The Long Read: Whether he wins the US presidency or not, his rise reveals a growing attraction to political demagogues and points to a wider crisis of democracy
It was the night the American media were too demure to call Pussygate. At the time, Donald Trump had won nothing. Twenty-four hours later, he would be celebrating his first victory in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, setting him on the path to face Hillary Clinton in November. But on this frigid Monday night in February, while a blizzard whipped outside, Trump stood before a packed Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire and prepared to unleash his tongue.
After a rambling monologue that moved from his TV career to the happy, sunny world that would follow his elevation to the White House, Trump came to another of his pet themes: the inadequacies of his rivals. He was attacking the Texas senator Ted Cruz for being insufficiently enthusiastic about the torture technique of waterboarding when a woman in the standing area directly in front of the stage, a kind of Trumpian moshpit, called out, Hes a pussy! Trump pretended to look appalled, even walking away from the lectern in faux disgust, before finally, as if under pressure, repeating the insult for the benefit of the cameras that might not have caught it. She said, Hes a pussy. Thats terrible Maam, youre reprimanded, he told the heckler, in the manner of a lax teacher going through the disciplinary motions.
And thus Trump secured his dominance over yet another news cycle as the talkshows, cable TV and his fellow candidates all debated his lapse into vulgarity. As he has been throughout this campaign, starting in July of last year, Trump was the star of the show.
At the same time, he sent a powerful signal. Its the same one he transmits every time he denounces political correctness or violates one of its supposed strictures: mocking the disabled, judging women by their looks, bragging about his fortune, insisting that, when he is in charge, shop workers will go back to saying Merry Christmas rather than Happy Holidays. The message every time is the same. It says: Im outside the system. I dont obey its rules. Im different.
Why is this so effective? How have these outbursts which were at first assumed to be terminal to his candidacy instead garnered him endless media attention and, more important, millions of votes?
Part of it is sheer showbiz. Ever since he got himself a daily place in the New York tabloids in the 1980s, Trump has known that outrage sells. Long before Australian political consultant Lynton Crosby advised his clients to change the subject by throwing a dead cat on the table, Trump understood that people will always tune in to watch a taboo being broken.
An underestimated part of the formula is humour. Trump is funny. His speech pattern is funny, his use of the word so is funny Its gonna be so great his flamboyant self-love is funny, his mocking of his enemies is funny.
But most powerful is the thrill Trump generates in the room, and in the audience watching on TV, when he dares reject the rules of the game. For those voters who feel the game is rigged who feel that the game has turned them into perennial losers the sight of someone prepared to defy its conventions is exhilarating. It signals the arrival of an outsider, a maverick unbound to the old order and ready to destroy it in favour of something entirely new.
For his followers, Trumps willingness to trample on the pieties of civic discourse is a sign of his bona fides, even a statement of intent. If hes prepared to say that about Carly Fiorinas face, maybe hell be prepared to come down hard on an American company about to relocate a manufacturing plant from the US to Mexico. After all, hes clearly not fettered by the restraints that hold back the rest of those politicians.
On this logic, Trump is the fearless truth-teller. Which may seem an odd accolade to give a man who has been caught out as a serial liar and perhaps the most provenly dishonest candidate to seek, let alone win, the nomination of a major US party. But that is to forget that Trumps core supporters believe it is the establishment the media and political elites that have lied to them for at least two decades. So when those same elites brand Trump a liar, his supporters either dont believe it, or else they dont care.
For the next five months, Trump will face off against Hillary Clinton the ultimate embodiment of the US political elite in what looks fated to be the ugliest campaign in living memory. But even if he loses, hes proved that he has deep appeal to a section of the US electorate that has come to regard him as their champion.
Their anger, which Trump has so deftly tapped, goes beyond this or that party, or even the current economic situation. He is channeling a rage at the state of Americas political system. And this fury is not confined to the US. There are versions of it surging across the world, hot with wrath at the status quo. In almost every case, those voicing it claim to be speaking for the people and for true democracy. But in their most extreme forms they threaten to shade into something darker: a revolt against the norms, the agreed boundaries, that make democracy possible.
The day after Pussygate, Trump won a crushing victory in New Hampshire, defeating his nearest rival by 20 points.And yet even then, he was still being dismissed. The pundits remained adamant that he would implode, that sooner or later the Republican electorate would cohere around one of the other contenders, that Trump could not be for real. After all, despite the rising discontent in western democracies, the people who actually win elections in the worlds richest nations still tend to be the likes of Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and David Cameron, with not a rabble-rouser among them.
But that was to reckon without a trend visible across the democratic world. While every case is different, it is undeniable that populists and demagogues are making extraordinary strides, the examples almost too numerous to list. The worlds largest democracy, India, is now led by a Hindu nationalist, one distinguished by what his critics fear is a wide authoritarian streak. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoan, whose AK party won a sweeping victory against the established parties in 2002, has become increasingly dictatorial with each passing year. In France, Marine Le Pen and her nativist Front National denounce a political establishment which she alleges has betrayed the (white, non-Muslim) people of France. Hungarys prime minister Viktor Orbn makes a similar pitch. Earlier this year, German regional elections produced a surge for a party making much the same case: the far-right Alternative fr Deutschland. And the tune is echoed by the Danish Peoples party, the Swedish Democrats, which has roots in neo-Nazism, the party formerly known as theTrue Finns as well as the Peoples Party of Switzerland. In Holland the notoriously anti-Muslim Geert Wilders is still a dominant figure. Britain has its own low-tar version of the type in Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence party which garnered four million votes at the 2015 election. Coming in a parliamentary system all but designed to thwart such an insurgency, it showed that Britain too is not immune to the appeal of populism.
The individual personalities and contexts are different, but this disparate collection of parties and candidates feed on the same discontent. Usually the voters rallying to populist insurgents are those who feel failed by conventional politics, left behind either economically or culturally. They are the ones whose incomes have been squeezed, whose jobs have been shipped abroad or who simply have seen their neighbourhoods transformed before their eyes, by a changing, diversifying population. If two decades of globalisation have had their winners and losers, it is, brutally, the losers who are rallying to the populist flag though that flag comes in stripes and colours that vary from country to country.
Indeed, it can be deepest red. For the disaffected are also heeding populist appeals from the left, from Bernie Sanders to Podemos, from Jeremy Corbyn to Syriza, appeals which adopt the usual motifs of populism speaking for an oppressed majority against a corrupt political elite together with an assault on a reviled economic establishment.
What connects many not all of these figures is a rejection of the political system as it currently stands. The new populists dont simply say that the ruling party has failed and now the opposition should have a turn. They insist that the entire system is broken.
This is why Trump rails against Republicans as splenetically as he does Democrats. And this, its worth stressing, is the meaning of Pussygate and the rest of his serial violations of conventional political etiquette: through them Trump signals that he represents a total rupture from a system he insists has failed.
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