Belief in their own propaganda and an obsessive hatred of Donald Trump are once again threatening to capsize those who want to stop him and the Republicans from retaking the White House and dominating Congress.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton tried to put unrelenting focus on Trump’s failings, convinced that these were so flagrant that they would alienate the majority of voters. The demonisation backfired because it gifted Trump millions of hours of free television time as his every word was covered by the media, while Clinton’s speeches were cut or ignored. Assisted further by Clinton’s comically inept campaign, Trump was able to win an election that he had expected to lose.
Five years on and the Democrats have just been defeated at the polls in a series of closely watched elections for much the same reasons as they lost in 2016. They pursued their old strategy of portraying Trump as the source of all evil. In the Virginia gubernatorial election, in which the Democrats suffered their worst reverse, the Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe failed to win in a state carried by Joe Biden with a large majority. A former governor with an undistinguished record, he was regarded by many as a party hack close to the Clintons and with a limited appetite for campaigning. He portrayed his Republican opponent Glenn Youngkin as a dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporter, although Youngkin had distanced himself from the former president.
A local Democratic Party activist told me that McAuliffe had failed to appear in crucial parts of the state. “People just didn’t like him,” she said. In the last days of the campaign, McAuliffe was reduced to claiming falsely that Youngkin and Trump had stood together at a rally.
I should make clear at this point that I consider Trump to be the worst thing that has happened to the United States since independence. A former adviser, who had fallen out with him like so many others, accurately described him as a “cunning nutter”. It is also true that Republican success in Virginia and elsewhere was fuelled by dog-whistle appeals to racism under the thin disguise of fighting the culture wars.
But the outcome of political struggles in America over the next three or four years is so important to the rest of the world that one should not surrender to undiluted Trump-bashing and assume that everything negative about him is true. He remains in many respects a mysterious figure. No wonder foreign governments, caught by surprise by the rise of Trump and now perplexed by the extent of his resurgence, will have been badgering their Washington embassies for their best guess about the chances of Republican victories in the Congressional elections in 2022 and the presidential election in 2024.
For the media, Trump remains the story of the decade and rightly so. No international jamboree like the COP26 conference in Glasgow will have any meaning (always supposing they do at present) if Trump is victorious. The world will be destabilised once again as nation states reassess their relations with the US and with each other. This is not only because of the mercurial nature of Trump’s decision-making, but because his re-election, or even his continued dominance over the Republican Party, means that the US will remain deeply divided and wholly self-absorbed as political strife escalates at home. This will be far more important than the economic power of China or the supposed Russian menace in determining the balance of international power. Everything will be affected, from the Northern Ireland Protocol to naval manoeuvres in the South China Sea.
After the election of Joe Biden last year, governments worldwide breathed a collective sigh of relief as they crossed their fingers in the hope that the Trump era was an accident of history, an aberration which was passing, so that normal business with the US would resume. But as Trump refused to accept the outcome of the election, the polarisation of American society has become more extreme, with Trump securing his grip on core Republican voters.
The emergence of Trumpism in the US was an extraordinary historical event, but equally strange was the response of the Democratic establishment. The reasons for defeat in 2016 were no secret: Hillary Clinton was a poor candidate who appointed incompetent people to run her campaign, while she was baffled by the media skills of Trump, which were at a spectacularly high level after his many years on reality TV.
Instead of analysing the complex reasons for the Trump triumph, the Democrats and much of the Trump-hating American media took refuge in a conspiracy theory. This alleged that Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin had interfered decisively in the poll in favour of Trump and had swung the election in his favour. Evidence for this was thin, the seminal document supporting this thesis being a titillating but dubious report produced by a former British intelligence agent named Christopher Steele.
The dossier cited multiple sources in and around the Kremlin, which apparently leaks like a sieve, exposing Putin’s fiendish plan and supposedly revealing that Trump had consorted with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel. When I first read the dossier in 2016, I thought it was one of the crudest and least believable pieces of black propaganda that I had ever seen, most likely the product of some Democratic Party dirty tricks operation gone off the rails.
But I was quite wrong to dismiss the dossier despite its absurdity. Democratic leaders welcomed it because it let them off the hook when it came to losing the presidential election. It held out the hope of getting rid of Trump by painting him as a sort of Russian agent. Mainline media such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN reported the details of the Russia-Trump plot uncritically. Much of the Democratic counterattack during the Trump presidency wasted its powder trying to prove that he was hand in glove with the Kremlin. The Russians denied any such thing, but were probably secretly pleased that they were judged such prominent players in American politics.
It is only now that what ought to be the final episode in the saga of this dodgiest of dossiers is being written, as special counsel John Durham has started issuing indictments against those involved in the affair. Igor Danchenko, a Russian living in Washington who was the main source for Steele, was arrested and charged with lying to the FBI. He is reported to have been working with a Democratic Party operative who was behind some of the accusations against Trump. All the original claims are falling apart.
Yet such is the hostility between the pro and anti-Trump camps in the US that the mainstream media that once gave wall-to-wall coverage to the conspiracy are scarcely mentioning it. Given Trump’s open racism and contempt for democracy, it is bizarre that the Democrats pursued him for so long and so fruitlessly for the one crime he did not commit.