In 2019 there is a reasonable possibility that Donald Trump will be impeached. There is likely to be evidence that he, at the very least, had knowledge that members of his campaign team (including relatives and in-laws) were meeting with Russian actors. That Trump did not immediately purge his campaign should provide a legal argument that he colluded with Russian operatives. Also, Democrats are likely to control at least one of the houses of Congress. Futthermore, in the probable event of damning evidence, moderate Republicans will likely be forced to act under public pressure and advocate impeachment proceedings.
Nonetheless, impeachment is no ‘gimme.’ Not one US president has been directly impeached successfully. And the fallout from one president, Richard Nixon, forced out indirectly by impeachment procedures, may make uncomfortable reading for those who oppose the ‘America First’ agenda.
About a decade and a half after Nixon’s resignation, two figures from that administration would herald a new dawn in American politics, one that is now bearing fruit (if it is a bitter harvest). These men were Pat Buchanan and Roger Ailes, Nixon’s senior adviser and his so-called ‘Executive Producer for TV,’ respectively.
Ailes’ contribution as the architect of Fox News is an obvious milestone in American public life. Fox has come to not only shape American conservatism, but also bring right-wing politics mainstream. Ailes plotted Fox News in the deep recesses of the Nixon administration as he correctly determined that the Republican party would fail without an energetic media platform (American TV in the 1970s was absolutely in the hands of liberal interests or functioned in a way conducive to those interests).
Buchanan, on the other hand, was a less successful architect in his own cause but he would design a political platform which would be significant in shaping American politics. Buchanan responded to both rising immigration from non-European countries and the emergence of a ‘new world order’ by which America effectively integrated with the rest of the world (downplaying its particularism and exceptionalism) by going rogue. At the turn of the last century he argued that America should only agree to deals confirming American superiority, he called for a Southern border wall and an end to mass migration, he advocated economic nationalism, a withdrawal of the US from the Middle East, and accused the media of waging a culture war. He enjoyed moderate success in Republican circles but failed to convert his radical politics into nationwide electoral success. Many at the time criticized him for being too out-there, including one Donald Trump.
By 2015, Trump took the rejected stone he (and most of America) once scorned and built his entire campaign in Buchanan’s nationalist image. By this time, Roger Ailes had helped transform the political landscape. It was ok to be against immigrants, you could argue for police brutality, you could reject civil discourse, and trumpet America’s superiority chauvanistically.
The moral of the story is that two of Nixon’s allies were able to build a powerful political movement on the ashes of an impeached and disgraced presidency. If what seems inevitable does happen, and Trump is forced to resign – say around 2022 – that will not be the end of the matter. There are the Bannons, the Millers, the Sanders, the Conways, and maybe even figures outside the limelight, who will carry the ‘America First’ torch forward. They have insider knowledge, they know the cracks in the system, the tactical advantages, and the areas of expansion. They have connections, are recognized opinion leaders, and have value as political operatives. So, the impeachment of Trump might just kick the can of American triumphalism down the road. The ghost of an impeached president may rise up again.
Accotding to his peeps (and himself of course), Donald Trump is a great civil rights leader. Over America’s memorial day weekend he tweeted that US serviceman had died for low minority unemployment figures! And last week, his one-time election strategist Steve Bannon (no longer employed by Trump) pushed the same argument; black and minority jobless figures are low, therefore Donald Trump is not as racist as he sounds and is actually a racial progressive. He is a force for integration via enterprise.
Without getting into various incidents involving, and statements by, Trump which would easily lay bare his position on race let’s get to the heart of the argument. Jobless figures during a period of economic growth do not tell us the state of race relations in any country. Even in the bleakest days of apartheid South Africa, a rising tide lifted all boats and there was virtually zero unemployment among blacks at irregular periods (albeit their remuneration was pittance compared to their white counterparts). And do we have to bring up the well-worn jibe about blacks being fully employed in the antebellum South? Unemployment figures aren’t completely useless either in telling us the state of racial play but analysis needs to be over the long-term and especially observant of what happens when the tide is lowered.
