In 2016, when Donald Trump descended an escalator, most people in their right as well as their left minds laughed. This was going to be an interesting side-light, they thought, to an otherwise predictable election season where Hillary Clinton was destined to go up against Jeb Bush, billed as the clash of the two great American political dynasties after the Kennedys. The Trump election bid was going to be worth a few laughs, a few late-night comedy routines, a skit on SNL at worst. To an extent, they were not totally wrong as to the seriousness of Trump’s campaign, in its initial phases, as it has emerged subsequently, the “running for President stunt” was Trump’s way of negotiating with NBC, which had sought to replace him as the host of his hit reality show “Apprentice” because they felt he was not relevant any more to a younger crowd.
And then, as it often happens, in life and in history, what begins as dead acquires a life of its own. One by one, Trump took down, no make it obliterated, the strongest Republican set of hopefuls ever assembled, decimating the traditional face of the party (Bush), the new face of the party (Rubio), and the hardline face of the party (Cruz). He was just getting started. Then, he brushed away, without breaking even a sweat, the greatest political juggernaut ever assembled, the Clintons, a campaign that had been decades in the making. The liberal media struggled to explain why Trump had won. They ascribed it to the terrible level of entitlement and arrogance of the Hillary campaign that had taken for granted the electorate, and to the intellectual simplicity of Trump’s message “Make America Great Again”, which was seen to be traditional “patriarchal” “white supremacist” America’s middle finger to changing American values.
The solution, by definition, to the problem of Trump, they said, was simple. Come 2020, put up someone against Trump who would be a repudiation of everything that Trump stood for. That would be the first step. The rest, they were sure, Trump would take care of himself. The man was so unfit to rule, such a hateful nincompoop that he would crash and burn under the weight of his own hateful prejudices, his own greed and his own stupidity.
If there is one thing comforting about Trump, it is his predictability. He indeed went about doing exactly what people said he would do. Trump called Mexicans “rapists”, Trump openly came down on the side of white nationalists, Trump imposed a Muslim ban, Trump refused to acknowledge systemic racism in law enforcement, and Trump consistently baited women. Surely, one would think, that these groups who he had openly allied against, would all remember, gang up on him during elections, and vote him out. Add to it his shameless self-aggrandizement, and his self-absorbed denial of a health crisis that has gotten close to 300,000 Americans killed and counting, and one would think, if one was seduced by the simplicity of the idea, that Trump would be decimated at the elections. People would realize that a clown, even Pennywise, might be entertainment for a while, that he might be giving voice to their anger, but how does that matter when grandpa is dying in a glass chamber, choking for his last breath, which need not have happened if only the President did not keep saying that the Coronavirus will go away “just like that”. And why did he do that? Because the President did not want the stock market to go down, and his financial backers upset, and his own re-election chances jeopardized.
And yet, despite doing everything and perhaps even worse than Trump was supposed to do, none of that came to pass. Trump did not crash and burn. Far from it.
Joe Biden, at the time of writing, is close to winning, but not there yet, but whatever happens, Trump has run Joe Biden close. Real close.
This is not Trump, the insurgent, who has come close to triumph, based on a clean slate, but Trump, the incumbent, running on a record.
How could this happen?
Here are the facts. Trump may have lost the election, but he is now the single most powerful political force in the country. The Republican Party, over the past four years, has become a hollow shell of what it was once was, losing all sense of what it stood for, in terms of ideology. A party of fiscal conservatives now keeps on increasing the deficit beyond all levels with not even a squeak. A party of social conservatives now bends their head to a much-married man who pays porn-stars to spank his bare bottom with a magazine of his face. A party that valorized the military has a leader who considers men in uniform who died or were captured as losers. A party that defeated Russia is led by a man who may be in the pay of Russia.
This is not a political party any more, it is a cult of an individual.
This is not hyperbole. In 2016, the pundits had called Trump a parasite on the Republican Party. Now it is the opposite. Republican politicians depend on Trump for survival, roll on their backs for a tweet endorsement. Those who have not gotten with the program, like Mitt Romney and John Kasich, have become irrelevant. Those who have become his butt-slaves have had their political careers soar.
