“He was no whit more respectful or mild towards the senate, allowing some who had held the highest offices to run in their togas for several miles beside his chariot and to wait on him at table, standing napkin in hand either at the head of his couch, or at his feet”— Suetonius on Caligula in The Lives of the Caesars.
It will take a historian with Suetonius’s eye for grotesque detail to do full justice to the presidents of the late American republic when the time comes to chronicle its decline and fall. Readers will need to know the erotic adventures of Bill Clinton’s cigar fully to appreciate the self-indulgence of his reign. They will struggle to grasp the recklessness of the invasion of Iraq if they are not told how George W Bush was manipulated by his vice-president and defence secretary.
And they will miss the fatal flaw of Barack Obama’s presidency if they are not given a sense of his chilly aloofness — his thinly veiled contempt for those voters who “get bitter [and] cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them”.
It will certainly not be for his magnanimity or contrition that Donald Trump — the man those very voters helped elect in 2016 — will be remembered. No sooner had he been acquitted by the Senate of the charges brought against him by the House of Representatives than Trump let rip against all those he held responsible for his impeachment.
“It was evil, it was corrupt, it was dirty cops, it was leakers, it was liars,” the president said on Thursday morning at what he called a “celebration” of his acquittal. James Comey, the former FBI director fired by Trump, had been “a disaster”. Robert Mueller’s investigation into the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election was “all bullshit”. Adam Schiff, the Democrat who managed the impeachment process, was “a vicious, horrible person”.
Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, was also “horrible”. Mitt Romney — the only Republican senator to find Trump guilty in last week’s vote — was “a failed presidential candidate”. Those present, including leading Republican legislators, cheered this rant to the rafters, napkins in hand.
I dwell on these details because they are characteristic of the atmosphere today in Washington. According to CBS News, Republican senators had been warned: “Vote against the president and your head will be on a pike.” The Democratic senator for Ohio, Sherrod Brown, wrote a column in The New York Times headlined: “In private, Republicans admit they acquitted Trump out of fear.” I have a different theory. I believe they acquitted him because they see his re-election as all but certain.
Richard Nixon was forced to resign before it even came to impeachment because polling made clear to the Republican leadership in Congress that he was irreparably damaged in the eyes of voters. In any case, Nixon was already in his second term. The Democrats should have saved impeachment for next year.
Right now, by contrast, Trump is on track for four more years. Those economists who have spent the past three years predicting a recession — dubbed the “Armageddonists” by JP Morgan — look foolish. According to Gallup, 63% of Americans now approve of the way Trump is handling the economy — the highest economic approval for any president since the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Among Republicans, Trump has a stratospheric 94% approval rating. With independents he is on 42%.
Meanwhile, in Iowa, the president’s political rivals made the biggest possible mess of the first of the steps they must take to select a candidate to run against him in November. Caucuses are an archaic procedure, but there is nothing wrong with that. The fatal mistake was to introduce smartphone apps into the process. If you’re going to do things the old-fashioned way, stick with paper and pencil.
What has Iowa told us, except that, despite all those millions of dollars of donations from Silicon Valley, the Democratic Party still sucks at technology?
First, Bernie Sanders is the real frontrunner, not Joe Biden, whose campaign is in disarray (the fate that usually befalls early Democratic frontrunners).
Second, if there is to be a dark horse in this race, it will be Pete Buttigieg, the youthful, brainy and gay former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
Third, not being involved in Iowa or the other early races may not significantly dent the strategy of Mike Bloomberg to spend his way to the nomination.
Perhaps most importantly, Iowa reminded us how easily close races in American politics can descend into farce and acrimony. I emphasise this because the eventual Democratic nominee will have — contrary to the conventional wisdom that currently prevails in Davos, Aspen, Manhattan and Silicon Valley — at least some chance of beating Trump.
Three of the past five US general elections (2000, 2004 and 2016) have been close — decided by very narrow margins in the electoral college. If (as seems likely) Trump holds on to the bulk of the “Sun Belt” — the band of states stretching from the southeast to the southwest — then this year’s election will once again hinge on Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Here’s Trump’s problem. In these key swing states, between 44% and 49% of 2018 mid-term voters named healthcare as their top issue. Three-quarters of those who did so voted for the Democrats. This isn’t so surprising when you discover that, since January 2017, the inflation-adjusted increase in employee contributions to family health insurance plans has been 24% in Michigan and 30% in Wisconsin.
On this subject, Republicans have no good story to tell. They failed to repeal and replace Obamacare. Now they are held responsible for its “implosion” — Trump’s ill-chosen word back in 2017. Four years ago, voters blamed Democrats for problems with Obamacare by 66% to 23%. Today 61% blame Republicans; only 32% Democrats.
Yes, the economy has been strong under Trump (although it has not added more jobs than in Obama’s last three years). True, no postwar president has lost re-election with unemployment below 7%. And I agree: real median household wages are up — by $2,228 (£1,700) in 2019. But higher health insurance premiums ate a third of that gain, and the trade war another third.
Even in only four years, those three key states have seen demographic changes that are bad for Republicans, shaving the number of white voters without a college degree by about 2 percentage points. So it will be close. Even if they nominate Bernie, it will be close.
Would a Democratic win halt the republic’s seemingly inexorable Roman-style slide towards empire? I doubt it — especially if the general election result is as close as that of 2000. Imagine Iowa writ large. Imagine Mayor Pete again claiming victory before the results are in. Imagine Trump’s reaction. Imagine his party’s reaction (think napkins).
Imagine mayhem — the invariable prelude to empire.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford