OPINION - Donald Trump swallowed the Republican Party whole — Tories flirting with Farage beware


If the polls are right, the Conservatives are heading for a historic drubbing. The in-fighting has already begun over who should lead the rump of the Tory party. Nigel Farage has spied an opportunity to “unite the Right” by merging his own Reform party with the Conservatives and becoming leader. Plenty of Tory bigwigs are also interested in an alliance, but with Farage inside the tent as carnival barker rather than lead player.

A word of warning. This has not worked out well in the United States for the old guard of the Republican party. The novelist Ernest Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises about going bankrupt “gradually and then suddenly”. Donald Trump has had a similar impact on the Grand Old Party (GOP), which he has very nearly swallowed up whole. Trump has the pipsqueak speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, in his pocket; every would-be contender for vice-president has embraced the lie that the 2020 election was stolen; and the most straight-laced Republican congressmen have decided to pretend they are happy being led by a convicted felon.

Although he turned 78 last Friday and sounds increasingly unhinged, Trump has also regained his lock on Republican voters. In the latest Marist/NPR poll, which shows Trump and Joe Biden neck-and-neck on 49 per cent, 93 per cent of Republican voters say they will back Trump, with only five per cent backing Biden. In 2020, 94 per cent of GOP voters supported Trump, with six per cent supporting Biden. So despite the January 6 riot at the Capitol, the Supreme Court’s reversal of abortion rights and everything the Democrats have claimed about Trump’s threat to democracy, nothing has changed.

The much-touted anti-Trump vote — the 20 per cent or so Republicans who supported the more moderate Nikki Haley in the presidential primaries — has turned out to be a mirage. One of the last holdouts against Trump is former vice-president Mike Pence, who used to be his most devoted lieutenant. Pence has said stoutly he will not endorse his former boss for president. But he was threatened by a baying mob brandishing a noose and chanting “Hang Mike Pence”; other members of Congress, who ran for their lives on January 6, have been more forgiving.

The most straight-laced Republican congressmen have decided to pretend they are happy being led by a convicted felon

In the course of embracing Trump, Republicans have been drawn to the wilder shores of extremism. In this, Trump has been helped by his sidekick and booster, Steve Bannon, who is heading to prison on July 1 for defying a congressional subpoena to reveal what he knows about January 6. But while he is cooling his heels in jail, Bannon has the satisfaction of knowing that his dream of uniting the European and American Right is taking shape.

At one point under Trump’s presidency, Bannon fell out with his leader, lost his job as chief strategist at the White House and embarked on a consolation tour of Europe. In those wilderness years, he was lauded by Viktor Orban in Hungary as a “great thinker”, rubbed shoulders with far-Right populists in Italy and attended a Marine Le Pen rally in France, where he told her supporters: “Let them call you racist, xenophobes, nativists, homophobes and misogynists — wear it as a badge of honour!”

With the far-Right making gains in Italy, France and Germany in the European parliament elections and a proposed alliance with Le Pen’s National Rally causing the French Conservatives to buckle, Bannon will be whispering in Trump’s ear that these erstwhile fringe parties are his natural allies. The former president, of course, is already on friendly terms with Farage, not to mention Russian president Vladimir Putin.

When it comes to “uniting the Right”, the question is, who benefits? The very phrase has unsavoury far-Right origins. It came to prominence in the US in 2017 at a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, where it was shocking to see marchers brandishing tiki-torches, waving Nazi and Confederate flags and chanting anti-semitic slogans such as “The Jews shall not replace us.” A white supremacist deliberately rammed his car into a crowd of protesters, killing a young woman, Heather Heyer. Biden was so disturbed by this startling show of force that he made up his mind to run for president in 2020. He described his election campaign as a “battle for the soul of the nation” and went on to win because he promised to “unite” America. His failure to do so has reinforced his image as a frail old man, who is unequal to the task before him. Under his presidency, the far-Right has prospered and gone mainstream.

The recent images of Biden, 81, looking lost or freezing in place — at the D-Day commemorations in Normandy, the G7 summit in Italy and with Barack Obama at a Hollywood fundraiser — are not just a physical sign of his advanced age, but have also become a visual metaphor for his inability to project strength. “Cheap fakes!” White House spin doctors cry exasperatedly: the videos have been edited to make it appear as if he can’t move or is going the wrong way, when he is perfectly in command of his faculties. The wider point, though, is that Biden has lost his grip on events.

Last weekend Turning Point USA, which regards itself as the youth wing of the Republican party, held a “People’s Convention” in Detroit, the hollowed-out industrial city in the middle of Michigan, a key battleground state. Politico magazine recently described the organisation as a fundraising juggernaut, which serves as Trump’s “force multiplier” in battleground states. Its get-out-the-vote operation is crucial to attracting the youth vote to the Republicans, although there were also plenty of grey-beards in the audience. Only a few years ago, many Republicans would have described its politics as repugnant.

Under Joe Biden’s presidency, the far-Right has prospered and gone mainstream

Trump was the headline speaker at its rally, just hours after he addressed a black church in the city (with a hand-picked, imported audience). Bannon was also at the People’s Convention, prophesying war, roaring “victory or death!” and gleefully vowing to prosecute Trump’s political enemies. So was Alex Jones, the bankrupt Infowars conspiracy theorist and Candace Owen, who was fired by the arch-Right Daily Wire for her views on Israel and recently claimed that “secret Jewish gangs” control and carry out “horrific acts” in Hollywood.

Turning Point USA’s 30-year-old leader, Charlie Kirk, said last year, “We made a huge mistake when we passed the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s” and has described women in their early thirties as not “attractive in the dating pool”. He regards Trump as the saviour of the nation from “paganism” and is openly contemptuous of democracy, saying, “Where do you see democracy in the American constitution?” — an increasingly common refrain in Republican circles.

Are these the sort of people Conservatives should do business with? Following the January 6 riot, the Republicans could have stopped Trump, but chose to collaborate. It is not clear if the Tories will hold their nerve after July 4 or give in to the populists. Beware: what today appears outlandish could be the new normal tomorrow.

Sarah Baxter is the Director of the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting