Mutual Contempt

Donald Trump’s successful campaign hints not all is well in American politics


Friday 17th June 2016

On 16 June 2015, a year ago yesterday, Donald Trump announced his intention to seek the Republican nomination for president, and nobody gave him a chance. Trump’s campaign was going to be a political sideshow; something for the media and the public to enjoy before having to focus on real candidates, like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. It was predicted that Trump would suspend his campaign before primary season. And yet now, with the primaries completed, Trump is the only contender left from an original field of 17. It’s been an eventful 12 months and he is now the presumptive nominee.

From the beginning, Trump has been outrageous. In his commencement speech he said that Mexico is illegally deporting criminals to the United States, and that the most effective way to stop this and illegal immigration is to build a wall (for which the Mexican government would pay). Undeterred by criticism, he continued shamelessly: Sen. John McCain is not a war hero because he was captured in Vietnam and Trump likes “people who weren’t captured, OK?” Cue more criticism, but on he went: announcing after the Paris attacks how he intends to enforce a temporary ban on Muslims from entering the USA “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

Trump has denied that he has said anything over the top, claiming he was taken out of context or misquoted by the media, for which he has nothing but disdain. For example, when asked, he clarified that his real issues with McCain were over his failure of veterans and his inability to secure the borders, oh, and, by the way, “Four times, I said, he is a hero, but you know … people choose selective pieces.” Trump appears to be unable to let things slide. Similar to a school bully, he has a huge ego which can be deflated by the tiniest jibe. Just in the past week he revoked the Washington Post’s press credentials for his rallies because of ‘incredibly inaccurate coverage of the record setting Trump campaign’. A ‘short-fingered vulgarian’ is how Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, described Trump in the 1980s. ‘To this day,’ Carter wrote in November 2015, ‘I receive the occasional envelope from Trump. There is always a photo of him—generally a tear sheet from a magazine. On all of them he has circled his hand in gold Sharpie in a valiant effort to highlight the length of his fingers.’

Trump’s candidacy contains plenty more concerning incidents. Including, but certainly not limited to, the mocking of a disabled reporter, promulgating conspiracy theories, calling for waterboarding and the legalisation of torture, the underhand attempt to have presiding judge Gonzalo Curiel dismissed from a case in which Trump is the defendant because Curiel is of Mexican descent, and the uncouthly swift politicisation of the Orlando massacre. Books are no doubt already being written about this tawdry chapter of American politics.

When choosing who to vote for, forgetting the personalities and focusing solely on policies and pledges is often the most productive method available. This would be the wrong thing to do with Trump for two reasons. First, Trump’s policies are not set in stone. In fact, it’s terribly difficult to be sure what he believes in. One week he says one thing, the next he says the complete opposite without any reference to the former. Concrete policies and strategies are not valued by the Donald Trump campaign. He utters meaningless statements and buttresses them with yet more statements devoid of meaning. Consider the following:

We will have so much winning if I get elected that you will get bored with winning. Believe me. I agree, you’ll never get bored with winning! We never get bored! We are going to turn this country around. We are going to start winning Big League on trade. Militarily we’re gonna build up our military. We’re going to have such a strong military that nobody, nobody, is going to mess with us. We’re not going to have to use it.

Piffle. People take from it what they want to hear. This à la carte form of politicking seems to be how his supporters assuage some of their own misgivings. Second, his personality is such that it cannot be ignored. His hubris, that he’s quick to take offence, his lack of humility, and his reticence to take ownership of previous comments makes Trump quite possibly the worst presidential candidate ever.

By now, one can assume that Hillary Clinton will be awarded the Democratic nomination. Clinton has uninspiring policies and acts like she is owed the presidency. During her time as Obama’s Secretary of State she did not make one decision without considering how it could influence future presidential ambitions. Furthermore, when she feels under threat, Clinton resorts to identity politics: pointing out that she is the first female nominee and could be the first female president, implying that this alone makes her a good candidate. She, with her husband, the 42nd president, Bill, continues to maintain the Clinton Foundation which, for all the charity work it does, has an exceptionally seedy side. Furthering the notion that the Clintons’ morals are absent when it comes to money, the foundation has received large fees in exchange for speeches given for some of the vilest, most corrupt people on the planet, thereby lending presidential legitimacy to their client’s dealings. In an ordinary year, one should vote against Clinton; however, this is not an ordinary year. We have a rough idea of what Clinton would do in office, but we do not have a clue what Trump would do, and that – combined with his dirtbag personality – makes him unelectable. If you have a vote on Tuesday 8th November 2016, use it to vote for Clinton.

Trump’s success has unintentionally highlighted loathsome qualities present in modern political discourse. Polls conducted prior to his ascendancy indicating stark polarisation have been borne out. Appealing solely to emotion, inflating a sense of victimhood, using menacing tactics, and routinely discussing opponents in a bias, unreasonable manner has led to the dehumanisation and scapegoating of adversaries. This is not conducive to a healthy democracy when it’s used by one side; it’s exceptionally problematic, however, when both sides partake.

