Election 2016

Hey Pundits and the Media, Wake Up! Trump’s Appeal Is Not Rational—His Formula Is Based on Fear

The establishment hand-wringers just don't get it.

We are in the official Trump panic period. The punditocracy and the Republican establishment are mystified. The pundits have floundered around, unable to explain Trump’s popularity and why his supporters stick with him even after he has broken virtually every cardinal rule of politics, attacking war heroes, popular women and even the Pope, all the while staying on top of the polling heap. He has given a whole new meaning to the nickname “Teflon Don” (which was originally coined for Mafia boss John Gotti, to whom charges never seemed to stick).

Now, the pundits and Republican “leaders” and right-wing editorial writers are all pleading with these same voters to have the good sense to reject the guy with all the firepower. After years of Fox and the establishment making Trump into a huge media star— some version of America’s collective id—they want people to vote for Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio… mostly Rubio. Really? They think this is going to work? At least Hillary has a brand, shaky as it is. But it seems that Trump’s base of support is pretty solid. The proverbial horses have already left the barn.

The punditocracy and the GOP establishment don’t understand why people are not listening to them; why the voters do not get it. They can’t just chalk voter attitudes up to irrational racism; the pundits are unrealistically committed to rational thinking.

But, hello. Voting, like many other human activities, is emotional, not rational. The fact is that people have been voting against their own rational self interests for a long time. The secret to Trump’s appeal lies in emotions like fear and anger; it’s not a rational force that can be whittled away with pragmatic pleading about future destruction and preserving the existence of the Republican Party. That doesn’t cut it. Many people feel like their lives have already been destroyed.

The Trump Brand

Have all these hand-wringers thought about the fact that Trump has by far the most powerful brand in this presidential race? Ours is a society where brand is king, as Nike, Apple, Google, and for that matter, Beyonce and Jay Z can attest. Trump’s brand ironically took his bullying style to such iconic status that when anyone thinks of the once generic words, “You’re fired,” they think of Donald Trump. It’s as if he owns the phrase.

Trump’s success as a candidate is not magical, despite the inability of pundits to either grasp it or anticipate its power. It has been a long time in the making—decades. Its ingredients include Trump’s essential bullying nature, Fox and the rest of the media enabling him over many years, his celebrity status built on the 14-year run of “The Apprentice,” and the economic insecurity tens of millions of people feel every day and their constant bombardment with messages of fear, over the course of the 15 years since 9/11. All  of this has left many voters infantilized and ready to turn to a “strongman.”

Trump's Long Run for President

Trump seems to have been planning this presidential run since he ran for president in 2012, which many people don't seem to remember. But actually the Trump presidential gambit goes back 28 years to 1988, when a GOP activist, unhappy with the candidates, started a draft Trump movement, perhaps planting the earliest seeds. In 2000, he quit the Republicans, saying they "were too crazy right," and contemplated running on New York's Independence Party line. In the end, he opted out of running against Pat Buchanan for the nod, saying ironically about Buchanan: “He’s a Hitler lover, I guess he’s an anti-Semite,” on Meet the Press. “He doesn’t like the blacks, he doesn’t like the gays.”

Trump was talking about running again in 2004, but instead launched his highly successful "Apprentice" series. Then came 2012, the real movement builder. Prior to the 2012 presidential race, Trump had gained notoriety for questioning President Obama’s citizenship (claims that were false) and had indicated he was serious about seeking the GOP nomination to challenge Obama’s re-election bid. “America is missing quality leadership,” he said at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2011. “I am well acquainted with winning.” He disputed notions that his favorable standing in polls was simply a product of name recognition and not his proposals, telling USA Today: “Something resonates with people; people know I’m a serious person.” 

In the end Trump stepped aside, citing his love for business and saying he was not ready to leave the private sector. Looking back on the 2012 campaign-that-wasn’t in an interview with the Des Moines Register in January, the Donald had some regrets. “I would’ve won the race against Obama. He would’ve been easy,” he said.

Trump and the Media

Trump dominates and is often fawned over by the same media that is now so panicked about him. They have enabled and perpetuated his messages. He built part of the foundation of this presidential campaign with his long-running anti-Obama birther claims. Though these claims had no factual basis, Fox and other conservative and even mainstream media dutifully provided the platform that validated many people’s irrational fears of Obama.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich recently reminded the hosts of Fox & Friends that they had essentially “invented” Donald Trump’s candidacy by promoting him in friendly weekly interviews for years. "Fox & Friends" host Steve Doocy pointed out to Gingrich on Monday that the Republican Party establishment was “uncomfortable with Trump ...This is their nightmare scenario,” Doocy observed. 

