Going through high school here in the United States, our history classes eventually take us through the 20th century; a time in which our country was usually in conflict with foreign adversaries. The thing these past enemies had in common was that they were often led by nationalist strongmen who often consolidated their power in totalitarian fashion. Learning about these leaders and our own country’s history, it evoked a sense of comfort and pride that the U.S. has generally been able to avoid such leadership. I never could have predicted 5 years ago that Donald Trump would bully his way to the highest office in the land. While he is far from a totalitarian war-criminal, his tactics for garnering public appeal are reminiscent to those of many unhinged strongman-leaders: making wild or grandiose claims, verbally insulting and attacking foreigners, minorities, media and other critics; promoting the well-being of the ethnically traditional majority, putting on a tough-guy persona and making political opponents look weak or soft, invoking ideas of past national greatness that he will restore- things that all sound painfully familiar to anyone who’s seen a U.S news program over the last three-and-a-half years.
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However, circumstance plays an important role in everything, and Trump has risen to power for a different set of reasons than did past nationalists like Hitler, Mussolini, or Lenin to name a few. Like the monsters of history, analyzing the social context and the methods Trump used that allowed him to flourish can provide an understanding of the causes behind his success in acquiring political authority. While there is no one sufficient cause that can be blamed, Trump’s expertise in branding and reality TV, GOP voters molded by decades of right-wing news media, and Hillary Clinton’s inadequate campaign were all major factors responsible for creating the monster that is President Trump.
I realize that many people might object to calling him a monster and still more would find it a dubious proposition at all. However, causal analysis can show that Trump conforms to and exemplifies several of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s seven theses of Monster Theory; a set of postulates through which one deconstructs certain elements of society by examining its monsters. That being said, there are many people across the world on whom Trump’s actions have inflicted real harm, and so he can be characterized as monstrous in a more colloquial sense of the word. A quick Googling of Trump’s past business dealings readily shows him to be genuinely sleezy person: he’s infamous for “refusing to pay contractors, violating fair labor standards,” ripping people off in real estate investments, scamming even more with a fake university, and, for all that and more, he’s been in a staggering number of lawsuits exceeding 3,500 (Neidig). While he has a long, well-recorded history of being a scumbag in America, there are foreign cases that really give a sense of just how terrible his businesses could be. It is “no secret that Donald Trump has profited from the same” cheap and often exploitive “overseas labor that he has decried as a presidential candidate,” but as revealed by Vice’s Ben Anderson, the conditions of workers building the Trump International Golf Club in Dubai, UAE are absolutely inhumane.
Enticed with promises of high wages and good living conditions, these migrant workers arrive as indentured servants in Dubai where employers are able to withhold their passports until they pay off the debt incurred to get them there. With such low wages compared to what they were promised, these people were stuck, and thus the Trump project’s “labor force” was indeed forced labor. Trump’s organization issued a piece absolving him of blame and stating, “Trump has a zero-tolerance policy for unlawful labor practices.” Although it seems reasonable that Trump had no administrative connection to the exploited workers, it is clear that his above-touted zero-tolerance policy is not sufficient reason to pull his name from that project, or to stop his other ventures from using what in Dubai and other countries is effectively de facto slavery. Trump’s apathy towards morality and human dignity should, like the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age, earn him the public scorn typically reserved for social monsters.
It is apparent that Trump’s greed and disregard for others are responsible for his shady business affairs, and he’s persisted with his unscrupulous practices because they’ve worked and he’s gotten away with many of them. However, the causes behind his political ascendancy are not so clear since many of them go beyond Trump himself. First and foremost among these is the American political climate in recent years.
For decades now, conservatives across the country have increasingly moved towards media outlets like Fox News as their sole source of news and political information because such sources are biased towards right-wing political agendas. Once Roger Ailes—the man who had since Nixon helped GOP candidates win elections by using television to their advantage—was hired to build Fox News into an anti-liberal, anti-regulation broadcasting network for billionaire Rupert Murdoch, right-leaning voters have gradually isolated themselves from mainstream news feeds. Ailes had realized early that television is a medium yielding itself to emotion, and by the time he was advising George H.W Bush in 1992, his approach was to “forget all the facts and figures […] and move to the offense as quickly as possible,” (Dickinson). He brought this philosophy with him to Fox News in 1996 and has since consolidated much of the GOP base into an audience for his conservative and evangelist propaganda disguised as journalism. One need only turn on Fox News channel to witness the incredible onslaught of unfounded claims and fear-driven narratives pumped out on a daily basis. Having turned out GOP voters for years, Eric Levitz of New York Magazine succinctly describes the effects of this kind of media thus:
In addition to helping Republicans win elections, the right-wing echo-chamber has given the party a freer hand once in power. More tax cuts for the wealthy, less social insurance for the working class, and near-total impunity for polluters and predatory lenders is not a popular platform, even with Republican voters. But by supplying conservatives with “alternative facts” about such policies; stoking their cultural resentments and racialized fears; and branding all non-conservative media as biased or liberal (or, in today’s parlance, “fake news”) the GOP has succeeded in retaining the loyalty of its grassroots, while betraying their stated preferences on a wide range of economic issues.