Since a growing economy masks racial division we must turn to other indicators of racial integration. For example, there is evidence that race still is a major source of political division in the US. It’s fair to say that the US is a more racist country now than 30 years ago, most likely due to the surge of conservative media. Police brutality is impossible to hide and incarceration rates remain disproportionately high for blacks. Is Trump pushing back against this culture? No. He targets black athletes for protesting and built his campaign on anti-Latino sentiment. Added to that are statements by the supposedly racially blind President about his preferences for immigrants from Norway as opposed to non-Caucasian countries.
So, the US jobless rate for minorities has fallen over the last decade. On the other hand, institutional racism – while nowhere near Jim Crow levels – has been fortified. Furthermore, ‘unofficial’ racism – the ease with which opinion leaders feel free to promote negative attitudes towards ethnic minorities – has gone through the roof.
Granted, Americas racial problems are complex and one man isn’t going to solve them. Yet any fair-minded person has to draw the conclusion that Trump is contributing to a culture where, when the tap starts to run drier, African-Americans will likely find themselves economically as well as socially disadvantaged. In summary, Trump is the most racist President since Woodrow Wilson; and all the sweat in the world can’t hide that.
Welcome to PC world Donald Trump! Political correctness is silencing debate. One method of achieving this is casting doubt over the character of people expressing views you don’t like. This is what you did over NFL protests. You turned PC.
Instead of answering criticisms over police brutality, the higher than average chance of blacks being imprisoned or shot, and the general racial inequalities experienced by people of colour, what did you do? You went long and doubled down. Players protesting were SOBs, unpatriotic, against the military, disrespectful to the flag, and basically traitors. All false flags.
No, they are not protesting the waving of a flag, or service in the military, or the national anthem. They believe there is institutional racism against blacks and are trying to change the culture of institutional silence and inaction on the matter.
Regretfully, your PC antics have had some effect. Players are being vilified because of your PC. You refused to tell your supporters that the US has problems with institutional racism. You refused to promote unity. You refused to state truthfully what the protests were about and lied as to what they weren’t about.
You lied because you are a politically correct president spreading fake news.
This week in the US, a grand jury was subpoened to inquire into clandestine meetings members of the Trump team had with Russian officials and agents, Trump fired his communications director, a radical immigration bill was published, the Statue of Liberty’s legitimacy was questioned by a Trump spokesman, and the Attorney General of the US announced a plan to end discrimination against whites in universities (i.e. an anti-affirmative action policy). This is why they say a week is a long time in politics! Where to start?
But, out of all the hubbub, perhaps the most significant event of the week was a speech Trump gave in West Virginia on Thursday. After all that has gone on (and has gone wrong), we saw Trump – for one of the few times since becoming President – acting, well, Presidential. Trump gave a nuanced dialogue where (1) he steered away from directly criticizing the investigation into Russian collusion, (2) didn’t dive into any rash statements, and (3) invoked (as he has done many times) the spectre of an out-of-touch Washington elite cheating the ‘people’ out of their crust.
Why was this speech significant? Taken together with the other key events of the week, such as Jeff Sessions anti-affirmative action program, we now have an inkling of how the next few years of US politics is likely to play out. On one side, opponents of Trump are going to do everything by the book. They are going to dig and scour for information, call witnesses, uncover evidence, pine over public statements, and refine every utterance. Trump, on the other hand, is going to play the populist card. He is going to stir up the hard-core racists in the South, the unemployed miners in the rust-belt, the conspiracy theorists in Texas, the do-or-die libertarians in the Great Plains. Trump’s legal hand is weak; at best he can slow the advances of Robert Mueller and his team by constant appeals and objections. But where there is a will there is a way. Engaging with the base is the optimal method for Trump to overcome the storm that is threatening to wash him away, and this is exactly what he is doing.
Trump’s enemies are hoping he will go quietly (bar a few bizarre tweets) into the night. His more luke-warm hangers-on will hope he sees sense if the war with Mueller looks perilous. I suspect both will be disappointed, Furthermore, Washington is grossly underestimating Trump, confusing his lack of sophistication with a lack of street-smarts. Trump can’t speak English, can’t hold a coherent thought together, is clueless about the intricacies of many political details, and lacks any sense of diplomacy. But he is an outstanding communicator and has used the modern technology of Twitter in an alarmingly successful manner.
