To understand the rise of Donald Trump, you’d do well not to fixate on the fact that he’s running under the Republican banner. During Thursday night’s Fox News debate, Trump made it clear that failing to secure the GOP nomination wouldn’t stop him from exploring an independent candidacy. And honestly, he’d be crazy not to. Trump is very far from a Republican regular. He represents an entirely different phenomenon, one that bears little resemblance to garden-variety American conservatism. That’s why Republicans shouldn’t fool themselves into believing that one lackluster debate performance will send him packing.
Go to almost any European democracy and you will find that the parties of the center-right and center-left that have dominated the political scene since the Second World War are losing ground to new political movements. What these movements have in common is that they manage to blend populism and nationalism into a potent anti-establishment brew. One of the first political figures to perfect this brand of politics was the very Trumpian Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media tycoon who rose to power as part of a coalition of right-of-center parties in the mid-1990s, and who has been in and out of power ever since, dodging corruption charges and worse all the while. More recently, the miserable state of Europe’s economies has fueled the rise of dozens of other parties. Britain’s Labour Party has been devastated by the rise not only of the leftist Scottish National Party, but also by UKIP, a movement of the right that has been growing at Labour’s expense by campaigning against mass immigration, and by largely abandoning what had been its more libertarian line on the welfare state. UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, has a penchant for bombast that endears him his working-class base, which might sound familiar to you.