Trumpism has historical foundations, one debate won't kill it

Trumpism has historical foundations, one debate won't kill it
6 min read
28 Sep, 2016
Comment: The exploitation of ignorance and fear did not begin with Trump, and it won't end with him, writes Laith Saud
The rise of Trump should be understood in its a historical context [Getty]

The first presidential debate proved to be explosive; even though mainstream US media unanimously declared Hillary Clinton the "winner", the Trump revolution may just be beginning to gain steam. 

Yes, the Trump revolution. It is not a revolution of political doctrine or social ideas but a robust rejection of all institutions of power. As many Americans - minority and establishment alike - naturally fear a Trump presidency, here I would like to trace its historical linearity. 

The forebears of Trumpism are to be found in the presidency of George W Bush. His administration wove together the cultural tapestries that shaped the Trumpist worldview - anger, fear and supreme ignorance, coupled with a strangely prudent distrust of power. 

Media disconnect 

What is a revolution exactly? It is "the violent overthrow of a system of government", remarks Websters. But the word is based on "revolt", which means to "rise in rebellion" but also to "feel disgust". To instigate a true revolution is difficult; all of the forces of power are amassed against the revolutionary. 

In the Arab World, the wonderful revolution(s) of the Arab Spring were killed in their cribs by thousands of knives, among a handful of powerful countries - not to mention the men in power in Egypt, Syria and Yemen themselves. 

Notwithstanding the devastating counter-revolutions, these revolts had something in common - they rejected, outright, all of the institutions of power, most notably the media.

And the media is crucial. For Benedict Anderson, media makes the nation. For Harold Cruse, media is a vehicle of national culture, which consolidates the distribution of power and resources. For Malcolm X, media "has the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent" - nothing less than defining legitimacy itself. 

The reason why the media is so important is it is the locus of public consensus. There is nowhere else to find public consensus. The public may not be involved in producing media, but in consuming it, they validate the media as the "mirror of reality".

Trump supporters exist outside the mental loop that media perpetuates

The range of positions reflected in mainstream media are considered to be those that somehow correspond with "the facts", while positions articulated in marginal or non-mainstream media is considered deviant, idiomatic or contrarian.

Mainstream media is hegemonic; it produces and sustains power relations. This is not a novel observation. But the interesting thing about Trumpism is a deep, abiding hatred of and for the media. 

Though Clinton was declared the winner in the first debate, Trump supporters simply see this as confirmation that he is an outsider, not privy to DC privilege. Trump supporters exist outside the mental loop that media perpetuates, but yet they reflect a significant part of the population, rather than a small minority. 

Minorities often do not see themselves in media, as Cruse said, US media reflects "white, protestant thinking". And Trump supporters are overwhelmingly white and Christian. 

This is a radically new development in modern US politics since the advent of televised debates.

More succinctly, the television industry - something more narrow than media generally - is where presidents are made. Yet, in the case of Trump, being anti-television industry is actually galvanising his supporters. Trump is advancing in politics through television, without the industry; through ratings, without pundit approval. Should this continue, this rupture could prove to have unpredictable consequences in the United States. 

Social underpinnings      

The Bush administration's contributions to proto-Trumpism begin with the invasion of Iraq. In lobbying for war the administration perfected the art of the factional. 

"Factional" is, as I write, trending - and it refers to "fiction stated as fact".  Now, one might suggest that Bush is certainly not a lying politician sui generis, but no lie in modern US politics was as big as those put together to invade Iraq.

It must be remembered that Richard Nixon resigned from office when malfeasance was discovered within his ranks

When the attacks of 9/11 occurred, those in power quickly whipped up a grand world-view that the US was a white Christian nation, besieged by non-white, non-Christian terror. Thus any non-white, non-Christian country was a potential threat to the US. 

So many - well documented - lies were proffered by the administration, I do not need to list them here. But it was the audacity of those involved that was staggering.

It must be remembered that Richard Nixon resigned from office when malfeasance was discovered within his ranks. There would be no such honour within the Bush administration - and this audacity is personified by Trump followers today.

Politics became about the power to push one's way through, especially by exploiting fear, rather than using reason and compromise. State lies as truth and with conviction. Be dogmatic even - and have the power of orthodoxy behind you. Finally, it was also the Bush administration that turned American anger towards the media for being "un-patriotic" if it asked too many tough questions. 

This anger at the media has grown, and is the carriage within which Trump rides and which ironically gives someone perceived as a non-establishment man a real shot at winning the White House. 

When the Iraq war proved to be an absolute moral, legal and political disaster, the administration galvanised "Christian votes" at home by setting its sights on banning same sex-marriage. Thus in 2004, Bush Jr was re-elected despite his poor record - due to a high Christian turnout. 

Right-wing Christians felt that, overseas, Muslims threatened them - while at home, "non-Christian values" threatened the country. None of this fear was inoculated by the Obama administration, but only heightened as the same anger was directed towards him to inhibit his presidency by the same people.         

Americans bought into the Iraq lie with a whopping majority - and that is because, as Americans, we failed to overcome the most basic, primitive instincts of xenophobia - while also implicitly loving our power to not have to care. 

Remind you of anyone? Some estimate one million Iraqis were killed by the invasion; certainly US soldiers were put in harm's way without just cause. But we never held anyone, or any entity to account for the deaths, which means - as Americans - we failed and permitted the perpetration of a broken system, implying a broken people. 

It is our brokenness as a whole, not the volume and "energy" of Trump supporters, that has made the election of Trump possible. When a people prove they will go along with lies and xenophobia, then lying becomes all they deserve.

Laith Saud is a writer and scholar. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and co-author of An Introduction to Islam for the 21st Century (Wiley-Blackwell). Follow him on Twitter: @laithsaud

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.