The US Republican Party is convinced that President Barack Obama has done great damage to American interests and is hell-bent on reversing his policies. It is perhaps appropriate that its extreme aversion to the president has led it to pick a presidential candidate who is as far removed in character from Obama as is possible. If Obama is the image of a cultivated, dignified intellectual known for a firm handle on policy specifics and a felicity for composing rousing prose, Trump is an ill-informed, brash real estate tycoon capable of deeply offensive, misogynist and racist rhetoric — and a figure who often reduces serious policy discussions to empty slogans.
The irony of the Trump phenomenon is that it has made liberals take the issue of personal character seriously while conservatives have chosen to ignore it in his case. Trump’s personality and rhetoric are, nonetheless, such that the world is right to worry about his coherence as an individual and what his presidency might mean. Trump frequently derides the looks of high-profile women, he advises celebrities on their personal lives and once said he’d consider dating Ivanka Trump, if she wasn’t his daughter. Tony Schwartz, who co-wrote a book with Trump, has said that the Republican has a propensity to say what he wants to say just because it serves him, not necessarily because what he has said is true. Trump’s campaign has certainly been marked by headline-grabbing statements. He wants to build a wall along the Mexican border and has characterised Mexican immigrants as rapists; he calls for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country and has lately said persons from “territories” with a history of terror will be subject to “extreme vetting”. Trump wants to declare war on the Islamic State with “very few troops” and “unbelievable intelligence” while hoping that Nato and Turkey will step up their involvement. He says China and India are taking American jobs — and declares “it’s not going to happen anymore, folks!” There is a relentless stress on the need for the US to demonstrate toughness and strength without indicating what it might mean in practice.
A year ago, few thought Trump would get the Republican Party nomination. But as the Brexit vote has shown, political elites in Western countries are facing a revolt from those that have not benefited from globalisation. Trump has positioned himself astutely as an anti-immigration populist who speaks unapologetically for majority interests to the extent that he has called into question free trade, which has a hallowed status in American politics. Hillary Clinton is still the favourite to win in November but Trump has narrowed the lead to seven percentage points. We should watch his journey closely.