I have deliberated over whether to write about the perplexing rise of Donald Trump – partly because there is so much coverage on the matter already, and partly because his ascension is such a complex beast that I can’t claim any real expertise in it.
However, like with most things, I do have a view and that view is one of an educated woman, with a fairly strong interest in global politics who lives Down Under – a part of the world which has a relatively moderate political environment dominated by centrist political parties.
Manhattan - Trump's backyard. Photo - Wix
What tipped me to the point of compulsion to share my view was watching a news clip this week where Trump supporters were aggressively chanting in unison ‘Build the Wall’ (obviously the Mexican/US border wall) at a rally. Trump looked on gleefully, almost invisibly patting himself on the back. At that point I shook my head and thought this whole fiasco is none other than a real life cult – a cult following a property developer and reality TV showman.
So what do I think? Like many, I am in disbelief that the Republican Presidential nominee will effectively be Donald Trump - it is so wrong to me on so many levels. Leaving aside his questionable character and offensive personality traits that are both obvious and widely accepted by so many, he is a man who does not have any real experience in politics nor has he shown to have any deep knowledge of any key policy areas critical to running America. As Obama has said recently, the presidency is not a reality TV show.
As we all have witnessed his character failings, I won’t go on about them anymore here. What I am perplexed about is how he got to where he is, and how reflective the situation is of the deeper problems resonating within American politics and the mindsets of a huge number of Americans who seemingly can't see the wood for the trees with this man. Critics and cynics, myself included, underestimated the emotional pull of Trump and the deep-seated discontent across much of America. It’s easy to be oblivious to the real America while sitting in Sydney or New Zealand.
The confronting fact, for me, is not so much that Trump was campaigning full stop, or that he won a few States - rather that his landslide popularity is a bewildering reflection of the psyche of so many Americans.Of course, we now wonder how did this bunch of Americans fall for his demagoguery?
From my read, there are a few factors at play. The appeal of Donald Trump is that he keeps it real – he talks in language and in a manner that appeals to his supporters, and importantly he is not a career politician. He is anti the political establishment and says what he thinks with no filter. Trump has emotional appeal - people identify with what he says at an emotional level, not taking everything he says literally.
He represents almost a magical power, a demagogue – someone with the gumption to rock the boat, regardless of the truth or logic of what he actually says and represents, and get runs on the board. He is great at marketing and garnering publicity.
To so many people, he represents a lifeline out of the stagnant way of life many Americans have been living in for several years and promises them a way out. Whether he can deliver on that promise is another story. The economy has not been good to these people, jobs have been lost, income has stalled – life is tough for these economically disenfranchised voters. They are anti-establishment, anti-free trade and distrust immigrants. Trump’s nationalistic, protectionist trade proposals and strong stance on immigration appeal.
These people also feel politically disenfranchised - alienated from Washington politics, from the political establishment governing their country. My guess is they want someone, anyone, to believe in them and their needs – someone who makes people feel they are being listened to, and Donald Trump has done this in spades.
Photo - Wix
Who are his supporters? As his support base has increased, the mix is more diverse. But there appear to be a few common themes – supporters generally don’t have a college degree, they feel disenfranchised or lacking in any political voice or power, and are anti-immigration. Trump gives them a voice.
The other key factor at play is the power of the Republican Party rhetoric and the staunch alignment of so many Americans to the Democrats or Republicans. So much so, that people are so convinced by Republican propaganda that Obama’s Democratic government has been doing a terrible job, that they will not vote for another Democratic candidate. Instead, they would rather give a fresh, albeit flawed, Republican like Trump a go.
These Republicans are loyal to their party, don’t question the overwhelming rhetoric, and as a consequence they are blind to - or choose to ignore - Trump’s failings. There are of course some Republicans who may deviate from the party line and vote Democrat. Even the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, was not yet prepared endorse Trump at the time of writing this.
