Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 January 2019

Trump taps into the rage of anxious American men

The "Pied Piper of paranoia" is not only leading the Republican presidential race but also changing the nature of US politics, writes Hussein Ibish.
What does Donald Trump's lead in the Republican presidential race say about American politics? (Carlos Osorio / AP)
What does Donald Trump's lead in the Republican presidential race say about American politics? (Carlos Osorio / AP)

Christmas Day finds the US Republican Party more than ever in the grip of Donald Trump and all that he represents.

A few weeks away from the Iowa caucus, and then the first primary in New Hampshire, his lead in the opinion polls is wider than ever. He leads the latest CNN poll with a whopping 39 per cent of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters, more than double his nearest rival. The Trump phenomenon is no longer an aberration. It is now of historical significance.

A series of incredibly offensive comments, blatant falsehoods, cringe-inducing braggadocio, mind-boggling flip-flops, and juvenile outbursts have only strengthened his position. Moreover, the pushback against him by other Republicans has been timid and totally ineffective. It’s clear to everyone that he is tapping into something profound on the American political right.

But what would that be? The unstated, but unmistakable, unifying theme of his campaign is anger. Many of his supporters don’t consciously recognise this. They find his “Make America Great Again!” motif inspiring and even Reagan-esque.

But unconsciously it inspires the question of what – and, more importantly, who – damaged the United States such that it needs repairing. The answer is almost always the wrong kind of people.

Immigrants – legal and illegal – are the main target for Mr Trump. He is playing on a raw, visceral nativism that laments the loss of a normative America defined by English-speaking, white and middle-class citizens. He is appealing to those who can no longer recognise the country they once knew, and who feel marginalised and excluded, as if immigrants, African Americans and other minorities have hijacked their USA.

Mr Trump especially appeals to those white American males who feel blamed, collectively, for all the ills of society, and that they, alone, can be vilified not only without restraint, but also usually with applause. This narrative insists that, in reality, it is actually these middle-class white American males who are being unfairly economically disadvantaged.

Mr Trump, the billionaire, is cleverly exploiting the anger of those who feel, often with complete justification, that they are inexorably slipping from the middle class into the bulging ranks of the working poor.

Immigrants and other minorities could not have accomplished this grand theft without the connivance of traitorous “liberal elites”.

Money-grubbing corporations, the mainstream media, academic snobs, arrogant intellectuals and the hated federal government bureaucracy are the core of the liberal cabal that betrayed “real Americans” for ideological or selfish reasons, and consciously and cynically degraded the country. This imaginary grand betrayal is at the centre of Trumpian rage.

The Republican Party establishment is seen as part of the problem. It is either too weak or compromised by corporate and other interests to effectively defend the country. Only – or even especially – someone unquestionably outside of the thoroughly corrupted system can possibly hope to rehabilitate it.

Narratives about radical, emergency measures needed to reverse national devastation caused by parasitical minorities empowered by back-stabbing elites must be immediately recognisable as the stuff of fascism.

Yet it’s not clear what, if anything, Mr Trump actually believes. He hardly seems a would-be dictator. His campaign most often comes across as a gigantic ego trip, and sometimes even an incredibly elaborate practical joke.

But what explains the eagerness with which his lies, fabrications and reversals are championed by his supporters? It somehow doesn’t matter that his wild claims about blacks being responsible for most murders of whites, or thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, or Barack Obama not having been born in the United States, are demonstrably and incontrovertibly false.

The facts aren’t relevant. All that’s important is the sentiment, even if expressed through evident lies. The emotional “truths” they articulate are much more meaningful than the claims themselves, and therefore their veracity is incidental. It’s true anyway, even if it’s false – truer than the truth, indeed all the more true for being a lie.

Mr Trump promotes a mentality that is bitterly hostile to inconvenient facts, which are dismissed as “political correctness”, and enthusiastically embraces comforting inversions of reality over painful truths.

Yet Mr Trump – unquestionably the most brazen liar in modern American national political campaigns – is consistently lauded by his supporters for his courageous “honesty”.

They insist that he, alone among politicians, tells the truth, while in fact he has set a new standard for shameless dishonesty. Some of his enthusiasts even assert that he is “humble”.

But the grim reality is that his preposterous fantasies are promoting fear and hatred of immigrants, of minorities, of “liberal elites” and of others who are supposedly destroying the country and who therefore, by unmistakable implication, must themselves be confronted and destroyed.

Mr Trump is playing with fire. It may be that doesn’t fully realise the potential destructive power of the rage his rhetoric is fuelling.

Even if he does, he certainly doesn’t seem to care.

This Pied Piper of paranoia and chauvinism surely won’t end up as president, and maybe not even the Republican nominee. But his breathtakingly irresponsible demagoguery has already done profound damage to both his party and American political culture.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington

On Twitter: @ibishblog

Updated: December 26, 2015 04:00 AM