Show Hide image

Why Trump and the right-wing Leninists have Davos Man by the throat

It is easy to guffaw at the idea of a billionaire Bolshevik in the White House, but it seems there is more to the comparison than meets the eye.

Last September, as many Republicans wrestled with their conscience over whether or not to support Donald Trump as their nominee, an anonymous ­article appeared in a short-lived online magazine, the Journal of American Greatness, urging his critics to set their scruples aside. It appeared under the pen name Publius Decius Mus: a tribute to a Roman consul who sacrificed himself in 340BC in return for victory in battle. With his army facing almost certain defeat, Decius mounted his horse and plunged headlong into a hail of arrows. It was a suicide mission but one that so shocked the enemy, it caused a breach in its defences, through which Decius’s men then flooded to devastating effect.

At the time the article appeared, Hillary Clinton was riding so high in the polls that some Democrats boasted they were heading for an emphatic victory that would give them power for a generation. According to Decius, therefore, Republicans faced what he called “the Flight 93 Election”: a rather bracing reference to the heroic passengers who tackled al-Qaeda hijackers on 9/11, bringing down their plane in rural Pennsylvania. However repulsive conservatives might find Trump, there was no choice but to try to charge the cockpit. “You may die anyway,” Decius wrote. “You – or the leader of your party – may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane.” The choice was stark. For American conservatives, a Clinton presidency was “Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.”

Of the 63 million Americans who voted for Trump, a sizeable proportion made precisely this calculation. And it has now emerged that Decius has found himself in the cockpit of the Trump administration – as the senior director of strategic communications on the National Security Council. At the weekend, he was “outed” as Michael Anton, a 47-year-old former speechwriter for President George W Bush and Rupert Murdoch, who has, by all accounts, an impressive knowledge of ancient history and the Renaissance.

Not surprisingly, very few intellectuals have migrated into the land of Trump, but among those that have, there are consistent themes in their world-view. The first is a declaration of war on so-called Davos Man. This species, first pilloried by Samuel Huntingdon in 2004, looks rather forlorn and moth-eaten today. Trump’s choice for US ambassador to the EU, Ted Malloch, a great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, has written the obituary of the “Davoisie”.

In the same spirit, according to Anton, all 16 Republican candidates whom Trump beat to the nomination failed because they were seen as “sophists” of the same discredited ancien régime. Once in power, they would bow to the pressure of the “Davoisie oligarchy” on “open borders, lower wages, outsourcing, deindustrialisation, trade giveaways and endless, pointless, winless war”. Davos Man – already reeling from Brexit – did not see the juggernaut emerging on his right flank.

He is not the only one flailing in the surge of nation-state populism. In France and Britain, established parties have yet to grasp the full extent of what has happened (few more so than our own Labour Party). Trump’s legions of critics have taken solace from the protests on the streets, his abysmal ratings, legal challenges to his executive orders and startling tales of dysfunction from the White House. The question asked in civilised company is, “When will it end?” Yet the one that has not yet been faced up to is very different: “What if it works?”

Do the anti-Trump protesters have the solidarity or staying power to outlast the revolutionaries in the Oval Office? The cacophony of criticism has not diminished the zeal of the vanguard now in the pilot’s seat. After Trump’s inauguration, I asked a wily old Marxist friend what she thought of his speech. Eschewing any value judgement of the man himself, she described it as “Leninist”. In the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, it is easy to guffaw at the idea of a billionaire Bolshevik in the White House, but it seems there is more to the comparison than meets the eye. It has now emerged that Trump’s chief of staff, Steve Bannon, from a blue-collar family of Democrats, has gloried in exactly that label. “I’m a Leninist,” he is reported to have said in 2013. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

Another former Bush speechwriter, David Frum, has warned about the potential creep of autocracy under Trump. But the clue to Trump’s success, he notes, is likely to be popular economic policies – tax cuts and big spending, high employment and wage increases, especially for those without college degrees. If it works, even temporarily, it will move the centre of political gravity.

Culture wars over things such as immigration and civil liberties are likely to consume our attention for the next four years. Trenches will be dug deep and Trump will be resisted in the hope his actions can later be reversed. Yet it may be that the real revolution takes place elsewhere. On her visit to the US, Theresa May commented that one thing that united her and the president was a desire “to put the interests of ordinary working people up there, centre-stage”.

