The Trump “Style” and Its Appeal

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A number of political commentators are starting to suggest that Hillary Clinton could win the upcoming political debates on substance, but lose them on style. No one seems to doubt that Clinton is far more knowledgeable on policy issues and has more detailed policy positions. The latest issue of The Week reports that “Donald Trump’s campaign has seven policy proposals listed on his website, totaling 9,000 words. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has 65 policy fact sheets, with detailed proposals totaling 112,735 words.” Clinton and her running mate, Tim Kaine, have also just released a book describing their proposals, Stronger Together: A Blueprint for America’s Future. Nevertheless, although most commentators regard Donald Trump’s ideas as more simplistic, ill-informed and even dangerous, they have to admit that he continues to appeal to a large portion of the electorate. One explanation is that people just like his style, and style trumps substance in U.S. elections.

What is it about this style that is so appealing? A few adjectives come to mind: loud, combative, self-aggrandizing, politically incorrect, and autocratic.

When I say “loud,” I mean more than the volume of Trump’s voice. He has a way of drowning out other voices in the room by seizing the media spotlight for himself. He provides a steady stream of colorful remarks to resonate in the media echo chamber. He commands attention and attracts a following.

Americans love physical and verbal combat, at least as a spectator sport, and Trump’s combative style appeals to those who feel he is fighting for them. He rallies supporters by portraying America as an embattled nation, threatened primarily by foreigners, immigrants and terrorists. His enemies list also includes anyone who criticizes him or sees the world differently, such as political liberals and most journalists.

Trump is probably the most blatantly self-aggrandizing candidate we’ve ever seen. He claims to have the answer for everything, whether it is inner-city poverty or terrorism. On domestic policy, he knows more than the policy experts who’ve worked on the problems for years, and on military policy he “knows more than the generals.” He rarely reveals his policy plans, of course, but trust him, he has them and they are amazing. This oversize confidence appeals to those who would rather put their faith in a strong father-figure rather than deal with the complexities of the issues.

Trump also boasts of his “political incorrectness.” This rather odd term is a product of the debates over racism and sexism since the 1960s. I think it is a respectable way of saying that one is resisting calls from women and minorities to change attitudes and behavior. For example, women have argued that if they are to be equals in workplaces, universities, the military and other spheres of achievement, they cannot be subjected to unwanted sexual attention. This can be confusing to men, who need to develop the sensitivity to discern when sexual advances are welcome and when they are not. Some men just don’t get it, and claim not to know what all the fuss is about. And some disparage the whole attempt to discourage sexist or racist behavior as an exercise in “political correctness,” a needless infringement on their freedom of thought, speech and action. Boasting about one’s political incorrectness is a way of standing up for the privilege to say and do what one pleases, whether it is offensive to others or not. The fact that Donald Trump rushed to defend Roger Ailes when he was accused of sexual harassment, even before the facts were in, and then brought him into his campaign as an informal adviser after he was fired by Fox News, is an indication of what Trump’s political incorrectness can mean. It is a code word for white male resistance to the new assertiveness of women and minorities.

Does that mean that Trump and his followers are sexists and racists? Obviously that is a very contentious and contested notion. They can easily protest: “We’re not racists; we just want to stop Mexicans and other foreigners from taking our jobs. We just want to stop potential terrorists from entering the country. We just support “law and order” and the right of police to defend themselves against dangerous suspects.” Trump’s critics can point out the racial subtext lying just beneath the surface of these positions. “Law and order,” a favorite phrase of racists from Adolf Hitler to George Wallace, can mean defending the white-supremacist social order by keeping minorities in their place. And what is the racial subtext of the “birther” movement previously led by Donald Trump? He no longer talks about it publicly himself. But a recent poll found that 59% of voters who approve of Trump believe that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore not qualified to be president. Isn’t the real message that Obama cannot be a legitimate American leader because of the color of his skin?

As a practical matter, calling people sexist or racist is usually counterproductive. I believe that the most prejudiced people have defense mechanisms that allow them to deny their own prejudices. The most we can hope for is to get them to question certain positions by calling attention to their prejudicial implications. For example, if you believe, as many of my students have liked to think, that the playing field is already level and blacks have been given every opportunity, then you may conclude that only laziness or stupidity can account for their higher rates of poverty. Some may be willing to question their assumptions, but only if they are questioned respectfully and not just insulted. Besides, Trump and his supporters have gotten very good at answering such accusations by attacking their attackers. “Call us racists? That’s what you Democrats always do, play the race card when you don’t want to discuss ideas.” (That’s almost an exact quote from a Trump surrogate.) So Trump and his supporters claim the moral high ground while accusing Clinton of being the real bigot, prejudiced against the white working class. Her calling his more extreme supporters “deplorable” only plays into that narrative.