The dedication of his base shouldn’t be derided either. Liberals in the US (and much of the world) have largely ignored a sizeable minority, perhaps 25-35% of the country who have licked their wounds after Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964. The anti-liberal US has had to make do with scraps from the likes of Nixon or Reagan, and has waited for a leader like Trump, biding their time amidst momentous social change, seismic demographic shifts, and globalization. This anti-liberal US sees the last century as a constant litany of betrayals; the setting up of the Federal Reserve and institution of Income tax, Wilson’s universal approach to foreign relations, the entry into WWII, the Civil Rights movement, the Immigration Act of 1965, the Sixties, NAFTA, the Obama presidency. At this stage, the anti-liberal US sees itself as having its backs to the wall, and at a point where it has nothing to lose.
Stephen Miller’s comments about the Statue of Liberty (he basically said its message was a betrayal) would have only been found on the forums of alt-right groups last year. This year, they are the established wisdom of a US administration. Expect plenty more of these nuggets. Trump is now ready to unleash a whirlwind that is becoming energized and conscious that this opportunity may not come again if they let it slip. The Pat Buchanans and Kevin MacDonalds have their fingers at the ready. Conversations that have been buried in alt-right forums are now going to surface. The anti-liberal US – the ugly side of America, as progressives see it – is either going to have its last hurrah or its El-Alamein victory.
Irish history is a great teacher. Before I get to the meat and potatoes of this blog, I’ll first cite the example of a famous exponent of Irish national self-determination, Isaac Butt. Butt was notorious for droning on and on in Parliament, so as to obstruct the passage of bills he didn’t like. He was contemporary with heavyweights such as Disraeli and Gladstone, whose words can be quoted verbatim to support arguments of the most delicate discourse. Yet, boring Butt is the one who has his place among Irish nationalists, not the eloquent marksmen of British politics. Why? Because Butt got his message across to his constituents.
Now, we get to Trump’s speech at the Boy Scout jamboree. It broke all Washington conventions, was hypocritical (‘I won’t get political’), obnoxious, damaging to the reputation of Boy Scouts, and cringe-worthy. Certain comments verged on the lewd.
Critics railed, saying “YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO TALK TO THE BOY SCOUTS LIKE THIS.” To them, its simple; Trump was merely speaking to 45,000 mostly teenage boys and his remarks were inappropriate and unprecedented, there were even accusations of brainwashing youth and distorting their minds.
All of these are valid points. But they miss the fact that Trump wasn’t just speaking to 45,000 Boy Scouts. He was really talking to the whole world, particularly anti-liberals in the US and abroad. Those who support Trump love when he tears up the rule book. They love his controversy. Every time the media or Washington is given a bloody nose by Trump, they whoop and holler.
What Trumps critics don’t get is that Trump is a communicator. Period. It was wrong for him to do what he did. That’s why he did it. It communicated to his base that he is going to drive a horse and coach through the rules. Trump is not going to be stopped, or at least not going to allow himself be hobbled by the rules. In a nutshell, he is different.
Isaac Butts seat was occupied two years after his death by an even more famous nationalist, Charles Stewart Parnell, who said “No man has a right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation; no man has a right to say to his country – thus far shalt thou go and no further.” Trump would agree with the sentiment that rules are for saps.
Donald Trump and wife spent the weekend in Saudi Arabia, a destination which probably wouldn’t be the weekend destination for many couples the world over. For Trump, it was a bold move, given that he has repeatedly bashed Muslims in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. It seemed a bit like a KKK Grand Wizard going into a black church in Chicago. Yet, Trump navigated his first trip abroad as President comfortably. Everything went according to plan, for once, and he didn’t spurt too much on Twitter. Massive deals were signed and he gave a speech in front of an audience of Muslim leaders, which he managed to do without sounding patronizing. Probably the highlight of an awful presidency so far.
Trump gave a maestro performance. However, he is the spokesperson for a short-sighted foreign policy. Trump made abundantly clear that he supported the Saudi-Egypt alliance which is fighting a rearguard action against Islamism. This position was reinforced by castigating Iran in terms which will prick ears in Teheran.
