Defeatism and Demagoguery: How Trump-ism Works
As Donald Trump clinches the presidential nomination at the Republican convention in Cleveland, two major questions about his meteoric (if not disconcerting) rise remain to be answered.
The first, why did this happen? Convincing theories have been raised, including the rise of political authoritarianism among Republican electorates or a larger national mood of alienation and frustration due to entrenched inequality and stagnated upward social mobility that fuels support towards anti-establishment figures, which is represented by Bernie Sanders on the other end of the political spectrum.
Second and more pertinently, why Trump of all people? After all, Ted Cruz, too, campaigned on an anti-establishment platform, and on many social issues, such as LGBT rights, his conservative credentials should have trumped Trump’s (pun intended).
This is where discourse analysis as an analytical tool comes handy. It allows us to make sense of how political discourses engage with material realities to construct, shape, and resonate with the worldviews of its intended audiences.
It also helps to avoid a deterministic view because having a situation ripe for the taking (as the theories highlighted) does not mean anyone can seize it. There is a reason as to why Trump and only Trump’s discursive strategy alone succeeded among the Republican hopefuls.
“This is where discourse analysis as an analytical tool comes handy. It allows us to make sense of how political discourses engage with material realities to construct, shape, and resonate with the worldviews of its intended audiences.”
‘It’s so simple, folks!’: Trump-ism as the Equivalence of ‘Greatness’ and Simplicity
Fortunately, Trump-ism is not hard to analyse. First, The major themes and arguments found in his candidate announcement speech can be found in almost all of his rally speeches with hardly any swerves or variations. Much of the rhetoric he used back then remains in use today, even though minor adjustments are made as the Presidential race approaches.
Second and more importantly, Trump-ism as a discursive strategy is not complex at all, as is the language used in articulating it (see here, and here). Yet, it is precisely simplicity that underlines his promises of ‘making America great again’.
Trump consciously evades complexity, and chooses to address America’s problem simply as other countries “ripping us off”, politicians do not know what they are doing, and that nobody respects America anymore. The concrete policy promises he made-not many to begin with- are, therefore, simplistic too; such as building a wall at the Mexican border, or “bomb the sh-t out of” the Islamic State (ISIS).
For Trump, to be ‘not great’ is to ignore the simplicity of ‘greatness’ or the simple steps that can be taken to achieve it.
For example, he claimed he would personally call up American companies that wanted to shift their production lines outside America and threaten their products with high tariffs if they leave, consciously ending it by saying ‘it’s so, so simple’.
But if simplicity forms the ‘positive’ of Trump’s discourse, then complexity is invariably its negative. Stopping America from ‘being great again’, is this complex web of actors and agents that forms the establishment: the politicians, the special interests, the lobbyists, and even the media (he calls them, what we have now).
To him, complex multilateral agreements, such as North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the Trans-Pacific Partner Agreement (TPPA), benefit the ‘establishment’ but not ordinary Americans (or at least his target audience, the low income, white American working class males).
The time and effort spent to be politically correct (read: to be sophisticated), he argues, will not ‘get things done’.
This is where Trump’s discourse differs from European right-wing discourse, where the enmity is mainly directed outwards; towards immigration, Islam, or integration with the European Union, often out of reasons of racial or cultural supremacy.
Trump, his many outrageous points on immigrant and Islam notwithstanding, does not lavish on such themes, as Thomas Frank rightly notes. He even praised foreign leaders as smart (especially China and Mexico). Moreover, he did not regard Mexicans to be inferior as many of his detractors said but believe that they have actually outwitted the Americans. This is seen in his words:
“The Mexican government forces many bad people into our country because they’re smart. They’re smarter than our leaders, and their negotiators are far better than what we have, to a degree that you wouldn’t believe. They’re forcing people into our country. … And they are drug dealers and they are criminals of all kinds. We are taking Mexico’s problems.”
Trump’s diatribes are mainly focused inwards, pointing directly at Capitol Hill and the White House. To him, the establishment is incompetent, outsmarted, and saddled by special interests who allowed America to be ‘ripped off’.
At this point, one can already see Trump-ism is based on a competitive logic largely framed in economic terms.
To make America ‘great’ again, in his discourse, means winning the trade war (America’s USD 500 billion annual trade deficit with China is one of Trump’s most brought-up sore point), not losing jobs to other countries, and no longer encumbered by special interests and ‘political correctness’.
