Monthly Archives: March 2016

Republicans have themselves to blame for Trump


As Donald Trump inches ever closer to securing their party’s presidential nomination, Republican leaders are pitifully lamenting: “How did this happen?” The answer is that deliberate immediate, medium and long-term decisions by Republican leaders themselves brought extremists into the party, propelled them into the limelight and imposed the electoral structure that has ceded control to a demagogue.

Mr Trump often recites a ­poem in which a woman is taunted by a snake who poisoned her after she rescued it, telling her “you knew I was a snake” all along. He is trying to castigate immigrants, but his analogy far better describes how his own radical followers seized control of the Republican Party.

In the immediate term, Republican leaders crafted a primary system designed to produce a clear early winner. The intention was to avoid a debilitating internal battle by producing an obvious leader. The system worked all too well. It did indeed yield a decisive early front-runner, but, because of a series of cynical medium and long-term strategic party decisions, it has been hijacked by a dangerous charlatan.

This turn to chauvinism, xenophobia and barely disguised racism is a catastrophe for the long-term prospects for the Republican Party in an increasingly diverse, heterogeneous and tolerant society. Party leaders understand that such a profile will make it almost impossible for Republicans to win the White House and difficult to retain control of the Senate. A Trump nomination is potentially toxic enough to even threaten the Republican majority in the House of Representatives.

This disaster was set up by the Republican leadership in the aftermath of the crushing victory by the Democratic Party, led by Barack Obama, almost eight years ago. President George W Bush left office haunted by the Iraq war and the fiscal meltdown, and a series of notable failures of leadership, particularly the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina. This allowed Mr Obama to sweep into power and, much more alarmingly, for his party to seize control of both houses of Congress.

Americans like divided government, and rarely allow a single party to dominate both houses of Congress and the executive simultaneously. A course correction was almost inevitable. But Republican leaders, panicked at the scale of their defeat, unwisely unleashed a wave of ultra-right wing “know-nothing” populism called the Tea Party. This supposedly grass roots movement was actually well-funded and carefully directed from the top.

The Tea Party phenomenon was promoted to regain control of the House by winning a large number of smaller, local elections where its nativism and chauvinism would resonate. The strategy worked, and Republicans were able to regain control of the House and eventually the Senate. But, once unleashed, getting the genie back in the bottle has proven much more difficult than anticipated.

It’s no surprise that Mr Trump first came to political prominence as a leader of the “birther” movement that promotes suggestions that Mr Obama was not born in the United States. Such rhetoric was a staple of the early Tea Party movement, and brought together the racism, chauvinism, nativism and conspiratorial hysteria that characterises the right-wing “paranoid style” in US politics.

The most disturbing qualities of Trump rallies, including the rage and violence that courses through them, was previously expressed at Tea Party events. The Trump campaign is the obvious, logical conclusion of the Tea Party movement, and for Republican leaders a Frankenstein’s monster now turned against its own creator.

But the deepest seeds of the Trump phenomenon were sown by the Republican Party many decades ago. As Rick Perlstein describes in a brilliant series of books beginning with Nixonland, in the mid- to late-1960s Richard Nixon and his successors, most notably Ronald Reagan, redrew the political map and divided the US politically as it is to this day.

Nixon created a new Republican governing majority by combining the rising right-wing populism of the Sun Belt states, including the nascent religious right, with the old segregationist, racist constituency in the South that left the Democratic Party after the civil rights movement. Nixon and Reagan’s new constituency brought into the Republican tent the racists, chauvinists, demagogues, paranoiacs, conspiracy theorists and hysterics who have found their ultimate expression, and victory, in the Trump campaign. Buzzwords about “law and order” and “states’ rights” blew the dog whistle that summoned extremists into Republican ranks.

These racists, reactionaries and religious fanatics were not supposed to take over, of course. They were supposed to rage and fulminate impotently about minorities, immigration, socialism, Jews and Muslims, homosexuals, abortion, evolution, climate change, one-world government and so forth, and dutifully vote Republican. But not set the agenda.

