18 June 2020
Trump Loses Election
By failing the Dick test.
By John Watson
Politics has defining moments, the moments when elections are won and lost, and in the case of Donald Trump it surely happened when the White House was besieged by “black lives matter” demonstrators. The question for the President was “what to do?” and the way in which he answered that question will mark him for ever.
If he had known a little history he might have found the answer, not in the US but in Smithfield on 15 June 1381 when the 14-year-old King Richard II found himself face-to-face with the huge angry crowds which then constituted the Peasant’s Revolt. Things were distinctly rough. The rebels, furious at the combined effects of high taxation, the plague and the obligations of mediaeval serfdom, had already slaughtered the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Treasurer and other royal officers sheltering in the Tower. John of Gaunt’s magnificent Savoy Palace had been destroyed. The royal troops in London were heavily outnumbered by the rebels. And to make matters worse, much worse, one of the Lord Mayor’s escort had just killed Wat Tyler, the rebel leader, in front of a huge crowd of his supporters. Oops! It was very nasty moment and bows were being strung in the crowd as the young king’s courtiers urged him to flee. Instead he did something quite different, riding more or less unescorted deep into the crowd and, with the immortal words “I am your king. I will be your leader”, leading the rebels away into the fields to hear their grievances.
Of course it all went wrong afterwards. Although the King pardoned the rebels, the leaders were subsequently hunted down. Promises which had been made were clawed back and the traumatic experience he had gone through was probably one of the things which make Richard so authoritarian that in the end he was deposed and killed. Nonetheless, his actions on that day at the age of 14 set the bar on how leaders should handle large crowds marching in support of strongly-held grievances.
So how does Trump’s behaviour measure up against that of the 14-year-old Plantagenet? Did he ride a horse unescorted out of the White House into the crowd? No, the security detail around an American president would probably not allow him to do that. Did he, as Kennedy did in 1963, go for the modern equivalent, by calling out injustices and taking responsibility for their solution? Did he even pledge himself to look into it and find remedies for what was wrong? No, he did none of these things. Instead he decided to threaten the crowd, telling them about the weapons and dogs which they would face if they were to climb the fence of the White House.
Trump’s failure to show leadership when faced by crisis was very public indeed. It is very hard to see how even traditionally Republican supporters can follow a man who fails to engage with such a fundamental issue in that way.
Back in the UK, Mr Johnson has reacted rather differently, acknowledging the issue and that it needs to be dealt with but suggesting that the first move is a cross-party enquiry. Whether that is really needed or whether the work has already been done in the Lammy report is questionable but the matter needs to be looked at from another perspective as well. Popular movements of this scale normally have a number of causes and dealing with the most proximate is often not sufficient. Certainly racial biases in British life need to be corrected but does the frustration which causes young people to march stop there, or are there other grievances driving them as well? What about the debt they are left with as the price of their education? What about the difficulty they are likely to have in buying their homes? What about concerns that technical developments are increasingly moving the profits of business from the workers to the owners?
In the last election campaign, Mr Johnson won by understanding the aspirations and grievances of the North of England and promising that he will take action to remedy them. I have no doubt that he was perfectly genuine in this – after all, to put it at its meanest, his re-election prospects depend on it, and no doubt he will do what he can over next five years. That, however, is only one set of issues and there are many other areas where a new way forward is required. He needs to put himself at the centre of the search for these, accepting that some of his initiatives will not work but trusting the public to back genuine attempts to create a society fit for the future. He has an unusual opportunity. The Covid disaster has increased his freedom for action in that some of the Tory sacred cows (no increase in personal taxation and no change to the triple lock on the state pension) can be sidestepped as being no longer affordable in these unexpectedly difficult times with which we are faced. In Starmer he has a remarkably fair-minded and constructive leader of the opposition. Johnson himself is an imaginative man. Now is the time for him to get out there and take some political risks.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, change is looming. Trump has failed the King Richard test in a very public way and there is surely no way back from that however many presidential orders he may now sign. Or at least there certainly should not be.