Why is Donald Trump a remotely serious contender for the American presidency? It’s a question that many people have asked, not least many Americans who don’t care for him. The answers you usually get tend to refer to an increasingly angry electorate faced with disturbing social change and a political system that’s seen as failing the person in the street, and no doubt that’s part of the truth. However, there is another way to look at it – why is it so inconceivable that someone like Mr Trump could be a serious contender for political leadership in the UK?
Note that I say in the UK specifically, because if you define “someone like Mr Trump” as “flamboyant billionaire from outside the conventional party system whose appeal is based on populist, inflammatory rhetoric”, there has been at least one comparable example in Europe – Silvio Berlusconi, of Italy. More about him in a minute. However, it remains the case that no-one remotely similar in this country has ever looked like taking political power. At best, they’ve been colourful characters on the margins of power, like Lord Beaverbrook in the early twentieth century.
Part of the difference is that between a parliamentary system where political parties are everything and a presidential system where they are weak by comparison. Of course, American politicians carry party labels, and the party machinery is not totally irrelevant to them – after all, Mr Trump is seeking the nomination of a political party. However, they do tend to operate much more as individuals than British politicians. You become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom by becoming leader of a political party which then wins an election, and you become leader of the party by getting the support of its membership.
US presidents are not party leaders, as such, and although they contend for nomination, most of the people voting in those primary elections are not members of a party in the card-carrying British sense. They may simply be registered supporters of a party or even ordinary voters with no institutional connection to it. So you don’t need to have won over a cohesive organisation before making your bid for power in the US, and that removes a powerful brake on mavericks. And the voters in the actual election are voting for an individual with a party label, not a party with an individual leading it. Again, that gives a lot more scope for the charismatic and controversial individual.
Where you have had comparable individuals in Europe, like Berlusconi, they’ve had to effectively set up their own parties in order to win parliamentary elections. That can be done by rich enough individuals where there’s proportional representation, although it can be formidably difficult to overcome established party machines. Berlusconi had the advantage of facing opponents who had been heavily discredited by corruption. It is far more difficult for outsiders to break in to the established set up in a first past the post electoral system. Just ask UKIP.
Beside the constitutional differences, though, are the cultural ones. The kind of social and economic problems facing Americans aren’t wildly different from those facing us, but the UK was never founded on idealistic faith in democracy, or anything else really. There was a historically fairly short period from the late 1940s to the late 1970s when there was more idealism around the idea of achieving social equality through the Welfare State, but that’s largely gone now, certainly as an official ideal. Most of the time, there has never been much pretence that Britain was not run in the interests of a small minority and politicians have offered varying kinds of justification for this.
You might say that, in practice, the US has been much the same, but the pretence has always been a lot stronger and a lot more genuinely believed. And no-one is more angry and more willing to look for extreme solutions than an idealist who believes their ideals are under threat, and those are exactly the sort of people who support Donald Trump – people who genuinely believed in the (mostly white, mostly male) American Dream and now think it’s about to turn into a nightmare where illegal Mexican immigrants and insane transsexuals take all their money and spend it on free healthcare.
Idealism can be a very dangerous thing. Cynics are a lot more prepared to compromise to achieve their ends. Cynics would probably have left Saddam Hussein in power and not encouraged the Arab Spring, and the world overall might have been a better place for it. A cynic would avoid extreme rhetoric, so as to appeal to the maximum number of people. A cynic would not be so easily swayed by scare-mongering visions of the future. Right now, America needs more cynics.