It’s no mystery how extremists captured the Republican Party. Nixon invited them in. Reagan kept them there. The tea party catapulted them into national political prominence. The primary system provided the practical mechanism to seize control. For all his bluster, Mr Trump is merely their expression and their vehicle.

Obama and Putin: Competing Theories on Force and National Power

Historically there have been hundreds of definitions of what political power is and how it operates. They inevitably boil down to some variation of the ability to shape realities, largely by convincing or coercing others to do what you want. These days we tend to distinguish hard power, which involves the use or threat of force, from soft power that is based only on influence and persuasion.

One of the most interesting and revealing recent glosses on national power comes from US president Barack Obama’s extensive musings with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic. Mr Obama specifically criticises Russian president Vladimir Putin, asserting that “real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence,” and suggesting that force is, by definition, self-defeating.

The most comprehensive forms of coercion – by producing terror on the part of the intended target – render a powerful agent able to exercise control without the use of violence. That means that previous violence, or simply the threat of violence, often suffices. But Mr Obama was probably referring to soft power exercised through systems of international law and order, norms and other mechanisms that regulate behaviour without the use of force.

It’s usually impossible to identify precisely where implicit coercion ends and internalised, culturally normative standards begin. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine Mr Obama’s version of “real power” operating effectively without a credible threat of force.

Mr Putin might well retort that power is multifarious and can indeed be the product of the application of force, as he has demonstrated in Ukraine, the Crimea, Georgia and elsewhere, most notably Syria.

Russia has a tiny fraction of the American firepower, both globally and particularly in the Middle East. And while it possesses a number of military bases in Syria, its ability to project power in the region generally is, by any standards and method of calculation, modest compared with the enormous American presence and capacity.

But there is a decided difference of will.

Russia looked on with increasing alarm as its clients in the Syrian regime suffered defeat after defeat in the first part of 2015. When Iranian officials reportedly approached the Russian leadership last summer with a proposal for a coordinated intervention in Syria – with Russia providing the air power and intelligence, technical and logistical support for ground forces combining the Syrian military with Iranian, Hizbollah and Iraqi militia troops – Moscow agreed.

Russia never hamstrung itself by concluding that there were “no good options” in Syria. Instead, it decided on a preferred outcome within the range of plausible scenarios and crafted policies to pursue that as Washington stood on the sidelines doing nothing.

When the preferred Russian outcome appeared to be in grave peril, Moscow decided to use its power to protect its friends and strengthen its hand. The US still took no action.

The recent announcement of a Russian drawdown in Syria assumes the intervention was largely successful. It’s hard to argue with that. A year ago, the regime of Bashar Al Assad looked to be in real trouble. After the intervention, the regime appears to have consolidated control over many crucial and contested areas of the country, and momentum in the conflict seems to have turned in its favour.

Even American officials are widely quoted as saying that the Russian intervention was effective and involved manageable, and even arguably low, costs to Moscow in both blood and treasure while having a major effect on the military and political situation in Syria.

Contradicting the evaluation of his own officials, Mr Obama dismisses the possibility that Russian intervention has been effective. Like many Americans, he seems so traumatised by experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Libya that the notion of a successful limited military intervention in a Middle Eastern conflict looks preposterous.

“They are overextended. They’re bleeding,” and economically crippled, he insists. The assumption Russia must have fallen into a quagmire appears to have been axiomatic.

But, in fact, Russia has at least somewhat managed to shape the strategic landscape in Syria, and the US has not, although their capabilities on paper are not comparable.

The lesson appears not that the use of force is, by definition, self-defeating, but, to the contrary, that there may be ways of making it work, at least in the short run.

Russia’s impact in Syria might prove temporary, and the strategic equation could shift again, confronting them with the real choice between an actually endless, quagmire-like commitment versus accepting an unpalatable outcome. But, for now, Mr Putin appears to have practically demonstrated in Syria how and why Mr Obama’s theory of power is profoundly unconvincing.