Trump supporters and opponents have engaged in online abuse and minor scuffles. It has only been Trump’s opponents, however, who have tried to prevent people attending a rally in Arizona by erecting a road block. At a rally in Ohio, a protester jumped a fence before being tackled by Trump’s security. These aren’t the only two incidents of inflammatory protest, e.g. there have been plenty of occasions where people have tried to shout Trump down at his own rally. Comparatively minor protests have been held at events for Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The most bizarre aspect is that in almost every instance, the protesters have fed Trump’s narrative and enhanced his insurgent candidacy.

These protesters draw parallels to the 1930s: according to them Trump is the next Hitler, thus a vote for him is a vote for another Holocaust. Trump’s opponents feel they have a chance to stop a despotic dictatorship before it begins. They believe they are on the right side of history, and that what they are doing is morally justifiable. They’re patriots acting so that their country (and the world) does not again fall foul of fascism. They will stop at almost nothing to prevent Trump becoming president.

Trump’s supporters imagine the USA as a weak, downtrodden, helpless victim. The Democrats, the East Coast establishment, and the Liberal Left-wing media have eroded traditional American values and caused its downfall. Trump claims he will reverse this trend and ‘Make America Great Again’. He also hints that while on their moral mission to restore America, Trump and his patriotic supporters should expect an unfavourable response from the traitorous establishment.

Both sides believe that they are doing the right thing and that they’re working for the greater good. In a recent interview, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt said:

We all think that we have reason on our side. … When I talk to groups on the Right they say: ‘…isn’t the bottom line that our side is based on reason and their side is all just based on emotion?’ When I talk to groups on the Left it’s exactly the same thing. [They think] they have reason, and the other side is just emotion.

The passion is refreshing, but the direction in which it is being used is misguided at best. It’s likely that scuffles will increase in frequency, as once a person considers a goal morally essential almost anything which needs to be done to reach it is, by the same rubric, moral too – this includes violence. Almost by definition those against them are evil, expendable, and need to be explained away.

Protesters depict Trump’s supporters as white, racist, Southerners. This could be true; however, I take leave to doubt it as they likely comprise a more complex demographic. Some of them want to see the system burn; these include anarchists and the Alt-Right shit posting trolls. Some are racists, like David Duke. Others undoubtedly hold a position somewhere between anti-immigration and xenophobia. There is probably an anti-political correctness faction too. Of course, one could believe in all or none of these ideas and still support Trump; hence, it’s not unreasonable to seriously question the stereotype. For one thing, they’re certainly not all white or from the South. The reason for the stereotype is to morally legitimise almost any tactic against them: racists are all evil, so screaming in their faces and getting into fights is acceptable.

Seeing the opposition as emotional and their beliefs as incredible should lead one to work doubly hard to understand how they got to their position. Clearly there is a point when a bad idea is so entrenched that it cannot be reasoned with, but people currently seem unwilling to listen to anything which may go against preconceived notions. Any position going against one’s own is automatically rejected as an affront to the individual. Thus, Trump’s supporters are cast into the same category as Islamists and neo-Nazis. Whether this is due to the echo chamber of the Internet, or the broadcast media pandering to the lowest common denominator, it doesn’t matter. What does is that it has drawn political discourse on both sides of the Atlantic into a toxic state of affairs. It is now preferable to label people as unreasonable, and therefore unreachable, rather than listening to them at all. Not engaging means one loses the chance to understand, learn, and maybe help others. It leaves politics open to demagogues who are all too ready to indulge and reinforce solipsistic beliefs and grievances, be they real or perceived, for personal gain. The response to a leaked video from the company, Carrier, should act as case in point.

The footage is of the staff of a factory in Indianapolis being made redundant. It’s announced that Carrier would be moving to Mexico where it will be cheaper to operate. Donald Trump routinely posits that the government has signed trade deals which have decimated the traditional American labour force and destroyed its communities; he has made it a priority to get these firms back into the country. Whether that’s possible or not, it’s completely understandable that he had a surge in support, one would assume from blue collar workers, after the leak of this tape and his subsequent announcement. Similarly, when he talked about rectifying the terrible system in place for veterans’ pensions and support for their families he received a boost in the polls. That these factory workers and veterans had to turn to Trump to be listened to and offered help is embarrassing.

Both the protesters and Trump’s supporters have exhibited a sense of victimhood, a yearning for an achievable utopia, scapegoated their opponents, and are now waging a morally justified battle for what they believe is the greater good. It’s important to remember how to argue, as opposed to focusing purely on what to argue. As a rule, people do not change their minds by being screamed at; however, if one appeals to logic, rather than emotion, persuasion is possible and political discourse is all the better for it. At the moment we have two groups at each other’s throats with the rest unconvinced that either is worth placating. This is a deeply troubling state of affairs which, on the plus side, is rectifiable. The first step is to remember that there are not bad people, only bad ideas.


One thought on “Mutual Contempt

  1. Re: your headline. Hints not all is well in American politics? HINTS!?!
    (How obvious does something have to be for you to “take a hint”?)

    70% negative ratings, and no relevant resume beats all comers in the primaries?
    To me that indicates we are a much stupider country than we want to admit.


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