Trump’s political incorrectness walks a fine line, flirting enough with sexism and racism to attract a core following of angry white men, but trying not to be so obvious that moderate Republicans are too shocked to vote for him. So he makes a show of reaching out to African Americans, but in a way that demonstrates little racial understanding or even curiosity. By describing black communities as nothing but cesspools of poverty and crime, he insults the group he claims to want to help. (The black poverty rate is higher than the white rate, but most African Americans are not in poverty.)

Donald Trump’s autocratic tendencies have been on display in his admiration of Vladimir Putin. He may be right that Putin is more popular with Russians than Obama is with Americans, although Obama’s approval rating is much higher than Trump’s. Russians, of course, have a long history of autocratic leadership. Putin has sustained his support by projecting military power abroad (especially by taking Crimea and supporting the Assad dictatorship in Syria), by rigidly controlling the media, and apparently by having some of his opponents eliminated. For now, he is maintaining his popularity despite the downturn in the Russian economy. Trump is impressed with Putin’s strength, without considering whether it is the type of strength appropriate for a more democratic leader. Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov says, “Vladimir Putin is a strong leader in the same way that arsenic is a strong drink.” The New York Times described Putin as “a seductive figure for Western politicians and electors, who often pine for decisive action and a more secure world, free from the uncertainties created by immigration, insecurity and economic globalization.”

Personal style or social movement?

I have characterized the Trump style as loud, combative, self-aggrandizing, politically incorrect and autocratic. Others will no doubt want to add their own adjectives, some less polite than mine. But is that really what the Trump phenomenon is about, or is it a lot more than that?

Some media observers have started to use the term “Trumpism” to distinguish the Donald’s brand of politics from mainstream conservatism. Without denying the need to make such a distinction, I’m not sure that’s the best thing to call it. That may give the impression that the Trump phenomenon is nothing but a personal style of politics that will fade from the scene if Trump loses. Although we may never see another Donald Trump, we have seen this kind of belligerent politics before. It is the kind of political stance that appeals to people who feel that somebody is taking something away from them, and they see no alternative but to fight to take it back. It is what we see when social change threatens to leave people behind. They become susceptible to the appeal of some tough-talking strong man who promises to restore them to their former position. That’s the real message of “make America great again.”

In theory, a changing economy has the potential to create as well as destroy, to create new jobs and new skills to replace those that are in decline. How exactly to do that in today’s globalizing, automating economy is a problem that has many experts scratching their heads. People can be forgiven for wanting to hold onto what they have or get back what they have lost. They want to hear that we can bring the coal mining jobs back, not that they are gone forever. We could be having a national conversation about how government could help facilitate postindustrial development. Instead, Trump has us fixated on walling ourselves off from the rest of the world.

People in other countries have their own reasons for supporting reactionary politics. Millions of ordinary Muslims have gotten little or no benefit from the limited modernization of their countries and the development of their oil resources. Angry Muslims who blame America (the largest oil consumer) for their problems are not so different from the anti-Muslim Americans who want to “bomb the hell out of them.” Neither group sees a positive way forward toward peace and prosperity in the world as a whole or the Middle East in particular. Both sides just cling to their traditions, dream of restoring lost greatness, and wish that the other side would disappear.

Today’s global problems call for imagination, creativity and innovation. People need empowerment, to be sure, but they need constructive forms of power like the power of knowledge, organization, and cooperative uses of economic resources. The alternative is a pessimistic, reactionary politics where society is viewed as a zero-sum game and power is used to settle who wins and who loses. That’s where the Trump style fits right in. Don’t create anything new; just take back what seems rightfully yours. Take back manufacturing jobs by erecting trade barriers to foreign goods, but somehow make the rest of the world accept our exports. Take back jobs that have gone to immigrants by kicking them out and building a wall to keep them out. Keep the Middle Eastern oil flowing, and take over foreign oil fields if necessary to keep them out of enemy hands.

Who better to carry out such policies than a loud, combative, self-aggrandizing, politically incorrect autocrat? Donald Trump is that kind of guy, but he is not the only one. If one such leader fails, another will probably emerge, until more people see a better way forward. Reactionary populism is on the ascendancy in many countries, including countries like Germany and Austria that ought to know better. We have seen this before, during the Great Depression and World War II. It is bigger than any one man, and we should not underestimate the danger.

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