Understanding the Trump phenomenon

Donald Trump’s rise is despite his unorthodox positions on several issues, and it ruptures the two-party system’s ability to subsume distinct ideological strands.

No matter what happens in the U.S. on Election Day, November 8, 2016, and whatever the outcome, the Donald Trump phenomenon must be analysed from two angles: what has produced it, and what could happen if Mr. Trump (or someone similar to him) comes to power. The mainstream U.S. media and the international press have so far proven inadequate to either task, and most particularly to the latter. Let us briefly look then at what has produced Mr. Trump.

The usual reasons given for his success are the anger and resentment felt by largely white, male, lower middle class, working class and lumpen proletarian voters in the U.S. who feel they have been progressively disenfranchised by both parties — the Democrats because of their policies on race, gender, and protection against the global economy, and the Republicans because they have catered largely only to the highly affluent (for example, the Mitt Romney candidacy, where he turned out to have paid taxes at a remarkable rate of 14 per cent). Logically, therefore, we would expect the largest concentration of pro-Trump votes to come from the so-called Rust Belt and the South, rather than the two coasts. On the other hand, it means that these voters are voting precisely for their class enemy, the man who represents an unbridled “robber baron” mentality as few others do, and whose fortunes (such as they are) rest in the most dubious of locations, namely real estate speculation. But we may also note some other curious phenomena that exist in the support for Mr. Trump. Consider the following three issues.

The unlikely Republican

The Republican presidential candidate is certainly irreligious, and perhaps even an unbeliever, rather remarkable for a candidate from either of the two current mainstream parties, and especially for a Republican. Yet his voters are largely indifferent to this matter, suggesting that the so-called Karl Rove formula (of beating the bushes for the evangelical vote) does not always work. Ted Cruz, for example was unable to make any headway against Mr. Trump on the basis of this contrast. In contrast to Mr. Trump, over two-thirds of the other Republican candidates were what might be called Christian fundamentalists (as Eliot Weinberger points out in the recent London Review of Books).

This is for somewhat obvious reasons of history. After all Mr. Trump is a very recent “turncoat” rather than a long-standing Republican. Yet, this is again seen by his current supporters as a sign of his pragmatism, rather than his opportunism. What it does suggest is that over the next decade or so, the two-party system has some potential to break down, or to be radically reorganised, since in reality it papers over at least four distinct positions: (1) a right-wing Christian fundamentalist and Creationist party, which is at the same time for low income taxes and free trade; (2) a right-wing populist, and nationalist party, focussed on protectionism and immigration; (3) a centrist party with some weak welfarist positions, but broadly pro-globalisation; and (4) a left-wing, protectionist, and strongly interventionist party, along the lines espoused in 2016 by the supporters of Democrat Bernie Sanders.

It should also be noted that many of Mr. Trump’s positions, especially on social and cultural issues, are unstable or unorthodox when compared to other Republicans such as Mr. Cruz or Marco Rubio. (This includes issues such as gay rights, and also — though this is more murky — the “right to choose”). On the economy, he is currently protectionist, and anti-globalisation, quite similar in tone to parties such as the Front National in France, or the UK Independence Party in Britain. In sum, Mr. Trump represents a particular brand of extreme American cultural and economic nationalism that fits well with the social base outlined above.

Riding on the celeb bounce

But there is a paradox here. For Mr. Trump is entirely the product of the phenomena he ostensibly decries. Perhaps of greatest importance is the fact that Mr. Trump’s success owes itself almost entirely to his status as a rich “celebrity” who, after touting a ghostwritten self-help book, The Art of the Deal (1987), then became a well-known face on account of a reality TV programme, The Apprentice. In short, he is largely famous for being famous, and he has in fact invested considerable effort in making himself progressively more notorious. In the absence of a highly developed culture of celebrity-fascination, a candidacy like his would have been totally impossible. Throughout, it is his celebrity status that has driven the media and general obsession with his candidacy, and also protected him from the usual scrutiny that “normal” politicians are meant to undergo, on such issues as intelligence and knowledge of current affairs, personal honesty, consistency of views, and so on.

