Liberalism is a fine idea until you let liberals get their hands on it.
That’s when a sensible outlook on life turns rigid, shrill and intolerant. Smugness is the original sin of liberalism, the Tell-Tale Heart of the rational mind.
John Stuart Mill is often quoted deriding the Tories as ‘the stupid party’ but if anything the philosopher’s less famous clarification was more self-incriminating: ‘I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant that stupid persons are generally Conservative.’ It was not simply the politics he objected to, it was the people.
Waspish Tory historian Maurice Cowling was fantastically mad but when he hissed that Mill was ‘a man of sneers and smears and pervading certainty’ he was onto something.
There has been much sneering and smearing in the past six months as American liberals come to terms, slowly and sourly, with their defeat in the 2016 presidential election. It was an astonishing reversal; the highly qualified Hillary Clinton, favourite in all the polls, lost to the brash, untested billionaire Donald Trump.
Many of us share the Democrats’ frustration at the outcome, not least because of Mr Trump’s uncouth behaviour and extreme rhetoric. The New York tycoon did not cut a presidential figure on the campaign trail and has demeaned his office with loutish outbursts and chaotic mismanagement of his top team. If his early days in the White House are anything to go by, Mr Trump will not be troubling Mount Rushmore any time soon.
Here is the thing about President Trump, though: He has a secret weapon — his opponents. Shortly after he entered the Oval Office, this column cautioned liberals not to fall into the twin traps of hysterically attacking everything the President did, on the one hand, and vilifying the 63 million Americans who voted for him, on the other.
Yet that is exactly what they have done and the American people have been subjected to the longest tantrum in US history as liberals lash out daily at the administration and those who voted for it.
Democrat Congresswoman Maxine Waters calls Mr Trump ‘the most deplorable person I’ve ever met in my life’. The filmmaker Michael Moore compared a recent Trump speech to the Boy Scouts of America to a Nazi rally. The comedian Kathy Griffin posed for a gruesome ‘decapitation’ photoshoot in which she held up a blood-soaked prop mimicking Donald Trump’s head.
Politics is a contact sport and its practitioners have to accept fiery rhetoric from time to time. However, the target is not just the President but those who put him in the White House. These millions of Americans, many of them poor and desperate to improve their lot in life, are dismissed out of hand as racists and bigots.
Now, it is reasonable to assume that some people with foul and prejudiced views cast their ballot for the Republican who spoke of Mexican ‘rapists’ and banning Muslims from the United States. But to claim they are representative of the vast swathe of Trump voters is insulting and self-defeating for liberals.
Instead of demonising these Americans, the Democrats should be trying to win them back. To do so, they must offer answers to the problems that trouble them: Illegal immigration, Islamist terrorism and the hollowing out of American industry. These are complex issues and require big thinking but liberals seem more content to castigate the electorate and mock the daily circus that the Trump administration is turning into.
Good humour is needed in politics, particularly with Mr Trump in the White House, but pointing and laughing is not a counter-argument. The Democrats have to shift focus to the issues Mr Trump won on and come up with their own answers, territory that so far only New York senator Chuck Schumer has dared to enter.
Many feel there is no need to do so. Mr Trump is done for and his opponents can simply wait for his downfall then take his place. His approval rating is in free fall, his pledge to ‘repeal and replace’ Barack Obama’s healthcare law lies in tatters, and a former FBI director is investigating possible collusion between his election campaign and the Russian government.
This is dangerous complacency. Whatever becomes of Mr Trump, he is unlikely to stand as an aberration in American history. The rabble-rousing businessman has penned a real-time manual of how to exploit working- and middle-class fears and turn them into a winning electoral coalition. Others will surely follow in his footsteps.
How do liberals bring down Mr Trump and ensure no one like him sees the inside of the Oval Office again?
Counterintuitive as it might sound, they should look to Scotland, where a ready-made strategy for overcoming flag-waving populism is waiting for them. Ruth Davidson is not an obvious inspiration for the US Democrats but she has shown how a party down on its luck, out of power, and up against division-stoking demagoguery can turn the tables on its opponents.
Barely two years ago, the SNP looked unassailable. They had stoked up popular fears in different ways to Donald Trump but they had done so just as ruthlessly and successfully. No one knew how they could be brought to heel or even if they could — no one except Miss Davidson.
She understood that Nationalist voters must not be shrugged off as separatist ideologues. They had voted SNP for many different reasons and some could be convinced to vote against Nicola Sturgeon’s party over its failings in government. Instead of insulting these electors, the Tories wooed them.
That is what US liberals must now do to triumph over their nationalist rival. Don’t degrade the people who voted for Trump — remind them why they voted for him and point out that he is not doing much of what he promised. It’s time for President Trump to get on with the day job — and for Democrats to prove to Americans that they could get on with it better than him.
They never learn, do they? You would think the voter rebellion over the Tories’ ‘dementia tax’ would have served as a warning not to tangle with pensioners. But it seems the SNP might not have been paying attention.
Scottish Labour warns the Nationalists could be plotting to introduce means-testing for the winter fuel allowance. Labour says the Scottish Government’s Social Security Bill will hand ministers the power to bring in ‘eligibility criteria’ with minimal oversight from MSPs.
Two years ago, the Nats raised means testing in a public consultation but U-turned under pressure from older voters. Nicola Sturgeon should think very carefully before crossing Scotland’s OAPs, especially given the part they played in throwing out 21 of her MP colleagues in June. Older Scots are already feeling the pinch and it would be Scrooge-like to deny them a few pounds to help with their fuel bills over Christmas. The First Minister ought to rule out such a ‘heating tax’ before the voters go even colder on her.
The Scottish Parliament is in recess for another month and it’s just as well since it’s nigh on impossible to get to with the Edinburgh Festival in full swing. The Royal Mile is awash with chancers who want your cash in exchange for ropey performances. Come to think of it, it’s like having MSPs here after all.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Have your say on the issues raised here by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, remembering to reference the column. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.