Donald Trump is without question the most divisive US President in modern times. Trump deliberately play into the racist sentiments of white supremacy groups for political gain, and yet he attracts black voters. He pursues policies that hurt the working-class while protecting the super-rich, and yet the same blue-collar workers vote for him in the millions. His personal conduct and use of language are offensive to most people, let alone religious folks, and yet conservative, religious leaders dote on him.
In the recent election, Trump collected nearly 73 million votes, the second highest vote count of any person ever running for President of the United States.
What is the secret to Trump’s success? How can we understand this enigma? What lessons are there to be learnt from Trumpism?
Feeling of betrayal
One of the main reasons for Trump’s success is that a large section of the US population has, for a long time, felt betrayed by the elite in Washington. During the last four decades, during both Republican and Democratic governments, there has been a transfer of wealth amounting to $47 trillion from the lowest 90% of the population to the richest people in the country, and since the days of Ronald Reagan the richest 0.1% have doubled their share of the national wealth to 20%!
While the Democratic party talks about caring for the average working person, they are, to a great extent, just like the Republican party, in bed with the rich elite. People were frustrated by this, but they had no alternative, as none of the established parties represented their interest.
Then along comes Donald Trump, who openly says all the things many people internally feel but are unable to express. Finally, here is someone who speaks their language and vocalizes their angst. Millions of average citizens feel that Washington is a swamp, and Trump promises to drain it. Trump also echoes the sentiment that all politicians are crooked. While Trump himself is not perfect, he does not hide it.
To his followers, Trump is a thus a genuine person. He does not try to look holier than he is. Here is finally a politician who tells it like it is. This is Trump’s appeal. The fact that he projects an image of success and wealth, the very embodiment of the American Dream, does not hurt either!
Another reason for Trump’s success is his genius in powerful messaging. He is able to encapsulate his ideas in short, memorable slogans, such as “Drain the Swamp” (end the corruption in Washington DC), “MAGA” (Make America Great Again), and calling any news that goes against his interest “Fake news.”
Instead of calling for tougher immigration policies, he evokes the image of a great big wall between Mexico and the United States, that will keep illegal immigrants out, and promises that Mexico will pay for it, which of course never happened. This is a powerful visual image that can easily be grasped and understood by people.
Trump is also the master of creating nasty nicknames for people he does not like, such as “Crooked Hillary” for Hillary Clinton and “Sleepy Joe” for Joe Biden. These are names that stick, evoking a sense of ridicule.
Make outlandish claims; never apologize; never admit mistakes
During the first days of the Trump administration, Secretary Sean Spicer claimed the crowd at Trump’s inauguration “was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,” and he had the photos edited to make the crowd look bigger than it really was. In reality, the crowd attending Trump’s inauguration was only one third of those attending President Obama’s first inauguration, which was 1.8 million compared to the 600,000 attending Trump’s. When confronted with inconvertible truth about the deception, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway claimed that Sean Spicer only presented “alternative facts,” an oxymoron if there ever was one.
Trump often makes categorical claims which later are found out to be untrue. Still, when caught in a lie, he does not bat an eye. Instead, he moves ahead as if nothing has happened. For months Trump denied knowing anything about a payment to Stormy Daniels for her silence about their alleged relationship. Then in May 2018, Rudy Giuliani not only confirmed that the Trump knew about it, but also that he had personally reimbursed the payment. President Trump was unconcerned and acted as if nothing had happened.
This refusal to face the truth became representative of Donald Trump’s presidency and culminated in Trump’s refusal to accept the outcome of the election he lost to Joe Biden. In hindsight Trump had foreseen the possibility of his defeat, and therefore carefully started months earlier to cast doubt about the election process, making claims that “the only way we will lose the election is if the election is rigged.” An extraordinary statement for a president of a democratic country.
Down the rabbit hole
Donald Trump’s direct refutation of verifiable facts evokes eerie memories of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which constantly rewrote history and changed the facts based on the shifting political priorities of Big Brother. When facts go against him, Donald Trump creates an alternative reality and pulls all those within his circle of influence with him.
