Trump. That simple, thudding, monosyllabic surname perfectly capturing the singular, elemental force of personality which has changed everything forever. He is the man who is one step away from becoming the most powerful person in the world, and he got there simply through brazen self-confidence and determination (talk about fulfilling the American Dream). Whatever issues his ascendancy might raise pertaining to matters democratic, Trump has single-handedly rendered political satire redundant, shattered the American Right and been the star of the greatest reality show on Earth. Politics is performance, and Trump is its Brando. Rolling Stone recently put out an article suggesting that Trump was simply there at the right time: a time of peak distrust and polarisation. Yet while the stage was certainly set, this plot has been driven in unprecedented directions largely thanks to one man.
It’s funny—for the last year, he has been the most ubiquitous and discussed issue, one which has been dissected and analysed with all manner of hot takes, and yet he continues to mortify and repulse. Every time one might think he’s peaked, he goes one better, happily defying every prediction in the process. We were first assured that by denigrating Mexicans, he proved himself a clown who would have little impact on the race. We were then told his comments on McCain would be his undoing, but despite his willingness to be openly racist and generally unelectable, Trump allowed himself to attain his party’s nomination. Next was the popular expectation that Trump, reformulated as a canny political operator, would pivot to the centre after winning the nomination. He could have done that. He did not. Is this, then, one man’s epic mess of neuroses and insecurities? Is Trump being himself, stumbling from one absurd twist to the next, desperate to preserve his ego? Tempting and possibly true, but not exactly true.
Laurie Penny tells us Trump represents a crisis in masculinity—the view that he is the disempowered white working man’s protest against a society in which his job is being outsourced, his religion sneered at, his traditional values unravelled and, most infuriatingly for him, where women are granted equality. Then there’s the argument put forth by leftists like Sanders that Trump is a form of economic desperation, the fury of the left-behind at poverty and inequality, turning to extremism due to the failure of moderates. Most common is the view that he is simply the “inevitable” conservative counterrevolution to globalisation, lambasting free trade and the weakening of the nation. These are popular explanations because they reinforce the existing beliefs of those who espouse them and because they comfortably explain scary things.
Yet although Trump is repugnant toward women, as far as traditional values go, he remains to the left of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio on abortion and gay marriage. His character is certainly misogynistic, yet until the scandalous 2005 tape was released, he did comfortably amongst the same white married women who had backed McCain and Romney. Viewing him as the Men’s Rights Activists candidate is too simplistic. Moreover, the notion that he is an expression of penury is untrue, not simply because he had wide support in the primaries amongst all socioeconomic groups, but because those most in tune to him are not the poorest, but what we in the UK might term the lower middle class, especially in communities which are predominantly white.
In a sense, Trump is not so much the riposte to actual decline, although outsourcing and wage stagnation presumably play a part, than to perceived or anticipated decline. Although it is understandable to view him in terms of his sexism, Trump’s rise is much more down to racism. His is a demographic born popular protest, one built upon foundations laid by the Tea Party and Republicans going back decades. What do his supporters chant about? Tariff proposals or tax plans? They chant about the wall. Some, not least Trump himself, seem to object to the very existence of black and brown people. When racism is expressed not merely by the poorest but by the comfortable Republicans too (and even now, Trump’s support amongst the core Republican vote is resilient), can we really ascribe the American culture war to economics?
There is another problematic component to Trumpism: authoritarianism. Although comparisons to European dictators are crass, the strong-man ideology is blatant, repeatedly making the case that “I”, not “we”, will restore greatness. The policy proposals, bombing, banning, building, are potent and physical, appealing because they are grandiose gestures of power, something precious for those who feel powerless.
But third and most importantly, Trump is just a brilliant comic performer. He concluded his Republican National Convention speech with, “We will make America great again—thank you and goodnight!” Trump is so much closer to resembling George Carlin than he is to Hillary Clinton. Audiences have long crowed with delight when a sneering stand-up comedian “destroys” politicians with some simple populist critique. Trump has simply taken this facile political commentary to the next level, injecting it into the political sphere. It is perhaps this, more than his racism and authoritarianism, that forms Trump’s great innovation. He does not care for such etiquette as the party line: he happily speaks of special interests and retweets conspiracy theories; he makes a joke about his genitalia to mock Marco Rubio’s pathetic attempts to look tough. Although culture has worked tirelessly to reflect him, the most accurate representation of Trump predates his rise: the Black Mirror episode “The Waldo Moment” encapsulates the nature of this ingenious innovation. It’s political satire gone mad.
The final twist, then, is for the Trump moment to survive, it has to lose. What would have happened if he’d won? Disappointment and failure. Wish fulfilment fantasies break upon impact with reality. And so, November is not the end. Any Republican who believes they can simply go back to the old bread and butter of faith and free market fundamentalism is in for a fright. Whether he will maintain his campaign through a new media network or some other venture, Trump’s mobilisation of the “deplorables” who share his worldview has astronomically expanded his audience. Trump went into this election to attain a raised profile and grow his fanbase. He’s won.