The fourth estate increasingly acknowledges that Trump’s appeal owes more (everything?) to his evocation of emotions than any policy statements. Back in September, Domenico Montanaro argued that “Trump’s supporters aren’t with him because they want to hear the wonky details. They want someone to channel what they feel.” He concluded that disgust was the most important emotion. According to Thomas B. Edsall, Trump has “tapped into” an evolutionary (!!!) dynamic of disgust and purity . In a New York Times editorial that’s almost as nonsensical as your average Republican debate, Edsall patches together observations by political scientists and evolutionary psychologists to conclude that anxious conservatives are motivated by a deep-seated desire for conformity to social norms. Trump is a political “alpha male” because he’s a marketing “genius” who knows how to communicate with fearful voters seeking an authoritarian leader who tells it like it is.
There are several problems with the liberal media’s approach to the Donald. For starters, taken as whole, the press response does little to diminish Trump’s standing. They’ve been pouring water on his duck’s back. Months ago, pundits on the left and right predicted that his campaign, which the candidate himself didn’t appear to be taking seriously, would soon flame out. The opposite happened; as he continued to lead in (largely meaningless) polls, the rest of the candidates attempted to “trump Trump.” As a result, his current closest rivals (Cruz and Rubio) increasingly resemble him. Those candidates who continued to pursue their own loopy paths (Fiorina, Carson, Paul) began to lose traction as the spectacle become Trumpified.
Following are a few observations that may help to explain the apparently irresistible rise of Donald Trump.
Populism is ubiquitous. Populism names that part of political discourse that is grounded in public feeling, otherwise known as common sense. Populism shouldn’t be confused with racism, fascism, or demagoguery. Racist, fascistic, and demagogic politicians often deploy populism, but it’s a mistake to regard them as enjoying privileged access to political feeling. All political candidates use emotional appeals. Some of the nation’s more progressive political leaders are widely acknowledged to be populists: Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, JFK… (Trump’s closest historical predecessors may well be tough-talking East Coaster Kennedy and the first true “market populist,” Bill Clinton.) President Obama was populist on the campaign trail, as was Jimmy Carter. This doesn’t mean that politicians must necessarily be populist. Appeals to reason, technocratic authority, and objectivity can also be attractive. The problem emerges when reporters and analysts align populism with fear, aggression, and disgust, and associate these emotional states with right-wing agendas. This alignment strengthens right-wing populism. Public optimism (hope) and contentment (complacency) are regarded as weaker forces. “Progressives” (as the name suggests) are imagined to be motivated by these weaker feelings, and in the process are denied access to public feeling more generally. (This doesn’t say anything about the neoliberal’s embrace of technocratic rationality, which is another problem…)
In the U.S. two-party system, populist movements pose a greater threat to the party that endorses them then the party that opposes them. In the 1890s, the People’s Party was a genuine “third party”; it’s supporters included Southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans. Ultimately, the People’s Party joined the Democrats to run William Jennings Bryan as a “fusion” candidate; Bryan lost. The merger failed because the populists were genuine in their opposition to the two-party system, and wouldn’t vote for a Democratic candidate, and because until the merger both mainstream parties had reviled the People’s party as full of anarchists and bums–that mud stuck, and strengthened Republican opposition. Something similar happened in 1912, when Roosevelt’s Progressive or “Bull Moose” party split the Republican vote, handing the election to Wilson. Remember Ross Perot? Running to the right of George H. W. Bush, he helped bring Bill Clinton to Washington. Today, the Republican party is suffering the consequences of it’s greedy effort to gobble up Tea Party opposition. In our fast-paced, historically myopic mediascape, it’s easy to forget that the Tea Party originally opposed the second President Bush. They formed in opposition to his fiscal irresponsibility and interventionism. Almost immediately, the Tea Party was bought out by the Republican establishment, which sought to incorporate it as a new, more ardent and fundamentally conservative “base.” Trump benefits from the chaos this caused. The good news is that any Democrat will probably beat him–Bernie Sanders has a chance. The bad news is that his spectacle will likely benefit the most mainstream elements in the Democratic Party, leading to a Clinton victory. (Katha Pollitt, for example, endorses H.C. as the more “electable” candidate. My opposition to Clinton stems from my fear that, like her husband or Tony Blair, she’ll promote a “centrist” strategy that will continue many of the most pernicious aspects of neoliberaism.)
Trump’s “market populism” is not a political aberration. Despite a lack of political/military experience, Trump’s not ‘outside’ the political estabishment because the establishment is three-fourths spectacle. He televisual popularity, so often passed over without comment by the press, has everything to do with his front-runner status. In a public sphere that is almost entirely organized by mass media, the President IS a mediated image. The nation publicly conceded that point when it elected Reagan, the actor-President. Furthermore, the particular kind of celebrity that Trump presents is The success of The Apprentice is not remarkable in itself: it was only a variation of a currently popular genre, which casts the successful entrepreneur as public hero. In recent years, Hollywood’s invested heavily in biopics of billionaires: The Social Network, Steve Jobs, and so forth. In the Gilded Age, they were termed “titans of industry”; today they’re called, more simply, “the job creators.” The postmodern synthesis of ‘big business” and populism (which, years ago, Tom Frank termed “market populism”) seems contradictory until you consider the common sense understanding of globalization. Titans are enormous, powerful, ‘larger-than-life’ figures who nonetheless can relate to mere humans. When competition over labor (jobs sent overseas) and resources (global climate change) was scaled up–from nation to globe, the creators and manipulators of the public imagination (the spectacle makers) promoted the concept that us mortals would need help from the titans in order to survive. Trump is no more of a savior than the Transformers or Marvel’s Avengers. He recently compared his proposed border wall to China’s great wall. His wall, he said, wasn’t nearly so big. The implication is obvious: by appearing so confident about his large-scale projects that he can refer to them modestly rather than ambitiously, he confers superhero status upon himself.
The People is a phantom. The “silent majority” is a ghost, or projection. This doesn’t mean that populism isn’t effective. It’s effective precisely because it’s misunderstood. The most troubling aspect of the commentary on Trump I began with is the use of verbs like “channel” and “tap into.” The implication being that somewhere “out there” in “heartland America” there were a lot of people who already felt disgusted, angry, xenophobic, etc. Yes, of course, such feelings existed–but they didn’t exist as people. They existed as feelings. Feelings are misunderstood when regarded as dormant or latent; they must be felt, named, acted upon in order for them to exist. The feeling wasn’t there until it was. When the mainstream media, in an effort to understand Trump’s popularity, imagines that he represents a segment of body politic that was always there but unnoticed, they produce the very thing they wish to understand.
As I said: preliminary notes. Part II applies some of these general observations to more specific aspects of the phenomena.