By request this week, my take on the phenomenon of Donald Trump.
Now, there’s a lot that can and has been said about the apparent popularity of Trump. Among some of the more salient points:
-Trump appeals to mid-to-lower class Americans who feel that “something” is wrong with the US. Having lived through the American ‘victory’ in the Cold War, these people are somewhat baffled to see the triumph of that era collapse so quickly. They want someone to explain it to them, which Trump does (if wrongly and stupidly).
-Trump is a dumpster fire, and attracts media attention with every increasingly noxious emission.
-Trump defies the previous pattern, in which a candidate could be shamed into resigning when they said something embarrassing.
-Trump’s support has probably plateaued, and part of the reason he’s been the front-runner with only 25-30% of Republican primary voters (not the general population) is that the rest of the field is badly split.
There are lots of things to be read about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and I’m not all that interested in just rehashing what’s been said. However, I do think I have an original thought to contribute. It’s pretty speculative and way more unsubstantiated than what I normally write, but here it is:
The success of Donald Trump can in part be linked to the popularity of conspiracy theories. The same mechanism is at work in both cases.
Conspiracy theories, ultimately, are about control. People believe in conspiracy theories because the world is a messy, complicated place. In that context, a conspiracy can be reassuring. So if it’s not the US government who’s in control, at least someone is. Even if that someone is the new world order/lizard people/the international Jew. Conspiracy theories exist because the idea that the universe is random is a terrifying thought for a lot of people.
So it goes with Trump. The US has been in a rocky economic situation for almost a decade now, in spite of the efforts of many different people. The causes of this situation are numerous, and none is easily fixed. Certain people are definitely to blame, but the whole of the mess can’t be laid at any one person’s feet.
That’s difficult to explain to people, and it’s scary, because it means things won’t change anytime soon.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, has no end of easy fixes. Illegal immigration? Build a wall! Cost of the wall? Make Mexico pay for it! China’s economic power? Stand up to China! Terrorism? Ban Muslims!
It’s the absolute lowest possible denominator, and it only works with the part of the population who are unwilling to give things even the smallest amount of scrutiny. Pointing out that every single thing Donald Trump says is absurd is pointless. If someone believes it to begin with, they’re already drunk the Kool Aid.
Not only does Trump provide easy fixes, he also identifies a cause, and does so in a way that confirms pre-existing suspicions. As Moe once said in The Simpsons on hearing the mayor blame immigrants for bear attacks: “Ah, immigrants! I knew it was them! Even when it was the bears, I knew it was them immigrants!”
To bring it all around, an average American, working poor, hasn’t seen a real raise in 20 years, seeing nothing but economic uncertainty and turmoil in what he understands of the world, despairs. And then Donald Trump, the political equivalent of a Whoopie Cushion, comes along and says “You’re not crazy. Someone is causing this: [Muslims/Mexicans/liberals]. Wouldn’t it be better if someone like you was in control? Well guess what? That’s me!”
The bigger problem is, a variation on that sales pitch is being made by every major presidential hopeful, including Democrats. Switch the part about who’s responsible [corporations/the military-industrial complex/the Republicans], and it’s the same script. Donald Trump is the most extreme, which gives him attention, but also imposes a ceiling on how popular he can become. But as long as politics is sold as a game of obvious villains and easy solutions, people are going to be disappointed, and some of those people are going to susceptible to conspiratorial thinking.