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The American berserk

The rise of Donald Trump is a symptom of the decay of a great but exceptionally unhappy nation.

To be at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August 2008 was a little like attending a religious revivalist meeting. Nearly eight years of George W Bush and his toxic friends – the Cheneys and Rumsfelds who dragged America’s international reputation below even where it had been in the depths of the Vietnam War – had left Americans humiliated and baying for something better. In Barack Obama they seemed to have found it, with the added bonus, over 40 years after the civil rights movement supposedly achieved its aims, of proving that one no longer needed to be a white man to lead the most powerful nation on Earth. It was a new dawn: but the day has not been quite so sunlit as was hoped.

In America last week I encountered one person after another who, to different degrees and using different means of expression, had had enough. It appears to be an exceptionally unhappy country: polarised, introspective, angry, disappointed and, above all, fearful. We have seen many representations and manifestations of American angst and rage in recent years: the horrific and depressingly frequent shootings in schools, racially motivated attacks, powder kegs in cities which ignite in confrontations between the police and minorities. Yet all of these, however pernicious, are largely transient for those not directly involved. The sense of grievance dominating this year’s presidential election campaign has cooked more slowly, is more deep-seated, and will require more than simply a new president – of whatever stamp – to appease it.

As far as Americans are concerned, some of the disappointment with the Obama administration must be considered self-inflicted: they have elected a Republican-dominated Congress that has thwarted much of what he sought to do. Yet Obama, too, must bear some blame. His inexperience – he was a one-term senator before securing his party’s nomination eight years ago – has hindered him, in his handling of Congress and of issues alike. His attempt to reform health care met difficulties of implementation unconnected with the visceral opposition of Republicans and, indeed, of some Democrats. His elevated rhetoric has too often preceded a lower reality.

He is perceived to have disengaged from a world in which many Americans of all political persuasions feel their country’s influence could once more be beneficial, if asserted sensibly. But, above all, the Obama years have done little to improve the struggle of tens of millions of Americans who live at a crushing level of poverty and amid a dereliction that shocks many western Europeans who see it.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a country defined by its ability to create opportunity and provide success should, at some point, pause for breath, take stock and ­allow doubt to seep in; and it is right that the foreign policy disasters of the Bush years should cause it to reflect deeply before engaging with the world. But all this has sapped national self-confidence and verve, creating negativity that seeks, and finds, expression in the election campaign and which all the candidates, in their various ways, are trying to reflect or exploit. The mood threatens fundamentally to change America’s politics.

It is hard to believe that in any other ­contest since the civil war, such an outsider as Donald Trump, who has never served in the military or held political office, would have neared the point of securing the nomination of a major political party – and, if he does, that he would have more of a prospect than many would like to imagine of securing the presidency, and with it the so-called leadership of the free world.

That Trump seems to have said things in private which contradict what he has said in public may be reassuring as far as his ­perceived extremism goes, but it says little for his honesty. He refuses to publish his tax returns, which raises questions about his financial probity, already under the spotlight because of the fiasco of the erstwhile Trump University, where students have parted with sums in excess of $40,000 in return for worthless qualifications. There is also speculation that he refuses to publish his returns because he has exaggerated his charitable donations.

More worrying is Trump’s foreign policy, and his access to the nuclear button. The effect on the Middle East of implementing his belligerent ideas for dealing with Isis can only be a matter of anxious conjecture; as must be his potential relations with his fellow narcissist and megalomaniac Vladimir Putin.

However, America’s current state of mind and sense of betrayal by mainstream politicians also account for the enthusiasm shown for the attempt by Bernie Sanders, the self-declared socialist from Vermont, to wrest the Democratic Party’s nomination from Hillary Clinton. Any attempt to equate Sanders with Jeremy Corbyn flatters Corbyn: Sanders is more eloquent, more thoughtful, and infinitely more credible. He looks unlikely to succeed, but his support among younger voters especially demonstrates the growing sense of a need among Americans, as they look ahead, to break a cycle of disappointment and failure. It is interesting that one important part of the senator’s platform – the anathematising of free trade – coincides with an obsession of Trump’s: a political analyst told me he would not be at all surprised if some of Sanders’s supporters voted Trump in the event of Sanders not winning the Democratic nomination.

“After all,” he said, without a trace of humour, “they’re both Democrats.”


Donald Trump’s success seems to rest on two things: his populist appeal, which includes a nod to the xenophobia of America’s less educated masses and plays to their fears more generally, and the fact that although he has dabbled in politics for many years (he donated to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008, like any good Democrat), he is not a politician. Bernie Sanders shares that with him: although a long-term congressman, he is hardly of the political class as Americans understand it.

As in Britain, it is common and easy in America today to view the political class with contempt. But that has long been the case – covering Bob Dole’s failed campaign to beat Bill Clinton 20 years ago I saw a T-shirt that proclaimed “Death Is No Excuse: Nixon in ’96”. Now, however, the sense of contempt has reached crisis point.