The US invests – or given its present reticence perhaps squanders – something like the combined total of all other national defence expenditures globally.

If it will not use that enormous potential kinetic power, or even more importantly, is perceived as being unwilling to use it, then even second-rate powers like Russia can, to their surprise and delight, seize control of the agenda in Syria and beyond. Perhaps real power can indeed “flow from the barrel of a gun.”

That’s why a modest application of hard power can trump even a sustained campaign of soft power.

How Russia’s Drawdown Will Affect War and Peace in Syria

The announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that the “main part” of his country’s military forces that have intervened in Syria since late September 2015 will begin withdrawing soon may prove less dramatic in practice than many hope or suspect. The announcement and its overall context do not indicate a major Russian policy shift. Putin has insisted that Russian operations at military bases in Tartus and Latakia – the only significant manned Russian military installations outside the former Soviet Union – will continue as usual. This means that Russia will maintain significant airpower in Syria, although where it will conduct operations remains to be seen. The precise number of air forces is not yet available, and may never be fully public. However, Russia had a major military presence in Syria before the offensive, and there is every reason to believe that, even after the drawdown, Russia’s role there will still be significantly greater than it was before September. So the idea that Russia is leaving Syria, or even ending its military engagement, appears to be contradicted by Moscow’s own announcement.

Moreover, the official Russian statements show continued support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The readout of a telephone conversation between Putin and Assad on March 14 indicates that, while Russia may not have fully consulted its Syrian clients about this move, it is hardly abandoning them either. Why would Russia suddenly abandon a regime it has spent the past six months shoring up? Moscow has shown signs of irritation with Assad but remains fundamentally committed to regime maintenance, at least until a transition can be arranged that secures Russia’s interests. Until that can be accomplished, there does not appear to be any practical reason for Russia to suddenly turn its back on a regime it has worked so hard to shore up over the past six months.

However, the Russian drawdown may be partly designed to send a message to Assad, encouraging him to be more cooperative at the negotiations in Geneva. It comes in the context of a cease-fire largely secured by U.S. and Russian pressure that is linked to humanitarian relief efforts and the peace talks. Diplomacy is useful to both Moscow and Damascus, buying space and time for the regime to secure and consolidate its control over key areas and to perpetuate the status quo in Syria. But Russia appears to want more progress at the negotiating table than the Syrian regime. The timing of the Russian move strongly suggests a message to Assad encouraging cooperation, and a second message to the international community broadly casting Russia in a constructive role and avoiding any hint of being a “spoiler” to negotiations. Putin is also casting himself domestically as a decisive leader who can arrange successful military interventions while avoiding getting sucked in endless quagmires, and internationally as a judicious statesman who recognizes the limitations of the application of force and stays within reasonable constraints.

Putin is also casting Russia as a moderating force on the Syrian regime, although the reality is that without Moscow’s support the Assad dictatorship may not have survived until now. Moscow appeared annoyed by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem’s recent comments that any questioning of Assad’s future in the country is “a red line” that cannot be discussed at Geneva. Russia also expressed impatience with the regime’s statements that it wishes to keep fighting until it can extend its control over the entire country, an agenda Russia finds overly ambitious and needlessly provocative. So, while it remains generally supportive of Assad politically, Russia may be sending a message to him that he needs to be more flexible and responsive to Russia’s diplomatic and political concerns.

The Russian drawdown appears to be primarily a well-calculated response to the intervention’s mission having been largely successful, as the Kremlin is claiming. The purpose of the intervention, which was reportedly coordinated between Russia and Iran in the summer of 2015, was to reverse what, for them, had been an alarming series of setbacks for the regime at the hands of mainstream opposition groups, such as the Free Syrian Army factions, Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Islam, that are supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. Many reports indicate that Russia, Iran, Hizballah, and the other key allies of the Assad regime were increasingly concerned during the first half of 2015 that the Damascus dictatorship might lose so much ground that it would become unsalvageable. This is how the situation appeared to many outside observers as well.

