The most important media event of the year happened for 193,289 people on Thursday night: Donald Trump did a question and answer session with the reddit community dedicated to his presidential bid. Like many, I find Trump far too reminiscent of an overgrown 14 year old who no one has ever said no to, but there are millions of Americans who support his presidential campaign. It would require a level of condescension beyond that of a Parisian waiter to believe that they’re all misguided fools or malicious racists: so why does the buffoonish Trump so appeal, and why does he inspire such zeal?
In the actual question and answer session Trump answered some of the questions with typical lines about “crooked Hillary” and “Making America Great Again” (the community have taken to using the acronym “MAGA” in the same way that Hal Sparks uses “Zoltan” in Dude Where’s My Car?), as well as a few links to the policy pages on his website. His responses themselves were expected, but I was looking for more than what Donald Trump (or whoever the person Donald Trump paid to respond for him) said. To me, the real interesting thing about the Trump phenomenon is how his fans react to him.
Despite his obtuse comments and senseless potential policies around immigration and international relations, Trump has been picking up support from various segments of society. Many of his more ethnically diverse supporters (yes – many of them exist) believe that the Democrat use of identity politics is offensive and manipulative – with Trump supporters they see a community where people share their frustrations with American life and you are only judged by your love of America. The fact of the matter is that most of us share spaces and ideas with bigots every day anyway. These people realise this and feel that Trump emboldening these less than savoury views doesn’t discredit his entire message.
There are many other arguments against Trump: how can you believe that a man who has spent his entire life trampling on worker’s rights and livelihoods (through non-payment, hostile working conditions, outsourcing work to cheaper foreign labour, the use of illegal immigrants and so on and so forth) is suddenly going to be a champion for the dispossessed and the left-behind? How can a man who simply blusters and fibs his way through questions be considered fit to be a president? How can you think a man who said the Mexican government are “sending over” rapists – as if they have an active role in which of their citizens travel over to the United States – can possibly be suited to a foreign facing role involving a lot more than building some tacky buildings for as cheaply as possible? Can a man who is prone to saying sexist and derogatory things to females be the leader of over 150 million women?
There is an endless stream of questions like this, but they are all trumped by the fact that Donald – despite being born into obscene wealth, donating to several Democrat campaigns himself, and benefiting from the very economic framework that he is now deriding – is not part of the political elite. He says brash things, but that’s part of his charm. He may have been exploitative before, but now he’s saying the right things about topics like NAFTA and TTIP/TPP. Basically, he isn’t Hillary Clinton.
People despise Clinton because she is considered the very definition of a career politician. They look at Benghazi, the email scandal, Haiti, scandals at the Clinton Foundation and numerous other acts that she committed or were committed under her jurisdiction, and they see legalised corruption and moral bankruptcy. Of course she talks the talk when it comes to racial equality, but she also wholly supported her husband’s anti-crime policies in the 90’s – the ones that disproportionately penalised ethnic minorities, something that has had a much deeper and longer-lasting impact on race relations in the US than any bigoted statement from Trump.
These people know Trump may not be all he seems, but he was not involved in what they perceive to be the dismantling of an American middle class for the benefit of a global elite. To them, Trump may be a machiavellian and ruthless businessperson, but he’s his own businessperson and not sacrificing himself at the altar of Goldman Sachs (or if he is, he hides it much better than Hillary has). Throughout the AMA were a series of accusations thrown at Hillary by commenters: a few were true, some were fabricated and the vast majority were over-exaggerated. The point is that this narrative of Clinton – where she is incompetent yet duplicitous and on the side of the “global elite” – is what is driving much of Trump’s support. This sort of conspiracy-theorist thinking is indicative to these types of movements – you can see it with Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. and Bernie Sanders on the other end of the political spectrum (although given the recent DNC email leaks, perhaps the Sanders fans were on to something). Years of broken promises have forged a climate of political scepticism, and Clinton is a lightning rod for accusations as she has been at the heart of the establishment for over three decades. Where some see experience, others see obedience.
A lot of supporters are angry. Many more, I believe, are scared – and in Trump they find both an entertaining character and a sincere man who may fudge his facts and blur the truth but speaks reassuringly when it comes to jobs, safety and freedom – clearly enough to ignore the often hateful rhetoric. And even if he does tell lies, they are always stupid or fairly inconsequential, which is the anathema to how Clinton’s political history is interpreted. Clinton, to my mind, is no worse than any other establishment politician when it comes to bending the concept of morality. However, she is unfortunate to be running in a time where mistrust in the government is at an all time high. Some of the ire directed at her is misogyny, some is plain ignorant, but there are some salient arguments against her potential presidency being made by rational, compassionate human beings, and contrary to the caricature that we may have of Trump supporters, it is these arguments that are the most common. Sure, there are many supporters who indulge and revel in the buffoonery and the offensive antics, but on the whole they don’t actually hate people of different creeds, they just happen to think that a few words are no where near as damaging as two decades of rampant inequality and the degradation of once thriving communities.
These people are done with America meddling with other countries and putting multi-national conglomerates first – they believe that the focus must be shifted back towards the American people. There is an argument to be made that automation is the real driver behind this malaise that we’ve seen since the 2000’s, but to many others it is corporatism or “uncontrolled” immigration that are the real issues, and Trump has played up to these fears. These supporters are not crying out for the isolationism of inter-war America, nor do they want to reject other cultures, but they are rejecting what they perceive to be an exploitative form of globalisation and the class divisions that go along with it – and Clinton symbolises, for many, the dying throes of this old order. The obvious analogy for this is Brexit – a downtrodden and seemingly desperate population reclaiming their democratic voice through a radical rejection of the status quo, regardless of whether or not this rejection will benefit them.
Of course, there are many people who think Trump is great and would vote for him regardless of their feelings towards Hillary Clinton: they love the off-the-cuff debating style, the unseemly bravado and the “straight talking”. There are also the aforementioned racist people who have latched on to his divisive language around immigration, but for the most part these are just normal Americans who only see a choice between the way things are and someone who seems to be the complete opposite of a politician. These people may not like everything about Donald Trump, but they sure as hell are going to vote for him.