The explanations for Trump’s extraordinary victory are many, but their point of departure is remarkably similar: Trump may be a charlatan, but the deep socioeconomic causes of Trumpism are real. No wonder Salena Zito’s maxim became so famous: “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” But what if it was the other way around, and it was his supporters who didn’t take him seriously? Arguably, the press and his detractors took him very seriously. The media’s coverage of his campaign (and not just in the US) was unusually alarmist, especially after his victory in the Republican primaries. The press in the US can be faulted for its “balancism” (the obsession with dispensing criticism equally between the two parties), but not for being frivolous about Trump’s political significance. Perhaps the pundits are looking for legitimate socioeconomic grievances because it is unbearable to entertain the notion that in fact, Trump supporters may not take him or the elections seriously. It seems inconceivable that a great country could do that to itself, unreflectively. Furthermore, Trump fans are now seen as victims. They are typically working class folks (though not the very poor), mostly without college degrees. According to The Economist, they typically have “lower life expectancy, higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heavy drinking and lower levels of regular physical activity.” Shockingly, roughly one out of two women and one out of three Latinos voted for The Donald. The decent thing to do when this new “Other” speaks is to try and understand what it wants to teach us. Finally, Trump won the elections, and national elections are a civic sacrament. The people cannot be wrong and the will of the people must be respected. Why is it such a taboo to say that voting for Trump, for almost any American citizen, was demonstrably reckless and stupid? The importance of stupidity in politics (in life!) is a constant theme in literature, but it is a taboo topic in political science and journalism. To be clear, I am talking about a stupid decision, not about people being stupid. Smart people make stupid mistakes all the time, and not so smart people make wise decisions with equal frequency. Errors are possible in all walks of life: why not in politics?
As most pundits take the deep “causes” of Trumpism seriously and proclaim the crisis of globalization, free trade, immigration, and liberal values more generally, we fail to appreciate the importance of the “causer”: Trump himself. What if he was the necessary condition? He is a celebrity with considerable demagogic skills. Interesting that terms like “post-truth” and “alternative facts” were introduced to our lexicon by a star of (pseudo) reality television. In the age of catch-all parties and focus-groups’ manufactured electoral platforms, Trump is truly original and therefore authentic. Lest we forget: he is a pro-Putin, anti-free trade Republican, as well as a gaudy fat cat populist, who seduced Wisconsin wage earners by saying he prefers limos to Harley-Davidsons. His look and style are both unique and primitive; he is inimitable, yet almost anybody can mimic him. Plus, obscenity is irresistible. His breaking of conventions is refreshing for millions of blasé voters. A similar character had tremendous success in Italian politics (Silvio Berlusconi), a country with very different set of challenges and problems. What if with Trump’s election, history just repeated itself but as a farce, with his voters thinking, “yes we can” do this outrageous thing, not because we really hurt (for the most part they are better off than any time in the past and polls show that Republicans were enthusiastic about free trade a year ago), or because of some hopes and dreams, but au contraire, because this bold (“huge”, “fantastic”, “beautiful”) gesture was too tempting to turn down, and because the risk was falsely believed to be negligible. After all, the president is the leader of only one of three branches of one of 51 governments in the US, in a system of unmatched checks and balance (yes, even with Republicans controlling two and soon three branches of the federal government). Americans don’t like government and they are risk takers. To shake the political cage, when given a chance, has got to be harmless in a stable and prosperous country with the smallest government in the West. Close to half the electorate doesn’t bother to vote. By looking for deep significance we discard a much more disconcerting possibility: the unbearable lightness of voters, who simply want to register their disdain of the political class, as they did with Brexit and may do again in a number of prosperous and free European countries in 2017. In the US, if the experience turns sour for the masses, and chances are it will, the electoral mistake could be corrected in four years (not a day too soon), without seriously addressing the presumed socio-economic causes of Trumpism. (I bet British voters would like to have another shot at Brexit). Economic factors are weak predictors of the populist vote. As French writer Paul Valéry once said, “We later civilizations . . . we too know that we are mortal.” What we fail to appreciate is how this can be self-inflicted with irresponsible insouciance.
Yvon Grenier teaches Comparative politics, Latin American politics (esp. Cuba, Mexico and Central America), Art /literature and politics. He has authored Guerre et pouvoir au Salvador (1994) and The Emergence of Insurgency in El Salvador (1999). He is a contributing Editor for Literal as well as an occasional political commentator for Radio Canada. His Twitter is @ygrenier1
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