Trump’s vision is one of exclusion and enmity
Historically it’s rare that the public isn’t warned about a would-be demagogue well in advance of their actual rise to power. Typically, this work is done by the narcissistic aspiring strongmen themselves. And in the case of Donald Trump, by now no American can claim they haven’t been put on ample notice about his character and intentions.
Last week’s Republican convention – a festival of rage, loss, anger and hatred – said it all. It was driven by vicious, personalised hatred against the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, as delegates persistently chanted “Lock her up!”
One of Mr Trump’s campaign advisers suggested she should be shot for treason. Ben Carson accused her, literally and with a straight face, of being in league with Satan.
Hysterical outrage was compounded by the relentless cognitive dissonance of a movement that, no matter how brazen, is moving so far beyond the bounds of propriety that it has cultivated some deniability. Virtually every important message was shadowed by some twisted doppelganger lurking visibly in the background and contradicting it.
Mr Trump’s main appeal is his alleged competence. He claims the country is being run by crooks, losers and idiots, three of his favourite epithets, and suggests that not only can he do better, but that “I alone” can solve the apocalyptic “crisis” facing the country.
But the convention itself, and the Trump campaign more broadly, strongly suggest he can’t run a bath. From plagiarism to high-level defections, tedious programming, stunning no-shows and a reliance on the candidate’s own children, rather than national party leaders, to endorse him, one couldn’t have wished for a more thorough refutation of claims of minimal competency, let alone excellence.
After more than a year of unprecedented, systematic dishonesty, Mr Trump posed as a champion of truth. “There will be no lies here,” he promised. It’s easy to tell when he’s lying: his body language, penchant for repetition, and, above all, his insufferable catchphrase: “believe me” are his sure-fire “tells” (unconscious admissions of deception). Whenever he says “believe me”, he knows he’s brazenly lying.
Unfortunately, he says it a lot. He actually suggested that it would be an “easy thing” to banish violent crime and murder, and that all kinds of endemic human foibles would simply vanish from the American landscape the day he takes the oath of office.
Mr Trump’s campaign is based on fear and ever-shrinking concentric circles of exclusion and enmity. Globally, he casts Americans as being in bitter, zero-sum competition with everyone else. Internally, he promotes a gutter brand of faux working-class white ethnic chauvinism (branding himself a “blue-collar billionaire”), blaming almost all social ills on minorities, especially Latino immigrants and Muslims.
His daughter, Ivanka, described her father in almost entirely liberal terms. She emphasised his devotion to women’s rights, equal pay for equal work, respect for the gay community, and support for childcare and maternity leave. In her telling, he sounded much like Hillary Clinton.
Then an angry, hateful man bearing no resemblance to her description took to the stage and insisted that the United States is, simultaneously, pathetically weak, damaged and useless, and at the same time on the brink of unparalleled greatness, strength and glory. The key to avoiding utter devastation and embracing complete perfection is, of course, electing him in November.
Moreover, he pledged massive amounts of spending on every imaginable programme, from the military to health care, while simultaneously vowing to cut taxes and greatly reduce the deficit. All politicians play such games but few so insultingly to the intelligence.
In an interview with The New York Times, Mr Trump shredded the Nato treaty, insisting that the alliance is actually a protection racket and under his leadership Washington would only defend an ally if it has paid up to his satisfaction.
He no longer calls for banning all Muslim immigration, instead urging restrictions on nationals of countries “compromised by terrorism”. That’s so vague it could include the United States itself. But of course that’s not what he means.
Republicans, including Mr Trump, endlessly complain about Barack Obama “apologising” for American foreign policy (which he hasn’t done), but he told The New York Times that, “given how bad the United States is … I don’t know that we have a right to lecture” any other countries on human rights. Mr Obama never said anything like that, and it’s no wonder that the North Korean government and Vladimir Putin seem so delighted with Mr Trump’s campaign.
Their cognitive dissonance has become so severe that few Republicans seem able to process what Mr Trump said about “how bad the United States is”, or how they would react if a Democrat said anything similar.
Mr. Trump amply outlined his penchant for lying as long ago as his 1987 memoir The Art of the Deal (the book’s ghost writer painted a devastating portrait of the candidate in interviews with New Yorker magazine). Any voters still playing catch-up have now been fully informed by the Republican convention. No one can say they haven’t been warned. This is what American authoritarianism looks like.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
On Twitter: @ibishblog
Updated: July 24, 2016 04:00 AM