Friday 22 February 2019

Colette Browne on US election day: 'The malign influence of Trumpism will endure far longer in politics'

Traditional Russian wooden nesting dolls, Matryoshka dolls, depicting Russia's President Vladimir Putin, US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump are seen on sale at a gift shop in central Moscow on November 8, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / Kirill KUDRYAVTSEVKIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
Traditional Russian wooden nesting dolls, Matryoshka dolls, depicting Russia's President Vladimir Putin, US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump are seen on sale at a gift shop in central Moscow on November 8, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / Kirill KUDRYAVTSEVKIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of Donald Trump cheer the GOP presidential nominee at a campaign rally in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo: Getty
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

All the indications are that Donald Trump will lose today's US election, but the malign influence of Trumpism will endure far longer than its namesake's presidential ambitions.

Speaking last week, US President Barack Obama warned that a Trump victory today would put the fate of the entire world at risk. Although the prediction sounds melodramatic, handing a man who can't be trusted to operate his own Twitter account the nuclear codes could well end in a mushroom cloud.

Even if American voters avert that particular catastrophe, and Trump suffers the biggest and most public defeat of his career when he's rejected at the polls, his campaign has changed the face of politics, possibly irrevocably.

Having initially been treated as a joke candidate, Trump's stunning success in the Republican primary, in which he dispatched 16 other candidates, took pundits and politicians by surprise. Along the way he embarrassed, humiliated and denigrated his Republican Party opponents, using petty name-calling and ugly conspiracy theories to mock and undermine them.

Marco Rubio became "Little Marco" and Ted Cruz morphed into "Lying Ted" whose father, Trump outrageously suggested, had been involved in the assassination of John F Kennedy. At no point did Trump ever proffer any context or evidence to back up his claims, he simply threw mud repeatedly in the hope that it would stick.

Trump's use of juvenile nicknames was central to his strategy, if one can call his bizarre brand of emetic politics in any way strategic. The use of these slurs left his opponents on the back-foot, unsure of how to respond to the cruel taunts of a playground bully without lowering themselves to his base level.

A supporter holds a target with the face of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on it at a rally for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in the Robarts Arena of the Sarasota Fairgrounds on November 7, 2016 in Sarasota, Florida.
AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGANMANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
A supporter holds a target with the face of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on it at a rally for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in the Robarts Arena of the Sarasota Fairgrounds on November 7, 2016 in Sarasota, Florida. AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGANMANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Having decimated the Republican field, Trump saw no need to soften his approach when it came to Hillary Clinton, who instantly became "Crooked Hillary" without any real explanation given for why the Democratic candidate was allegedly such an inveterate liar.

Trump simply pronounced her to be crooked and, for millions of his supporters, she is now tainted by that characterisation.

The beauty of Trump's tactic is that, since he has declared the entire political process in America to be rigged, Clinton can now do nothing to redeem herself in the eyes of these voters.

Even when the FBI announced on Sunday that she had no criminal case to answer, in respect of the recent tranche of emails that were found, Trump used this as further evidence to bolster his claim that any system which exonerated Clinton must, de facto, be hopelessly corrupt.

Trump's ability to categorise his opponents as liars and crooks, without any need to back up any of his assertions with facts or evidence, appealed to an electorate who are cynical about politics and politicians. Trump says the unsayable and does the unthinkable and his supporters lap it up. While previous GOP candidates mostly confined themselves to dog-whistle racism and sexism, evident only if one read between the lines, Trump dispensed with any nuance, espousing nakedly racist and misogynistic opinions and policies with glee.

For this, he earned the plaudit of "saying it like it is". Of course, those crediting Trump in this way simply mean he expresses a world-view that they themselves share - one that, up until now, was not represented in mainstream political discourse.

In this way, Trump has changed the conversation. He has made it coarser, meaner and more febrile - and it remains unclear if the genie can now be put back into the bottle.

Although Trump has given his name to a nationalistic, protectionist, xenophobic and anti-intellectual kind of politics, the brand itself precedes his use of it. It's just that he has managed to harness it to greatest effect.

Populist, right-wing political parties, trading on anti-immigrant sentiment, have been in the ascendancy in the EU for a decade, as working class victims of rampant globalisation begin to look for scapegoats for unemployment and wage stagnation.

Trumpism was also evident in the Brexit campaign, where nationalistic fervour and a harkening back to the glory days of Empire were the driving forces of a vitriolic campaign that foisted the blame for all of society's ills at the feet of a supranational institution.

According to Brexiteers, it was the loss of sovereignty caused by EU membership that sullied the country, unleashing a wave of immigrant workers and driving down wages for the working class.

Complex economic, political and social arguments were distilled down to simplistic slogans, like "take back control", which offered a visceral emotional appeal to communities that felt like they had been forgotten by the political establishment.

The exhortation to take back control may have been vague and trite, but it expertly managed to convey a sense of the bright future that was possible if voters cast off the shackles of EU membership. It was also their opportunity to wreak revenge on a cosseted political class that they felt was dismissive, unrepresentative and utterly divorced from the reality of their lives.

The problem with Trumpism is that while voters are voting against something - globalisation, immigration, the establishment - it's not clear what they are voting for.

A Brexit vote, despite promises that it would lead to British people taking back control, has led to chaos and instability, with no one sure what Brexit actually means five months after the referendum.

Equally, if the unthinkable happens, and Trump is elected president today, it remains unclear what steps he will take to fulfil his promise of making America great again, other than building a wall at the Mexican border.

If traditional politics hopes to outflank Trumpism, politicians will have to engage with its proponents instead of deriding them as cranks and zealots. They must also find some way to communicate a vision of the future that is hopeful and positive without pandering to the kind of divisive xenophobia that Trumpism is renowned for.

The lesson of Brexit and Trump is that a new era of unapologetic populist nationalism has entered the mainstream.

It remains to be seen whether traditional politics has learned that lesson.

Irish Independent

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