The intervention – in which Russia served as the air cover and technical advisory vanguard for ground forces largely made up of the Syrian military and pro-regime elements backed up by expeditionary forces from Hizballah, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and a number of Iraqi Shia militias – was intended to reverse the momentum on the battlefield in Syria. Several key areas were targeted, including Aleppo, areas comprising the Alawite heartland near the northwestern coast that are also close to Russia’s military bases in Syria, and other strategic areas that had been threatened by rebel advances. Most reports indicate that with Russian support in the air and the intervention of its allies on the ground, the Syrian regime was able to make substantial progress in most, if not all, of the areas of the country it considers most important.

It is possible that the regime would prefer to continue the conflict at its recent escalated phase and try to secure control over additional parts of the country that have been lost to opposition groups in recent years. But the Russian announcement strongly suggests that Moscow’s commitment is limited to securing regime control over what is being called in Arab media “necessary” or “viable” Syria, as opposed to trying to regain much of the rest of the country. This “viable Syria” begins at the Lebanese border, continues north through Qalamoun and into Damascus, up into Homs and Hama and into the coastal areas mentioned. Ideally, from the regime’s point of view, it should also include all or most of Aleppo and its environs. Regime forces have apparently made significant progress in that area, and rebel forces seem to have been dealt crippling blows around Aleppo as a direct result of the Russian-led offensive.

Moscow’s mission has indeed been largely achieved if the point really was to secure “viable Syria” for the regime and its local allies. However, Russia claimed that its intervention was an international counterterrorism effort targeted at the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). While regime forces have recently been attacking some ISIL positions, most of the intervention was aimed squarely at mainstream rebel groups and had little to do with ISIL. If the purpose was really to crush or greatly degrade ISIL, the notion that the mission has been accomplished by Russia and its allies makes no sense since it has done little to affect ISIL’s standing. But from the point of view of beating back the mainstream rebel groups in “viable Syria,” the claim of relative success is plausible and perhaps even accurate.

Russia and its clients in the Syrian regime will no doubt claim to be greatly enhancing negotiations and the prospects of peace by this redeployment. But, unfortunately, there is no indication that the parties on the ground, on any side, are ready to embrace a formal, or even informal, settlement that ends the conflict. On the contrary, it would appear that all the armed Syrian groups believe that they can strengthen their hands through additional combat, and their regional patrons seem to agree. So, even if global powers such as the United States and Russia would like to see a de jure or de facto understanding to end the conflict, the time may not be ripe yet for talks to proceed much beyond formalities and tenuous cease-fires.

The Assad regime will certainly feel greatly strengthened by the intervention of its allies, even if Russia is drawing the line at how far it is willing to go to impose its will in Syria. Russia, Iran, and Hizballah together have managed to largely reverse the momentum on the battlefield in favor of the dictatorship, and this isn’t likely to be quickly reversed. If it that eventually did happen, there is nothing preventing Russia from engaging in another “surge” to reverse such a reversal. So while the regime may be on notice that Russia will not be providing air cover for its broader ambitions to regain control of much wider areas, it will nonetheless likely feel that it can continue to build on the successes secured over the past six months. There is no indication that Iran, Hizballah, and the others have drawn the same line that Russia implicitly has, and Moscow remains a strong supporter of the regime, even if it intends to limit its direct military engagement. Therefore, it’s likely that the Assad regime believes that it can at least secure its gains through additional conflict, and probably even continue to make some limited progress in key areas.