“The billionaire is spending the least amount of money and running away with this thing,” co-host Brian Kilmeade noted.

“That’s because of you guys,” Gingrich interrupted. “Donald Trump gets up in the morning, tweets to the entire planet at no cost, picks up the phone, calls you, has a great conversation for about eight minutes — which would have cost him a ton in commercial money. And meanwhile, his opponents are all out there trying to raise the money to run an ad.”

Many voters perceive the Trump brand as truly independent of the political system, the same “evil system” the right-wing GOP has taught voters to despise and feel paranoid about. As sitting senators, Cruz and Rubio are by definition entrenched in that very system. Add to the mix that Trump has an uncanny ability to articulate many of the darker sentiments that a lot of people—particularly working-class white men—apparently harbor. But until “Mr Strongman” came along, many of them felt they had to keep those feelings in the closet. No longer. The media icon with the successful brand and his billions says it is all right to think and blurt out these politically incorrect, nasty things.  

Trump is also the first truly social media-created candidate. He is not just a passive media creation. With his use of Twitter, and the media’s cooperation, of course, he is able to control the narrative each and every day, because what he says is often so provocative, it attracts attention, eyeballs and TV watchers and becomes part of the discussion. More than ever for virtually all of media, the game is about getting those eyeballs and traffic, which is usually the lowest common denominator, right where Trump tends to be.

Trauma America

But perhaps more importantly than fretting about Trump, the elite panicked thinkers and even progressive analysts might contemplate this: we live in a traumatized country where tens of millions of people live in a state of economic and emotional fear; where the future looks very bleak, and white men are committing suicide with guns, drugs and alcohol at shocking levels; where politics have become completely polarized and the fear of terrorist attacks is almost part of the water supply. Social media has turned some communication into bloodsport and bullying, and the news cycle is a constant 24/7 if it bleeds it leads, i.e. in which city did which cop kill which black teenager today? No wonder people are traumatized.

Writers and analysts have come up with many explanations for the Trump voter: racism, scapegoating, demagoguery, the media, celebrity and the outsized influence of money on the political system. Sure, these are all interrelated factors and certainly the media is the delivery system for fear messages. But they are all symptoms of the deeper power of fear and insecurity our leaders and especially the right-wing have peddled since 9/11 and before. Terrible things are right around the corner unless we change our tune, become more belligerent, keep immigrants out with a wall, turn Muslims into pariahs and force them out—all not-very-coded appeals to insecure white voters. We’ve seen this movie before. Similar fear-mongering hastened the social decline that led to fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism.

As I wrote last March,

“People cannot think clearly when they are afraid. As numerous studies have shown, fear is the enemy of reason. It distorts emotions and perceptions, and often leads to poor decisions. For people who have suffered trauma, fear messages can sometimes trigger uncontrollable flight-or-fight responses with dangerous ramifications.

“Many interlocking aspects of our society have become increasingly sophisticated at communicating messages and information that produce fear responses. Advertising, political ads, news coverage and social media all send the constant message that people should be afraid—very afraid.”

There is the stark economic reality that exacerbates the fears. Nearly half (43.9 percent) of U.S. households live on the edge of financial collapse with almost no savings to fall back on in the event of a job loss, health crisis or other income-eliminating emergency, according to a report by the Corporation for Enterprise Development.

Things are as bad or worse for those in retirement or on the brink. In December 2014, 42.9 million people received Social Security retirement benefits that averaged $1,328.58 a month, or roughly $15,943 annually before taxes. One third, or 14.3 million people, derive almost all of their income this way.

On top of the rampant economic and emotionally insecurity, we collectively have endured 15 years of irresponsible post-9/11 fear-mongering about terrorism that has fundamentally changed the nature of American culture. We are a profoundly different country due to the disastrous reactions of Bush/Cheney/Rice to a small group of highly lethal suicide bombers that were clearly overlooked by the Bush White House.

This fear quotient is ever-present and powerful as Noam Chomsky underscores in response to a question about how he explains Trump’s success in an interview recently posted on AlterNet:

“Fear, along with the breakdown of society during the neoliberal period. People feel isolated, helpless, victim of powerful forces that they do not understand and cannot influence. It’s interesting to compare the situation in the ‘30s, which I’m old enough to remember. Objectively, poverty and suffering were far greater. But even among poor working people and the unemployed, there was a sense of hope that is lacking now, in large part because of the growth of a militant labor movement and also the existence of political organizations outside the mainstream.