The individuals who watch Fox and sources like it tend not to receive information from other places that may contradict their beliefs, and since the info they do get often ranges from questionable to wildly inaccurate to outright false, the outlets that feed them their news have free reign to manufacture public opinion to a wide audience. Moreover, Trump’s seizing upon this opportunity makes him reflective of Cohen’s fourth thesis stating that “the monster is difference made flesh, come to dwell among us,” (7). The difference he symbolizes is that of political beliefs between so many people across the U.S.; a hyper-partisanship that contributed to his being elected. Trump himself stated in a ’99 Wall Street Journal interview that “the Republicans are captives of their right wing,” and this turned out to be his ticket to the White House. Having such a captive base ready for the taking was a crucial necessary cause for his victory.
With the political culture cultivated by Fox, Trump’s exceptional ability to con people has made him a star in Republican news media. In fact, social psychologists Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam have asserted that “Trump’s political success derived from his skills as an entrepreneur of identity— his ability to represent himself and his platform in ways that resonated with his would-be followers’ experience of their world.” Like Roger Ailes, Trump truly understood how people consume media other than the written word, which is to say with emotion. Trump also saw that many people felt left behind in a rapidly changing world, “missing the generation-long transition of the U.S. away from manufacturing into a diverse, information-driven economy deeply intertwined with the rest of the world,” (Reicher and Haslam). Regardless of however great Trump’s insight into how his supporters felt, he merely used it to better propagate falsehoods that make him look good and get voters riled up. His ability to deceive people en masse is second-to-none, and his inventing the concepts of “fake news” and “alternative facts” with Kelly-Ann Conway has been a pioneering achievement in the art of manipulating public opinion in America. In fact, it is in these subversive phrases that Trump embodies Cohen’s third thesis wherein “the monster refuses easy categorization… and so the monster is dangerous [… a figure] that threatens to smash distinctions,” (6). Those who supported Trump from within the Republican media bubble were unable to distinguish between fact and his campaign’s made-up fiction; and it is a common belief that this effect was exacerbated by the sheer volume of bullshit that Trump himself continuously put out there. Somewhere during his candidacy, it reached a point where, as John Oliver pointed out in February 2016, “even when you can demonstrably prove Trump to be wrong, it somehow never seems to matter.” This idea is reflective of Cohen’s second thesis, “the monster always escapes:” in Trump’s case particularly, “we see the damage that the monster wreaks […] by a logic that always threatens to shift; invigorated by change and escape,” (4-5). No matter how many lies the man tells, some excuse or diversion will be offered, and the next day The Donald is back on TV or Twitter to spout off more nonsense.
Time and time again, despite his many failed endeavors and even bankruptcies, Donald Trump has been able to maintain an image of wealth and success, his hyped-up name and celebrity status giving him power over the perception of many. Trump’s image and deceptive capabilities were important contributing factors to the growth of his political following, his skills at disguising ill-conceived ideas as winning investments an indispensable tool to the campaign.
Another important cause responsible for Trump’s electoral victory is the curse that was Hillary Clinton’s campaign. While arguably a more qualified candidate than Trump for any sort of public office, Clinton’s bid for president was plagued by events out of her control in addition to her own strategic shortcomings on the campaign trail. In terms of the popular vote, Clinton actually had higher numbers than Trump, though her 2.8 million-vote lead counted for nothing in the face of the electoral college. According to Domenico Montanaro of NPR, Clinton failed to reach the numbers that Obama was able to turn out among black (88% vs. 93%), Latino (65% vs. 71%), and 18-29 year-old (55% vs. 60%) voters in addition to garnering less votes in the Midwest and Pennsylvania overall. Furthermore, Trump’s capturing of white working-class and noncollege-degree voters gave him the push he needed to win several key states. These outcomes happened for several reasons. For one thing, Trump was simply louder than Clinton and always in the news for some controversy or other, so his statements, tinged with white nationalism, were more proliferous than hers. She also failed to clinch “traditionally Democratic blue-collar districts [in lieu of] trying to win over moderate Republicans,” (Montanaro). Another part of Clinton losing with white working-class voters is due to her blanket statement regarding Trump’s followers: “calling half of Trump supporters ‘deplorables’” pretty much forsook any chance she had of changing their minds to vote for her (Montanaro). Insulting your audience usually is not a great way to gain their favor, and wasting time trying undo that mistake rather than go after blue-leaning swing districts were crucial errors of the Clinton campaign.
