American Politics

How It Came To This? Donald Trump and the Politics of Rage

*Danny Cooper

Brisbane,  February 22, 2016 (Alochonaa): How could a candidate who has built his presidential campaign on anti-immigrant bigotry, racism, and misogyny, be stalking the White House? Regardless of what happens this election year, the rise of Donald Trump is a puzzle to many. Certainly, it abolishes much of the conventional wisdom emerging from the 2012 election: that the Republican Party would have to do a better job recruiting moderate presidential candidates who could broaden the party’s appeal. These were to be candidates, so the thinking ran, capable of striking a chord amongst young people, women, and America’s growing minorities – groups of voters that Barack Obama deftly assembled as a powerful coalition delivering him the White House. Yet Trump should appeal to none of these groups, something that will become increasingly evident, I suspect, if he faces Hillary Clinton in a general election. Rather, Trump’s unexpected rise is attributable more to a politics of rage – by which I mean a deep frustration and anger with establishment politics, the empowerment of U.S. minorities, and the legacies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Trump is successfully exploiting deeper resentments and anxieties to such an extent that he is able – at least for now – to say anything, however perverse and indecent, without it derailing his candidacy.

So what has contributed to Trump’s rise? First, one needs to examine the “so-called” Tea Party movement in the United States. Whatever the debates about its current institutional strength, the ideas and beliefs animating the movement have not disappeared. The Tea Party first emerged in opposition to President Obama in 2009-10, converging around intense opposition to his proposed health care reforms. On economics, they have much in common with far right libertarians who want to slash the size of government, lower tax, and reduce government spending on the poor. They are predominantly white, older Americans, many of whom would be described as good old fashioned Jacksonian nationalists who believe in God and country. According to Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto, there were approximately 450,000 people describing themselves as official members of the Tea Party with millions more expressing sympathy at the time of the 2012 presidential election. They also contributed greatly to the success of Republicans in the 2010 Congressional elections, helping elevate Tea Party candidates to positions of national prominence. Ted Cruz is probably the most effective and polished spokesman for Tea Party ideas, turning their instinctive dislike of government, into a conservative agenda. Trump, meanwhile, is not your traditional politician and his views on ‘Obamacare’ are obscure. Yet he successfully, perhaps shamefully, exploits the darker side of Tea Party conservatism, namely, its racial anxieties and tendency to embrace the conspiratorial.

Evidence of this abounds and there is little point in documenting all of the conspiratorial nonsense that Trump promotes. One example should suffice as it demonstrates more clearly than anything else how Trump is exploiting the undercurrent of racism that continues to exist in segments of American society. When Trump began demanding to see President Obama’s birth certificate several years ago, questioning his credentials to be president, he was in effect questioning whether Obama was an “authentic” American. Regardless of where Obama was born (and nobody can seriously dispute he was born in Hawaii), Obama’s outlook is certainly more cosmopolitan, something attributable to his biracialism and his ease, evident throughout much of his life, mixing with people of other cultures. The fact that he was America’s first black president at a time when America’s demographics were changing, when minorities were becoming a more influential voting bloc, caused considerable unease among the shrinking white middle/lower class, especially in the American South. “Take Our Country Back” – this was the message, with all of its ugly racial connotations, blazoned across signs at Tea Party rallies in America. This sentiment still exists, fuelling the anger driving Trump and his supporters.

However, while it plays a role in fuelling Trump’s candidacy for the Republican Party’s nomination, it is also his greatest weakness. Demographics don’t lie and one would have to suspend belief to think that Trump can broaden the Republican Party’s appeal, propitiating blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, Jews, and Muslim Americans. That’s why so much of the conservative establishment is against him, desperately urging the moderate candidates to drop out and coalesce around a single electable figure – Marco Rubio it now seems – who is capable of challenging Trump and thus avoid the bloodbath that awaits the Republican Party in November if it nominates Trump – or even Cruz (although, in my view, Cruz would be a little more formidable than Trump, but only a little).

Nor would Trump only have a problem with America’s minorities. Although recent commentary has suggested that women feel insulted when it is taken for granted that they should be voting for Hillary as a bloc, I suspect female voters will find this argument more persuasive when Hillary is no longer facing Sanders in the primaries and is instead lined up against a candidate who enjoys poking fun at women’s menstrual cycles. The sisterhood, I suspect, will rally against Trump in big numbers. Indeed, it was not so long ago when Mitt Romney was ridiculed for saying, carelessly, that he had “binders full of women” at his disposal when searching for job applicants as Governor of Massachusetts. This is nothing compared to the vile indecencies of the Donald.

Finally, the legacy of George W. Bush and the consequences of the 2003 Iraq war still haunt the Republican Party. This has come to the fore in recent times as Trump rails against this war, touts his opposition to it, and criticises Bush for allowing 9/11 to happen on his watch. Going back several years, these comments would have been considered treasonous amongst conservatives if spoken by a Democrat, let alone a Republican candidate for president. It is a sign of the unpopularity into which this war fell that leading candidates for president feel obliged to burnish their opposition to it, knowing that the anger at policy-makers for waging it, which exists on both sides of the political spectrum, can be used to their electoral advantage. Obama did it, now Trump. In foreign policy, the Republican Party is embracing a hawkish conservative nationalism whereby candidates such as Trump dismiss ideological crusades and American humanitarianism, and simply talk about smashing ISIS – as if that is a strategy. Again, these arguments will appeal to the American heartland, but they will bump up against the complexities of the world soon enough.

What, then, is my tip? Regardless of what happens in the coming months, neither Cruz nor Trump will win the presidency, even if they win the Republican Party’s nomination. The Republican Party will have much soul searching to do, which may be a good thing. If one of these candidates loses big in November, American conservatism may get the shock it needs to move beyond the Tea Party and reinvent itself. In other words, the world is getting ready to see the departure of America’s first black president. It should prepare the red carpet for America’s first female president.


*Dr. Danny Cooper is the Editor, American Foreign Policy ,Alochonaa. He was a senior lecturer at Griffith University in American Politics and American Foreign Policy. His book Neoconservatism and American Foreign Policy: A Critical Analysis was published in New York by Routledge in 2011. His review article Lessons from Iraq: the agony and ambivalence of an American liberal was published by the Australian Journal of International Affairs.

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Categories: American Politics

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