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'The American Nightmare' - a pantomime

How the US presidential election has become the greatest reality TV show on earth, with the keys to the White House as the grand prize.

Will Murray
8 November 2016
 Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

Presidential pantomime: Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a hangar at Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, Arizona. Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.From bragging about sexual assault to verbally abusing a Muslim gold-star family to suggesting voters could shoot Hillary Clinton – the type of scandals that would bury any regular politician have failed to dent Donald Trump’s campaign, and often increased his core support. Trump has imitated a disabled reporter on stage, and he’s dismissed allegations of not paying tax for eighteen years as “that makes me smart.” But there is still a real chance that we could wake up on November 9th to a Donald Trump victory. How has he managed to do it?

False truths, myths and conspiracy theories are a key part of Trump’s communications strategy to spread confusion, xenophobia and fear to his own advantage.

Trump’s success follows a trend of nationalist right wing populist movements around the world. From Jobbik in Hungary, the Austrian Freedom Party, Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France, UKIP and the Brexiteers in Britain, these movements are thriving in the mood of distrust and anger against the current political establishment.

In the UK this summer, MP Michael Gove said during a Brexit campaign TV debate, “I think the British people have had enough of experts.” Populist movements like this can be most effective when operating in an ill formed, anti-rational, post-truth style of politics. This presents a concern for western democracy, replacing rational discussion and evidence based policy, with the gut feelings and prejudices of mob rule.

As you might have noticed, the Trump campaign doesn’t like to use facts either. Following the first presidential debate on NBC, more than 60% of Trump’s statements were rated either 'false' or 'pants on fire' lies by an independent, Pulitzer Prize-winning fact checker. But false truths, myths and conspiracy theories are a key part of Trump’s communications strategy to spread confusion, xenophobia and fear to his own advantage.

Back in 2011, when Trump began to give hints of his ambition for a future presidential bid, he spoke on several occasions in support of the overtly racist ‘birther’ movement against Barack Obama. More recent hysteric claims include that “many people” saw Muslims celebrating on 9/11. That climate change is a hoax set up by the Chinese. That the Mexicans are sending rapists and criminals over the border. That vaccines cause autism. That the election is going to be rigged and Hilary Clinton is on some kind of illegal drugs.

Could Trump's attraction in some way be a dark reflection of the entertainment culture in the US?

Trump’s thirst for conspiracy theories has allowed him to position himself as an outsider, tapping into previously alienated voter demographics. Perhaps the most famous conspiracy theorist in America, Alex Jones, presenter of the infamous INFOWARS is fully backing Trump to “Make America Great Again.” Jones’ theories include that 9/11 and the Sandy Hook school shooting were inside jobs. His radio channel warns about everything from the government poisoning the water supply, to ‘chemtrails’ in the sky sprayed by world government planes that control the weatherINFOWARS has also been responsible for some of the strange theories about Clinton’s health throughout the campaign, including that she wears diapers and has a body double. Jones tells his supporters to hail Trump as his movements new saviour, he’s the self-made man who “can’t be bought” and will help them “defeat the new world order.”

To push this message further into the electorate, Trump has built a strong relationship within what is known as the alternative right wing, a loose movement on the edges of the Republican Party. The alt-right’s political ideology is known for its overtones of white supremacy. In September, Trump selected Stephen K. Bannon, chairman of Breitbart news as his new head of campaigns. Breitbart is an anti-establishment, alt-right news source that offers a blend of islamophobiaanti-feminsim and climate change denial from writers like Milo Yiannopoulos and James Delingpole, with a pseudo-intellectual twist.

Conspiracy theories have been used as a distraction from the real pursuits of power throughout history. Such crazed lies send Trump’s supporters and other often under-educated voters down a rabbit hole, focusing on menial issues like Clinton’s health (syphilis, liver disease, seizures, you name it), instead of looking at the real issues on the surface. Take another issue like climate change denial. Rather than looking into the activities of some of the wealthiest companies in the world like Shell, BP and ExxonMobil, instead you’re told to believe it’s an elaborate scam made up by the Chinese or the UN. Whilst Alex Jones and his supporters may believe that by helping Trump they are fighting the globalists, his channel and his supporters are being manipulated for their votes.

In the west, the roots of this new wave of right wing politics have been growing in strength, ever since the 2008 financial crash exacerbated levels of economic deprivation. In the UK, in the summer of 2009, soon after the crash and before UKIP’s ‘People’s Army’, the British National Party had a brief surge. Polling at 6% in the 2009 EU elections, the party won two MEP’s out of 72 elected. You might remember the leader Nick Griffin even being invited onto BBC 1’s Question Time one week.

