In less than a week from today we should know who has earned the keys to the White House. While the establishment candidate seems to have the election sown up, the unorthodox campaign of Donald Trump is undoubtedly the real story of the election. Trump crushed his Republican rivals, despite barely adhering to Republican values and despite being assailed from virtually all angles. While he may have been unable (and that awaits to be seen) to have gone the final leg, he must be congratulated for having exercised considerable nous in even getting so close to breaking the tape at the finishing line.
A whole bunch of theories have been advanced with regards to Trump’s success, spawning a science of Trump-ology. The American public have been ‘dumbed-down,’ there is a resurgence of racism, Trump has positioned himself as an anti-establishment candidate, Americans are afraid of procuring or losing employment and Trump seems to know a thing or two about business, the list goes on.
If any of these are true, or to what degree they are true (if they are so), is probably something that will take a great deal of analysis. I would contend, and there is some evidence for my view, that Trump’s popularity is largely down to another factor: Trump has invoked the power of myth.
Now, when I say myth, please don’t take it that I am talking about a ‘noble lie’ or indeed an outright falsehood. Myths are those stories we tell ourselves that portray our struggle in a heroic and even religious light. They are not necessarily falsehoods. What myths do, however, is go beyond our rational and intellectual faculties. They work on us by images and symbols. Myths essentially appeal to our emotions.
America is replete with myths, heroes, images, and symbols. A powerful myth (and very patriarchal one in a land of gender equality) is that of the Founding Fathers. Another myth, which has taken hold of the public imagination since the middle of the 20th century, is the depiction of the US as a country with a universal, civilizing mission. Heroes may depend on whose party you are allied to. JFK has been elevated to a heroic figure for many on the left. As regards images and symbols, there is the flag, the soldiers on Iwo Jima, Pearl Harbour, 9/11, etc …So America, like virtually every other country on Earth, has a history of mythic portrayal, heroism, imagery and symbolism.
What Trump did in this election was stick to a simple, yet mythic theme, the basic idea that America is a great country that has lost its way. For many minorities, this may ring hollow, but the slogan of “Make America Great Again” was specifically designed to appeal to the conservative, Northern European, constituency in the US. Polls show that Trump has scored very high with white, male voters across all regions and other demographic measures. He has done this – not by appealing to their intellect or rationale – but by holding out to them a mythic image of America.
There is also an element of religion that informs the American myth and indeed Trump’s campaign. One cannot fully understand American history without also appreciating its roots in Protestantism. Using Old Testament analogies, Americans have viewed themselves as a chosen people who migrated to the Promised Land. They have seen themselves as a ‘light unto the nations’ (these types of images were evoked by President Reagan). In this tradition, Trump has thrown the religiously based idea out there that America needs to atone for losing its way. The US needs to go back to its pristine origins (the beating up of protestors who interrupted Trump rallies has even been justified by hearkening to the past).
And of course, there is the carefully crafted image of Trump himself. Trump is appealing to those Americans for whom General Patton or Douglas MacArthur (possibly even Dirty Harry) are the ultimate heroes. It is the ‘moral sheriff’ image which is so ingrained on the American psyche through Westerns and other forms of mass communication. What adds grist to the mill is that the Don is odious in the sight of the ‘do-gooders.’ These humanitarians do not understand that what made America great was individual toughness and their determination to go it alone (this is a mythic picture, admittedly). Lastly, there is the heroic image of Trump as a self-made man, another of those timeless images in the US.
If Trump had had to have run an intellectual and rational campaign, he would have failed miserably. He is barely able to explain himself on many issues, such as abortion, and his statements, as on Iraq, are wildly contradictory. The fact that he has overcome his incoherence, which has reached comic proportions at times, and lack of political poise, demonstrates the effectiveness of his mythic portrayal of both himself and America.
In conclusion, we shouldn’t label Trump as someone who lacks intelligence, or even that his supporters lack intelligence. People have a genuine need for meaning in their lives and Trump has supplied that. Successive candidates since Reagan have largely dropped the appeal to mythic images, at least in their campaigns. Trump resurrected the idea of myth in American politics. While he might not be able to go the extra mile, his roaring success shows the value of myth in political discourse.