How a real estate magnate and reality show host hijacked the US political establishment and exposed the dark side of the American electorate
Photo: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg via Getty Images
In every US election campaign there is a moment where the paper skin of spin and theatre is broken, and the pomposity and hubris, the outright fakery of political life bursts through. More often than not, it spells the end of a candidate’s ambitions. It was Al Gore rolling his eyes and sighing while debating George W Bush in 2000. It was an overexcited Democratic primary candidate Howard Dean bellowing like a heifer trapped in a grate on stage in Iowa in 2004. In 2016, it was Jeb Bush tweeting a picture of a personalised handgun with the one-word caption: “America”.
For Donald Trump, still leading the field in the Republican primaries, it could have been that QVC moment when he shared a stage at a press conference with a mound of gleaming Trump steaks and bottles of Trump wine. It could have been when he talked about the size of his penis in a televised debate, breaking the fourth wall of testosterone-fuelled, hotdog-and-cheesesteak all-Americanism to just outright tell the world that this was a pissing contest he was best equipped to win.
It could have been when his rally in Chicago had to be called off after a standoff between his supporters and protesters turned into a ruck, or afterwards, when Trump failed to denounce the violence, and instead blamed Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders. Or when he told a crowd he longed for the days when there were “consequences” for civil rights protestors who disrupted rallies.
Since June 2015, when Trump rode down a golden escalator to announce his candidacy in a flurry of promises — from building a wall on the Mexican border to banning foreign Muslims from the USA — his campaign has defied all conventional political wisdom, his socially transgressive grandstanding seemingly adding, not detracting, from his appeal.
He said it himself, addressing a crowd in January: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
“The Donald”, a self-styled outsider, has not only captured the extreme right of American politics — he has used it to hijack the US political establishment, taking advantage of the country’s political polarisation, its distrust in its political class, and a media that has become wildly disrespectful of the institutions of state to propel himself to touching distance of the highest office in the world. His rise has unveiled America’s angry, sometimes ugly, face, and left many in the establishment fearful for the country’s future.
“The biggest concern… is that there’s this part of the American public who wants a strongman, and is willing to reject our institutions for one. That’s incredibly concerning, because the heart and soul of the American democratic experiment is the attitudes of people towards constitutional values,” says Michael Signer, an author and political scientist at the University of Virginia. “That’s what makes us tick. If people really want to reject that in favour of a strongman, that is a really serious blow to the whole idea of America.”
“The American Dream is dead. But if I win, I will bring it back, bigger, and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again”– 2015
The ideal of Middle America — the success of the everyman with a stable job, good teeth, white goods and a nuclear family — was always slightly mythical. Today it is full-blown science fiction.
Data from the Pew Research Center shows that the middle class has shrunk from a significant majority of the adult population to a slight minority, buttressed on one side by a poverty and on the other by an increasingly distant elite. The recession of 2007-2009 drove down asset prices, meaning that middle class wealth actually fell by more than a quarter between 2000 and 2013.
In 1970, 62 per cent of US aggregate household income went to the middle class; today it is 43 per cent. Nearly half now goes to upper income households, as those lower down the chain struggle with rising costs and unstable jobs.
Adjusted for inflation, the median household income in the US is essentially at the same level it was in 1990; the average American is little better off for a quarter-century during which the economy as a whole grew nearly 85 per cent. The cost of social essentials, such as healthcare and housing, has risen far faster than inflation, leaving many working families struggling.
By the government’s own metric, about 15 per cent of Americans live in poverty — just shy of 50 million people. Unemployment is fairly low, even compared with other developed countries, but digging deeper into the labour statistics shows that nearly 6.5 million adults are only working part-time, alongside 600,000 so-called “discouraged workers”, people who are not looking for work because they believe that there are no jobs available to them.
There are stark racial divides too. Statistics released in February show that 4.3 per cent of white adults were unemployed and looking for work, compared with 8.8 per cent of black adults and 5.4 per cent of Hispanic adults. The average net worth of a white household in the USA is $113,150 (£79,265), more than 20 times that of a black household and 18 times that of a Hispanic household.
The statistics often fail to capture the full complexity of the socio-economic dislocations. The entrenched inequality and poverty in society have deepened fractures within communities, and between the people and the state.
Polls show that race relations had worsened even before Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in 2014, when unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot by police, sparking a national conversation on racial stereotyping by law enforcement.
“One of the key problems today is that politics is such a disgrace. Good people don’t go into government. I’d want to change that” — 2000
The socio-economic schisms have been mirrored in an increasingly extreme polarisation in the attitudes of the voting public, as both Republicans and Democrats cede the political middle ground.
Whereas in the 1990s and early 2000s, both major political parties reflected a spectrum of political ideologies, Pew Research Center found that by 2014, 92 per cent of Republicans were to the right of the median Democrat, while 94 per cent of Democrats were to the left of the median Republican. In 1994, those figures were 64 per cent and 70 per cent.
