As American as Trump
Donald Drumpf, The Pfannkuchen Fuhrer / Dan Lacey
In an unusual twist, the U.S. media are looking to Europe in order to explain the political rise of Donald Trump. Given the typically parochial nature of American public debate, we might celebrate this. But while there is much to learn from contemporary European developments, this framing obscures at least as much as it illuminates.
Though the Trump phenomenon is properly understood within the scope of American history, it is portrayed as an aberration. In thousands of stories, U.S. readers are treated to comparisons with Adolf Hitler, Silvio Berlusconi, and Marine Le Pen, but much less so Huey Long, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan. Trump, implicitly or explicitly, is being presented as “un-American”; a European Fremdkörper (“foreign body”) in the American polity.
This is it not to say that Trump should be excluded from analysis of the growing populist right wing across the globe. At a basic level, the Trump phenomenon is indeed part of a broader nativist, authoritarian, anti-establishment movement unleashed by neoliberal globalization. But this broad “backlash” theory doesn’t fully explain the rise of Le Pen, ISIS, or Trump. To truly understand each of these cases, we have to look at both international and national factors and traditions. In its essence, the Trump phenomenon is not global or European but American.
Consider three related, but distinct, aspects of the Trump phenomenon: the man himself, his ideology, and his supporters. In the light of comparative and historical perspective, it becomes clear that Trump is embedded deeply in the U.S. historical tradition.
Trump, implicitly or explicitly, is being presented as ‘un-American’; a European Fremdkörper (‘foreign body’) in the American polity.
Not surprisingly, most analysis of the Trump phenomenon focuses on the man at its center. Trump’s personality and wealth have inspired comparisons especially with Berlusconi, the former Italian Prime Minister. After all, both men possess excessive riches, strong media profiles — although Berlusconi literally owns most of the media covering him, rather than just figuratively, as Trump does on his turf — and a penchant for surrounding themselves with beautiful, younger women.
But the comparison yields little else. As a political actor, Trump is unusual. Sure, we have seen more than enough rich, white men in politics, but most either challenge the system by founding their own party (e.g., Berlusconi, Ross Perot, the late Dutch right-winger Pim Fortuyn), or they run within mainstream parties and do not challenge the system (e.g., Mitt Romney and Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila).
Trump, by contrast, has mounted his challenge from within the establishment parties. While the GOP elite is increasingly embracing the same man they have accused of “hijacking” and “destroying” their party, Trump is less popular among the GOP establishment than among Republican primary voters. And Trump has so far done little to strengthen his grip on the party organization.
This is a peculiarly American situation. Most European countries have open elections but closed political parties; people have a lot of choice between parties, but not much within parties. In the United States, it is the other way around. The first-past-the-post electoral system has created a rigid two-party divide, which has never been seriously threatened by a national third party. However, because of the vastness of the country, the cost of campaigns, and relative autonomy of U.S. states within the federal system, the parties are weakly centralized and organized and thus unable to control the positions of candidates. Whereas in Europe party manifestoes bind members and leaders, in the United States, platforms are merely suggestions to be followed or ignored according to a candidate’s will.
But Trump’s success is not only a function of American political logic generally. It is even more closely linked to recent developments within and around the Republican Party in particular. Though establishment Republicans have tried to distance themselves from Trump — much as op-ed writers have tried to distance the United States itself from Trump — the truth is that the party was shifting to the far right well before he entered the 2016 primaries. This is clearest at the state level, where Republicans, not third-party extremists, have been busy passing racist, misogynistic, and anti-gay legislation, such as legally pointless but politically potent sharia bans, laws curbing constitutionally protected access to abortion, and bills designed to protect discrimination against LGBT people. Many of these policies even predate the Tea Party movement, itself a symptom of a right turn underway in the GOP since the 1990s. Trump’s impending nomination can be seen as a powerful aftershock of the Tea Party, a grassroots mobilization whose impact is too-often minimized.
Finally, Trump’s rise is a reflection of the special role of the media in U.S. politics. European campaigns are relatively cheap and short; parties mostly campaign through more or less equally allotted time slots in public media and are financed primarily by the state. In sharp contrast, U.S. presidential campaigns are lengthy and expensive and contested almost exclusively in the private media. In this context, Trump’s decision to run within the Republican Party was a match made in media heaven. With a record number of primary debates scheduled, and a field crowded by mediocre candidates, Trump took advantage of unprecedented name recognition and high visibility in traditional and social media. This has lead to a mutually beneficial rivalry between Trump and the press: Trump gets disproportionate attention from the major networks, which revel in their boosted ratings.
Turning to ideology, one must begin by noting that Trumpism is not a coherent or developed platform, though it has some consistent and dominant features: nativism, authoritarianism, and anti-establishment sentiments.