The mainstream rebels will also likely conclude that they can benefit from more fighting. Russia’s “withdrawal” can only be a source of relief for them, and it suggests that they can bring the recent spate of setbacks they have suffered to an end. Looking back on the first half of 2015, they will remember that before the Russian-Iranian surge, they enjoyed a series of significant successes, which is what prompted the intervention in the first place. With Russia pulling back, and indicating that its commitment in Syria is limited as well as raising the prospect that it could be exhausted either now or in the future, the idea that opposition forces could at least return to the positions they held only a few months ago must be deeply tempting.

The opposition continues to receive substantial political, diplomatic, financial, and military support from regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Opposition forces remain in control of significant parts of the country. And, most importantly, the mainstream opposition strongly believes it represents the interests and wishes of the Sunni Arab majority in Syria. The opposition is convinced that because it is comprised of the Sunni majority, over the long run, its victory will be assured. As a consequence, the opposition will see Russia’s implicit admission of a limitation to its aims in Syria as confirmation of its own reading of the long-term trajectory in the country. Because these opposition groups remain convinced that a strong Sunni Arab majority in Syria and in the broader region will not accept control over Syria, certainly including its most important areas within “viable Syria,” by a minority Alawite dictatorship and its patrons in Iran, they believe time is on their side and that they will eventually prevail.

The forces on the ground in Syria also don’t appear to be under much pressure from regional patrons to seek an early end to the fighting. The Assad regime may be disappointed by the Russian drawdown. But it can console itself that Iran and Hizballah don’t seem to share Moscow’s interest in serious diplomacy (although Russia’s enthusiasm may be based on a sense that the United States appears to have gradually adopted a policy stance that accommodates all of their fundamental concerns, possibly including the survival of the Assad regime in the areas currently under its control). The main supporters of the armed opposition, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, also don’t seem to believe that a political solution is plausible, or even perhaps desirable under the present circumstances. On the contrary, the regional rivalry between these power blocs, which is playing out in Syria, would seem to be as aggressive as ever. In neighboring Lebanon, for instance, proxy confrontation between Iranian and Saudi allies is only intensifying. The war in Yemen also continues to rage.

Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have threatened to intervene with ground forces in Syria, although ostensibly under the rubric of the anti-ISIL coalition that is led by the United States. Because Washington doesn’t seem open to such a dramatic military initiative, particularly one that also involves confronting the Assad dictatorship, direct intervention by Riyadh or Ankara doesn’t seem likely in the near term. However, there also does not seem to be any imperative for these regional powers, or their Iranian rivals, to urge their local clients in Syria to come to a political solution, particularly given that the armed Syrian groups are not disposed to do that anyway and would resist, if not reject, such pressure.

All of this means that the Russian announcement will probably be a great deal less dramatic in practice than it might initially seem. Nothing in Syria is likely to change in the short or medium terms given the balance of power on the ground, the ongoing Russian commitment to regime control of “viable Syria,” and the potential for an additional Russian-Iranian “surge” should there be some dramatic reversal of fortunes. Diplomacy in Geneva is shaped by realities in Syria. If the military balance of power remains essentially unchanged, the prospects for a political breakthrough – even if Moscow and Washington favor that – are limited. In the long run, Russia’s drawdown might be seen as significant because it defined the limitations of Moscow’s military commitment to the Assad regime. But in the short and medium terms its impact on the strategic equation in Syria, and hence the likelihood of an agreement or understanding to end the conflict, will probably be quite limited.

Obama’s flawed foreign policy doctrine laid bare

Jeffrey Goldberg’s new article in The Atlantic comes close to realising the familiar cliché about journalism being a “first draft of history”. In this mammoth undertaking, titled “The Obama Doctrine” and running to 20,000 words, Goldberg details how America’s president views his foreign policy legacy.

While his supporters will cheer, Barack Obama’s critics will find some of their grimmest concerns confirmed. Three key charges seem powerfully reinforced: a capacity for self-delusion; a double standard regarding Iran and the Arabs; and a pseudo-analytical aversion, in the name of “realism”, to intervention that can slip from amorality into immorality.