The British and American left may think this opportunistic and inauthentic; and they may have a point. However, they had better take it seriously, because the earth is moving under their feet. Millions of voters have shown themselves willing to charge the cockpit in the hope of some sort of “new deal”, however ugly the consequences. As it stands, right-wing Leninists have Davos Man by the throat.

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine

Show Hide image

On civil liberties, David Davis has become a complete hypocrite – and I'm not sure he even knows it

The Brexit minster's stance shows a man not overly burdened with self-awareness.

In 2005, David Davis ran for the Tory leadership. He was widely assumed to be the front-runner and, as frontrunners in Tory leadership campaigns have done so enthusiastically throughout modern history, he lost.

The reason I bring up this ancient history is because it gives me an excuse to remind you of this spectacularly ill-judged photoshoot:

“And you're sure this doesn't make me look a bit sexist?”
Image: Getty

Obviously it’s distressing to learn that, as recently as October 2005, an ostensibly serious politician could have thought that drawing attention to someone else’s boobs was a viable electoral strategy. (Going, one assumes, for that all important teenage boy vote.)

But what really strikes me about that photo is quite how pleased with himself Davis looks. Not only is he not thinking to himself, “Is it possible that this whole thing was a bad idea?” You get the distinct impression that he’s never had that thought in his life.

This impression is not dispelled by the interview he gave to the Telegraph‘s Alice Thompson and Rachel Sylvester three months earlier. (Hat tip to Tom Hamilton for bringing it to my attention.) It’s an amazing piece of work – I’ve read it twice, and I’m still not sure if the interviewers are in on the joke – so worth reading in its entirety. But to give you a flavour, here are some highlights:

He has a climbing wall in his barn and an ice-axe leaning against his desk. Next to a drinks tray in his office there is a picture of him jumping out of a helicopter. Although his nose has been broken five times, he still somehow manages to look debonair. (...)

To an aide, he shouts: “Call X - he’ll be at MI5,” then tells us: “You didn’t hear that. I know lots of spooks.” (...)

At 56, he comes – as he puts it – from “an older generation”. He did not change nappies, opting instead to teach his children to ski and scuba-dive to make them brave. (...)

“I make all the important decisions about World War Three, she makes the unimportant ones about where we’re going to live.”

And my personal favourite:

When he was demoted by IDS, he hit back, saying darkly: “If you’re hunting big game, you must make sure you kill with the first shot.”

All this, I think, tells us two things. One is that David Davis is not a man who is overly burdened with self-doubt. The other is that he probably should be once in a while, because bloody hell, he looks ridiculous, and it’s clear no one around him has the heart to tell him.

Which brings us to this week’s mess. On Monday, we learned that those EU citizens who choose to remain in Britain will need to apply for a listing on a new – this is in no way creepy – “settled status” register. The proposals, as reported the Guardian, “could entail an identity card backed up by entry on a Home Office central database or register”. As Brexit secretary, David Davis is the man tasked with negotiating and delivering this exciting new list of the foreign.

This is odd, because Davis has historically been a resolute opponent of this sort of nonsense. Back in June 2008, he resigned from the Tory front bench and forced a by-election in his Haltemprice & Howden constituency, in protest against the Labour government’s creeping authoritarianism.

Three months later, when Labour was pushing ID cards of its own, he warned that the party was creating a database state. Here’s the killer quote:

“It is typical of this government to kickstart their misguided and intrusive ID scheme with students and foreigners – those who have no choice but to accept the cards – and it marks the start of the introduction of compulsory ID cards for all by stealth.”

The David Davis of 2017 better hope that the David Davis of 2008 doesn’t find out what he’s up to, otherwise he’s really for it.

The Brexit secretary has denied, of course, that the government’s plan this week has anything in common with the Labour version he so despised. “It’s not an ID card,” he told the Commons. “What we are talking about here is documentation to prove you have got a right to a job, a right to residence, the rest of it.” To put it another way, this new scheme involves neither an ID card nor the rise of a database state. It’s simply a card, which proves your identity, as registered on a database. Maintained by the state.

Does he realise what he’s doing? Does the man who once quit the front bench to defend the principle of civil liberties not see that he’s now become what he hates the most? That if he continues with this policy – a seemingly inevitable result of the Brexit for which he so enthusiastically campaigned – then he’ll go down in history not as a campaigner for civil liberties, but as a bloody hypocrite?

I doubt he does, somehow. Remember that photoshoot; remember the interview. With any other politician, I’d assume a certain degree of inner turmoil must be underway. But Davis does not strike me as one who is overly prone to that, either.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

0800 7318496