History suggests that when people are in fear, they turn to bullies for protection—fascists like Mussolini and Hitler, and the Spanish version, caudillos like Franco and Chavez—strongmen who were often charismatic and whose hold on power depended on control over armed followers, patronage, and vigilance.” 

The Trump Appeal

Interestingly, Americans have never had a prototypical strongman run for president in our lifetime: someone who doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks, and will "tell it like it is." And the guys who threaten to come to the rescue, like Michael Bloomberg and Ross Perot, are softspoken, very wealthy technocrats. The Trump strongman tells everyone who will listen that he will make America great again. We will put up walls, we will throw out Muslims, we will have a purer America we can feel proud of.

For desperate people, angry people, fearful people, for the millions of alcoholics, addicts and abused people in America, that is a powerful message. They have no hope. This successful guy, loved and often ass-kissed by American media, is giving them hope. What is the alternative?

We have known forever that many people do not vote on the issues, but rather personalities. We have known that larger numbers of voters are what some call low-information voters, meaning they are neither informed nor interested in facts or policy alternatives but respond to meta messages. Voters like these make up the large percentage of people who, for example, think Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim. They vote emotionally, out of fear, or to follow God. They have been conditioned to hate, resent, blame and feel victimized by the great liberal conspiracy that gave us Obama.

Perfecting the Art of Hate Speech

In his speeches, Trump often mines the fevered recesses of the right-wing psyche — and his crowds love him for it. The Hill reports that at a primary election-eve rally in Charleston, South Carolina, Trump told an apocryphal story about how Gen. John Pershing dealt with Muslim terrorists in the U.S.-occupied Philippines of the early 20th century.

“He took 50 bullets and he dipped them in pig’s blood. And he had his men load his rifles and he lined up the 50 people, and they shot 49 of those people,” Trump said, as the crowd cheered. “And the 50th person, he said, ‘You go back to your people and you tell them what happened.’ And for 25 years there wasn’t a problem.”

According to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center "points to the presidential election cycle as one of the primary reasons for the rising number of hate groups across the U.S., saying last year was marked by a level of hate speech in mainstream politics not seen in decades." The report says, "Donald Trump’s demonizing statements about Latinos and Muslims have electrified the radical right, leading to glowing endorsements from white nationalist leaders such as Jared Taylor and former Klansman David Duke. White supremacist forums are awash with electoral joy, having dubbed Trump their 'Glorious Leader.'" 

Trump has built his brand for several decades and it always has the same ingredients: frame the story and get the media to focus attention on him, go on the attack, threaten lawsuits. Keep it simple: me versus them. His basic message: I am the only one who really knows how to get things done. In the beginning years, "The Apprentice" averaged more than 20 million viewers a show. A lot of people learned to see Donald Trump as the boss, a man of action.

Longtime Trump Observer

I have been an often appalled Trump observer since the 1970s, as his role in New York City politics and public life foreshadowed his role on the national and international scene. One myth-making Trumpcapade sticks out in my memory:

“Once upon a time there was an ice skating rink in Central Park that could no longer make ice. No one could figure out how to fix the skating rink. Years went by and millions of dollars were spent and still no ice. One day a white knight wearing a bright red tie showed up and said: ‘Let there be ice!’ Four months later there was ice. When asked by the press why the people had been unable to fix the rink themselves, the knight said, ‘They’re very nice people and I like them very much, but they’re all idiots!’ And everyone lived happily ever after.”

As Forbes explained, this is, “Pretty much the true story of the Wollman Skating Rink fiasco. You can even check theNew York Times. On May 31, 1986 Donald Trump said in an interview with the Times, “I don’t want my name attached to losers. So far the Wollman Rink has been one of the great losers. I’ll make it a winner.”

And he did. And it has been successful ever since, and the Trump logo is still attached to the rink website.

So there we have it. Donald Trump—a powerful brand, a magnet for authoritarian desires, a unique figure in American culture, a prime product of a media machine that is about conflict and controversy, not facts or good judgment. Unfortunately, the fear about Trump becoming the nominee and even president is overshadowed by the overall climate of fear in the country that has made Trump the logical person for many people to turn to. Whether it all leads to a shocking development in American politics or just a close call remains to be seen.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

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