A prime example is Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. A traditional moderate Republican, very popular in DC among Democrats too, he had called Trump “a xenophobic race-baiting bigot”, when Trump was a novelty candidate. But he was smart enough to clutch onto Trump’s coat-tails once he realized the way the wind was blowing, transforming himself into Trump’s hatchet man, getting the highly contentious Brett Kavanaugh through a confirmation process to the Supreme Court. In the process, he burned all the bridges to moderate elements, that he had built up for years. Because he was viewed as one of Trump’s chief enablers, and a turncoat, the Democrats threw everything they had to defeat Lindsay Graham, outspending him 2 to 1 (it is yet another lazy generalization that the Republicans are the party of big money), in a Senate race that saw Presidential levels of money being poured. And yet, Graham, purely because he was seen as a stooge of Trump, comfortably held on to his seat. Data at many places show that Trump draws votes from people who won’t vote Republican for House or Senate but faithfully vote for Trump for President. And given his race baiting xenophobia, to quote Lindsay Graham himself, it is quite amazing that Trump has increased, yes increased, his votes among African Americans and Hispanics in many regions, and his cutting into Miami Dade county, a Democratic stronghold of immigrants, was one reason why he did not lose Florida and get knocked out in the first round.
So how does this happen? If we believe the comforting narrative of liberal media, how do we reconcile the fact that a race-baiting demagogue is so popular among the races he baits? How is it that someone who is monumentally and demonstrably incompetent, remain so popular, even after people have seen the consequences of his incompetence? There is a comforting rationale provided which runs along the following lines “America is a deeply racist and divided country, and by extending the Overton window, that is the space of allowed discourse by his provocative pronouncements, Trump has legitimized the intrinsic authoritarianism of traditional white Christian nationalists.” If this indeed was the simple reason, David Duke of the once Ku Klux Klan would have become President, and several other Republican hopefuls whose lives were more aligned with fundamentalist Christian beliefs (look no further than Mike Pence) would have been at the top of a ticket.
One cannot be the President once and then come so close to being President again just by being a white nationalist, that too in times that America is becoming much more racially diverse than at any point in history.
There are two ways to understand this seeming dichotomy. The first is to accept that the Buzzfeed version of watered down Marxist theory which is regurgitated in multiple forms in Slate, Huffington Post, and increasingly in the Atlantic and New Yorker, is fundamentally flawed. It is simplistic to the extreme to try to explain history and politics through the lens of struggle between groups; human behavior cannot be explained purely by the intersection of one’s group identities. Whereas Marxist theory posits that history is a sequential assemblage of episodes wherein people fight to establish the ascendancy of their class identities, the worker fights for worker’s rights, women fight for women’s rights, and the racial minority fights for the minority’s right, in actuality, it fails to account for other cognitive processes of the human brain.
We are much more than swarms.
For one, in any country, one minority’s hatred for the other will often be more powerful than their own self-interest. The Hindu-Indian uncle in Houston will cheer for Trump’s Islam-baiting quite shutting out the fact that to Trump and many of his supporters, he is no different; that while he may want to be distinguished from the other minority, the majority clubs them together. In a TV episode, a female Trump supporter refers to Kamala Harris using a slur against Arab-Muslims, even though she is Christian and black, because to that Trump supporter, her Indian-Hindu parentage is conflated with being Arab-Muslim, and, for the ignorant, who cares, they all “terrorists and un-American”. For Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, the intellectual standard bearers of what Trumpism is, the primary objective of a Trump presidency is to establish the economic domination of the educated American. This is not conjecture, they have been fairly open about their identification of their biggest enemy, trained and educated immigrants from Asian countries, like India and China. So while Trump’s public posturing has been on illegal immigration, because that is what the Trump’s base cares for, the actual policy changes have been on legal immigration.
