The Fascination with Donald Trump – and what it says about America -

Hardly an appearance is wasted by Donald Trump to castigate an important constituent group or lambast a respected opponent; whether he degrades all Mexicans as ‘drug dealers and rapists’, insults the heroism of John McCain, a distinguished war hero, or makes crude insinuations about women being 'fat pigs, slobs and disgusting animals.'"  Critics seize each opportunity to declare that surely this time his bid to become the president of the world’s most powerful country is now dead.  But somehow his inevitable demise refuses to occur, reminiscent of Mark Twain who once quipped ‘’The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated’’.

Far from being dead, new polls show Trump to be more popular than ever. By most measures, he leads the Republican field by a significant margin, a party, many feel has the inside track to win the next presidential election.

Why does this puffed-up, megalomaniac, buffoon attract the support of such a vast extent of American society? And what does it say about the state of America’s democracy? 

The famous French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, believed that societies held themselves together by sharing common values and beliefs in what he described as its ‘collective conscience’.  When societies undergo dislocations, a period of ‘Anomie’ occurs when there is confusion about those values binding society. Trump seems to be a sort of circuit board operator, or envoy, for a variety of groups who feel displaced. He is an outsider so he appeals to the alienated. He’s confrontational, so he resonates with the frustrated. He is bold, which speaks to the fearful. And he’s honest, which appeals to the repressed. 

First and foremost, the Trump phenomenon appeals to people who dislike politics. Public trust in the government remains near historic lows, and people feel alienated. Less than three in ten Americans believe that their views are represented through the American system of Republic, compared to nearly 80% in the 1960’s.

 
 

Pew Research (http://www.people-press.org/2014/11/13/public-trust-in-government/)

A recent Gallup poll finds that only 10 percent of Americans rank the honesty and ethical standards of members of Congress as high, coming in next to last place before used car salesmen (8%). (**) 

To most of us Trump may come across as an attention seeking-clown, stumbling from one ludicrous act to the next, and playing it out for laughs.  But since few Americans trust his contenders, there is something at least authentic and refreshingly truthful in his message. 

Others are frustrated. The US is enduring a secular slowdown, but there remains considerable trepidation about its growth prospects. Corporate profits and stock markets are at all-time highs, but lower and middle class workers have not participated in this windfall. Most are coming to the realisation that, for the 1st time in America’s history, their children have dimmer prospects than their parents. Trump has a revolting relationship to wealth, plating everything in gold and slapping his name everywhere in huge block letters, but for some he beat a system which is becoming increasingly difficult to beat. In Trump’s way of thinking the world is not divided by parties, or by the right and the left. Instead, there are winners and losers. In his view, the losers are leading society and they scorn, impede and are disrespectful to those who, like him, are really contributing to the betterment of society. 

Third, Trump alleviates the fearful.  Low wage earners are not happy when they lose their jobs to illegal migrant workers. Ironically, Trump’s message also strikes a chord with a core subset of American society that has undergone seemingly terminal decline; the middle aged, white male.  His popularity among them, as Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate, points out: ‘is an expression of reverse identity, which turns white males from defendants to plaintiffs in the contest of victims’.  

For American youth, worried about entering the labour force and repaying the steep burden of student loans, Trump inspires the sense of adolescent ease and freedom taught to them during their youth about ‘the American Dream’. Rebellious youth place less allegiance on political parties, so the fact that Trump ‘crashed the party’, and is playing havoc to traditional party etiquette is more an attraction than a repulsion, at least for them. Rather than turning people off, or inciting envy, Trump is a sort of a vessel projecting the aspirations of his admirers. He may be the only 69 year old white man who can behave like a rap star, and get away with it.

Finally, Trump’s honesty appeals to the silent majority and the repressed. When faced with a seemingly unassailable criticism about his long record of discriminatory comments about women by a female moderator of Fox news, America’s leading conservative television channel, Trump replied:  ‘I've been challenged by so many people and I don't frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn't have time either !’ .

Each word uttered by Trump’s contenders is so carefully formulated in anticipation that every comment will be analysed and reported by large group of journalists, so they appear stiff and rehearsed.  The effect is that such political correctness obstructs a rigorous debate about legitimate grievances that effect voter’s lives. Trump, by contrast, is a carefree, gun-slinger who says whatever strikes him spontaneously with an uncanny knack of saying what most know, but are afraid to say. Never mind that in doing so, he defies the cardinal rule in election campaigns that the risks of thinking out loud are far greater than the benefits.  Politicians are trained to make friends, duck enemies, and avoid gaffes. Trump does the opposite, seeking out landmines, and detonating them. 

All of this has concocted a sort of dream partnership between Trump and the media; a combustible circus of symbiosis that fuels Trump’s growing popularity and increases clicks on newspaper websites. Polls at this stage in the election cycle essentially track how much news coverage a candidate receives. More media attention means rising poll numbers, which, in turn, demand greater media attention.  

It is unlikely that Mr Trump will be elected President, but this does not mean that he will have no influence in the outcome. As an independent candidate, Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the presidency in 2000, and Pat Buchanan, another unelectable protest candidate, arguably cost George HW Bush the election in 1992. At this juncture, Trump looks well on tract to tip the balance in favour of the democrats, presumably led by Hillary Clinton.

Even if Mr Trump will not be president, or is unable to act as a power broker for the thrown, it would be wrong to dismiss him as an aberration. His antics have demonstrated that he is deeply rooted in the decisive currents of American popular opinion, and, in Durkheim’s thinking, those segments causing disequilibrium to the nation’s ‘collective conscience’. The real danger to America may not be Donald Trump, but a citizenry capable of seriously considering to entrust a man like him as the highest elected official of the world’s most powerful country. 

Mr. Trump is important because he is a messenger of what ails America. If his narcissistic joy ride raises awareness of what needs to be fixed and how to fix it, then this circus will have been an invaluable excursion; and an entertaining one as well. 

If not, setting aside its entertainment value, it will be a sad testimony of the state of American democracy. 


(*) 
Idol der schweigenden Mehrheit http://www.weltwoche.ch/weiche/hinweisgesperrt.html?hidID=554745
La fascination pour Donald Trump et ce qu’elle révèle des Etats-Unis http://www.letemps.ch/Page/Uuid/1e5b862a-4a7c-11e5-81d9-3af08ac280c8/La_fascination_pour_Donald_Trump_et_ce_quelle_r%C3%A9v%C3%A8le_des_Etats-Unis

(**) http://www.gallup.com/poll/159035/congress-retains-low-honesty-rating.aspx


 

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