Trump directs his nativist attacks primarily at immigrants and refugees, in particular Latinos and Muslims. He combines these attacks with slightly less overt racism against African Americans and Native Americans, as in his recent “Pocahontas” jab at Senator Elizabeth Warren. In line with authoritarianism, Trump defines most social problems in terms of authority and security and proposes only strict law-and-order solutions — “a little bit more” punching of nonviolent protestors, punishment for women who obtain abortions, torture to prevent Jihadi terrorism.
Europe can teach America some valuable lessons. But we must take care that these lessons don’t become the means to whitewash U.S. history.
Nativism and authoritarianism are also features of the European populist radical right, but Trump, despite ample assertions to the contrary, is not a populist. Like European counterparts, he argues that “the elite” are uniformly corrupt. But unlike European politicians, he does not exalt the virtues of “the people.” Trump is not the Vox Populi (voice of The People) but the Vox Donaldus (voice of The Donald). Rather than claiming to offer common-sense solutions or follow the will of the people, Trump promises to make “better deals” because he knows “the art of the deal.” As he declared when he formed his 2016 exploratory committee, “I am the only one who can make America truly great again!”
It is important to stress that Trump’s leanings are not just constructions of his campaign, concocted by focus groups and political advisors bent on winning regardless of ideology. All are elements of Trump’s worldview, as we know from many statements made before his presidential run. For example, in 1989, when police cast suspicion on five nonwhite men in the rape of a white jogger in New York’s Central Park, Trump took out full-page ads in four newspapers shouting, “Bring Back the Death Penalty! Bring Back the Police!” When the so-called Central Park Five were finally exonerated, Trump called the city’s settlement with them “a disgrace.”
The features that constitute Trumpism have a long history in the United States. Well before fascism reared its ugly head in Europe, the Know Nothings unleashed violent nativist campaigns in cities across the country. And in the twentieth century, American proto-fascists such as Father Coughlin and the American First Party — note Trump’s “America First” foreign policy — won broad support. So did third-party candidates such as Wallace and Perot.
While none of these figures was identical to Trump, each shared with him at least as much as the leaders of the contemporary European radical right do, and certainly more than did the leaders of historical European fascism, which was a profoundly different phenomenon. For example, Trump stands in a long tradition of right-wing businessmen who present themselves as saviors of “the American way” and who are able to attract cross-class coalitions of supporters: Henry Ford, Robert W. Welch Jr., and Perot are just a few who have taken this approach.
It is not easy to speak of the Trump supporter, let alone compare that supporter to the European radical right supporter. Different European parties have different electorates. And Trump’s electoral base is still shifting. As Trump becomes more defined, his support base grows and changes. Now that Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee, his constituency is gaining GOP loyalists. Consequently, the Trump vote is starting to diverge even more from the typical radical-right vote in European parliamentary elections.
The conventional view holds that the radical-right electorate comprises mainly angry, white, working-class males. This stereotype has dominated media coverage at least since the 1980s and has been equally prominent in the current campaign. While there is some empirical basis to this view, it is mostly a self-serving misrepresentation of social scientific findings fostered by the media and the radical right’s political opponents.
In the most elitist conception, white, working-class males are the “fearful and the frustrated,” who vote for the radical right because they cannot cope with the economic and social transformations accompanying globalization. Intellectually limited and rigid, they deal with their loss of privilege by clinging to a comforting imagined community and scapegoating minorities. In a more sympathetic account, white, working-class males have been the objective losers in the process of globalization. Abandoned by social democratic parties, they now support the only sort of party that still claims to defend their interests.
Importantly, this thesis originated in the United States in response to American conditions. One of the important scholars of the subject was Seymour Martin Lipset, who developed his important “status anxiety theory” in the 1950s. That theory featured prominently in analyses of George Wallace’s success in the 1960s, which strongly influenced the study of the European radical right in subsequent decades. In the 1970s, the sociologist Donald Warren dubbed these status-anxiety voters Middle American Radicals (MARS): middle-income or lower-middle-income white males, not college-educated, working in skilled or semi-skilled jobs, equally suspicious of big business and anti-poverty programs, yet supportive of liberal state programs such as medicare and social security. MARS better account for the core of the Trump (and Tea Party) electorate than do the relatively small clutch of working-class males.
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None of this means that European comparisons are useless. Indeed, because the European radical right is much better studied than the U.S. radical right, Europe can teach America some valuable lessons. But we must take care that these lessons don’t become the means to whitewash U.S. history. The uncomfortable truth is that radical right-wing politics constitute a long tradition in both Europe and the United States. By ignoring the American side of this history, political commentators fuel the misperception that the United States is a lone liberal, democratic, multicultural utopia struggling against ideological imports from a European continent that can barely control its nationalist demons.
If instead we take the history and traditions of U.S. radical-right politics more seriously, we will not only better understand the Trump phenomenon but also the strengths and weaknesses of liberal democracy in the United States.
Originally published at bostonreview.net.