Moving towards other influences on voter turnout, many undecided voters were heavily influenced by the Russian interference in the election. Extremist propaganda circulated through the country via “hundreds of social media accounts impersonating real and fictitious Americans [… that] paid for ads[…] directed to create ‘political intensity through supporting radical groups’ and to criticize Hillary Clinton, but not Donald J. Trump,” (Parlapiano and Lee). As if manipulating public opinion wasn’t enough tampering, Russian interference extended as far as attempted hacking of vote-counting machines. The extent to which the Trump campaign encouraged and possibly colluded with these foreign saboteurs is still being investigated by Robert Mueller and his team. Nonetheless, the massive degree of demonization that these Russian bots spread about Clinton on social media led people to think that Trump was “the lesser of two evils.” This mentality was solidified for many people in the wake of “FBI director James Comey’s eleventh-hour announcements about Clinton’s e-mails,” (Reicher and Haslam). As he reignited the controversy surrounding Clinton’s email scandal, Comey’s statement a week before the election was a precipitating cause for Trump’s victory as it cemented the position of many undecided voters leaning Trump and shifted even more voters over to his camp. Clinton’s failure to reach blue-collar and white non-college voters combined with Russian interference and Jim Comey’s last-minute email announcements effectively weakened her voter turnout in all the right electoral districts to give Trump the win.
Now, to be truthful, it would take a whole book to analyze every detail as to what all caused Trump’s victory, though an attempt to discuss the major factors has been made here. While his success at branding, insulting people, and selling confidence in simple ideas sealed the deal for him in the GOP primaries, Trump never would have made it were it not for the Fox News culture that the right has nurtured for so long. As Cohen states in his seventh thesis, “the monster asks us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions,” and it is clear that Trump as a candidate and now as president is demanding the American public to reevaluate how they see truth (20). Because of the conservative media bubble, enough of the American people have been prepared to do just that. Trump’s strongman demagoguery and Hillary Clinton’s mismanaged and misfortunate campaign took it from there, and with a little help from the Russians and the ill-timed James Comey, President Donald Trump is still a reality that we’re all living through.
Anderson, Ben. “Trump in Dubai.” VICE, season 4, episode 10, HBO, 22 April 2016.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture: Seven Theses.” From Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Dickinson, Tim. “How Roger Ailes Built the Fox News Fear Factory.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 25 June 2018, www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/how-roger-ailes-built-the-fox-news-fear-factory-244652/.
Helderman, Rosalind S., and Tom Hamburger. “Trump Has Profited from Foreign Labor He Says Is Killing U.S. Jobs.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 13 Mar. 2016, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-decries-outsourced-labor-yet-he-didnt-seek-made-in-america-in-2004-deal/2016/03/13/4d65a43c-e63a-11e5-b0fd-073d5930a7b7_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.cbc10f887f83.
Levitz, Eric. “Trump’s Base Has Become Too Delusional For the GOP’s Own Good.” New York Magazine, Intelligencer, 20 Aug. 2018, nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/08/trumps-base-is-now-too-delusional-for-the-gops-own-good.html.
Montanaro, Domenico. “7 Reasons Donald Trump Won The Presidential Election.” NPR, NPR, 12 Nov. 2016, http://www.npr.org/2016/11/12/501848636/7-reasons-donald-trump-won-the-presidential-election.
Neidig, Harper. “Report: Trump Has Refused to Pay Hundreds of Workers.” The Hill, 9 June 2016, thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/presidential-races/282933-report-trump-has-refused-to-pay-hundreds-of-workers.
Oliver, John. “Donald Trump.” Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, season 3, episode 3, HBO, 28 February 2016.
Parlapiano, Alicia, and Jasmine C. Lee. “The Propaganda Tools Used by Russians to Influence the 2016 Election.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Feb. 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/02/16/us/politics/russia-propaganda-election-2016.html.