What is the problem with this foreign policy, which differs so greatly from the largely enlightened direction (at least towards Iran) taken by Barack Obama and John Kerry? Trump has hitched his star to two governments in the Middle East which enjoy little credibility. Now, don’t get me wrong. I think Saudi deserves credit for the way it has managed itself in the world. Many countries possess a plenitude of material resources like Saudi, but haven’t been able to progress and been prone to rash decision-making. At the same time, are Saudi the future of the Middle East? They seem more like a cat with nine lives.
Someone like Kerry likely understood that – like it or loath it – Iran is going to play a part in Mid-East politics for a longer time than Saudi Arabia or Egypt’s military dictatorship. Like Turkey, Iran is blending the modern with the traditional. It is open to the world, but not at any price. This wins it broad legitimacy. Of the GCC countries, Qatar also follows this path. Unlike Turkey and Iran, Qatar is sparsely populated, and the sheer weight of numbers makes Turkey and Iran the long-term regional players.
By honouring Saudi Arabia in the way he did, Trump has given it a security guarantee which will be difficult to redeem. Nonetheless, Saudi probably doesn’t have a free enough academic and political environment for there to be an Iranian-style revolution. However, the other favourite of Trump’s has the ingredients for such a dramatic change of power. Egypt could easily fall prey to any Shah-like overthrow. Trump’s open support for Sisi will only accelerate this process, and this will have consequences for Saudi.
The reasonable policy of the Obama administration has been ditched. Trump gave it his best over the weekend, but Saudi and the Egyptian military are ill-equipped to deal with changes which inevitably will occur in the Middle East. Another domino of American power is likely to give way. Saudi and Egypt may fit in with Trump’s way of viewing the world, but will the world return the favour in kind? Trump may be seen in years to come as the unwitting mid-wife of the future Middle East.
I saw a new article circulating on the net. It was the latest of the “Donald Trump is a dictator/acting like a dictator” ones, although it was a report on a discussion that had taken place between Professor Timothy Snyder of Yale and Bill Maher. I say that because usually these types of articles are opinion pieces, and I guess a historian from one of America’s top universities slamming the president of the day for behaving like a dictator is newsworthy. Yet despite the Prof’s credentials, he didn’t really state what a dictator is, which seems a bit remiss for a historian (but then again, he may get more TV gigs if he doesn’t inform the public too much!). Simply put, a dictator is an official who is appointed legally or who attains power in a legal vacuum, but who then goes on to commit illegal actions, either with or without the consent of elected representatives and the judiciary.
Now, to the best of my knowledge, Trump has acted within the law as of early April 2017. Snyder could have given the above criterion for judging whether a dictatorship existed in America and almost certainly would have had to reply in the negative. But, did he need to define what a dictator is? After all, we all know a dictator, don’t we?? Trump was elected like Hitler, Snyder said. Like Hitler, he focuses on the role of leadership as opposed to consensus, produces bite-size messages as opposed to open letters of persuasion, and trades in myth as opposed to reason. Indeed, most of those accusations are true (if I haven’t made it clear at this point, I would really like to disassociate myself from being a Trump fan).
Nonetheless, what Synder cited are circumstantial pieces of evidence. A dictator doesn’t have to possess a strongman image, or employ myth, or use simple promotion tools, or even get elected. What separates a dictator from a president who gets up our nose is that the dictator shelves the rules of the game and does so deliberately. In American history, there have been several presidents who behaved as dictators for all or parts of their terms of office. You had Lincoln, Wilson, and FD Roosevelt, to name but three. Snyder didn’t tell Maher and the public that, either.
So, the answer to the question posed in the title is that Trump would be a dictator if he acted illegally.
We are not at that point.
If you would like more information on dictatorship, I would like to take this opportunity to make a shameless plug for my newly re-edited and rewritten book The Terrible Beauty of Dictatorship, available as an e-book for $3.99 and paperback for $24.99.
Making America great again might have been the slogan of the Trump candidacy, but the underlying philosophy was ‘America First.’ As far back as March, Trump used the precise phrase “America First,” he used the phrase again in accepting the Republican nomination, and a variation of the phrase in his victory speech. Trump plans to rejuvenate America by turning his back on the internationalist policies followed by most US presidents over the last century. Instead, a new departure will explicitly promotes American interests.