In both parties, more than 50 per cent of supporters had a “very unfavourable” view of the other side; most of those partisan voters told researchers that they believe the opposing party’s views actively pose a threat to the nation’s wellbeing. The research showed that Republicans and Democrats disagree on almost everything, from the role of the government to the distances they are willing to walk to a restaurant. By almost every measure, from voting to donating, canvassing and writing to their representatives, these politically polarised individuals participate more in politics than those in the middle ground.
Since both parties have worked to establish safe districts for their representatives — a process known as “gerrymandering” — they typically send candidates to Washington who are more extreme than their electorates. This has created standoff after standoff on Capitol Hill, including a 16-day shutdown of the federal government in 2013 after Republicans, rallied by Trump’s fellow primary candidate Ted Cruz, refused to cut a deal with the Democrats on the national budget.
Alongside this polarisation — or perhaps because of it — there has been a colossal loss of trust in political institutions. Gallup’s polling shows the US Congress’ approval rating at 13 per cent, up from a November 2013 low of 9 per cent, but well below the historical average of 32 per cent. As the gap between the people and their officials, and between the political parties, has grown, so American discourse has had to get louder and angrier to be heard across the gulf.
“We’re more polarised today than we’ve been in any point in American history, including the reconstruction era after the Civil War,” says Jennifer Mercieca, who teaches the history of American political discourse at Texas A&M University.
“There’s just no common ground. Without that common ground, it makes it very difficult to speak to the entire public, and so it’s very easy then to speak to a niche. The way that our media environment is so bifurcated by political party or by ideology makes it reconfirming, and easier still to just speak to a narrow group of people.”
“I would never kill [journalists], but I do hate them. And some of them are such lying, disgusting people. It’s true”— 2015
Fox News launched in 1996. By 2002 it had surpassed CNN as the leading cable news channel, buoyed by a stridently right-wing agenda that took the angry voices of syndicated talk radio, such as Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, and amplified them.
Throughout George W Bush’s presidency, Fox became known for its creative interpretation of facts to suit its narratives, for its outright hostility to science and its ultra-conservative approach to social issues. Its commercial success proved that there was an audience for its clear message of the primacy of small government, American exceptionalism and the existential threat of liberalism, and it often seemed to be doubling down, inviting fringe voices and conspiracy theories into American living rooms.
When Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination, they changed gear. Through simple repetition, they reinforced the “birther” conspiracy theory, that Obama was born in Kenya and hence was ineligible for the presidency. They allowed, if not promulgated, the view that he was a Muslim, despite the evidence, and allowed themselves to become an echo chamber for transgressive opinions, even outright lies, without directly owning them. It is a tactic since used to devastating effect by Donald Trump.
“Donald Trump is just the logical consequence of all of these trends,” Mercieca says, “manifesting themselves in a candidate who is able to say things that no one would have thought were possible to say in public as a presidential candidate.”
Obama’s victory in 2008 moved this right-wing echo chamber into a darker place for students of American history. Rather than just attacking his politics, it began to undermine and diminish the institutions of state and delegitimise the office of the President, feeding the already increasingly influential Tea Party, a small-government fringe group on the rightward edge of the Republican Party. Throughout the Obama presidency, they kept up the rhetoric.
“Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich”— 2015
Then, in 2016, the Republican electorate went rogue. Even the Tea Party favourite Ted Cruz, an anti-establishment candidate in any other election, was too polished, too close to the centre of government. The Republican party wanted an outsider. The Republican Party wanted Donald Trump, who, despite having routinely used his money to try to win political influence, claimed that he was so rich he could not be bought.
A February poll of Republican supporters showed that Trump’s outsider status was his greatest electoral asset, with 22 per cent of voters saying it was their primary consideration, followed by his business experience at 16 per cent and his tendency to speak his mind at 14 per cent. The actual issues — immigration, border protection, national security — score far lower. One of the most powerful political parties in the world wanted an anti-political candidate.
“You have the race to the bottom with some of these media outlets. You have a dwindling civic education of regular people. The cynicism about elected officials and the institutions in the media is jaw-dropping,” says University of Virginia’s Signer.
“So [Trump] rises like this sort of dark phoenix from the ruins of what we have done to our institutions. In retrospect, it is perfectly predictable.”
“It is amazing how often I am right, only to be criticised by the media. Illegal immigration, take the oil, build the wall, Muslims, Nato!”— 2016
Donald Trump is not the Everyman. He owns a gold elevator — his hair is a gold elevator, riding unnaturally down the perma-tanned cliff of his face, which even at rest seems haunted by a suppressed twitch. In the televised debates he answered softball questions with the rapid-fire air of a cold caller desperately trying to save a flagging sale; each sentence tumbling on top of the one before, out of control. His rival Marco Rubio might have been robotic on stage, but Trump was beamed in from another universe.
The Trump-shaped hole in the American political right only partially explains his success. In the past he has been ideologically flexible, shifting between Democrat and Republican, even once to the Reform Party, formed by the businessman and one-time independent candidate Ross Perot, who in many ways was Trump’s progenitor.
