Gideon Rachman in The Financial Times
When Donald Trump described himself as a “very stable genius”, even some of his supporters sniggered. The US president is clearly not a genius in any normal sense of the word. Rex Tillerson, his own secretary of state, is reputed to have described his boss as a “f***ing moron”.
But Mr Trump has a legitimate claim to three other kinds of “genius”: political genius, instinctive genius and evil genius. Moral disgust with Mr Trump means that his opponents are reluctant to credit him with any kind of intelligence or success. But that kind of thinking, while understandable, is also dangerous. It is one reason why the president frequently wrongfoots his opponents.
As Mr Trump pointed out, when making his own immodest claim to “genius”, he achieved something unprecedented in modern American history. He was a complete political outsider who won the presidency on his first attempt. His enemies would point to the current government shutdown to suggest that the president is nonetheless completely unfit to govern. But Trump supporters will respond by pointing to a growing economy, and the passage of the first large-scale tax reform in more than 30 years.
Mr Trump campaigned on themes — protectionism, isolationism, opposition to immigration — that the political establishment was convinced were sure-fire losers, and even un-American. His political instincts told him otherwise. Steve Bannon, Mr Trump’s estranged campaign manager, was the man with the grand theories about economics and culture, larded with references to obscure and sinister European philosophers. Mr Trump was guided by an instinct that told him that he could smash taboos and not just fail to pay a price, but actually be rewarded.
His ideas about race and immigration are nasty — but they are also widely shared, and not just in America
The number of Mr Trump’s offences against truth and decency are too long to remember, let alone list. But they have a common theme. Time and again the mainstream media (of which I am a proud member) would proclaim that he had gone too far this time and that he was surely finished. Time and again, Mr Trump would prove them wrong and come back stronger. The things that failed to kill him politically — in particular racism and misogyny — actually made him stronger.
That is why it is also legitimate to describe Mr Trump as an “evil” genius. He has deliberately used lies and offensive language to stoke up America’s culture wars and racial tensions, confident that he will benefit politically. There is a direct connection between the current row about the president’s complaint about immigration from “shithole countries” and the campaign that launched his political career — the “birther” lie that President Barack Obama was not born in the US.
Mr Trump and many of his supporters are tacitly defending the idea of America as a “white country”. The president’s opponents are right to describe this as a racist vision. But they may be wrong in thinking that this is a decisive argument. By the 2040s, the US is predicted to be “majority-minority”. Whites will be still be the largest ethnic group in the country, but they will be less than 50 per cent of the population. By railing against Mexicans, Muslims and Haitians, and calling for more immigration from Norway, Mr Trump is appealing directly to voters who feel angry about that racial and demographic shift. The current government shutdown is also linked to these issues, since it is caused by the president’s refusal to accept an amnesty for illegal immigrants who arrived as children.
It should never be forgotten that a majority of white Americans voted for Mr Trump. Are these voters likely to turn away in disgust now because of the president’s “shithole country” comments? Or are they more likely quietly to agree? The record suggests that Mr Trump knows exactly what he is doing.
His ideas about race and immigration are nasty — but they are also widely shared, and not just in America. Japan accepted 28 refugees in the whole of 2016, and precisely three in the first half of 2017. It is virtually impossible for non-ethnic Chinese to gain citizenship in the People’s Republic of China, whose citizenship laws make explicit reference to “Chinese blood”. The EU has been split down the middle by the Polish and Hungarian governments’ refusal to accept EU-mandated quotas of refugees. The demand to “take back control” of British borders was fundamental to Britain’s Brexit vote. And the decline in Angela Merkel’s political fortunes in Germany has been closely linked to the chancellor’s decision to open her country’s borders to more than 1m refugees.
No European country has yet elected a Trump figure. But the continent’s politicians are tying themselves in knots trying to combine liberal principles with practical politics. President Emmanuel Macron speaks the language of tolerance, but is actually speeding up deportations of illegal migrants and tightening border controls. And nobody in Ms Merkel’s CDU party is campaigning for the Hungarian government to rip down the border walls that helped to stop the flow of refugees into Germany.
The fears and hatreds that the US president exploits exist well beyond his base. Liberal politicians need to find more effective policies and language to deal with those fears — or the “very stable genius” may continue to outsmart them.