This continued sense of anger in Europe and the US has been born out of the failure of globalisation to fairly distribute wealth. 

This continued sense of anger in Europe and the US has been born out of the failure of globalisation to fairly distribute wealth. This year in middle England, a working-class majority of voters rejected the European Union on social and economic grounds. As millions voted to ‘take back control’, the leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage declared June 23rd ‘Independence Day’ and acclaimed “we’ve got our country back.” Whilst Remain campaigners urged the public to keep things as they were, they failed to understand that for many it was simply not working.

In America, the middle class are furious at the way elites have allowed a rigged and corrupt economic system to diminish their livelihood. A mood exists for radical change and this ambition exists on the left too. Before being defeated by Hilary Clinton, Bernie Sanders was able to position himself as a socialist and won a surprise twenty-two states in the Democrat party primary.

Trump’s alt-right have a response to globalisation that places him crucially as a change candidate in this election. Trump talks about the mass exodus of manufacturing jobs that left America from the 1980s. Trump vows to leave NAFTA and the WTO if he can’t get America the best deal. He vows to bring jobs back, and in the depressed rust-belt states of the US this resonates. Whilst they advocate different solutions, this critique of free-trade is where the politics of the left and right, of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump meet. Globalisation raises a serious question that recently the centre-ground has failed to resolve.

The centre-ground is where Clinton has positioned her campaign. A Clinton victory is seen as a vote for the status-quo, for the steady progress of the Obama administration. But too many Americans find this frustratingly slow. Trump’s solution is to ‘Make America Great Again’ through hard economic nationalism, massive deregulation, and closed borders, in the same way Brexiteers wanted to take their ‘country back’.

This election satisfies a certain crave for drama at its worst excess.

Trump’s campaign also channels the fears of many Americans in a way that the Democrats are unable to. The history of the United States paints the picture of a very frightened society; from Native Americans, the British, slavery, the Spanish, Nazis, Soviets and so on, there has always been a distinct image of an internal or external enemy to rally against. Today Trump is leveraging an anti-immigrant xenophobia, that allows Americans to blame their day to day difficulties on racial minority groups within society – the Mexican stealing your job, the Black Lives Matter activist attacking the police, the Muslim terrorist and the Syrian refugee. Policies such as the temporary banning all members of Islam from entering the United States and building a wall between Mexico are unprecedented in today’s politics. He allows voters to stick two fingers up to the elite. Michael Moore describes Trump as “the human Molotov cocktail that they can throw at the political system.”

There is one more aspect about Trump that is perhaps most troubling. In February in the middle of the Republican primary, Jeb Bush attacked Trump as the “chaos candidate.” America seems hooked on this chaos – there is something about his campaign that people cannot not stop watching. This year the GOP presidential debate broke viewing records, with the most recent presidential debates beating them all. A reality TV star himself, Trump has utilised the apathy which the public feel towards politics and turned it into votes. Could Trump's attraction in some way be a dark reflection of the entertainment culture in the US?

Clinton, a cautious, career politician and arguably a much nicer candidate, just doesn’t get the same level of attention.

Trump knows television. For 12 years he has been the star of one of the most watched shows in America, ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘The Celebrity Apprentice’. He knows what his audience want: action. Most of all they just want something interesting to happen, whether is be good or bad. The media have similarly lapped up the viewings, positively reinforcing his bad behaviour. Clinton, a cautious, career politician and arguably a much nicer candidate, just doesn’t get the same level of attention.

In combined campaign funds, the two candidates Clinton and Trump have received over one billion dollars to run. Have the excesses of wealth and fame created a pantomime presidential race, sold as the highest form of entertainment? It’s as if it has become the greatest reality TV show on earth, with the keys to the White House as the grand prize. The most boring candidates are voted off, the nasty ones are left standing. This election satisfies a certain crave for drama at its worst excess. For many who have felt abandoned by modern politics, one begins to understand why they might vote for something 'entertaining' to watch.

“I mean I can’t even say it out loud. I always thought that it was going to look way more sophisticated than this, when fucking evil happened, when the collective consciousness was so numb and so fucking sated and so gorged on entertainment.” Father John Misty, July 2016 

Expose the ‘dark money’ bankrolling our politics

US Christian ‘fundamentalists’, some linked to Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, have poured at least $50m of ‘dark money’ into Europe over the past decade – boosting the far right.

That's just the tip of the iceberg: we've got many more leads to chase down. Find out more and support our work here.

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