Liberal critics have noted the similarity between Trump’s use of the phrase ‘America First’ and an earlier movement in the US, called the American First Committee, whose most celebrated spokesperson was the aviator Charles Lindbergh. The AFC was formed in the autumn of 1940 but reflected a deeper tradition in American politics that went back to the Founding Fathers and their distaste for getting the US involved in the wars and alliances of the ‘Old World.’ It was formed in the face of increasing US involvement in WWII (Roosevelt had promised neutrality in this war) and considerable pressure from the media and establishment to square up to fascism. After just over a year, it was disbanded almost immediately after Pearl Harbour.
Lindbergh was the most prominent voice of the AFC, but it attracted support from a variety of American notables. One JFK lent it his support, future President Gerald Ford was an activist, there were Justices, newspaper publishers, millionaires involved, even Walt Disney was an AFC champion.
Nevertheless, the movement will always be associated with Lindbergh. He, like Trump, reflected a powerful strain of American political thought. But Lindbergh, also like Trump, was prepared to broadcast his concerns despite the inevitable criticism he would face. Therefore, Lindbergh’s political views, his philosophy of global politics, and his motivations, are key to understanding the AFC.
Lindbergh, like many at the time, was an admirer of Nazism but not anti-Jewish. He had fled to Europe in 1935 because of over-weaning press coverage which affected his home life. While in Europe, he visited Germany. What struck Lindbergh was the order and direction of the Third Reich. He expressed dissatisfaction with the treatment of Jews and understood their agitation in America for the relief of their brethren from the Nazi excesses. At the same time, he saw Germany as a more natural ally for the US, particularly against the Soviet Union. Lindbergh thought in terms of race but also in terms of strategy. As the New Yorker said in an article about Lindbergh this year:
He condemned Kristallnacht, but he wrote … weeks after the war in Europe began, that Western nations “can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood.” 
In other words, Lindbergh did not believe that whites were superior to other races, but adopted what is essentially a realist position; birds of a feather flock together, whites will gravitate to whites, non-whites to non-whites. His views are fairly clear; he advocated a prudent policy by the US, dictated by realism, cognizant of human group psychology, and always having the long-term interests of America in mind. On the last point, Lindbergh conceptualized the US as a European nation albeit one whose geo-political situation rendered ventures into age-old European rivalries futile.
Lingering accusations of anti-Semitism dogged the AFC, however. This discredited the movement, somewhat, no matter how subtly Lindbergh tried to nuance his statements. In a speech given on September 11, 1941, Lindbergh sympathized with the Jewish persecution in Germany, appreciated the motivations of Jewish interests in American that were calling for the US to intervene, but also sounded a warning that American involvement in WWII would be against the national interest.
In spite of the humane tone he struck, Lindbergh’s speech was served on a platter of ‘soundbites’ and he stood accused of supporting fascism. His wife’s diary makes for interesting reading and records how Lindbergh was condemned, pilloried, harried, pressured to apologize and retract his statements, and how her own life was affected by the furore.
So, what are the historical lessons to learn from Lindbergh and the AFC for today? A few facts have to be pointed out. It has to be stated out that the default position for the US in 1940 was that of isolationism, whereas nowadays US policy is far more aggressive. The military-industrial complex is far more powerful today than in 1940. Threats facing the US mainland were far more real in 1940 than nowadays. The Soviet Union posed far more of a challenge to the survival of the US than even the strongest Islamic majority nations or terrorist groups of today. US military hegemony is in another league compared to other nations’ today, whereas the US was not even the foremost military power in 1940. Lastly, the US is locked into a globalized world that is far more complex internationally (although not on a European level) today than it was in 1940.
Therefore, in some respects an isolationist policy poses greater risks for the US now than in 1940, particularly economically. The American economy was struggling in 1940 and received a shot in the arm from the war, although this was an unforeseen consequence. By contrast, the US economy (despite Trump’s rhetoric) is in a far better shape today. An America First policy would thus be likely to damage the US economy, unless run on the very socialistic lines of the Third Reich or modern-day China, and this is unlikely to happen. The attitude of the military-industrial complex to a scaling back of military operations is also a live question. In many other respects, an America First policy is more viable now than in 1940. Muslim-majority states are weak economically and militarily, posing no real threat to the American mainland. Russia is not pursuing a policy of international revolution and is only interested in defending its traditional spheres of influence. Finally, the US has the same enviable geo-political position it had today as in 1940. There is no realistic prospect of a nation invading it or even launching a devastating military strike, whatever the rhetoric about North Korea or Iran.