The last few years has seen the US administration not just limit legal immigration, but humiliating and inconveniencing, in every possible, legal guest workers in high-skilled industries, based on pure caprice. And yet, and this is where individual behavior bucks group-think, many of these very same people, at the receiving end of the serrated blade-edge of Trump’s vision for the US, show up to Trump rallies and abuse other Indians online who are anti-Trump. Trump’s ceaseless Islamophobia provides the temporary amnesia needed to forget the fact that Trump is also Hinduphobic to the exact same extent. They will say “I oppose Biden because he is anti-India because he is against CAA”, but in the same breath, swear fealty to Trump who calls India a “filthy country” and who would, at a second’s notice, stab Indian interests in the back, if he saw a good business case for building Trump hotels in Lahore, and just because there isn’t, he doesn’t do it, not because he has love for the philosophy of who-he-calls “Viveka-munand”. Sure, he will show up to a Howdy Modi rally, but it’s because of what he is getting out of it, in terms of stroking his sense of ego. He doesn’t care who strokes it, Imran Khan, or North Korea, or Putin or China or Stormy Daniels. With Trump, like everything else, his racism and xenophobia is subject to negotiation.
Combining the “enemy of an enemy is my friend even though he hates me equally” there is what is known as negative solidarity. The Mexican or the Indian immigrant who has “made it” is likely to be that much harder on the newly arrived immigrant–why should they have it better than I did? This is why when he called Mexicans rapists, many of the Mexican immigrants who can vote, do not take it to mean “them”, they disassociate the slur as applicable to those that are just now arriving. Or rather they prioritize other aspects of Trumpism over a slur that targets their ethnic origins. It is the same with Christian puritan conservatives, apparently his sins of the flesh are between him and God, and what can we say, but if it is Bill Clinton, then of course that is what defines him.
So what is it that other aspect of Trumpism that makes people overlook his other follies? That is what we have to understand in order to make any sense of why even today, even after what he has done, he almost became President. No other human being, in history, with his record, could have pulled this up so close.
The “liberals” once again will say that he makes racism and sexism “all right” by giving it his Presidential seal, the presumption being that all Trump supporters are racist and sexist and every other derogatory label that has come out of decades of Marxist humanism departments. While much of Trump’s support base may very well be racist and sexist and Trump as an individual definitely is (to put it mildly), that does not imply everyone who voted for Trump is. As a matter of fact, labeling anyone who finds anything of Trump’s platform attractive as fundamentally sub-human, denies people their individuality. This “everyone who votes for Trump is a fascist racist” is perhaps one of the biggest reasons why people become emotionally invested in endorsing each of Trump’s excesses. Once you associate the worst with someone, what else does that person have left to prove? One of the foundational aspects of any cult is to convince the cult members that the world is against them, and that all they have is each other, and Trump doesn’t even need to do it, the New York Times and Washington Post and Huffington Post does it for him.
So what is it, one may ask, that one can find attractive about Trumpism, without being a terrible person? Well, if you look at his record, he hasn’t governed much different (note governed, I deliberately exclude his public pronouncements and personal peccadillos) from any classic Republican President. While it may be argued that he benefited from Obama-era policies, before Covid, he oversaw a booming economy, and for that he obviously is due credit. While Bernie would wag his finger and say it has done nothing to reduce the wealth disparity in the country, many would say that income equalization cannot be the stated objective of a non-socialist state, and that the very basis of America’s success has been the relentless pursuit of individual wealth.
This brings us to the single biggest reason why so many lean towards Trump.
It is because of what he is not. He is definitely not a progressive, socialist Democrat. That we can be sure of.
As the US moves towards an extremist philosophy of socialism, fuelled by the cult of AOC and Bernie and Ilhan Omar, Trump, the extremist, is seen as the biggest and most steadfast agent who can be expected to stand against this drastic change. In Miami Dade county, immigrants from socialist countries voted en masse for Trump, because as a colleague of my who had grown up in Communist Poland had told me, “No one who has ever seen a Communist country can ever want to be part of it voluntarily.” While it is also true that Bernie and AOC are still a distance away from Communism, the speed at which they are moving towards what is euphemistically called a “progressive agenda” gives many people in the US, cutting across lines of gender and race, room for pause. The response of the extreme AOC group will be to say “It gives you pause because you are racist, sexist, fascist. etc etc.”. This is not a new technique. In decades gone by, those that thought different were dubbed “enemies of the people” and “counter-revolutionaries” and “collaborators” by the predecessors of the ‘wokes”, now the labels may have undergone some change in order to make them fit in a tweet, but not the accompanying damnation. By refusing to acknowledge, in true Communist purge style, heterodoxy of opinion, without judging someone’s moral values, is precisely where they push people even further into the nether regions of Trumpism.
