Donald Trump’s inner circle resembles nothing so much as a Bond villain casting call. There’s the exiled Paul Manafort, steely-eyed, hair-dyed, and bathing in blood money. His replacement Steve Bannon is ruler of the alt-right trolls, fanning the flames from his fortified Hollywood villa, known as the Breitbart Embassy. Off in the wings sit Roger Ailes and Roger Stone, the O.G. dirty tricksters, unrepentant Nixonistas still running the “positive polarization” play almost five decades later.
But before they can get Trump TV on the air, there’s an election left to lose. And so there’s still time to import reinforcements into their rogue’s gallery.
Enter Nigel Farage, the beer-swilling leader of the anti-immigrant, ethno-nationalist U.K. Independence Party, known as UKIP. These are the folks who gave us Brexit, the thunderbolt vote that yanked the Brits from the European Union in reaction to anxiety about Muslim immigration and globalization, spurring the center-right Prime Minister David Cameron to resign. Trade “Britain First” for “America First” and you get a clear sense of the continuity between conservative populists on both sides of the pond.
But while Farage hilariously declared during the Republican convention in Cleveland that “some of Trump’s comments are a bit out there,” he’s now gone full Trump, appearing alongside Con Man Donald at a rally in Mississippi Tuesday night, where he offered hope to Trump Poll Truthers by describing his epic and unexpected rout of the establishment in the Brexit vote. In yet another sign of how weird 2016 has become, Southerners cheered wildly while being lectured in a British accent.
But there’s a dark logic behind Farage’s embrace of Trump, and Trump’s reciprocal bizarre Twitter boast “They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT!”
Keep in mind that Trump is not a conservative in any philosophical or policy sense. As the RNC and Speaker Paul Ryan have painfully learned, he isn’t even really a Republican. Trump’s new campaign CEO Steve Bannon has been in the habit of calling GOP congressional leadership “cunts” while offering this sage advice to his paid propagandists: “Let the grassroots turn on the hate because that’s the ONLY thing that will make them do their duty.”
Trump’s rise has exposed the absurdity of our view of politics as a contest that can be divided neatly into two warring liberal and conservative camps, under the Democratic and Republican banners. Much of the frustration with our divided, dysfunctional government can be traced to the fact that American politics right now has all the disadvantages of a parliamentary system without any of the advantages. We are so fragmented that the winner of an election is not empowered to implement his or her agenda.
Trump is not the leader of the Republican Party as much as he is the leader of our very own UKIP – a reactionary entho-nationalist party propelled by conservative populists who want to take their country back. They have little to nothing in common with the policies of George W. Bush, which helps account for why so many of his cabinet members are refusing to support the GOP nominee.
To extend the metaphor, the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democrats are the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbin, inspired by a radical liberal activist who believes that capitalism is the prime culprit in our society. Some of Sanders’ hardcore supporters have now logically drifted to Dr. Jill Stein’s Green Party.
That leaves Hillary Clinton somewhere in the middle, representing the governing party—the equivalent of David Cameron’s Tories and those remaining Blairites in this equation—a broad coalition that spans the center-left and an increasing number on the center-right, those vaunted Republicans for Hillary. Led by a self-described “pragmatic progressive” national security hawk who bolstered her claim to the center by tapping Tim Kaine as her VP, for the moment at least the Democrats are the party of liberal ends achieved by moderate means, with an unfashionable tinge of global elitism baked in the cake.
Certainly, there will be some #NeverTrump-ers on the center-right who will cast a purposeful protest vote for Evan McMullin, and others who naturally gravitate to the Libertarian Party led by Gary Johnson and Bill Weld. But the likelihood that third-party candidates will break out of their customary 1% status—even if they are denied the opportunity to debate on the same stage as Trump and Clinton—is a sign of deeper fissures that cannot be ignored.
Donald Trump is a symptom of the problem, not its cause. Those Republicans hoping that this election cycle can be dismissed as a bad dream are missing their own culpability in shrinking their base through RINO hunt purges and the elevation of hyper-partisan, smash-and-grab media outlets like Breitbart, which now essentially runs their nominee’s campaign. Partisan media now controls the party.
Even if Hillary Clinton wins this election in a landslide, it is likely to be a negative wave—a rejection of Trump rather than a full embrace of her persona and policies. This will only increase Hillary’s obligation to solidify the center by continuing to reach out to the reasonable edge of the opposition, which will infuriate the increasingly influential activist wing of her own party. But that’s exactly what will be necessary if she hopes to take a big electoral win and make it a realigning election.
The easy thing for Republicans to do after this election will be to paper over their deep divisions with the united purpose of opposing everything Hillary Clinton does. But the Trump/UKIP wing of the party holds the balance of power in their base, even if Main Street Republicans recognize that it is kryptonite to a general electorate. Because if Trump indeed decides to save face after losing big in November by translating his support into a far-right media empire, those divisive intra-party pressures ain’t going away.
In the long run, our political alliances will need to be reshuffled. When a plurality of Americans identify as independent, it’s a sign of market failure in our polarized two-party system. The fact is that reformers on the center-left and the center-right have far more in common with each other than they do with the extremes of their own parties. Likewise, the populists on the reactionary right and radical left share anxieties driven by the dislocation created by globalization, but coalitions need to be based on more than a common set of resentments.
Here’s what’s clear in this surreal and often sinister election: We have one party attracted to divisive demagogues while the other at least seems interested in governing.