspiring and samey and historically insignificant. At a time when we need a leader with the strategic vision to lead us over the top the electorate is confronted by managerial types with the tactical nous to cower in the trenches.

People can handle change, such as that wrought by globalisation, provided they are guided through it by leaders with vision and brio and a sense of momentum. They don't really mind being patronised, provided it is by people they respect. A feeling of economic uncertainty and mistrust in the political process creates a sour mood, but it alone does not explain Trump's success. It is the absence of strong and impressive figures at the top of established parties which has allowed The Donald to do so well. That is the lesson for mainstream politicians from the rise of Trump and people like him. They don't need to change course and pander to every whim and prejudice of the electorate; instead they need desperately to rediscover the ability to inspire, to excite and to lead.