Trump’s message has changed too. About the only things he has talked about consistently over the decades have been his money and his hands. In 2011, he said to the New York Post: “My fingers are long and beautiful, as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my body.” He told The Washington Post this year: “You know, my hands are normal. Slightly large, actually. In fact, I buy a slightly smaller than large glove, okay?”
As a reality show host and tabloid celebrity he was routinely misogynistic, and biographers accused him of using racist slurs, but nothing stuck.
As a Republican primary candidate, he has hardened and simplified his political views, and moved into the realm of outright xenophobia and the demonisation of whole sections of American society — Muslims, Hispanics, Black Lives Matter protestors — techniques that come straight from the populist’s playbook.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said in June 2015. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” As an afterthought, he added: “And some, I assume, are good people.”
“He checks every aspect of what a populist is. But also, he radicalises populism, to the extent that it becomes driven by racism and xenophobia. And in that regard, he’s getting closer to fascism, not populism,” says Federico Finchelstein, chair in history at The New School in New York and an expert in populism.
Finchelstein is quick to say that he does not consider Trump to be a fascist, not least because he is seeking legitimacy through democratic means. However, his push rightwards has an unusual character.“Even in Europe, where you have this populism of the right, which is often anti-immigration, in cases like the [French] National Front, what they are trying to do is downplay their history of racism.”
Trump is taking the opposite line, glorifying a past America where civil rights had not yet taken hold.“To put it really bluntly,” Finchelstein says, “it’s an America where political rights are monopolised by the group of voters that like Mr Trump.” The extreme message works. A Gallup poll showed that Trump’s popularity jumped 5 per cent after he said in December that Muslims should be stopped from entering the US.
“There is a view that Trump’s followers are good people who are somehow mesmerised by Trump’s speech or body language,” says Finchelstein. “In my view, this is a misconception. This is a conscious decision to vote for someone that expresses these very discriminatory statements against Mexicans and Muslims — Mexicans being a word for Hispanics at large.”
“We’re gonna win, win, win”— 2016
In 2009, Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, two political scientists, set out to explore the psychology behind America’s growing polarisation and uncovered a remarkable vulnerability in the political system.
They looked at a particular psychological trait, authoritarianism, which was first described by the German sociologist Theodor Adorno in the aftermath of the Second World War.
People who display a high degree of authoritarianism are more likely to believe their own opinions, even when presented with evidence to the contrary, and they are far more susceptible to a simplistic, adversarial view of the world. Those with authoritarian traits are more likely to see people as either weak or strong, right-thinking or stupid, and to see society’s ills as a reflection of the moral failings of some clearly definable social group. They are more likely to see violence as a solution to a problem.
“A generation ago, authoritarian-minded voters were as likely to be Democrat as Republican, and non-authoritarian-minded voters were as likely to be Republican as they were to be Democrats,” Weiler says. “We’ve had this sorting out process over the past generation, where authoritarian-minded voters… have increasingly gravitated towards the Republican Party.”
By design or by accident, the Republicans’ aggressive appeal to family values and gun-swinging self-reliance, their demonisation and labelling of minorities, their absolutist views on religion and their appeals to a “silent majority” created an electromagnet that has drawn in authoritarians.
“So when Trump came along, it’s not that he checked every one of those boxes, but he came to ground that was already really fertile for a guy like him to come and speak in those very black-and-white terms that he speaks in, and using that us-versus-them messaging,” Weiler says. “It’s the content, but it’s also the resoluteness and clarity and very simple terms with which he says these things. It’s the whole package.”
Trump simplifies the complexities of the world into a basic equation, then provides the solution. People who disagree with him are “losers”, “haters”, or “morons”. He calls his remaining primary challenger, Cruz, “Lyin’ Ted”; his former opponent Rubio was “Little Marco”.
Climate change? Created by the Chinese to make America uncompetitive. Rising China? Tax them. Islamist extremism? Ban Muslims. Unemployment, rising crime, social tension? Build a wall on the Mexican border. Mexicans won’t pay? “The wall just got 10 feet higher.”
Trump has weaponised America’s political polarisation. Unless something dramatic changes between now and the summer, he is going to win the nomination and face off against Hillary Clinton in a presidential election that reflects the yawning gulf in American society.
Current polling suggests he would lose, and lose comprehensively, on a national scale. Many in the Republican establishment are horrified by Trump’s rise, and could use his electoral defeat to wrestle the party back towards the middle ground; others warn that it could be too late, and that the angry, anti-political and authoritarian side to America that has lined up to chant for Trump is now out of its cage.
“There’s no doubt that one could understand Trump to have awakened a sleeping giant, which is this minority — but very significant — share of the American public that sees the world in the way that Trump has articulated,” Weiler says, “and they will insist that they have representatives who speak to their interests and worldview, and will continue to be a force.
“This Frankenstein’s monster, that in many ways the Republicans have created, may have taken on a life of its own.”