Recent research shows that there has been no improvement in the real wages of working-class and lower-middle-class Americans since the late 1970s; they are below what they were in the late 1960s and early 1970s. America is a country of astonishing wealth, but this is concentrated in the hands of a tiny group among its population of nearly 325 million. Park Avenue and Rodeo Drive are very much the exceptions, not the rule. In New York there seem to be more homeless people on the streets than I remember seeing since the late 1980s. There are large industrial wastelands around many of America’s cities: much has been written about how huge areas of Detroit have been put back to grass, but dereliction afflicts substantial parts of many cities. The country has over $19trn of public debt, and it is hard to see where all the cash is going, other than, as one disaffected Democrat told me, “on the military”. The US spends roughly $598bn a year on defence (3.3 per cent of its GDP in 2015), four times as much as China (1.2 per cent of its GDP last year), seven times as much as Saudi Arabia (12.9 per cent) and ten and a half times as much as the UK (2 per cent).

Other measures of living standards are telling. The 2012 census found that 48 million Americans, or 15.4 per cent of the population, were uninsured for health care. Levels of achievement for school-leavers are lower than in most developed countries, and a lower proportion of Americans graduates from higher education than in comparable nations. Perhaps it is an indication of the national unhappiness, as well as low income, that medical surveys report that 17 per cent of children are obese and 32 per cent overweight. Black and Hispanic students in the US rank the lowest in assessments for maths, science, reading and problem-solving, but American students overall rank poorly internationally. The US is one of only three OECD countries (the other two are Turkey and Israel) that spends more on schools in rich areas than in poor ones.

Housing is the most obvious sign of poverty and decay. In 2013, the government’s department of housing and urban development reported that the average annual income for a resident of a public housing project was $13,370. The proportion of people renting rather than owning is increasing, driving up rents. The level of home ownership is below where it was when Bill Clinton launched a national drive to encourage ownership in the late 1990s, and thanks not least to the effects of the sub-prime crisis related to that policy. Evictions, especially of black and Hispanic families, are on the rise and in many towns the evictions industry – bailiffs, removal men, lawyers – is a major employer. In New York, New Jersey and California, 22 per cent of households spend more than 50 per cent of their pre-tax income on housing. With many people all over the country unable to afford either to rent or to buy, the number of 25-year-olds living with their parents is also rising.

Even travelling around a city as affluent as New York, you see the signs of decay everywhere. A colleague told me of the rats she sees in the street on her way to and from work. The subway stations are dirty and basic. The roads are potholed and infrastructure generally is creaking: the lack, for instance, of a modern public transport link between the city and its main international airport, JFK, is absurd. Many buildings, even in Manhattan, show want of repair. Utilities run inefficiently: a friend’s cooking gas supply in the East Village failed last September and has only just been fixed. The signs of extreme affluence and modernity are ubiquitous, too, which only makes the portents of a decaying civilisation more disturbing.


The widespread poverty is demoralising enough for Americans to witness, but the prevailing mood is driven by something less tangible, and that is fear. As Trump’s remarkably successful campaign seems to have proved, many Americans are fearful of attack by Islamic extremists. His bizarre promise to ban Muslims from the United States may appear entirely ludicrous – and an alleged secret tape recording of him with editorial staff of the New York Times supposedly has him admitting it – yet it has scored a direct hit with millions of his fellow countrymen. So has his proposal to build a wall to stop illegal immigrants entering from Mexico, because so many people in that land of immigrants fear the effect of an unregulated wave of them. And, flowing from that, they fear further extension of those industrial wastelands, with their ruined factories and warehouses, because of the Chinese undercutting them, which is why they like Trump’s threat to provoke a suicidal trade war with China.

There is no simple reason for why things have gone so badly wrong. It is certainly not for want of good intentions. The practicalities of governing so vast a country to deliver standards of living expected in a developed Western nation, even under a federal system spread across 50 states, have perhaps become too much, and create huge scope for corruption and waste. I recall being told by a distinguished Washington journalist during the Clinton years that America was ungovernable and would have to split into four or five separate countries. There is still no sign of that, yet.

Automation threw millions of Americans out of manufacturing and into service industries, if they went into any work at all. The education system fails many of them. With 70 per cent still not holding a passport, their country remains one that understands less about the world than it ought, and learns few lessons from the rest of it. There are pockets of sweetness and light, yet much of America appears to be in a dark and recriminatory cul-de-sac. It sounded ridiculous for Hillary Clinton, on Super Tuesday, to call again for more “love and kindness” in America, but she had a point. It seems more the inclination of many Americans to look first for their enemies rather than their friends.

An American friend talked to me of his country having some sort of collective nervous breakdown. It is tempting to cite that to explain the rise of Donald Trump, but it would be wrong. Many Americans who would like him to win know exactly what they are doing, as do others who, in a different way, wish to break the system by choosing Bernie Sanders. There is a widespread view that the usual solutions will not suffice to put America back on track, and that without some degree of desperate measures the decline of America will become even steeper. The greatest fear of all seems to be fear of the future. 

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.


Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”


May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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