Trump, Fear and Trembling

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Hillary Clinton’s decision to eschew a public appearance in the wake of Donald Trump’s spectacular upset is a move definitive of the whole election cycle. The political order she has come to embody, a regime in apparent ascendancy a mere twelve months ago, now seems more elusive than ever before – once indomitable, it now looks cowed and positively antediluvian.

Trump is, of course, legendary for his array of film cameos; there was a time, decades ago, when his screen presence was quite literally a given. It is ironic, then, that a man credited in Home Alone 2, a crusty hedonist who’s tech bubble-era excesses defined the garish Big Apple of the ’90s, should come to personify our present epoch. Clinton, with her portfolio, her eloquence, her lawyer-ish manner and her tactical odes to feminism, had every reason to expect a swift, decisive victory. Instead, the Home of the Brave has made a President of an accused rapist.

Analysts have sought to assign the result to ethnic and generational factors. Indeed, Clinton was hampered by a poor turnout among millennials and African-Americans, but it would be foolish to reduce this perfect storm to mere demographic particularities – one cannot shake the sense that something with historic implications has happened here. The working people of America have elected to mutiny not only against the political establishment, but against all appearances that cloistered class takes for granted – their urbanity, their latte liberalism, their insistence upon increasingly abstract and elitist managerial paradigms (Clinton deployed readily the dreaded ‘experts’).

Recall the Brexit campaign, in many striking respects a European prelude to the Trump affair. Nigel Farage, the closest thing to a British Trump, is a retired metals broker, a remnant of an age prior to Thatcher and the computerisation of finance when your model trader was as much an old-school salesman as a number-cruncher and a glorified gambler. This was the heyday of the ‘City boy’; relative to today, the culture in the mercantile hubs of the West was lurid, sybaritic, unapologetically macho. It was a world inaccessible to the masses not by merit of its immediate occurrence as an unintelligible wall of numbers and algorithms, but by its tribalism, dominated as it was by a handful of small firms and by the ever-present ‘old boys’ club’. No matter how detached one was from the bustle of commercial life, there was always something real about it, something unmistakably human and relatable.

Trump’s line of work, like Farage’s, would appear seductively retro to the outsider – he has derived a fortune from the construction of buildings, the recognisable brick-and-mortar establishments that dot our skylines. Whereas the tycoon of the 21st Century shuns the media limelight, Trump has endeavoured to make a brand of his own ego; his personal extravagances (his ‘gaffes’, his love life, his hosting a reality TV show) are as much a part of the Trump experience as the hotels and the casinos. His chauvinism and vacuousness is ‘tolerated’ for the same reason that of a crotchety uncle is – not content with a ‘shrewd’ businessman to contrast with the ‘incompetent’, ‘conniving’ politician, the popular consciousness demands a businessman who ‘tells it as it is’, a relic from a bygone age where casual buffoonery, misogyny and racism was the active right of the moneyed, something the high-flyers never even thought to conceal behind layers of Clinton-esque ‘propriety’.

By 2008, the financiers had ceased to indulge their most visible vices; of course, the commercial bacchanals behind the scenes would only be exposed with the crash, an event from which the U.S., and the wider West, has yet to make an adequate recovery. Slowly, but surely, the forces that would bring forth Trump and his acolytes were gathering momentum. The antagonism between the elites and their subjects was temporarily offset with the inauguration of Barack Obama, but this compromise has failed to show results – the middle class, the bedrock of the American postwar social consensus, continues to decline.

By 2016, Hillary Clinton’s once-heady concoction of pinstripe professionalism and ‘liberal’ politics was exhibiting signs of having long since passed its sell-by date. Finding the opposition to be weak and disunited, the Democratic Party nevertheless persevered, shrugging off the populist platitudes of Bernie Sanders. The miscalculation, as we saw on Tuesday, is theirs alone.

Trump, like Sanders, does not shy away from the class dynamic present in American society; unlike the latter, however, he addresses it indirectly, channelling it against immigrants, the pathological ‘Muslim problem’, and others. This, above all, renders the Trump movement a uniquely fascist phenomenon, an attempt to ‘make sense of’, rather than challenge, a capitalism blue-collar Americans are perpetually alienated from. Against the tendencies of the industry captains towards a dry operationalist jargon, Trump makes a game of working people’s woes and concerns. The Chinese giant, he informs his audience, is robbing ordinary Americans blind; only he, the man behind Trump Tower, the loudmouthed host of NBC’s The Apprentice, can set the record straight.

As highlighted endlessly, Trump’s ‘policies’ are a largely unfeasible mess. What makes the prospect of his Presidency so particularly terrifying is the precedent he sets. Humiliated, the Democrats are already gravitating towards a progressive ticket for 2020, but this is an inherently risky investment. Trump, with his toxic brand of postmodern nativism, is set to have a dramatic, virulent effect upon public discourse, one that will be felt at all levels of American society.

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Second-year History & Politics student. Social scientist, pop culture aficionado and (occasional) dabbler in journalism.

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