We are just now in the process of completing an election trilogy. In the United States the process allowed the conservative Republican Party to elect the dubiously Republican Donald Trump. In France, the French electorate gave a majority to youthful technologically oriented Emmanuel Macron who created his own political movement outside the two traditional French political parties. And, a week ago, the British Conservative Party managed to lose parliamentary seats in an election that many assumed would produce a history making majority for Prime Minister Theresa May. Only Macron seems on the path to real political victory. Donald Trump and Theresa May must walk in the Valley of the Shadows.
Donald Trump really wanted to lose. He won. Donald Trump didn’t organize a typical presidential campaign partly because his real goal was not to win. He had never been “political”. He had been only briefly a Republican. He joined in time to run. He knew almost nothing about the government because, with his busy life, he had never had reason to learn. What he wanted to do was to land in a big plane with his name on it and hold rallies. He wanted to hear people cheer. He was skillful at being politically incorrect and arousing an audience. And, the more outrageous he became the more audiences came out and cheered. He had the advantage with those audiences of never having to know very much. They never really challenged what he said. As Trump famously said during the campaign, “Thank God for the poorly educated.” And, the more aroused and angry his crowds the more the media provided free publicity. Far less was heard of the sixteen other candidates running.
Donald Trump did not dwell on his multiple bankruptcies or his multiple marriages or his highly publicized romantic affairs. He may have unconsciously been hoping that his past would save him from winning. But, the people cheering at his rallies certainly did not care. The reported eighty two percent of evangelicals who voted for him did not really seem to care. They voted for him anyway. More traditional candidates would have been saved from winning by any fraction of Donald Trump’s egregious past behavior. Not Trump. He was doomed.
Donald Trump was able to win the Republican nomination because tiny groups of voters voted for him in presidential primaries and caucuses. In the first states to vote he “won” with small percentages. As others of the seventeen original candidates dropped out his percentages grew. In the end he accumulated forty five percent of the primary votes and was able to win the nomination. The Republican leadership found itself saddled with a candidate they certainly did not want.
Then for Donald Trump, disaster struck. Thanks to an electoral system which had been created by the Founders back on 1787 to take the vote away from people like those at all those rallies, Trump lost by three million people’s votes but won the electoral vote. His worst nightmare came true: He won! What has followed should be no surprise. Donald Trump had managed to survive in business because of his manic energy and because he was the Big Man In The Gold Tower. He was the one with the money. With his energy and with his money he could hire people to handle details. He could break normal business rules and his lawyers would clean it up. Had he only lost he would have had the glory and be back in his gold tower. He won!
Theresa May desperately wanted to win. She lost. Theresa May is very serious. Everyone knows she is serious. Some say cold. She was serious as Home Secretary. She was responsible for, among other things, security, immigration, and the police. Despite fierce opposition, she forced through dramatic cuts in police manpower. She seriously tried to modernize police services. She dramatically cut costs.
She became Prime Minister when fellow Conservative, Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to resign. Cameron resigned because, frustrated with constant political pressure to withdraw from the European Union, he had agreed hold a national vote on whether to leave (Brexit). He also pledged to resign if Brexit won. Theresa May, understanding the financial ramifications of a British withdrawal from a 500 million person market, supported remaining. Trying to save her options, she supported remaining quietly. Thanks to concern about Muslim immigration from the Continent, and to “leave” hysteria promoted by the press, the voters by small margin opted to withdraw. So, in July, 2016, Cameron resigned, and Theresa May became Prime Minister.
In Britain, any woman of a certain age in British politics is going to be compared to Margaret Thatcher. If Margaret Thatcher was “not for turning,” Theresa May was. She became a public champion for withdrawal. May inherited a Conservative majority in the very large House of Commons. The opposition Labour Party and its far left Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seemed in permanent disarray. Theresa May made the decision to call for a “snap” election to win a even larger Conservative majority. She could bargain with Brussels holding a British mandate.
She made a mistake. Getting elected to Parliament, Theresa May barely had to campaign in her small voting district (Maidenhead). Her skill was in using her imposing personality with small groups of equals. Suddenly, dealing with a much larger campaign, she became tongue tied. Her campaign consisted of garlands of cliché’s delivered to small picked audiences of Party members. In a way, Theresa May’s strong principles may have done her in. It is very difficult after a long political career based on principle to effectively campaign for a massive change one does not believe in. Theresa May knows that at best Britain is going to face huge handicaps as a result of that one disastrous Brexit vote. Rationalizing that she was the one to reduce the damage was not enough to free her tongue. Speaking only to those small groups of select voters was a way of hiding from the stress a more public advocacy.
In the meantime Jeremy Corbyn suddenly came to life. The old champion of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez suddenly began to run a real campaign. He attracted young people (shades of Bernie Sanders in the U.S.). His campaign became in part a Children’s Crusade. The election that was going to bring the Conservatives a plurality of more than a hundred seats instead saw them lose thirteen seats and their majority. The strong hand that was going to reduce the damage from the perils of Brexit went limp.
Theresa May is still holding on to office. She is faced with the daunting task of negotiating with a European Union strengthened by Emmanuel Macron’s spectacular pro-European Union victory in France. May’s rivals may prefer to wait. Her hugely unpopular advisors have quit leaving her to fight on alone. Even if May can remain as Prime Minister the potential for a huge parliamentary majority that prompted her to call the election has vanished.
Donald Trump and Theresa May are almost polar opposites. He was trying to lose and he won. She was trying to win and she lost. Both are now facing challenges so severe that it is doubtful if they can complete their terms. Trump heads a government he knows very little about. His problems mostly grow out of his uninformed frenetic narcissism. He has worked his way into a legal labyrinth so complex that it will be very difficult for him to extricate himself and to survive in office. Theresa May after years of high level political experience knows her government well. She must now deal with a withdrawal from the European Union which she personally opposed. And, she must do that after a disastrous campaign which lost her majority. Donald Trump and Theresa May each managed to win their country’s highest office. Each through problems of their own making now face a political future that is truly grim!