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ANDERSON: The mysterious Trump phenomenon

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December 22, 2015 - 8:19 AM

"At the moment Donald Trump controls the daily agenda because reporters insist other candidates respond to whatever he says. That will lessen as the novelty diminishes." 

So said the Wall Street Journal back in July of this year, echoing countless similar opinions, including mine. In fact, each week of last summer I waited for the other shoe to drop, for Trump to take a step too far and blow his chances for the Republican nomination. I was pretty sure, as were many others, that he had taken that step when he called for a halt to all Muslim immigration to the US, but astonishingly his approval rating has edged up even further since.

The most recent mini-controversy in Trump's ongoing reality show is the man crush he and Putin share. Under the circumstances, with friction points between the US and Russia that stretch across Europe and the middle east, Putin's endorsement is something any other candidate would shy away from. But Trump has embraced it and even reciprocating by defending Putin with the claim that there's "no proof" Putin had journalists killed. The controversy appears not to have dented his popularity one whit, and after so many successful steps-too-far I fully anticipate that if anything it will result in even higher ratings for the man.

So one has to ask:  what's behind his rise, and more than that, what's behind his political longevity? It's not that would-be scandals slip easily away from him as they did with Reagan; it's that he doubles down on each would-be scandal and throws it back in the media's collective face. Trump doesn't have the "teflon factor" Reagan possessed; what he seems to have instead is the Admiral Farragut factor:  "Damn the torpedoes and full steam ahead!" People seem to like that. There is a certain hunger out there in mainstream America for the leadership of a man's man, a part Trump plays well.

Now don't get me wrong. I think Donald Trump is a brash, reductionist blow hard who as president would careen around the Oval Office with all the finesse of an inebriated Charlie Sheen, shouting "Winning!" as he swung from one hare-brained announcement to the next. I'm concerned that he would make a mockery of the institutions and gravitas of the US government and leave the international system and America's reputation in tatters. Perhaps even start a slap fight with Canada, and one we would not win. I suspect my opinion is shared by most conservatives across the democratic world.

But it would be a mistake for the political establishment to dismiss Trump as the champion of the knuckle dragging set, as it has repeatedly tried to do. That he shares elements of Father Coughlin and Huey Long goes without saying...he attacks minority groups in a mean spirited way like Coughlin and makes the sort of ludicrous promises Long was famous for. But there is something about him that draws people no matter which foot is in his mouth at any given time, and tellingly, it's not just Republicans who like him. A Survey USA poll in September found that he was ahead of Hillary Clinton nationally, across political lines, causing Jeffery Lord of the American Spectator to muse that Trump has spawned a following of "Trump Democrats" similar to the "Reagan Democrats." Comparing Trump to Reagan sticks in my craw as it does many conservatives but, as Lord pointed out, less than a year before the 1980 election Carter's Chief of Staff laughed, "The American people are not going to elect a seventy-year-old, right-wing, ex-movie actor to be president." Yet they did, in a landslide of historic proportions, and then did it again in 1984. We tend to forget in the afterglow of "morning in America" that one of the greatest presidents the United States has ever had was once mocked as mercilessly as Trump is today.

I suspect Trump's popularity has in part to do with a reaction to the last eight years of Obama's narrative-based leadership. Very early on in his campaign Obama and his closest advisor Rahm Emanuel recognized quite publicly and unabashedly that "narrative" - the Gramscian (and Goebbelian) technique of turning perception into perceived reality - often trumps (no pun intended) actual reality, and set about creating a distinct political narrative. Aided by a compliant national media, Obama's narrative successfully turned every domestic conflict with the Republicans into a Manichean good-vs-evil battle in which he was cast as the champion of sweetness, light and reason, and the Republicans as intractable miscreants who slavishly served "the rich." He successfully used his narrative to define away his foreign policy failures, including the Libyan war, the Benghazi failure, the red line in Syria, and his general degradation of American influence abroad, and put in its place instead the idea that the resulting systemic chaos is headed toward a resolution only he understands. It all worked, for a while.

A victim of his own success, Obama overreached in ways that even now, I suspect, haven't been fully recognized. For example, and directly relevant to Trump's "ban Muslims" position, Obama's claim that both al Queda and ISIS are not Islamic, that they have "hijacked" Islam, flies in the face of the obvious. I'll insert a standard caveat here: obviously most Muslims are not Wahhabist Islamists, just as most Germans were not Nazis, but to claim radical Islamists are not Muslims is like claiming National Socialists weren't German. Everyone, including Muslims, recognizes that both ISIS and al Queda derive from a strain of literalist Sunni Islam that prides itself on not only being Islamic, but more "purely" Islamic than any other strain...and the Koran (literally) backs them up.

Obama further compounded this folly with his assignation of various Islamist-inspired attacks on American citizens as "workplace violence" and "man-caused disasters" and rounded it out with the diversion of "climate change" as the "greatest disaster facing mankind." Perhaps the results of climate change will be worse this time than they ever have been before throughout the ages, but apparently only a small and shrinking group of people (outside of carbon tax grabbists and the green fringe movement) agrees. This attempt at manufacturing narrative and substituting it for reality worked for a while on American citizens, as it may on Canadians during the early part of the Trudeau regime - but sooner or later people begin to look at the narrative and ask questions. I believe this is what is happening in the US and accounts in part for the Trump phenomenon.

We can say many things about Trump, but one thing we can't say is that he hides behind a manufactured narrative. He blurts out every thought that crosses his mind in real time in a plain spoken way devoid of any dissimulation or fakery, and in doing so apparently echoes the innermost thoughts of many mainstream citizens. He may be rude and brash and without finesse, but he says what people think, and that's a refreshing change for people who have been manipulated for eight years on a more or less constant basis.

Trump may yet fade into oblivion behind one of the other Republican candidates or take that elusive step too far, as so many establishment conservatives hope, but in the meantime it would be a mistake to simply dismiss him as loud mouthed entertainment. He may ultimately win the Republican nomination and present Americans with a difficult choice between a loose but more or less honest cannon and a duplicitous establishment politician straight out of the series "House of Cards."

Trump has struck a nerve deep in the American electorate and we would all do well to understand what that nerve is, because it'll be coming to Canada sooner or later too.

— Scott Anderson is a Vernon City Councillor, freelance writer, commissioned officer in the Canadian Forces Reserves and a bunch of other stuff. His academic background is in International Relations, Strategic Studies, Philosophy, and poking progressives with rhetorical sticks until they explode.

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