It’s fair to say I think the Trump presidency has been an unmitigated disaster. His casual bigotry, dishonesty and regressive economic policies are terrible for America, and have made the world a less stable and safe place. The most recent example of Trump’s destructiveness is his withdrawal from the Iran deal, which will only hasten Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, and makes war with Israel more likely.
But every cloud has a silver lining, and Trump is no exception. Trump’s success has forced anti-Trump Republicans and Democrats to rethink their policies and electoral appeal. The fact that a man so obviously unqualified and unfit to be president has one office should give everyone pause for thought. Here are a few lessons from the Trump era I think Republicans and Democrats could learn from.
- Prejudice is still a real and present problem in America, particularly on the Right. Before Trump, many conservatives would downplay the extent to which racism, sexism and xenophobia were prevalent, often dismissing people who say they had been discriminated against. But since Trump- a man so frank in his prejudices- won the Republican primary and then the presidency, Republicans have been forced to take the problem of prejudice more seriously. On National Review, the most prominent anti-Trump conservative publication, there have been several articles rethinking conservative support for police stop and search policies, taking seriously the prospect of discrimination against young black men. During the Republican primary, Trump’s sexist attacks on Carly Fiorina made Republicans more concerned about misogyny. A post- Trump Republican Party will have to show it is on the side of equality if it wants to win convincing majorities in the future.
- Banging on about the free market doesn’t win you votes. Most people believe in capitalism. What they don’t want is an unadulterated, unregulated free market, where poverty is high and public services poor. This includes the Republican base, who value programmes like Social Security, Medicare and government infrastructure investment. Trump didn’t stick to free market orthodoxy, instead promising to protect entitlements. Now Trump’s plans are unrealistic and will increase the deficit. But Republicans should learn that a more pragmatic approach to the economy, while maintaining the more popular aspects of fiscal conservatism like tax simplification, will be more resonant.
- Banging on about God doesn’t win you votes. There’s nothing wrong with sharing your faith, or admitting it constitutes an important part of your decision-making. But America is an increasingly irreligious country, even amongst Republicans. While candidates like Cruz and Carson talked about God, Trump didn’t, and no one cared. The most religious candidates, Huckabee and Santorum, were also the most unpopular. Trying to be overtly religious is likely to be a turn-off for most people, particularly the wider electorate who are less Christian than Republican primary voters.
- Neoconservatism is unpopular and unworkable. There’s no doubt Trump’s opposition to the Iraq War contributed to his success. Americans are sick and tired of wars which have no lasting benefit to the countries they are supposed to help- they certainly have no benefit to America. While it would be a mistake to embrace doctrinaire pacifism, a post-Trump foreign policy should be realist in nature, putting American interests first while maintaining non-military involvement in the wider world. It would also help the Republican goal of balancing the budget if the military was slimmed down.
- Illegal immigration is a serious problem that must be addressed. Under pressure from pro-amnesty advocates, Clinton ended up advocating an end to all deportations unless the illegal immigrants in question has committed a crime. But a de-facto legalisation of 11 million people is a profound violation of the rule of law, American sovereignty, and a major contravention to public opinion. Democrats should ensure they see the distinction between legal and illegal immigration. And while the former should be encouraged, the latter should certainly not be.
- Personal morality matters. During the Clinton years, Democrats were keen to ignore the Monica Lewinsky affair. But with Trump’s affair with Stormy Daniels, Democrats are far more interested. The fact is, Democrat or Republican, how a president conducts their personal life matters because it shows whether they are a trustworthy and moral person. Democrats shouldn’t reflexively dismiss interest in personal scandals as puritanism in the future.
- A detailed trade policy is important. Democrats are in a mess on trade. While Clinton defended the free trade record of her husband, Sanders mirrored Trump in his critique of ‘neoliberal’ free trade deals- they lead to lower wages, jobs going overseas and deindustrialisation. The Democrats’ divisions on trade allowed Trump to win in places like Ohio and Michigan, where scepticism of free trade is high. To win back the Rust Belt, Democrats need a united and detailed trade policy. They should either embrace a full-throttled defence of America’s trade agreements, hoping to change opinion. Or they should explain how they are going to renegotiate America’s trade agreements in the national interest, as Trump did. Obfuscation is not an option.
- Demographics are not destiny. Clinton bet on America’s increasing numbers of graduates and ethnic minorities to deliver a win on the same scale as Obama. This was a mistake. Yes, America’s demographics are changing, and some (but not all) of those changes benefits Democrats. But while working class voters living outside the major cities are still an important part of any successful electoral coalition, and shouldn’t be ignored.
- Political correctness is unappealing. Clinton ran the most politically correct campaign in living memory, paying lip service to every minority imaginable, without a transformative policy programme or unifying vision. Talking in meaningless platitudes about people fulfilling their potential won’t win votes. Instead, a future Democrat candidate should talk straight and fire the spin doctors. Americans like honesty and plain English. Trump seemed like he told it as it is, which is why he won.