“For Trump, to be ‘not great’ is to ignore the simplicity of ‘greatness’ or the simple steps that can be taken to achieve it.”
‘If you don’t have people that know business’’: The Art of selling a businessman as a President
Trump’s logic of competition must not be mistaken as an endorsement towards neoliberalism, where one urges the reduction of statist intervention for competitiveness sake. While arguing for a case to stop jobs from moving away from America, Trump still defended free trade:
“I’m a free trader. But the problem with free trade is you need really talented people to negotiate for you. If you don’t have talented people, if you don’t have great leadership, if you don’t have people that know business, not just a political hack that got the job because he made a contribution to a campaign, which is the way all jobs, just about, are gotten, free trade terrible. Free trade can be wonderful if you have smart people, but we have people that are stupid. We have people that aren’t smart. And we have people that are controlled by special interests. And it’s just not going to work.”
Herein lies the ingenuity of Donald Trump. What Trump has done is that he puts forward a situation where America is hampered by ‘bad’ deals, brokered by stupid ‘political hacks’ beholden to special interests. To make America ‘great’ again would require ‘great’ deals to be made; the way only a businessman’s acumen could do it.
And this is where, Donald Trump, who has made a name for himself as a slick dealmaker, steps in. His self-proclaimed bestselling business book of all time is named ‘Art of the Deal’, after all.
Through not discrediting free trade, Trump-ism is devoid of an ideological veneer (unlike Bernie Sanders as the face of democratic socialism) but instead represents one businessman’s crusade against the establishment.
By shoehorning the discourse of making America ‘great’ again into one of a business orientation, his credentials as a successful businessman becomes the embodiment of ‘greatness’. In other words, Trump becomes the master signifier where anything ‘great’ can and only can be related back to Trump.
Claiming to speak for those who were muffled and betrayed by the establishment, he constructs a split between the underdogs and the powerful, where he, as a self-made billionaire not beholden to special interests and political correctness with a knack for making deals, will lead the charge against the those stopping America in her tracks of being ‘great’ again.
Hence, Trump needs not endear himself to his supporters by toning down the billionaire image (which includes using his private jet to fly back to New York every night) and can proudly exclaim “I love the poorly educated” without fear of being perceived as condescending by his supporters.
If Trump, being who he is, means ‘greatness’, he does not need to change his image to be “warm and personable” the way Hillary Clinton does.
“Through not discrediting free trade, Trump-ism is devoid of an ideological veneer (unlike Bernie Sanders as the face of democratic socialism) but instead represents one businessman’s crusade against the establishment.”
‘I am not a politician’: Trump-the ‘anti-politics’ as the quintessential populist
So, what does Trump-ism represents? Some say he is a fascist, but due to the lack of ‘glorified patriotism’ reminiscent of Italian Fascism, I would argue Trump is just a populist. And as most successful populists, he is anti-status quo and appeals to the already and newly disenfranchised.
A populist claims to be anti-politics, yet at the same time hyper-politicises social relations.
This can be seen in how Trump deftly uses his success in business and position as a political outsider to legitimize his claim for Presidency. This is also why he addressed his crowd as “we have a silent majority that’s no longer so silent; it’s now the loud, noisy majority”.
But one odd thing I can conclude from the many hours of going through Trump’s speeches and campaign material is that, despite all the grandstanding and pompousness, it is actually a discourse of minimalism or even defeatism.
It spells out an isolationist agenda rather than an imperialist one. It uses big words but made minimal, if not vaguely defined promises.
For example, Trump did not argue for a militaristic and expansionist America (with the exception of against ISIS), but only that America build a military “so powerful that we’re never going to have to use it”.
When he talks about winning economically, it is about bringing Apple’s production line back into America rather than ensuring American smartphones outsold and outgamed non-American brands such as Samsung and Huawei.
But that’s how Trump’s strategy works. For in the lifeworld of his intended audiences, the notion of jobs staying in America is great.
The many electorates that showed up his ‘HUGE’ rallies do not care if the IPhone is the most advanced smartphone in the world as long as they are the ones who are actually making it, not some factories in China or Vietnam.
In other words, his American Dream, while wrapped in a lexicon of greatness, is actually a diminished one with short goals to achieve.
And it is upon the ashes of these broken dreams the enigma that is Trump-ism feeds on and thrives. As dreams grew smaller and outlooks look bleaker, people will settle for lesser too.