When Donald Trump announced his bid for presidency back in June, the world gave a collective snort. The prolific TV personality was already enough of a joke before getting involved in politics; his entrance to the nominally serious theater of world events was sure to provide punchline fodder for comedians and civilians alike.
Trump isn’t just your ordinary buffoon. His policy proposals are notable not just for their implausibility (how do you even “close up the Internet,” anyways?) but for their cruelty. Without irony or exaggeration, Donald Trump plans to enforce mass deportations, kill foreign civilians, and create a national registry of Muslims.
Not only that, he’s popular, and people are starting to freak out. According to Real Clear Politics’ analysis of several polls, Trump is winning by an average of 17% among Republicans. While polls don’t necessarily predict the results of the actual election, they do show that Trump is too much of a thing for anyone to continue writing him off as unelectable. Over and over, pundits have claimed that this or that controversial event would be the end of Trump’s campaign, and then watched his popularity continue to soar despite their predictions.
The media (and consequently, everyone else) focuses a lot on Donald Trump. Often, well-intentioned journalists and observers will point out every offensive comment Trump makes, take it out of context, and milk it for all it’s worth, demanding to know how anyone could support someone who says such awful things. By now, Trump’s racism, xenophobia, and ignorance have been well exposed—without making a dent in his popularity. Clearly, this strategy isn’t working. What’s going on?
First, people like Trump because he’s offensive, or, to put it more nicely, “not politically correct.” He’s not very nice, but for some voters, that’s refreshing. Politicians are notorious for making promises they won’t keep and pandering to groups they don’t care about from behind a thin, glossy veneer of professionalism. In contrast, Trump is brash, unfiltered, unbound by unspoken rules of respectability. What comes out of his mouth may be ludicrous, vile, and even dishonest (fact-checking organization Politifact has rated 76% of his statements that they checked as false), but at least it doesn’t seem fake.
It’s unscripted and extemporaneous. It’s relatable. For people who vaguely sense that “the system is rigged” against them, or feel alienated by political parties that seem to serve only the interests of capital, this common-man persona can feel like a breath of fresh air. Of course, Trump’s experiences diverge drastically from those of the average American—he is a billionaire, after all—but, if twisted the right way, this can be a bonus. Trump’s rich enough to fund his own campaign, say his voters, so he can’t be bought.
Many supporters don’t even care about Trump’s xenophobia—as a matter of fact, they like it. Trump wants to (somehow) deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, then build a wall across the US’s southern border and make Mexico pay for it. He wants to impose a 25% tax on Chinese imports. Why? Because, at least theoretically, it would protect American jobs.
That says something about the state of American jobs.
Unemployment may be down to a mere 5%, but life as a blue-collar worker remains challenging. Economic inequality is growing. Wages have stagnated. Many poor and middle-class Americans teeter on a fragile balance of economic stability. Anything that would tip this balance unfavorably, like an increase in foreign competition, could have disastrous consequences.
Even Trump’s seemingly unrelated demagoguery, such as his anti-Muslim posturing and his slogan “Make America Great Again,” tie into this. For those who feel that everything is confusing and uncertain, Trump appeals to nostalgia for an America circa the 1950s, a time of economic prosperity, security, social mobility, and patriotism. The United States had just successfully emerged from the Great Depression and World War II. Celebrations of the country as “the land of the free” and “the greatest country” had not yet become ironic.
When Trump threatened to ban Muslims from entering the United States, promoted the murder of civilians, and proclaimed that the US should have stolen Iraq’s oil, his rationale extended beyond simple bigotry or ineptitude. Donald Trump is a nationalist. His plan to “make America great” involves turning the country into a world power—a power that frightens and bullies other nations into going along with what it wants.
Trump’s Islamophobia does not exist in a vacuum. It is a tool to justify imperialism. The false narrative that all Muslims are terrorists desensitizes Americans to war and allows the government to evade questions about whether its actions are effective or not. If you equate the entire population of the Middle East (which isn’t 100% Muslim, but remember, we’re talking Donald Trump here) to ISIS, you won’t care about whether civilians are killed or whether the US is really helping the region. You’ll think they don’t deserve help, and you’ll be happy to exploit them economically—which is just what Donald Trump wants.
Attacking Trump solely based on his racism or on his “outlandish” statements will not effectively stop him. Instead, it fuels his supporters by giving them a reason to claim the “liberal media” is attacking them. If the Democrats (or fellow Republicans) want to reduce Trump’s popularity, they must address the concerns that actually motivate Trump supporters. Trump’s far-Right plans to “make America great again” could put the country in serious danger. To keep them from succeeding, we must find a better way to make America great.