Mr Obama apparently believes the high point of his foreign policy performance – his “moment of liberation” from received wisdom – was his decision on August 30, 2013 to abandon his own “red line” on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime and not to respond militarily.

Mr Obama sees this choice as not only vindicated, but a courageous break with a “Washington playbook” that defaults to force. Leaving aside the effect of his astonishing about-face on American credibility (a criticism he dismisses), and of his broader refusal to seriously engage with Syria of which this is only the most dramatic example, what’s most striking is his insinuation that his inaction required courage.

The truth is precisely the opposite: the public overwhelmingly opposed air strikes against Syria.

At the time I met separately with four Democratic members of Congress, all staunch supporters of Mr Obama, who were desperately seeking arguments to explain a vote in favour of authorising force in Syria, against the deep-seated wishes of their constituents, because they thought that’s what the president wanted. When Mr Obama decided to reward Bashar Al Assad with a legitimising agreement on chemical weapons rather than any punishing military response, he was letting himself and his supporters in Congress off the hook.

The use of force would have been truly controversial and politically risky, and hence courageous. His decision was, in fact, extremely popular, although some analysts criticised it. Whether it was the correct determination or not, casting it in hindsight as a brave and triumphant moment of political “liberation” is simply preposterous.

It has been suggested that America’s Gulf Arab allies suspect that Mr Obama doesn’t particularly care for Arabs, while harbouring an equally irrational sympathy for Iran. It’s true that he often notes many Saudis were involved in the September 11 attacks while Iranians were not, as if that defines who historically has and hasn’t been responsible for terrorism.

Those ill-informed sentiments are, alas, on full display in Goldberg’s article. Mr Obama harshly criticises Arab states for being autocratic and patriarchal, apparently without recognising that Iran is at least as vulnerable as any other Middle Eastern society to criticism about domestic repression and misogynistic social policies.

Mr Obama’s worldview, as characterised by Mr Goldberg, not only reflects an enthusiasm to disengage from the Middle East and “pivot to Asia”, it also suggests an ultimately inexplicable double standard that seems to blame Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia, for all the woes of the Middle East, and even the broader Islamic world, while giving Iran every possible benefit of the doubt.

There’s a clear need for a new, mutually-agreeable security arrangement in the Gulf. But Mr Obama’s suggestion that America’s Arab allies must simply “share” influence throughout the Middle East with Tehran calls into question both the benefits of partnering with Washington and the costs of confronting the US for decades, and to this day on most issues, as Iran indeed does. Is this a rational incentive structure, especially given that Riyadh shares most of Washington’s strategic goals while Tehran openly opposes them?

The reference to the Washington think tank community as “Arab-occupied territory” is especially galling since America’s Arab allies haven’t exactly been getting their way. The idea they wield undue influence over US policy might bolster fantasies about political “courage” and “independence” but it’s obviously nonsense.

Finally, the article strongly suggests Mr Obama would not have done anything to stop the genocide in Rwanda. He dispassionately shifts this mind-boggling, unimaginable tragedy into a disturbingly banal and almost abstract conversation about “how long it takes to crank up the machinery of the US government”.

These chilling passages demonstrate how such “realism” can easily slip into an amorality that, under certain conditions, further descends into outright immorality. This moral degradation can arguably be identified in the essentially nonchalant administration attitude towards the Syrian catastrophe. But regarding the Rwandan holocaust, it is unmistakable.

Given his stated views, could Mr Obama advocate intervention in Rwanda, assuming one accepts that there were no concrete American interests at stake? His comments strongly suggest he can’t.

The principled case for the American national imperative and interest in intervening in local conflagrations to prevent genocide is largely individual and intuitive. It either makes itself for one obviously, or not. For Mr Obama, it apparently doesn’t.

But what, then, does Washington’s power and global role ultimately signify? Is it simply a matter of commerce and narrow interests, unencumbered by broader principles?

This alarmingly dismissive attitude towards the genocide in Rwanda must surely be Exhibit A in the bill of particulars against the Obama “doctrine” and policy legacy. From it, all else follows.

