FERGUS FINLAY: The joke in the pack is playing his trump card — stoking resentment

Donald Trump: It's hard to imaginethat the party of Abraham Lincolncould seriously entertain a person who so openly peddles sectarianism.

You can’t find a single sentence, in anything Donald Trump has ever said, that might constitute any kind of appeal to the better angels of our nature, writes Fergus Finlay

 

he free world is in crisis right now. With the exception of Germany, nobody knows how to respond to the tens of thousands of refugees, desperate to escape from torture, oppression and poverty. Day after day, images of that desperation and its often tragic consequences appear on our newspapers and televisions.

As is so often the case in situations like this, the people are way ahead of the policy makers. In our own case, we’ve had a different estimate every day from our political leaders about how many refugees we can support. We will, in the end, agree to take around one refugee for every thousand of us, as I suggested here last week.

We will overcome all the arguments to the contrary (so brilliantly summarised by Terry Prone on this page yesterday) that are really nothing but an appeal to mean-spiritedness. We can, and we will in the end, show ourselves what it is to be proud to be Irish – welcoming, warm, hospitable. We can defeat the begrudgery.

But while the free world is in crisis, the leading country of the free world is obsessing about something else entirely. They’re all in a knot about Donald Trump.

What in the name of the free world are we to make of Donald Trump? So far, he has yet to say anything definitive about the greatest refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War, but he has built almost an entire campaign around being opposed to anything that sounds even remotely foreign.

And the phrase “being opposed” is a mild understatement. I’ve studied American politics all my adult life, and I can’t remember any main-stream candidate for the Presidency, ever, offering so much bile in his commentary. His diatribes against immigrants are virtually an incitement to hatred.

And the thing is, he’s winning. Right this minute, he has totally eclipsed the other republican candidates in the race for the nomination. What looked certain to be a flash in the pan has actually grown to the point where commentators who laughed at him when he first announced are now going around saying “he can’t actually win, can he?”.

Of course it’s far too early to answer that question. The first real contests in the republican primary are still months away. But there are two places where you can get a lot of pretty objective information about how Trump is doing – the website Real Clear Politics and the numbers genius Nate Silver (www.fivethirtyeight.com).

According to Real Clear Politics, right now Trump is way ahead in the two places that matter most – Iowa and New Hampshire. The caucus in Iowa and the New Hampshire primary early next year will be make or break contests for many of the Republican candidates. If Trump were to win them, the amount of momentum behind his campaign would swell enormously.

The polls say that Trump has a significant lead in both New Hampshire and Iowa, the kind of lead that will already take a lot to stop. What’s more, his numbers are climbing. Every time he says something deeply offensive, or attacks another minority group, he gets more popular.

Nate Silver predicted the result of the last US election to within inches. He was 100% accurate in every state. And what’s more, he never wavered in his forecasts from months out. Earlier this year, while admitting that he hadn’t accumulated enough data over a long enough period to be confident in his predictions, he forecast that in the British General Election the Conservatives would be the largest party and in prime position to form a government. He overestimated both Labour and the Lib Dems, but got UKIP and the Scottish nationalists almost spot on.

As the leading number cruncher in American politics, the thing you don’t expect Nate Silver to do is to hedge his bets. In recent weeks however he has vacillated on Trump – one week writing that he simply can’t win, the next describing his campaign as brilliant.

It’s not that Silver is an admirer of Trump – far from it. But after Trump launched a highly personal and deeply offensive attack on a Fox News broadcaster, Megan Kelly, this is what Silver wrote: “I don’t know whether this was a deliberate strategy on Trump’s behalf. But if so, it’s pretty brilliant. Trump is perhaps the world’s greatest troll, someone who is amazingly skilled at disrupting the conversation by any means necessary, including by drawing negative, tsk-tsking attention to himself.” What Trump is deliberately trying to do, what he seems to thrive on, is to divide his country. He sets out deliberately, all the time, to stoke resentment among the many against the few. He seems to want to build a politics of division.

The greatest of American Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, took office at a moment when his country, on the brink of civil war, was more deeply divided than ever before or since. He was under personal threat from the moment he was elected – even being advised not to make his first inaugural address in front of the kind of crowd that could well contain an assassin. He ignored that advice and made a great speech about the dangers of war, ending with this unforgettable paragraph:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” This is the man and the spirit that Donald Trump claims to want to succeed. Yet you can’t find a single sentence, in anything he has ever said, that might constitute any kind of appeal to the better angels of our nature.

At time when the world needs leadership of that kind, a leadership that can channel people’s instinct for good, it’s deeply depressing that in the greatest modern democracy of all politics are being fought out at this level. Surely it’s not possible that Trump can win. Surely someone, anyone, with some little bit of reason can take him on.

But even the fact that he is being taken seriously is frightening. When history is written, I believe that the last eight years in American politics will come to be seen as a period when a black American president was opposed at every turn, often for no reason, by a white middle-aged opposition. Race has played its part in making America difficult, if not impossible, to govern in this period, and that deep sectarian division has corroded a democracy whose progress is deeply important to the well-being of the world.

It’s hard to imagine that the party of Abraham Lincoln could seriously entertain a person who so openly peddles sectarianism and division as his main calling card. Right now, they are doing just that. They may cut him down to size – or he may go one step too far. Let’s hope so. Because if Donald Trump wins, the rest of us need to be afraid.

Very afraid.

You can’t find a single sentence, in anything he has ever said, that might constitute any kind of appeal to the better angels of our nature

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