Donald Trump’s candidacy is American politics reduced to the absurd. It is theatre in its most stripped down form – a show where the content is not as important as the event and the raw emotion it evokes.
From the earliest days of his candidacy, pundits have failed to understand Trump. His appeal is not issue-based, since, as his critics have correctly observed, he has taken wildly contradictory positions on most core Republican concerns – abortion, immigration, and Obamacare, to name a few. Trying, as some attempted, to find the hidden logic in his bizarre mish-mash of words is, at best, a fool’s errand.
And pundits who have compared Trump’s appeal among Republicans to Bernie Sander’s appeal with Democrats have missed the point. Young voters find Sanders authentic and believable. Trump’s devotees, on the other hand, are more attracted to their candidate’s defiant bluster and his cavalier “bull in the China shop” demeanour. He lies about his personal life, his business dealings, positions he has taken and things he’s done. His supporters know it, but they don’t care. They are angry, and he feeds their anger.
During the course of this campaign, Trump has attacked a series of “icons”, many considered “taboo” for Conservatives – Fox News, Megyn Kelly, Senator John McCain, the Pope, the Iraq war. After taking on each of them, his candidacy was declared fatally wounded, until the next polls came out showing Trump’s strength undiminished.
Trump’s appeal is not in his adherence to orthodoxy, his consistency, his clarity, or his genuineness. Rather it is in his performance. Seeing Trump at one of his “huge” rallies or observing him at a debate is much like watching a contemporary wrestling WWE “Smackdown”.
Trump events remind me of this quote that opens a 2014 Forbes Magazine article on Vince McMahon, the billionaire wrestling promoter –
“Subtlety has no place in professional wrestling. Nuance is for losers. Either you play big – to the smallest fan in the last row of the arena, to the millions tuning in each week on television – or you go home...(It is) ‘a spectacle of excess’”.
The performance is false – the “bad guys” are as phony as the “good guys”. Even the blows they deliver are fake. But the crowds love it, shaking their fists, whooping and yelling as the “drama” unfolds. It is pure “id”, unrestrained.
McMahon’s little parable is an apt description of the Republican establishment’s relationship with their Tea Party “masses”. They created the monster, fed and nurtured it, but, in the end, they were unable to tame it. They fed its anger. They entertained it with the crude rants of Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and company – using that anger against President Barack Obama.
For a while the establishment was able to control this “monster”, for example, redirecting it to support Mitt Romney in 2012. But by 2016, this same leadership could no longer satisfy the hunger of their creation. And when the “monster” would no longer “play ball” with the establishment, it turned on them and looked elsewhere to have its anger entertained and fed.
Enter performance artist Donald Trump. His appeal is as raw as the WWE. Like McMahon, he plays with his audience, with an intuitive sense of what they want to see and hear. He is successful – a billionaire, many times over. He has a beautiful wife – or better, a series of beautiful wives. Despite his success, he feigns anger at America’s demise, promising his supporters that he will deliver greatness. And he appeals to their basest instincts. He cruelly demeans his opponents. He paints the world in terms as starkly black and white as the WWE. He is a xenophobe and a bigot who targets the Mexicans and the Muslims.
The danger that Trump poses is not that he is inconsistent or untruthful or that he lacks a coherent philosophy. It is that he is the reductio ad absurdum of our politics. He is the crude reality TV entertainer, turned leader – without politics, just anger. He is not a Republican or a Conservative-not that it matters to him or his followers. He is a budding fascist using his performance art to mobilise “a monster” that may devour us all.