Americans travelling abroad these days will inevitably face the topic of the US presidential election in casual conversations. When the subject of the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is broached, the interrogation begins. We find ourselves having to answer the underlying question, “What’s the matter, America?” It is a struggle to explain this ongoing political tragedy.
My most recent international interactions were with highly engaged, worldly professionals who would not take warmly to the tycoon’s bellicose, xenophobic populism to start. But it is not a message made for them. Trump performs his strongman bit for an alienated middle America that knows stagnation and fear, and lacks the tools to make sense of their world. They do not see Trump as a hateful, deceptive, opportunistic bully but as the answer to an unfair game that they think privileges minorities, floods the country with foreigners and has diminished American standing in the world. Trump, they think, is their counter to a new America made in their faulty image of US President Barack Obama: multicultural, globalised and socialist. The real estate magnate is their white knight in gold-plated armour.
As much as Trump’s style resonated with a substantial portion of their political party, key GOP leaders started withdrawing their endorsements after a spate of sexual harassment allegations and the release of an unaired ‘hot mic’ recording in which Trump bragged about his sexual aggression in lewd language with Billy Bush, a TV show host and relative of two former presidents. By pinning their rejection of Trump to the last in a series of scandalous comments, Republican lawmakers project the image that they had nothing to do with preparing the ground for Trump’s rise.
Republican elected officials cannot play innocent. They have long peddled paranoia about immigrants, anxiety over the presence of Muslims, resentment at the perceived decline of white America’s influence and other scapegoating tactics to distract from underlying socioeconomic ills. Donald Trump was able to exploit this deftly by speaking in a direct, grunting language of action filled with over-promises of results.
A campaign devoid of a campaign
Trump positioned himself to be the confident saviour against what Republicans previously built up as the demons of America. His salesmanship has convinced tens of millions of Americans that he will somehow better their lives. It is entirely based on an emotive style of presentation; it is how he talks, as much as it is what he says. He has run a campaign devoid of a campaign. There are no real policies. His fixes are usually just further processes. He will hire the best experts. He will task the generals to develop a plan. He will be so smart.
I cannot blame my fellow Americans if they have fatigue over politicians’ normal antics. Election after election, office-seekers propose policies designed to win over voter confidence. The public has very little time to investigate them and follow-up to gauge what was made real — even if fact-checking organisations like Politfact publish lists of kept and broken campaign promises. However, the wide publication and broadcast of opposing and often fact-free views complicate the task of discerning truth more difficult.
Trump’s success is proof the public is under-served by the US media and education system, institutions essential to democratic governance. Investigative reporting has declined, newspaper reading is down and the education system has not equipped the public to be critical information-seekers about the government, officials and candidates.
Too many in the public have turned to talk shows and partisan websites to mobilise their opinions, but they cannot decipher the quality arguments from the baseless. So they defer to the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Alex Jones, or any other number of media personalities. Often they peddle in delusional fantasy and conspiracy theories that preclude any sort of meaningful political involvement.
It shows in how uninformed American citizens are on political matters. An in-depth Pew Research Centre survey in 2007 quizzed 1,502 adults about politics and current events knowledge. Only two-thirds of respondents could answer 10 of the 23 multiple choice questions, which quizzed common knowledge questions like the names of Russia’s president, the US vice-president and the governor of the state. It also asked which political party held the majority of Congress, the number of female Supreme Court Justices and whether the country had a trade deficit.
The dominance of fact-proof, uninformed opinions in popular thinking about politics means that too many American voters think with their gut, preferring instinct to reasoned deliberation and they refuse the work of time-consuming research and investigation. Or they only rely on the sources that affirm their prior beliefs. This means they cannot convince others, because they lack the vernacular of political discourse, and at the same time they refuse to be convinced. Their political life is steeped in feeling, which cannot be shared logically, but only through fear and other expressions of emotion.
Erecting mental walls
The fact-free nature of political opinion can make political candidates effectively scandal-proof for some and utterly scandalous for others. Democrats are thus unmoved by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s flouting of public records and classified information laws, as well as a track record of questionable financial involvements that compromise her distance from Wall Street and well-moneyed industries. They take bringing this up as an attack tantamount to an endorsement of Trump.
Many Trump supporters have erected their own mental walls that make them impervious to any controversy, even the candidate’s well documented, vile acts and comments that they would not accept from their friends and families. Trump’s evasions over his tax records and irresponsible business career that included bankruptcies and countless closures cannot get in the way of the businessman’s self-styling as a forthright and capable executive. Even after the Hollywood Insider tape of Trump bragging about his sexual aggression emerged, only 13 per cent of Republicans said they are now “less likely” to vote for him, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
It does not help, as Bob Entman argues in his book Scandal and Silence, that media are highly selective in determining what is a scandal and what is not. They tend to run with anything tantalising, based in conflict or other high ratings fare, playing up the spectacle that appeals to the public’s base interests. On the other hand, harmful economic policies, corruption and other damaging acts are treated as marginalia, and made effectively non-controversial.
I try to comfort those who ask how Trump could be a contender for the highest office by pointing to the unlikeliness of his victory. Most credible electoral college polls predict a Clinton victory. She has been left as a sort of default after sensible voters rule out a Trump presidency. Clinton plays herself up as the saviour to the threat of the Trump presidency. She has been telling voters, “I’m the last thing standing between you and the apocalypse.”
For Clinton, Trump is to moderate voters and Democrats what Muslims and immigrants are to Trump’s supporters — the cause of fear.
The problem is that shock and awe of Trump is starting to leave Clinton less scrutinised than she was before. While her backers believe she has been over-scrutinised, someone of her experience, connections and compromises must face close investigation. Is anyone doing it? If they are, are they going to raise the sorts of red flags that may not be considered a scandal by today’s spectacle-obsessed standards?
Perhaps Clinton will not win the country’s trust or become likeable — two of her major weaknesses with many voters — but with Trump unravelling she only has to be better than the scoundrel and get enough voters out to win. This does not make the country any easier to explain, and it is very likely Trump has given energy to currents of hatred that will not rest.
Will Youmans is an assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.