Republicans need to regain control of their party–heres-how-to-do-it

The Republican primaries recall the final scene of Frankenstein, in which enraged villagers besiege the castle, determined to do away with the aristocratic mad scientist and his monstrous creation. Unless they can somehow stop Donald Trump from winning either Florida or Ohio on March 15 (he leads in both), thereby practically securing their party’s nomination, the Republican leadership will have lost control of their own party to an open rebellion from the rank-and-file.

One would then expect Mr Trump and his faction to solidify their new-found control of the party apparatus. But he has no faction. He has no ideological movement, because he has no ideology. He has no broad political orientation, let alone specific policy positions.

So, because Trumpism doesn’t exist, it can’t inherit the Republican Party or inform its future. But Mr Trump does serve as a lightning rod for forces that are likely to reshape American politics.

It is possible Mr Trump is a flash in the pan. Some are comparing him to Wendell Wilkie, a former Democrat nominated in 1940 by the Republicans in a desperate effort to try to beat Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Republicans then returned to traditional candidates such as Thomas Dewey. Wilkie’s nomination was just a moment and didn’t signal any long-term transformation.

But this analogy ignores the deep structural forces that seem to be erupting through the Trump candidacy and that may preclude any return to business as usual, even if Mr Trump is somehow stopped or is crushed by Hillary Clinton in the general election.

One of the reasons Republican leaders are so alarmed at the prospect of a Trump presidential nomination is the categorical opposition to him in the electorally crucial Latino community. Mr Trump has deliberately appealed to a nativist, chauvinist and racist backlash against immigration. A significant section of the GOP base seems politically motivated by the demographic changes that are transforming white Americans from a majority into the largest minority in a diverse society. Mr Trump has tapped into similar anxieties regarding Muslims, African-Americans and others he paints as threatening.

In addition to these racial and cultural war cries, Mr Trump, despite being a billionaire, has given voice to a deep-seated and growing economic panic. The highly-touted economic recovery has been non-existent for much of the American middle class. Jobs, in particular, are either unavailable or cannot provide a traditionally normal middle-class standard of living. Manufacturing jobs, above all, continue to disappear.

Mr Trump shamelessly lies about transforming the employment market, while issuing absurd threats of trade wars with China and Mexico that he knows would wreck the American economy. His appeal is built on domestic policy attitudes reflecting cultural, racial and economic chauvinism, and a pseudo-macho foreign policy persona centred around bullying, bombing, torture and assassination. The persona he has created is that of a tough guy offering to “fight back”. Against just whom, precisely how, and to what end, are seen as irrelevant details.

The problem for all serious American conservatives is not merely that this witches’ brew of primal passions has upended their party. Nor even that Mr Trump’s ugly brand of politics almost certainly ensures defeat in any nationwide contest.

The deeper conundrum is actually that Mr Trump seems to be building a new coalition that incorporates large numbers of the very blue-collar Americans many Republican leaders believe hold a key to their past and future political success, and that, at the very least, they cannot do without. Moreover this coalition, which ranges from evangelicals to libertarians, hints at prospects of a potentially powerful new Republican bloc that moves beyond the reactionary strictures of the Tea Party and embraces social and economic flexibility. Beyond Mr Trump, counterintuitively, some Republicans think they can see the outlines of a new, pragmatic centre-right majority.

Yet carving out a viable future from this mess is going to require something the Republican establishment has recently seemed allergic to: leadership. And it’s got to begin with a clear-cut repudiation of Mr Trump and his odious politics as the only means of preserving their long-term credibility. The pledge all the candidates made at the end of the last debate to support whoever the nominee proves to be was typically spineless and unprincipled.

The only way Republicans can finally reclaim control of their party will be to show the tough leadership Mr Trump’s constituents clearly crave. And that has to begin with a categorical rejection of Mr Trump’s politics of hate and fear, whether or not he is the Republican nominee.