This has led to, what I had called, in my podcast, the centrifuge effect, extremist philosophies accentuating each other, pushing more and more people to the extremes. It is not a coincidence that this aligns with the explosive growth of social media as the primary tool for humans to connect. Take the example of Bernie Sanders. Around 2014, he was no one, a cranky old politician who never treated seriously, a permanent guest, because he didn’t have much to do, on talk shows like Bill Maher, pulling applause lines from audiences, but otherwise an absolutely marginal figure in Washington DC. By 2016, he had taken out Hillary Clinton, and would have become the Democratic candidate had not the Democrat party pulled off some shameful shenanigans. By 2020, he is an American legend.
And the person who has benefited—Donald Trump.
The post George Floyd riots, when the Democrats could not bring themselves to condemn looting of stores, was one of the biggest reasons, I believe, why so many otherwise-undecideds voted for Trump. Not only was there a lack of condemnation by Democrats, there was overt endorsement, when the wounds are so deep, trashing a Neiman Marcus is trivial by comparison. This may be a valid opinion, but the thing is there are many in the country who aren’t buying it, and that does not make them racist. There are people for whom the sight of Seattle being taken over by mobs with police in retreat, automatically makes them vote for Trump, regardless of all the terrible things they know Trump has done. Now one could say, with some logic, that for those so concerned about looting of luxury stores should perhaps be equally or more concerned about the looting of natural resources by oil companies that would leave lasting damage on this planet, in comparison to some handbags, or by corporate welfare that transfers wealth to billionaires from the tables of single mothers, and this is all very fine, except that people don’t think like that, the image of looting and policemen being spit in their faces and that being legitimized, is a line many that consider law and order sacrosanct just cannot accept. Of course Trump stoked and exacerbated those fears, in the way that extremist demagogues do, but it’s not that he was working off nothing.
And this is not all. After Obama was elected, one of the standard talking points for liberal Democrats became the objective to create a new political alliance that short-circuits the traditional Republican base, taking advantage of changing demographics of the country. Of course a lightning rod topic like that was then amplified by Fox News, and criminalize it how much as you want, but if you hear of new political alliances being created, one in which you by virtue of a class you belong to, cannot be a part of, your reaction will be to gravitate to someone who promises to maintain your relevance. If you hear “defund the police”, you are not going to listen to “But hey this doesn’t exactly mean what it says,” the provocative three words are enough to drive you into the arms of the “law and order” President, even though the President himself is so “law and order” that he has been found to be skimming off his own charity. You might believe in climate change and be seized of the need to drastically cut emissions, but when you read AOC’s Green New Deal vision, which frames environmentalism in the context of income redistribution, you are more likely to vote for the person who believes that global warming is a China hoax, just so to keep away the people who want to tax you to pay off someone else’s student loans.
Which brings me to why Trump lost. Barely, but he lost.
It was because he was up against him Joe Biden. Joe Biden represents the last generation of centrist Democrats, who has kept himself out of culture and political wars. His critics among progressives would say that he is but a kinder version of Trump, in that he represents the same old traditional “white male” identity and has a problematic history with women, not just the personal accusations against him, but also his behavior during the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearing. Be Joe as it may, if Trump was up against a Bernie or a Warren, he would have won this in a canter. Sure. the progressives would have mobilized masses, but they would have been mobilized in California and New York, which in the US’s electoral system does not matter (the progressives want to change that obviously by junking the electoral college), but there would have been horde migration to the Trump platform in the swing states, purely based on who he was running against.
In the end, he would have won. Comfortably.