From all of this, we may conclude that — whatever happens this year — a formula can now increasingly emerge in U.S. politics for the creation of charismatic, populist demagogues, by means of channelling media celebrity. While Arnold Schwarzenegger was able to do this on the more modest level of California on the basis of his Hollywood success, it then turned out that he in fact had a great deal more good sense and policy savvy than Mr. Trump has ever demonstrated. The use in both Democratic and Republican conventions of celebrities for key statements and endorsements also does not bode well in this respect. The U.S. may now be taking the path already defined elsewhere in the world, notably in South Asia, where celebrities regularly cash in on their “cultural capital” for political success (N.T. Rama Rao, Jayalalithaa, etc.).

Contours of a Trump presidency

It is one thing to use celebrity status and populist demagoguery to gain power, but what happens afterwards? If Mr. Trump were to come to power in November, we have relatively few clear indications as to how he would proceed and what policies he would actually follow (beyond some gestures towards protectionism, the restriction of immigration, and friendly dealing with the Vladimir Putin regime in Russia). It would seem that at present, only a small number of “mainstream” Republicans — such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie — are willing to play a real role in his team. Perhaps Paul Ryan, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, will eventually join that number. But for the rest, a dismaying fact is the inordinate place given to a family inner circle, which does and will apparently still control access to him, and in which his son-in-law Jared Kushner plays a prominent role. There are several names that are essentially associated with the nitty-gritty of the campaign, such as the rather sinister personage of Paul Manafort (who had managed the political career in Ukraine of former President Viktor Yanukovych), but also of Roger Stone and Michael Glassner. On foreign affairs questions, names that are at times mentioned are those of retired General Joseph Kellogg and Carter Page: both of these figures are known only for a limited set of views which are broadly pro-Russian, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigration. Yet, often these men are little more than former lobbyists and representatives of special interests. On the economic front, the rumours of the past some months point to a prominent role for Stephen Moore of conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, and Lawrence Kudlow, a consultant and host for CNBC. Both men are, to put it mildly, lightweights in a country which is certainly not lacking for talent among professional economists, even of a quite conservative sort. Mr. Kudlow for his part is of late touting the name of the billionaire investor Wilbur Ross as a possible Treasury Secretary — Mr. Ross’s fame and fortune largely rest on his activities as a “distressed asset investor” who has generally profited from leveraged buyouts.

If, as seems likely, a President Trump will be unable to draw for the most part on the talents of “mainstream” Republicans to fill his Cabinet, he will perforce wind up relying on three other types: other media-savvy celebrities on the right wing, members of his own extended family circle, and lobbyists linked to various special interests. To be sure, the last type can be found in many U.S. administrations, but it may be a matter of the different proportions involved. Here is why it is important not to think of Mr. Trump as a normal, charismatically oriented “fascist” (as exists in Europe today): he has no cadre or group organisation to fall back on. This vacuum means that the months between November 2016 and January 2017 may see a rush to seek the loaves and fishes of office that has few precedents in recent American memory.

What will emerge from all that shoving and jostling? At the end of it all, the U.S. may resemble the largest banana republic on the planet.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam is a Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

We have been keeping you up-to-date with information on the developments in India and the world that have a bearing on our health and wellbeing, our lives and livelihoods, during these difficult times. To enable wide dissemination of news that is in public interest, we have increased the number of articles that can be read free, and extended free trial periods. However, we have a request for those who can afford to subscribe: please do. As we fight disinformation and misinformation, and keep apace with the happenings, we need to commit greater resources to news gathering operations. We promise to deliver quality journalism that stays away from vested interest and political propaganda.

Support Quality Journalism
Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 4, 2020 8:22:46 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Understanding-the-Trump-phenomenon/article14553137.ece

Next Story