The Trump Phenomenon


As the US presidential campaign draws to its close in early November and the race seems to be tightening, there is more and more interest in Donald Trump and the real possibility of his becoming the next president of the United States. While he was considered to be an exotic candidate during the primaries, there is no denying his staying power and growing popularity as the official Republican candidate.

Several polls predict he will win. Whether it is because of his positive qualities or Hillary Clinton’s negatives, there is no doubt that Trump has to be taken seriously. An article in The New Yorker magazine studiously analyzes what a Trump presidency would look like. Along the same lines, Michael Tomasky, in the The New York Review of Books, asks: “Can the Unthinkable Happen?”
The challenge for many is to take Trump seriously. Rumors abound that he really doesn’t want to be president. After all, the White House is smaller than some of his mansions. One theory says he is using the campaign to prepare to launch a television station to compete with Fox News. Another has him using media coverage to bolster sales at his hotels and golf courses.
Whatever his motives, Trump dominates the media headlines and dinner-time conversations. But who is he really? What drives his followers? Has he transformed American politics?
The fascination with Trump is serious, even if he isn’t. Many called Obama a transformational figure because of his color and use of technology. Trump is certainly transformational in his character and media savvy. A new book by Swiss journalists Philippe Mottaz and Stéphane Bussard (#Trump: De la démagogie en Amérique) shows how Trump’s business sense has been used for media manipulation in a manner even more sophisticated than Barack Obama’s. Trump has moved on to Twitter and prime-time appearances, all at very little expense to his campaign. He has captured a nativist wave that places the US in the company of Austria, Hungary, Poland, France and other countries while using relatively simple technology tools, but using them brilliantly.
Those who dismiss Trump as a clown, as I did publicly, underestimate his drawing power. He may be a clown, but he is enormously successful one. Like the famous Swiss clown Dimitri, Trump entertains, fascinates and draws attention to himself. What he actually says doesn’t matter; we are captivated by his pronouncements, however strange they may be.
For example: Those who protested against Richard Nixon and his policies believed there was rationality behind the policies and thus there was rationality behind the protests. Nixon had a program; we were against his program; we had a different program (end the Vietnam War now). With Trump it is more elusive. We are not sure of his program; it changes all the time, just as his allegiance to political parties has changed. He tries to stay “on script,” such as with his speech on economic policy, but we know he can switch positions from day-to-day, from audience-to-audience.
Rationalists hope Trump will disappear. But he hasn’t. And with the continuing gaffes of Mrs. Clinton, the race tightens. Even Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, who has trouble remembering the meaning of Aleppo in Syria, appeals to voters disenchanted with the candidates of the two main political parties. Johnson’s popularity hovers at around 10%.
As fascinating as the Trump phenomenon may be, more focus should be on his followers. Articles in the The New York Times or The Washington Post about Trump’s irrationality are not going to convince those who do not read the The New York Times or The Washington Post. There is a considerable schism between those readers and Trump’s followers. Indeed, there is a growing schism among Americans, not just economically, but culturally, that is reminiscent of the culture wars of the 1960’s. For the future of American democracy, that should be the focus of our attention. Why is this schism happening? How can it be overcome?
The November election is not about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. It is about how Americans deal with a complex world. The followers of Donald Trump want simple answers and entertainment. They are used to multiple choice examinations and 30 second sound bites.
If Donald Trump really wants to make America great again, he should start by acting presidential. And his followers could begin by acting like responsible citizens.

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