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Why Donald Trump could be president

Trump plays very strongly in the symbolic field, operating on a series of different sectors’ frustrations. In an increasingly unequal society he introduces himself as a savior of the losers. Español

Mariano Aguirre
11 May 2016
Donald Trump speaks during an interviewed in his office at Trump Tower, May 10, 2016, New York.

Donald Trump interviewed in his office at Trump Tower, May 10, 2016, New York. Mary Altaffer / Press Association. All rights reserved.It has become commonplace to think that Donald Trump cannot become president of the United States. The vulgarity of his style, the obvious ignorance of some of his ideas, the lies scattered without retraction and the unrealistic proposals lead us to this conclusion. His megalomania is seen as madness.

But Trump's discourse is coherent. It is based on saying things that a large part of American society thinks, and in proposing simple solutions to complex problems. This dual technique allows him to gain followers among those who feel economically and ideologically marginalized and to offer a decompression valve for social frustrations. Although it is impossible to implement his proposals, they generate a social outburst against political elites that materializes in votes. His campaign is well calculated.

Impact of globalization

Trump is the product of a number of trends. The first is the chasm between citizens and politics in America. Many sectors of society perceive that the so-called political class, with few exceptions, is increasingly distant from their interests. Representatives in Congress and the Senate are seen as people with very high salaries linked to and supported by economic elites who work to serve their own particular goals.

These objectives include tax or environmental laws that benefit them, complex regulations that allow them to evade taxes, deregulated employment rules to facilitate dismissal and hiring of labour with minimal or no social protection. Dissatisfaction also arises from the accurate perception that governments and representatives have plunged the United States over the past four decades into so-called ‘globalization’, promoting the relocation of production and total openness to trade.

This has led to a crisis of the productive system. Chicago factories where wages are higher and unions stronger are closed down, and reinstalled in China or Mexico, where they pay less and the rights of workers are repressed or nonexistent. At the same time, the US market has been flooded with products manufactured in China and other Southern countries that push prices down. The result has been rising unemployment and increasingly menial, dead-end jobs, temporary contracts, underpaid and with a lack of social protection. Between 1979 and 2013 the average salary of white men without higher education fell by 21% (up 3% for women in the same sector). Yesterday´s industrial worker is today unemployed or a worker in precarious and lowpaid jobs.

An analysis of the influential think-tank Chatham House (London), indicates that Trump and the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders have at the same time aroused different reactions among people who feel "that they have been abandoned and excluded from the system." Xenia Wickett argues, “America is unlikely to choose, and Republicans wouldn’t permit, a Scandinavian-style social safety net, and the effects of technology and globalization are likely to increase the disparities between winners and losers over time.” 

Dissatisfaction with the relocation of production has also produced a split among both industrialists and agricultural business´ sectors. Those who have had the ability to shut down production in the US and reopen it in another country have made large profits. But many companies small or medium size have not been able to find a space in global competition. This has led to deep resentment against ‘politicians’ in Washington, Congressmen and officials, who have promoted a model of global integration contrary to national interests, such as the Transpacific Economic Cooperation Agreement. A recent report in the New York Times entitled "How the Republicans lost voters in favor of Donald Trump" has a long list of complaints of entrepreneurs against the Republican Party, accusing them of becoming an accomplice of the elite.

The conservative rise

The second trend is ideological. Not all who are embittered against the elites are marginalized workers or employers. Conservatism has strong religious, racial and class roots in the United States. In the last five decades the tension between liberal (which in Europe is called progressive) and conservative has intensified. While the former have become more moderate, embracing neoliberalism, the second have been, paradoxically, radicalized.

Within conservatism is a huge variety of non-governmental organizations, foundations, universities, research centers, opinion, individuals with different agendas and projects that target others. Some business sectors and individuals support these groups, including those who oppose all regulation on the right to bear arms, the right to abortion, in favor of banning the teaching of evolutionary theories in the educational system, and against the obligation to educate their children in public or private school.

Even more serious is the proliferation of armed groups against the entry of immigrants on the border with Mexico, and right-wing groups of Nazi ideology in favor of a return to the purity of the white race. These have proposed total closure to all immigration and mass expulsion. These seemingly extravagant voices have increased their influence since the 80s thanks to their access to the media, creating their own radio and television, broadcasting and internet use of social networks.

These groups and many other organizations that make seemingly extravagant claims present themselves as marginalized and outcasts. In an article in The New Yorker about the social base of Donald Trump, the leader of a group in favor of the purity of the white race explains their struggle to ensure that their children in the future are not a "marginalized minority" in a multicultural country "where Latinos and blacks are the majority”. The fact that over the last decade the US President has been black and a democrat, and accused of being "socialist" with “radical Islamic ideas” has only confirmed their perceptions. Trump, of course, took an active part in the campaign questioning Obama’s American credentials.

Revolt within the party

The Tea Party has been instrumental in creating the social base for Trump. This movement, born during the first presidency of Barak Obama, was critical in matching a strongly individualistic ideology to an extremely conservative anti-state position. The Tea Party is linked to many of those far-right movements in US society. Although it has lost momentum in recent years, it continues to be a powerful force among right-wing grass-roots. Trump, the businessman-turned-politician has managed to articulate their demands in a presidential candidacy and increasingly gained their pledges to vote. "Trump has never asked me for a dime and being self-funded he's the only one that can blow up the Republican Party establishment," said Ralph King, a Trump delegate and member of the Cleveland Tea Party, to the Reuters agency: "If the primaries result in a contested convention, I'm in his corner all the way."

Trump and his team know all about the resentment against political parties and have instrumentalized the Republican Party as a platform for two battles. The first, to stand as an entrepreneur, a manager, an outsider within his own party. To show his heterodoxy he ventured to attack George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, and the neocon ideologues for their attempts to change regimes in the Middle East.

