Donald Trump and the Populist Voice

07/08/2016 21:50

There's only been one form of reality TV worth watching in 2016. Aside from the deadpan dramatics of Love Island, and the botoxed bitchiness of The Only Way is Essex, the real entertainment has been blasted from across the pond, via the bombastic shrieks and brash ignorance of Donald Trump's election campaign. It's a match made in satire heaven; from his snide sexist remarks to his infamous vow to build a wall against Mexico, Trump seems more firmly embedded in sitcom territory than the stylish extravagance of Patsy and Eddie. Yet, it's an absurdity that Trump supporters have fiercely disputed, sounding the immortal rhetoric that Trump is the candidate for the people.

The populist appeal that Trump has come to embody is only a mere figment of the right-wing tsunami that has engulfed the West; from Brexit to the rise of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, numerous politicians have found methods of harnessing voter disillusionment, channelling feelings of economic insecurity and international fear into fodder for their own ideology. As Gary Younge has highlighted, the right-wing surge does not imperil democracy, but is "a product of democracy already in crisis". Where Communism once sought to revolutionise political elitism, the right-wing has now rebranded itself as the ultimate anti-establishment weapon, aiming to reclaim a national identity 'lost' in liberalism and globalisation.

Trump only serves as the American manifestation of this phenomenon. Regardless of his wife's plagiarised stutters, his running mate's regressive conservatism, and even his endorsement to Russia to hack Hillary Clinton's emails, supporters still laud Trump as the only legitimate political alternative, fulfilling his promise to "make America great again". Even Bernie Sanders supporters have recognised his revolutionary appeal, arguing: "four years of Trump followed by a progressive wave where progressives take Congress and the White House would be better [than] eight years of Hillary and the progressive movement dying for the next two decades".

However, such a logic is steeped in incoherence when it comes to Trump. As a figure born out of capitalist consumerism, the nepotism and narcissism that so riddles his business career is not a symptom of a man working for the masses, but for the avaricious system that has so failed them. Indeed, his pledge to "make America great again" serves not to take America forward, but - as demonstrated by that final, ominous adverb "again" - to restore it to the capitalist conservatism of its past.

Indeed, to state that Trump "talks [voters'] language, addresses their concerns", is a large part of the populist myth surrounding his personality cult. As demonstrated by his entrepreneurial career, his commercialised political vision and even his callous defence of former Fox News chief Roger Ailes, this is a figure who stands - not for the masses - but the white, male elite. Certainly, the rhetoric he articulates is one shared by numerous white Americans, demanding respect and jingoism in the face of international threat; yet that does not make his intentions populist. The realm he inhabits, of Fox News friends and supermodel girlfriends is a far cry from Tom, Dick and Harry working at a gas station in Texas. Their prejudice is rooted in bitter resentment, Trump's in a glorified ego.

Yet, the baffled ideology exploited by Trump is not merely symptomatic of his own flawed character, but of the blemished democratic system. As Andrew Sullivan highlighted, since businessman, Wendell Willkie won the Republican nomination for President in 1940, "that elitist sorting mechanism" - in which presidents are churned from a political breeding ground - "has slowly imploded"; yet its exclusive flanks have not. Over $1 billion has been spent in the current presidential campaign, with Trump and Clinton embroiled in murky alliances with the National Rifle Association and hedge fund investors respectively. Trump is a man of the people in so far as he lacks the political primogeniture of the Kennedys, the Bushes, and now the Clintons. Yet, he still lacks - as indeed do many presidential candidates - the brazen, first-hand experience of the angry and dispossessed, rubbing shoulders instead with billionaires and Ivy League alumni.

Certainly, to condemn all Trump supporters as "racist" and to liken his views to those of Adolf Hitler shows a cheapening of democracy, an unwillingness to comprehend the right-wing appeal. Yet so too does the overwhelming assumption that Donald Trump "speaks to the gut". As a self-declared self-made man, he (if only theoretically) embodies the American fairy-tale. Yet a fairy-tale is all Trump can ever be: not an authentic populist voice, nor a legitimate political force, but a fairy-tale in an elitist glass forest.