“I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”
I have been thinking about this quote from The Big Lebowski a lot lately as I’ve tried to imagine what the policies of a possible Trump administration would look like. Although he has been consistently labeled a fascist, a subject I have discussed here before, the problem is that Trump is essentially an opportunist, first and foremost. He was pro-choice before he was pro-life. He endorsed Democrats before he became a Republican. Just on the campaign trail alone, he’s done 180 degrees on a number of issues, from Afghanistan to Planned Parenthood to military spending. When he makes campaign promises, he never supplies much in the way of specifics. How is he going to get Mexico to build a wall across our border? How is he going to hunt down and kill the family members of ISIS fighters? None of that matters; it is all red meat to his followers, who eat it all up happily.
Why? If Americans are so fed up with gridlock in Washington, D.C., why would so many of them throw their support behind a candidate whose entire agenda is a non-starter, whose stances on the issues are so blatantly nothing but smoke and mirrors?
At the risk of sounding cynical, image matters more than substance. Trump exudes an aggressive, enthusiastic energy that conveys the idea he is “winning” at life and that, under his leadership, the United States will be “winning” as well. We live in a culture of personality, where personal magnetism and risk-taking matter more than honor and integrity. He is the quintessential extrovert in a society that caters to extroversion. Whatever his record in business, Trump is a salesman — and a celebrity salesman at that, more than experienced at selling himself as the product.
This is why Trump was so fatal to the Jeb Bush campaign. Bush was the frontrunner before he ever entered the race for the 2016 Republican nomination, the establishment choice with the elite political pedigree. Moreover, he was a candidate with a good character — eager to talk about the issues, reticent to engage in dirty political attacks. However, Trump’s entrance into the race meant that personality mattered more than character. Whatever his positives, Bush came across as colorless and mundane, much as the constantly awkward Mitt Romney did in 2012. Whether we like it or not, most people are attracted to dynamic people, not people who are “low-energy” — no matter how intelligent or qualified they might be.
I am not the first person to make this comparison, but to understand the appeal of Trump, it is helpful to look at the rise of Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon who became the Italian prime minister several times between 1994 and 2011. Like Trump, Berlusconi enjoyed great political success despite making vulgar and controversial remarks, such as by calling Muslims “inferior” and asserting right-wing female politicians are more attractive than left-wing ones. (This is to say nothing of the sex parties he hosted with underage prostitutes, which — to my knowledge — Trump has not done.) Yet the most interesting overlap is in the circumstances of their respective rises to power.
Italian society is notoriously corrupt. But in 1992, an exceptionally massive scandal erupted known as “tangentopoli” (translated “bribesville”) that brought down the entire political order of Italy that had existed since World War II, effectively destroying the major parties of the left and right. Berlusconi’s political benefactor fled into exile in Tunisia to avoid a prison sentence. Consequently, Berlusconi entered politics as an “outsider,” someone untainted by the corruption permeating government (despite his having participated in it). With his charisma and media savvy, he made his competition appear stale and impersonal as well as venal and untrustworthy. He turned Italian politics into a form of entertainment, drawing in an electorate who wanted this larger-than-life maverick to succeed against the odds of unimaginative bureaucrats.
We haven’t experienced anything on the scale of “bribesville” in the United States, but dissatisfaction with the status quo has never been higher. Economically, Americans are worried about their retirement and their children being less well off, and continue to fear that globalization and free trade carry more risks than rewards (for example, the loss of American jobs to China.). Culturally, many conservative Americans are alarmed by numerous issues: African-American discontent over police brutality, America’s changing demographics, the “war” on Christianity, same-sex marriage, the resurgence of political correctness, to say nothing of Islamic terrorism, the government banning firearms, and so on. For many Americans, the country — and the world — is changing in ways they just do not like. Trump, with his can-do attitude, promises that he will reverse it all — no matter what it takes, however unrealistic it may seem, no matter who he offends. In fact, the more offensive and over-the-top he is, the more appealing he is, because he draws such a distinction between himself and the dispassionate, pragmatic Powers That Be.
In many ways, Trump’s base parallels the people in European countries flocking to far-right, anti-immigration parties like the Sweden Democrats, Jobbik in Hungary, France’s xenophobic National Front, Britain’s UKIP, and so on. As Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde points out, Trump is unlike the leaders of these parties, because they tend to downplay their extreme positions and appear more like “acceptable” politicians, whereas Trump eagerly breaks the mold, much like Berlusconi did. But in terms of the voters who support these European parties and Americans who support Trump, there are a lot of similarities. Both sets of voters feel threatened by immigration and the “loss” of a traditional national identity. Both sets feel voiceless, unrepresented by parties that embrace diversity and reject old fashioned nativism and chauvinism. Both sets reject tax-and-spend socialism, but favor economic nationalism that only increases the wealth and prosperity of their own country (through subsidies and tariffs, if necessary). Both sets want to protect benefits and entitlements, but only for hard-working members of the national majority, and not for “welfare frauds” and “shirkers” (and this is almost always a dog-whistle referring to poor ethnic minorities, especially immigrants).
Trump’s main opponents, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, do not fit with these demands. Cruz is a big-time social conservative, and he does well among some evangelicals, but he’s a right-wing ideologue who a promotes laissez-faire economic vision that conflicts with the anti-free trade, anti-globalization Trump viewpoint, to say nothing of the fact that he’s an abrasive figure known for dirty tricks. (One of the more amusing running jokes to come out of this election so far is that Cruz is the Zodiac Killer.) Rubio is even less appealing, with his history of moderation on immigration and Hillary-esque pandering to young people. Grudgingly, the Republican Party has attempted to move away from its image of “rich white old guys,” and Rubio is the embodiment of that effort to appeal to young, non-white voters who are nevertheless still conservative. In a normal election year, he would probably be doing very well. Unfortunately for Republicans, this year is not a normal one.
I remain optimistic that, if Trump does win the Republican nomination, a moderate Republican will nevertheless triumph in the general election: Hillary Clinton. As much as I dislike her record and her policies, they are still more palatable than the thought of having our own American Berlusconi.