Once he had achieved the first objective, he took on his second battle: defeating Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic Party candidate. Although now she has an advantage of 10 points over Trump, if the elections were held today the Democrat would have the problem of being seen as the quintessence of the elite which rejects Trump´s social base.

The third trend is inequality. The United States is at the top of the list of the most unequal societies in the world. That is, a minority (the so-called 1%) accumulates more and more wealth, resources, markets, global capacity and control technologies (artificial intelligence, robotics) that are rapidly replacing labor in many sectors. Some studies indicate that by mid-century half of human labor in the US will be replaced by machines (and the trend is global). At the same time, 1% is becoming an idle sector that consumes luxury goods without working.  A study by the Boston Consulting Group indicates that machines, which now account for 10 percent of all manufacturing tasks, are likely to perform about 25 percent of them by 2025.

In parallel, the middle class is weakened and at the base of the social pyramid there is poverty and lack of access to deteriorating public services (education, health, transport). A series of recent studies, referred to in The New York Review of Books under the title, 'A bankrupt country', show the serious state which US infrastructure such as highways, railways, ports, public water and other public services are now in. But Republicans, who have a majority in Congress, have consistently boycotted the attempts by President Barak Obama to access more funds to modernize these systems.

Symbology and sexism

Trump plays very strongly in the symbolic field, operating on a series of different sectors’ frustrations. In an increasingly unequal society he introduces himself as a savior of the losers. His attacks seem indiscriminate, but actually are designed to build an image of himself as a "businessman," a "man who has made himself" the son of white immigrants, who is forced to become political and "speak out", broaching issues that politicians, accomplices, refuse to mention.

Within this symbolism Trump exaggerates his gestures, words and iconography. He has no hesitation in insulting other candidates for their physical appearance (especially women), reminding them that in the past they wooed him for his money (something that did happen, the Clinton family included). He uses vulgar and popular language, show his closeness to "people" and his distance from the so-called elite of Washington and all liberal political correctness. At this point, his messages about women are particularly significant.

Since the 1960s, American women have gradually gained rights and access to economic, labor and political space. Today they have more say over their lives and their families. There is even a sector of professional women who claim not to wish to marry and form families. However, several generations of men believe that women have stolen their personal power in the family, in social life, in the political realm and in the world of labor. But it is politically incorrect to suggest any such thing.

By openly criticizing professional women (symbolically focusing his attention on a journalist of the right-wing Fox News whom he has derided by associating her with menstruation). Trump represents the male sector that has lost power, and a narrow-minded machismo. His image is carefully constructed. A traditional powerful man. So, he winks at men who resent the progress of women, and proposes a traditional role for women workers using his own family as iconography.

Targeting the immigrants

Shortly after launching his candidacy in June 2015, Trump introduced the idea of building a wall between Mexico and the United States (and forcing Mexico to pay for it). His argument in favor was that there are criminals to be kept out, smugglers, rapists and "people with many problems." The figures show that crime is lower among first-generation Latino immigrants than non-Latinos born in the United States, but this has not prevented him from taking aim at Mexico. He has deliberately used cases of white people who have had things stolen or been attacked by illegal immigrants to whip up voter emotion.

Taking advantage of the rise of the Islamic State and the series of attacks in Europe and in San Bernardino (California), the candidate made a second proposal on immigration: that the entry of Muslims to the United States should be temporarily closed down, effectively rejecting out of hand a broad spectrum of the population, from President Obama to Republican spokesmen.

America was built on different migration flows and the near elimination of the local indigenous population. The confrontation between immigrant communities has existed at various times since its foundation. Those who consider themselves founders of the state (mainly descendants of the British) think of themselves as “more American” than the descendants of other cultures. Slavery, the Civil War and the struggles for civil rights in the decade of 1950-1960, on the other hand left deep divides and unresolved problems.

By attacking the Latino community, Trump assumes he will lose many of their votes (usually Latinos vote for the Democratic Party). But he hopes to win the support of those who believe that immigrants steal their jobs and the racists who fear that the Latin and Muslim (and black) presence will switch "American identity" leaving them "a minority in their own country". Trump descends from a German family who went to America in the late nineteenth century. These attacks on Latinos try to make a fundamental distinction between the  immigrant founders of the nation and the (new) upstarts. The first have created the nation through their efforts; the latter have only come to rape and steal.

Even more than incarnating within himself the successful-founder-of-the-nation-descendent immigrant, Trump has had the capacity to evolve into a popular millionaire that like King Midas transforms into gold everything he touches. As Elisabeth Drew perceptively concludes, “Trump is the first brand to run for president”.

Politics as spectacle

Trump's candidacy is also the result of mixing show-business, politics and sports (in the sense of turning every situation into a competition). This cultural trend started in the US and is now globally widespread. Politics as spectacle has many expressions: angry shouting matches between so-called experts, real specialists replaced by commentators who can talk about everything. Reducing the time for analysis, media pressure to synthesize political explanations on twitter have led to a devaluation of policy, and a rise of ideas that simplify complex problems. The real world is full of dilemmas; Donald Trump´s worldview is linear. The United States will be a leader if you put China in its place, if immigration is limited, if the country is managed like a private company with a strong hand, and if white men return to their proper role.

Although Trump has great potential, it will not be easy to get to the White House. His victory in Indiana has shown that many of the senators, representatives and leaders of Republicans (such as former Presidents George Bush and George W Bush) do not support him and are even opposed to his nomination as a candidate. Clinton, meanwhile, is challenged because of her big links with the elite.

But even if Trump does not reach the White House, his rise is proof of the multiple and deep fractures suffered throughout the United States. Paradoxically, neither he nor Clinton seem able to solve those.

A previous version of this article was published in Spanish by Radio France International.  

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