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Tuesday, December 08, 2015 

The left is to blame for Donald Trump adopting Douglas Murray's old ideas.

"The left is to blame for Trump" trills Douglas Murray over at the Spectator, as though the rise of the Donald could have been put down to anything other than the worldwide ranks of radical Islam deniers.  At the very head of those responsible argues Murray is President Obama for not letting that phrase pass his lips.  Most would probably take it as read that Obama has a low opinion of Islamic extremists; he has after all authorised more drone strikes on the leaders of various jihadist groups in more countries than his predecessor ever did.  Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria, you name 'em, he's turned a "radical Islamist" into ground beef in one of them.

Murray's great disagreement with Obama isn't on any of this, naturally.  It's rather that in his view the President "refuses to name Islamist terrorism or identify where it comes from".  Considering virtually no politician anywhere points out it originates from Wahhabist thinking, and is still being spread by our great ally Saudi Arabia, Murray is right on that score, just not in the way he imagines.

Some people might reflect the wars and targeted strikes of the past 14 years don't seem to have had much effect, all told.  They would be wrong of course, as the reason why there hasn't been much effect is we haven't been fighting the wars properly.  We've been acting like a bunch of pussies, goes the Trump critique; we should be "bombing the hell out of them".  It doesn't expand much beyond that, like pretty much all of Trump's policies.  That Obama has been fighting about the smartest war possible (read: it's not very smart at all, but we're talking relatively), following on in many ways from where Bush left off after the clear out of the ideologues in the latter half of his second term is precisely what they so object to.  Counter-insurgency tactics, getting American troops out where and when it was politically possible, half-heartedly going along with arming jihadists to overthrow secular dictators (see Syria passim ad nauseum), even teaming up with al-Qaida to fight Islamic State, all the good stuff, these were all complex and difficult decisions as opposed to simple ones.

Murray agrees this is a complex problem that doesn't have easy answers, except obviously if only the president and the left were to admit Islam isn't a religion of peace then Trump would never have been able to get to a position where he could make the strongest possible signal of his intent.  If only the left hadn't for years "made the cost of entering this discussion too high, so too few people were left willing to discuss the finer points of immigration, asylum or counter-terrorism policy", then now they wouldn't be listening to a demagogue saying keep them all out.  Perhaps more than anything Murray is pissed that they didn't listen to the person back in 2006 who said "It is late in the day, but Europe still has time to turn around the demographic time-bomb which will soon see a number of our largest cities fall to Muslim majorities. It has to. All immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop."  Now that someone with the gravitas of Trump has adopted his stance, Murray disowns it.

To step back for just a moment from the snarkiness, there is a very small kernel of truth to the idea that Trump is in some way a reaction to political correctness.  It is incredibly tempting to look at how controlled the terms of political debate appear to have become, with both left and right intent on policing what is and isn't permissible in seemingly any discussion, and extrapolate that Mr and Mrs American Voter aren't interested in pleasantries, safe spaces or whichever practice is deemed to be getting shamed at this precise moment.  They just want someone to mean what they say, and when a figure like the Donald turns up and says something incredibly stupid while making clear how not stupid what he's saying is and how smart he and his audience in fact are, why should we think otherwise?

Except the truth is Trump is just the latest in a long line of Republicans who got where they are by giving their audiences precisely what they want, which is simple, moral lessons borne out of long-held values expressed with conviction, certainty, and strength.  Ronald Reagan was the master of this, but he was only following on from Nixon, and Nixon had adapted his strategy somewhat after Barry Goldwater's presidential candidacy.  Trump might well be this strain of the GOP in its purest, more virulent form, possible only in 2015 where the abuse of anyone that either stands in your way or criticises you is no longer a barrier as it's precisely what a subset of Republicans have come to expect.  It also helps immensely that Trump's campaign is to an extent self-funded.  Make no mistake though: Trump owes his origins entirely to the American right post-Goldwater, merely given a new gloss of saying whatever "outrageous" thing comes into his head next, knowing that the coverage given to the resulting outrage seems only to work in his favour.

Trump is also different in that there isn't anyone behind the throne.  Much the same figures behind Reagan, given their first positions under Nixon, then came back to the fore under Bush Jnr.  Trump by contrast is his own man, another of the reasons why the Republican establishment is in such despair over the inability of his challengers to do him almost any damage whatsoever.  While there are a number of reasons to think it's extremely unlikely Trump could become president (assuming he manages to win the Republican nomination), not least demographics and his turning off of everyone other than the true believers, it's worth considering what's happened in the past when the Republican candidate hasn't faced a charismatic Democrat alternative.  Reagan beat a wounded Jimmy Carter and then Walter Mondale; Bush Snr beat Michael Dukakis, before losing to Bill Clinton.  Bush Jnr beat Al Gore and then John Kerry, before John McCain lost to Barack Obama.

Trump's all but certain challenger, Hillary Clinton, is the American equivalent of a Blairite, only without the charm of the man himself and lumbered with the political wisdom of Tristram Hunt.  There's no guaranteeing she can reach the same people Obama did, demographics in the Democrats' favour or not.  And as other commentators have been quick to note, once the previously unthinkable becomes thinkable, political discourse as a whole quickly changes.  That might be the real threat posed by Trump, but anyone betting on it remaining the only one is a far more optimistic person than me.

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