Published in Le 1 Hebdo, May 3, 2016
Donald Trump’s initial successes in the U.S. presidential primary came as a shock to American media commentators, but for those who follow European politics, Trump’s boisterous political style has seemed all too familiar. Like other nationalist populists, from Geert Wilders to Marine Le Pen, Trump combines anti-immigrant rhetoric and foreign policy isolationism with extreme distrust of elites and political institutions; he is also less interested in dismantling the welfare state than his more doctrinaire fellow Republicans. The parallels extend to his supporters: as in Europe, those who favor Trump tend to be white, native-born, working-class men with low levels of education, who feel that their lives have been worsened by globalization, multiculturalism, and the neo-liberal consensus.
So is Trump simply a poorly coiffed version of Le Pen? No, for all the striking similarities, there is something uniquely American about the Trump phenomenon. The vulgarity, the self-professed political ignorance, the reality TV career, the irony of a billionaire railing against the establishment—these features of Trump and Trumpism have attracted the attention of curious and puzzled spectators worldwide. By considering the American particularities of Trump’s campaign, we can learn as much about the current election as about American political culture more broadly.
Trump differs from European populist politicians in at least three respects: his self-presentation as both a tycoon and an anti-establishmentarian crusader, his politics of racial resentment, and his ability to capitalize on the partisan breakdown that brought him to political prominence in the first place.
Populism, which has dominated the current election, is an effective but risky electoral strategy that rests on a candidate’s ability to make credible claims to outsider status. Trump is a self-professed defender of the people against a corrupt and incompetent establishment, all while unquestionably belonging to the miniscule class of staggeringly wealthy Americans who commute to work on private Boeing 757s and maintain opulent mansions in multiple states. Indeed, he appears to be succeeding not despite this obvious contradiction but because of it.
Part of Trump’s appeal stems from the perception (however contrived) that he is a self-made man who has single-handedly built an empire by harnessing the power of the free market. That he deals in buildings rather than financial products only strengthens his case (indeed it would be difficult to imagine a Wall Street billionaire performing so well). Trump embodies one of the core principles of the narrative that Americans love to tell themselves: if you work hard enough, you too can achieve great wealth and fame. With his status as a business guru affirmed by his reality TV shows and self-help books, it is unsurprising that Trump’s promises to make “better deals” with world powers through a mix of extortion and brinksmanship find mass appeal.
What of Trump’s vulgarity, from off-color insults toward female journalists to locker-room talk about his manhood? This too resonates with a strong undercurrent in American political culture: an anti-intellectualism that views expert knowledge and cultural refinement with deep suspicion. To openly flout such traits is to be perceived as authentic, as an everyman who is not afraid to speak the truth in the face of political correctness and moral relativism. It is no coincidence that such arguments appeal most to white men who feel a loss of power at the hands of women, immigrants, blacks, and other groups occasionally championed by liberal intellectuals.
While critiques of elites have always been a staple of American politics, Trump has tapped into a particular brand of populism that combines anti-establishment arguments with nativism and racism. He is a master of what historian Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics”: the periodic stirring up of conspiracy theories about the infiltration of American society by dangerous outsiders, whether they be alleged Japanese spies during WWII or Muslim terrorists today. Invariably, the reaction is to persecute the alleged traitors—or better yet, their entire ethnic or religious group—and to fortify Fortress America with increasingly taller walls (paid for by Mexico, in this case).
Ever the bricoleur of resentment, Trump combines such paranoia with dogwhistle politics, the subtle cuing of racist sentiments through carefully coded language. In prodding his supporters’ racial animosities, he follows in a tradition of Republican politics dating back to Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Nixon’s mantle has since been proudly taken up by welfare-dismantling, tough-on-crime, anti-affirmative-action Republican candidates and their fellow-travelers in partisan talk radio and cable news. Vilifications of President Obama as a Kenyan socialist dictator were merely the latest incarnation of the trend, with Trump leading the charge in questioning Obama’s eligibility for the presidency.
But the uniquely American features of Trump’s campaign are not limited to his populist self-presentation and the mix of anti-intellectualism, nativism, and racism in his speeches. The question “why Trump, why now?” also has a uniquely American answer. Trump is a perverse product of the same Republican Party he is now bringing to its knees. This is a party that woos socially conservative voters with promises of trickle-down economics and a return to simpler days of white male privilege, but when in office, consistently pursues an agenda of redistribution of wealth to the richest one percent. The party’s latest gambit has been all-out abdication of effective governance through the obstruction of the Democrats’ policy agenda and a depiction of Obama as posing an existential threat to the American way of life. These strategies are not without consequence. The cracks in the Republicans’ electoral coalition are beginning to deepen.
The Republican Party’s voter base (as opposed to the wealthy party elite) has felt the acute consequences of rising inequality and the economic crisis, while it has been systematically pushed to give up faith in democratic institutions and to blame minorities for the country’s rapid cultural changes. Is it any wonder then that they have turned away from the party establishment and toward a crass demagogue who seems to tell it like it is and owe nothing to anyone? In this sense, Trump is as American as the broken political system that has created him.