A sure-fire way to get into the White House? Do a Donald Trump and go hard on the elite – while being a member of it at the same time

While Trump supporters disparage Obama’s mantra ‘Yes We Can’, they unwittingly endorse an unspoken, narcissistic Trump mantra, ‘Yes, I (and only I) Can’. The man himself summed up the “themes” of his campaign as “winning"

Brendon Oconnor,Michael Ondaatje
Thursday 11 February 2016 13:06
Comments
A Donald Trump supporter waves banners at the business tycoon's rally in Manchester, New Hampshire
A Donald Trump supporter waves banners at the business tycoon's rally in Manchester, New Hampshire

This week Trump won in New Hampshire with 35.3 per cent of the Republican candidate votes, turning his popularity in opinion polls into an electoral win. Trump’s rise was unanticipated by the political class – and speculation about his ‘inevitable’ demise has been grossly exaggerated.

Trump is not the first celebrity politician in America. Former actors Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger paved the way for celebrities in US politics. But where Reagan and Schwarzenegger spent considerable time trying to convince the media that they had serious ideas and had embarked on new careers in politics, Trump cares little about flattering the media and presents his presidential candidacy not as a new dimension to his public profile, but as an affirmation of his established profile.

As for Trump’s policies, the label ‘populist’ is an apt descriptor. Populists take advantage of people’s fears and offer crudely simplistic ‘solutions’; indeed, they will say almost anything to win over voters. Trump has referred to Mexican immigrants as ‘criminals’ and ‘rapists’ and supports the building of a wall to stop them ‘flooding’ into America. He has also called for ‘a total and complete shutdown of Muslims… entering the United States’. Trump exploits simmering anti-immigrant sentiments in contemporary America. A politician in Europe doing the same would be called out for being a ‘neo-fascist populist’. In the United States, however, political commentators tend to avoid such terminology. By referring to Trump’s proposals as ‘nativist’ or even ‘conservative’, US commentators underplay Trump’s bigotry and let him off the hook.

Trump also appeals to a large number of economically insecure Americans that, post great financial crash, angrily blame ‘elites’ in Washington and on Wall Street for their problems. The billionaire Trump masterfully differentiates himself from these elites. He chastises elites for their ‘stupid’ and unfair rules, but claims that he has overcome those rules, defeated The System and ‘won’ the economic game. Trump skilfully reflects the anger and economic aspirations of many Americans, but has few (if any) concrete policy proposals to improve their circumstances. In analyses of Trump’s popularity, his economic populism has received far less scrutiny than his xenophobic pronouncements.

There is a clear ‘cult of personality’ around Donald Trump. While Trump supporters disparage Obama’s mantra ‘Yes We Can’, they unwittingly endorse an unspoken, narcissistic Trump mantra, ‘Yes, I (and only I) Can’. The emptiness of Trump’s rhetoric was on display again in his New Hampshire victory speech in which he restated the ‘themes’ at the heart of his run for the presidency: “We are going to start winning again and we're going to win so much, you are going to be so happy, we are going to make America so great again, maybe greater than ever before. I love you all.”

The appeal of Trump is ultimately a reminder that, in the US, feelings of cultural and economic insecurity can be exploited by pandering to anti-immigrant and anti-elite prejudices. Trump pledges to ‘take America back’ from those who ‘threaten’ its future. This is the very definition of crude populism in action.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in