Daniel Pudles illustration
© Daniel Pudles

For those who are worried that Donald Trump is a new Mussolini in the making, I have reassuring news. Based on his performance at a weekend rally in Plymouth, New Hampshire, Mr Trump is far too boring a speaker to make a convincing fascist dictator.

His long, rambling discourse — sprinkled with complaints about how long it had taken him to drive to the venue in the north of the state — left his audience yawning, with some leaving early to get to Super Bowl parties. Even Mr Trump’s traditional crowd-pleasers about “building the wall” with Mexico received only tepid ovations.

Yet, despite his manifest flaws as a speaker and as a human being, Mr Trump has succeeded in dominating the run-up to the US presidential election for months. His success in the Republican race — and that of Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, on the Democratic side — testifies to how the political establishment has lost the trust of voters.

Many Americans seem to have concluded that the political system is so corrupt and dysfunctional that only a total outsider can be trusted to take charge. The point was driven home to me while talking to a potential Trump voter on the fringes of the Plymouth rally. This man, a prosperous-looking lawyer, told me that if he did not vote for Mr Trump he would opt for Mr Sanders.

The Trump and Sanders pitches to the voters have certain strong similarities. Both lambast all mainstream politicians as in hock to corrupt special interests and lobbyists. Mr Trump, a billionaire, makes a virtue of the fact that his campaign is self-financed — making him immune, he says, to the pressures brought to bear on all the other Republicans by their donors. Mr Sanders has raised most of his campaign money from small donations and has put Hillary Clinton on the back foot by pointing to the hundreds of thousands of dollars she has accepted in speaking fees from the likes of Goldman Sachs.

Mr Sanders’ argument that “the business model of Wall Street is fraud” is finding an audience. Indeed, if anybody has said a good word about Wall Street in this election, I must have missed it. The most that Mrs Clinton will do is to suggest tentatively that “greed” in high finance, while bad, is not the only pressing problem facing the US.

In her speeches, Mrs Clinton consistently displays her impressive grasp of detail and public policy. Yet her campaign’s argument that she would be “ready on day one” to be president emphasises her status as a consummate member of the political establishment. That seems risky when large parts of the US public seem to detest the political elite.

By contrast, both Mr Trump and Mr Sanders are running from the fringes of their parties. Both have said things that would be regarded as political suicide in a normal year. Mr Trump is probably the most openly racist candidate since George Wallace, the segregationist, in 1972. Mr Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist” — in a country that has always rejected socialism.

Yet the fact that both men are happy to smash rhetorical taboos has strengthened their respective claims to be genuine outsiders. That seems to be what voters are looking for.

Both men go into Tuesday’s New Hampshire primaries as strong favourites to win. The conventional wisdom remains that they will trip up later in the campaign. But, then again, a year ago the idea that Messrs Trump and Sanders could be the winners to emerge from New Hampshire would itself have been regarded as absurd. So who knows?

What is already clear, however, is that America’s political class is only beginning to grasp the depth of the anti-establishment mood that is gripping the US. Almost eight years after the financial crisis, this mood seems to be growing in strength, not weakening. President Barack Obama’s announcement last week that the US unemployment rate is now below 5 per cent barely registered on the campaign trail.

Instead, all the talk is of students reeling under unpayable debts; and of parents having to work at two or three low-paid jobs to make ends meet. The idea that the economy is “rigged” in favour of insiders is now embraced, in some form, by most of the candidates in both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Yet almost all the candidates running in New Hampshire make unconvincing populists. The very fact that they are running for president is a strong indication that these people are successful members of the American elite. Even Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who casts himself as the ultimate outsider, is a former Princeton debater married to a Goldman Sachs banker. That kind of dissembling only increases popular cynicism about politics — and facilitates the rise of apparent iconoclasts.

If America’s yearning for anti-establishment leaders from the political fringes continues, the implications will be profound — for the US and for the world. The system, dominated by the Democrats and Republicans, has always rejected the political extremes. That means that, behind the day-to-day dramas, the nation has benefited from a deep political stability, which has contributed greatly to its economic strength and global power. If America’s immunity to extremism is ending, the whole world will feel the consequences.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

Get alerts on Columnists when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article