Another piece of the puzzle to bear in mind, as pointed out to me by my good Australian-based American friend, is that Americans generally love entertaining political figures. The country is the home of Hollywood and Las Vegas, and people love big, bright and brash anything. Americans love confidence and thrive on a celebrity culture. For example, Ronald Regan was once a movie star before his presidency, Jessie Ventura (Governor of Minnesota) was a former WWF wrestler, and of course Arnold Schwarzenegger governed California.
The combination of a voter base both disenfranchised economically and politically; a larger than life celebrity figure; a deep seated alignment of so many voters to one party; and a supporter base lacking in the common sense to properly question Trump's proposals, goes some way to explain the rise of Donald Trump. But in my mind, it doesn’t validate his ticket to run for President.
Looking forward, the questions should be - where else in the world is ripe breeding ground for politicians like Donald Trump? Could a Trump clone gather a similar degree of support in Australia or New Zealand?
Similarities can be drawn between Trump’s populist policies and what is going on in some European countries, however it is Europe – not America – that is bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis and recent large-scale terrorist attacks. The vote on Brexit in the UK will reflect many Brits’ feelings towards immigration, globalisation and nationalism, just as Trump appeals to American insecurities about terrorism, immigration and free trade.
Other European countries such as France and Hungary are seeing their own rise of right wing populism playing to a public sense of nationalism, economic disillusionment and anti-immigration across voter bases. France is grappling with the recent terror attacks and its anti-immigrant National Front party will battle for the next presidency, while Hungary has a nationalistic government and a Prime Minister who has been in power for 6 years. Taking Trump’s wall-building analogy further, the Hungarian leader has in fact build a fence along Hungary’s borders with Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia, and plans are afoot to build another one on the Romanian border.
Paris - Where Nationalism is playing on post-terrorism insecurities. Photo - Emily Brewer.
Rising nationalistic movements have been described as means of defending against the economic threat of globalisation, as while trade and capital liberalisation has equalised wealth across the world it has also brought a new level of inequality within countries.
To those of us Down Under - can Kiwis picture someone like Donald Trump giving the understated, boy-next-door John Key a run for his money? New Zealanders are more laid back and generally deride tall arrogant poppies, and certainly celebrity politicians have not made their name in New Zealand. Perhaps the closest analogy from New Zealand, the rugby-loving nation, would be that a significant mass of voters would probably support Richie McCaw, former All Black captain, in a run for Prime Minister if they had the chance.
But New Zealand has faced, and continues to experience growing income inequality and for many, economic stagnation is real. It has also been argued that politicians in New Zealand are becoming removed from the everyday people they represent – there are more career politicians and this is the environment in which populists like Trump thrive.
However, it has been suggested that the economic impact felt in America hasn’t been as hard in New Zealand overall and the fear generated by terrorism isn't as great. In my view, New Zealanders are also generally less extreme in their political views and prefer confidence to come in quieter, more politically correct packages. If you are a New Zealand reader, what is your view?
What about Australia? Indeed, the nation has a few more assertive, Type A personalities in its political scene, but still, I'd like to think that the prospect of building a wall around Australia to stop immigrants would be a laughable proposition for most of the voting public here. Certainly the policies of nationalist politician Pauline Hanson didn't get a huge amount of traction in her day. But we must not forget that both Australia and New Zealand are islands – so we don’t need a wall; we have moats to keep out illegal immigrants. And while we may turn our noses up at the prospect of a wall, we all know about Australian government ‘turn back the boats’ policies.
But the fact is, for most of us sitting in Australia or New Zealand, what lies between the West and East Coasts of America is a complete unknown, save for the ski resorts of Colorado, the hip destination of Palm Springs and the odd national park. And this area is Trump Territory - Middle America. Home to many working class, xenophobic voters who believe his spin. Somehow, he has tapped into their hearts and wildly exceeded anyone’s expectations with his success. It is it the best example of reality TV culture seeping into the real world yet?
In my mind, there is only one option - and that is for Hillary to become President. While Bernie’s campaign and aspirations command my respect, I think that at the end of the day it will be Hillary's experience in running part of the ship that is the USA and her pragmatism that will give her the nomination. And then there is no way the world can afford her to lose to Trump.