Groups such as QAnon, which promotes the idea that Donald Trump is a savior appointed by God to save the world from a wicked Satanist pedophile plot, has clear religious overtones. Like all religious cults, the more people who join and support QAnon, the stronger the convictions of its followers become that they actually are correct. At this point, no logical argument can convince a true QAnon believer that they are wrong. As Kellyanne Conway claimed, they build their view of reality on “alternative facts” that have no basis in reality.
Generally, we get our understanding of the world through direct experience, through information provided by reputable sources, and by logical deductions. The world today is too vast and complicated for us to personally verify things through our senses, so as a proxy we believe the information we perceive through the Internet and social media, which has become the alternative reality we all live in.
While it is difficult to change and distort the physical world that is constrained by natural law, there are no such restrictions on virtual reality. Here, anyone can create any kind of content they wish for, whether or not it has any relation to the concrete physical world, or the world of intellectual fact. As our brains are trained to perceive what we see and hear as truth, even when we see it through a computer screen or tablet. True or not, we often readily accept this virtual reality as fact.
While the physical world only present one scientific reality or truth, there can be any number of versions of truth in virtual reality, limited only by the imagination of its creators. This new virtual world is highly problematic, as it allows different groups of people to live in different worldviews based on what virtual reality platforms they watch and subscribe to. In this brave new world, we are all potentially being led down the proverbial rabbit hole.
Trump no savior
While much of the critique against established political parties as told by Donald Trump has validity, Donald Trump himself is unfortunately not the savior he appoints himself to be. Yes, the economy grew and jobs were added during his tenor in office (at least until the Covid-19 crisis), this was basically a continuation of the economic growth established during the Obama years. Trump claimed that air quality improved during his administration, but the fact is that the air was getting gradually worse until the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, which reduced economic activity and travel and thus air pollution.
As for trade deals, Trump’s policies did generally not benefit Americans. Steel tariffs did not revitalize the US Steel industry, and the tariffs on Chinese and other goods were paid by American consumers. Trump made a big deal of thrashing NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and telling the world what a disaster it was. Then he goes and negotiates USMCA (United States-Mexico-Canada-Agreement), which is almost identical to NAFTA with very few changes. Those changes were basically bad for the US, and the definitive study by the US International Trade Commission concluded that the changes would have a negative effect on GDP of 0.12% and a reduction in jobs with 0.04%. Yet, Trump, naturally, declared it a great monumental achievement.
The much-touted tax cut of 2017 was, in the words of Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, “a delayed tax increase dressed up as a tax cut.” Hidden in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act are measures that will increase taxes on everyone earning less than $75,000 per year, which is nearly every US citizen. So, by 2021, average Americans will pay more in taxes than they did in 2019. (Stiglitz, 2020)
The claims to bring manufacturing jobs back to Michigan and other manufacturing towns were not fulfilled. The trade wars introduced by Trump increased jobs in a few sectors, but it created more job losses in other sectors. While international trade is not fair, especially not for poor countries, in reality; the United States is generally a net beneficiary of these same trade agreements.
But Trump’s worst crime may be his constant efforts to chip away at regulations that protect the environment, which is the sustainer of all life and activities on our planet, including the economy.
In retrospect, it seems that Trump has had an obsession with tearing down everything that has been achieved by previous administrations, be it NAFTA, the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Accord on Climate Change, or Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
His motto seems to have been that anything achieved pre-Trump was bad and terrible and anything proposed or achieved by Donald Trump himself was the best and the greatest. Trump might not have gone as far as the first Chinese Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who burnt all books in China so nobody would be able to compare his rules with that of previous regimes. However, it seems Trump shared the same sentiment as Qin Shi Huan—that he wants US history to begin with him.
The lessons of Trumpism
Donald Trump is no savior, for sure, and his achievements are mostly smoke and mirrors. He has left the world a more dangerous place with larger problems than when he took office. However, Trumpism does offer us many lessons in political reality. While he lost the presidential election, Trumpism is not dead. It will be with us for many years to come. Who knows, Trump even has a real chance of running for president again in 2024. Even a real chance of winning.
Anyone who wants to make an impact in today’s society, must learn the important lessons that Trumpism provides, and find ways to protect society from its destructive tendencies.