Thursday, 14 January 2016

Donald Trump. What's all that about?

I'm late to the party on this one too. For ages Trump's candidature was seen (at this side of the Atlantic at least) as simply a joke, with that stupid hair being the punchline. However if it is a joke then it is in very poor taste indeed. Here we have someone standing for the leadership of "the most powerful nation. Period" openly advocating religious and racial discrimination of a sort eerily reminiscent of early Nazi party policies while his supporters whoop and cheer with glee.

There have been many explanations put forward for his continuing popularity: that it is simply an expression of protest against the political classes and will soon dissipate; that his supporters are the 'angry white men' whose days in the sun are fast disappearing; that Trump's lack of any sort of vocal filter is a refreshing stimulant in the land of packaged politics; and even (astonishingly) that this billionaire property tycoon (who was set on his way as a lad with a small multi-million pound leg-up from his dad) speaks for the downtrodden and impoverished victims of corporate America.

For me the worrying thing though, potentially even more worrying than the statements he makes and policies he proposes, is the fact that his most endearing feature to his supporters appears to be his utter lack of expertise in or careful consideration of the issues he is commenting on. Foreign affairs in particular seem an unknown field to him (he once said that he gets his foreign policy ideas from Fox news, and see this account of his ignorance for instance) but he presents even this as an asset, saying once in an interview "But the voters want to see unpredictability. They're tired of a president that gets up and says every single thing."

And terrifyingly it is this sort of thing that wins him support, it seems. How? Why?

Part of the reason, clearly, is Trump's 'outsider' appeal. He feeds off a widespread American perception of a cosy consensus between politicians, big business, the media and special interest groups (the establishment) on approaches to every area of policy that ignores the desires of the general population. Even this is worrying of course as it implies a complete loss of faith in the democratic process in America. Politicians, far from being seen as representatives of the people, have come to be regarded (by some at least) as the Enemy. And indeed this study demonstrates that they may have a point.

However the real problem for me is that Trump has gone well beyond simply positioning himself as the anti-politician politician. His brand, and his obvious appeal to a vocal section of the US population, goes deeper than that. The message he gives, time and again, with his impromptu outbursts and his unscripted outrageousness is that he rejects not only the political establishment and all its codes and conventions but the very notion of intelligent, careful and well-informed policy making too.

The world is a complex place and government a difficult, demanding and subtle business to get right. But what Trump is saying to the American people is, forget all that! He doesn't do complexity and is uninterested in nuance. His answers to the most complex problems are simple: immigration, central american poverty and the awful legacy of the 'war on drugs'? Build a wall. The growth of a destructive, anti-western jihadist ideology across the world? "Bomb the hell outa them." A mass shooting (like all those other US mass shootings, only this time carried out by two muslims)? Ban muslims from entering the US.

And the thing is it is precisely that sort of simplicity that seems to be his appeal. It used to be possible in vast swathes of America to live insulated from the complexities of the modern world. For decades life was very good (people said 'have a nice day' as if they really meant it), until terrorist attacks took place on US soil and a generation began to grow up in the knowledge that they might be the first not to be more affluent than their parents. And the internet had come along- a baffling window into the chaotic alien world that existed outside Dullsville Tennessee- and it was all too much.

It's not just Trump who offers simplistic anti-intellectual answers to problems too complex for most Americans to have had to consider until recently. I happened to stumble on a bizarre phenomenon recently: the modern flat-earthers. Their discussion tool of choice is the meme- a perfect way to present a simplistic and anti-intellectual argument in an easily digestible form. Here are some examples (there are thousands). Climate change deniers work in much the same way, until it becomes as though reasoned argument is of itself to be distrusted. If you can't reduce your approach to a meme then it's some sort of establishment conspiracy.

Is this a legacy of too much affluence and too much insulation from the world outside for too long in the US? Quite possibly. Affluence and security build a sort of self-obsession that does not set you in good stead when that affluence and insulation dissolve. But it's probably too late to do anything about that now. So what can we do? Distribute Trump memes of course. Du'uh.

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