If there is anything that history has taught us, from Robespierre and the Reign of Terror to Trump 2020, is that the way to defeat extremism is not extremism. Quite the opposite in fact. It is to eschew the ideological purity that extremists demand in favor of workability, the art of the deal ironically, to compromise, to go to the center, to realize that just like people, nations are flawed, but that does not make them bad or irredeemable, that cancel culture is nothing more than the power of the mob to silence, that people need to be engaged with rather than be asked to step back and shut up, that men and women are not merely dumb elements of a set but a complex juxtaposition of personal histories and group memberships.
This is what we should take away from all of this.
14 thoughts on “Understanding Trump’s Appeal”
What’s a start to this weekend!
You are gifted in putting your thoughts so clearly in words.
Thanks for writing this.
Great read. Would be interesting to know your take on the juxtaposition in the Indian context and lessons for the opposition, outside of the Gandhi family.
i remember during Hilary times you mentioned how denying bernie a shot a presidency the dems had sealed their fate .. so now after seeing how the usa electorate has evolved, have you concluded that the appeal of a person like bernie will never win for the dems?
It was wrong to deny Bernie his shot. It did seal whatever moral high ground the Dems had. And yes between Bernie & Hillary in 2016, Bernie had the better shot. Then he went to the left even more.
That last paragraph is applicable and has lessons for Indian woke liberals
Hope they reform
One of the best Op-eds I have read in a long time.
This is an amazing piece! The observations are on point.
Interesting essay. I think you have looked at the issue of why Trumph did so well in this election (even if he lost) really well.
Some thoughts: No mention of Kamala Harris. Surprising. Also, Bernie may not have been on the national spotlight till 2014, but, as I am sure you know, he has been an honest political activist nearly all his adult life. Finally, the projects of Bernie, Warren, AOC + is hardly extreme socialism in a historical and international context. Having worked and lived in Denmark, my sense is their utopia is just the Nordic model.
Thanks for the essay,
(Retd) Professor, IIM Calcutta
Dear Professot Bhattacherjee,
The projects of AOC are seemingly socialist in the Scandinavian way but anyone remotely following them knows that they are all hard Communists for the millennial generation. Billionaires should not exist as Bernie had tweeted (irony: Bernie used to say millionaires should not exist, till of late, he became one because of his new found popularity), is no different from “kalo haath gudiye debo”. Today itself AOC called for making a list of Trump collaborators on her Twitter account and if this does not remind you of Stalinist purges, I don’t know what should.
You have a flair for narrative and using language to connect with people. Excellent writing.
Just one comment:
One important element of Trump’s rise I felt would be worth studying is disinformation and how Trump has used it to control the narrative. This is something no former candidate has used so effectively, but is becoming more and more common in today’s world with social media giving presidential/prime ministerial candidates a huge platform to craft and control their own narrative. Bolsonaro and Modi did it in Brazil, so did ALMO in Mexico. Trump used a combination of disinformation and crafting his own narrative to personally connect with his (potential) voters in a way that Hillary never came close to doing, and even Biden did not really end up doing as much this time around.
There is a lot of research today on disinformation, which will help us understand political processes much better.
This is a reasonable argument, but if it’s true, Trump should now rapidly become irrelevant, because by losing, he wasn’t able to protect his faithful from the leftists.
It makes me miss John McCain more every day, the last true gentleman and moderate in the Republican with a strong moral compass and yet able to understand the nuance in every situation. How I wish there was a lineage of Presidents with both Obama and Mccain in it .
Lets just pretend Sarah Palin did not happen though.
A little late in to comment.
However, I would like to point out one more reason which would widely spread in coming years.
The clash of old money vs new money and rising inequality.
For lots of people they were comfortable with their generational wealth and getting worth of their greed with shiny cars and instagrammed vacation.
All of a sudden, their small business/wealth matters less and an Apu from India or Chen from China starts buying newest Tesla or million dollar home by working in high tech or even worse creating same high tech company whose revenue is 100x than his/her daddy founded gutter cleaning service !
What can they do to keep same lifestyle and sense of wealth ?
They can support a man who promises to ‘reset’.
These people are still out there… for 2024 or beyond.