Macmillan’s puckish letter to Michael Fraser, the party official, is cited in Alistair Horne’s fine biography of the moderate Tory leader who figured out an answer good enough to sweep to victory two years later. Macmillan, in any event, had something important going for him: In the Britain of the late 1950s, he could plausibly declare that “most of our people have never had it so good.”
That is not a claim President Trump can make in a summer of pandemic and widespread unemployment. And so Trump has decided that what he can give to white middle-class voters whose support he desperately needs to win back is — a culture war.
Trump’s vile speeches at Mount Rushmore on Friday and at the White House on the Fourth of July signal that he sees one and only one possible path to victory: He will tear an already riven nation to pieces.
He will use the classic methods of racist politicians to tie a resurgent movement for racial equality to “a wave of violent crime” and efforts to “destroy” our “very civilization.” It is all, he says, part of a “left-wing cultural revolution . . . designed to overthrow the American Revolution.”
The man who has been selling right-wing nationalism dares to say his opponents advocate “a new far-left fascism.” The politician who has defended Confederate monuments scrambles for cover behind Abraham Lincoln and quotations from Martin Luther King Jr.
If he can’t deliver good times, Trump will deliver statues in great abundance.
Thus his executive order on Friday proposing a “National Garden of American Heroes” where statues will serve as “silent teachers in solid form of stone and metal.” Trump plainly likes his teachers to remain silent.
Trump’s spiteful and hostile moves on a weekend when we celebrate the equal rights of all to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are alarming. But they are also a sign of weakness. They suggest his own lack of faith in his predictions that our economy will take off like “a rocket ship.”
He rushed out to the White House press room to celebrate Thursday’s report that the economy had regained 4.8 million jobs and crowed: “Next year is going to be an incredible year for jobs, for companies, for growth.”
Except that the unemployment rate is still 11.1 percent, a resurgence of covid-19 infections could wipe out June’s gains, and Trump has effectively given up on anything remotely like a coherent approach to reining in the virus.
You might have thought that Trump would at least make a run at economic issues before going nuclear on “violent mayhem” and “extreme indoctrination.” After all, a Pew Research Center poll released last week showing Trump trailing former vice president Joe Biden by 44 percent to 54 percent nonetheless gave the president a three-point advantage on making “good decisions about economic policy.” It was a residue of the days before the pandemic when unemployment stood at 3.5 percent.
But perhaps what we might call Macmillan’s Law — the idea that middle-ground swing voters look for tangible, concrete benefits from government — still applies.
And perhaps Trump is even more petrified by Biden than he lets on. At his less-than-boffo Tulsa rally last month, Trump cast Biden as a “helpless puppet of the radical left.” Cue in the derisive laughter about an absurd charge against a 77-year-old political warhorse regularly censured by the left for getting along too well with Republicans.
As for deliverables to the electorate, Biden has it all over Trump. The former vice president’s website is chockablock with popular and specific proposals on matters ranging from access to health care and higher education to infrastructure, climate change and higher wages.
What is Trump offering? When Fox News’s Sean Hannity recently asked Trump what he wanted to do in a second term, the president offered 138-words of rambling emptiness adding up to nothing. Lacking even a few ideas scribbled on a “sheet of notepaper,” he can only conjure terrorizing national nightmares.
It’s true that Trump’s Independence weekend escapades mean we face months of being led by someone so desperate to avoid defeat that he will warp our history, shatter what little unity we have left, and leave it to others to clear the wreckage. But there is hope here, too: Trump is acting like a frightened man who realizes that if his opponents keep their heads and avoid rising to his bait, his days are numbered.