Finally, and let’s dismiss questions about Lindbergh’s alleged racism, we ask: was Lindbergh right? In hindsight, Lindbergh must be seen as a prudent political activist. American intervention in WWII had the effect of strengthening the Soviet Union and facilitating the rise of Communist China. Despite the ultimate failure of isolationism, the opposition of groups like the AFC meant that far less US troops were killed or wounded because the burden of fighting Hitler fell on the USSR. And, ironically, the USSR began its own persecution of the Jews after WWII whereas during the 1920s and 1030s, it had been a beacon for Jewish integration throughout the world.* America effectively propped up Stalin and it is possible there would have been no Cold War if Lindbergh had been heeded. WWII drew the US into fighting in foreign lands and also created the conditions where this would be more possible. In sum, global interventions in the Middle East and other regions of the world have been counter-productive for the US and so Lindbergh’s controversial but prudent voice still has resonance for US foreign policy in 2016.
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* This is not to say that the USSR would have abstained from persecuting Jews post-WWII and, of course, some parts of the Soviet Union might have been under German control. It is merely to say that either way, the argument for entering the war to defeat anti-Semitism had weak grounds and from the US point of view, it makes a big difference in terms of casualties and strengthening the position of the USSR. Therefore, Lindbergh’s arguments were more rational than those of his opponents.
The US Presidential race of 2016 was unique in many ways but in one sense it was merely a case of history repeating. When you strip away the controversial remarks, the use of social media, the typically airbrushed and glossy ads associated with US politico-advertising, the razzmatazz, you are left with two competing stories. And, inevitably, It was the art of storytelling, myth if you like, which decided the election.
Now stories are the bread and butter of politics. Think of some examples over the last 100 years. When making sense of the carnage of WWI, soldiers were told that they had fought a ‘war to end all wars.’ Benito Mussolini told his fellow Italians they were following in the footsteps of the Roman generals, Empire-builders, and literary geniuses. WWII was supposedly fought to end all dictatorship in the world. Ronald Reagan promised a world of pure good and evil because, the story went, America was a beacon in a land of darkness. The War on Terror is another mythical story of good vs. evil where a place called the ‘West’ clashes with a place called ‘Islam.’
Yes, these are all simple narratives. Yes, they contain a large element of myth and even outright falsehood. But they are compelling. They focus the minds of the ‘common’ man and woman on a make-believe world of heroes and villains. Ultimately, they spur people to action, actions they might not commit if a more sober analysis was conducted.
So, Trump came into this election with a simple, yet sustainable, narrative. His slogan (which has been used more or less by Ronald Reagan and wholly by Bill Clinton) of making America great again headlined his story. Americans were once a great people, Trump said, evoking feelings of heroism. But we have lost our way. Why have we lost our way? We have lost our way because the elites in Washington and New York and elsewhere are traitors conspiring against you. Yet, all is not lost, Trump continued. We can re-discover our heroism if we defeat our internal enemies who are holding us back from realising our past greatness.
Hilary Clinton, on the other hand, also told a story. American strength, she said, came from a diverse unity, a willingness to unite around common goals despite differences. Not a wholly bankrupt fable but it was not one that was compelling enough in the end, however. It really didn’t resonate with Americans. Clinton didn’t exude that roughness and coarseness which Americans admire in their on-screen heroes. The message of ‘stronger together’ evoked little in peoples’ hearts. The story didn’t tap into American heritage in the same way as Trump’s myth. Also, Trump tapped into one myth Hilary couldn’t. He is male and Americans are raised on a historical diet of the Founding Fathers who seized the torch of liberty. Gender matters in US Presidential races.
Today, demonstrations have broken out across the US in the wake of Trump’s victory. Hence, it seems like the election campaign for 2020 might start immediately on the Democratic side. In their own way, those protestors too are kneading together a story, the story of an uneducated populace frightened into submission by a manipulative oligarch, a myth of Fascism flying from Germany to the US across space and time, of old ghosts re-awakened. The question is whether myths and stories such as these will be enough to mobilize opposition behind a candidate who will challenge Trump’s occupation of the Oval Office in a leap year from now.
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.