Rich and an outsider, and rising in the polls on the wings of propaganda, Donald Trump could be the surprise of the US elections.
‘‘Could you imagine him in government? I think that would be awesome!” “What are you saying? What about our rights?” “We’re US citizens now, and we need someone like him to make America great again”.
This conversation between two Hispanic Americans was overheard in Mount Pleasant, a neighbourhood of Washington DC, shortly before the second-largest blizzard in US history, named Snowzilla, struck the city and buried it beneath a thick white blanket. The subject of the conversation was Donald Trump, the real estate magnate and reality TV star who is challenging the establishment and demonstrating that he is not afraid to speak his mind (“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and I still wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?”). In spite of the gaffes, Trump has been, and remains, the wild card of the US elections.
His comment that he might date Ivanka Trump were she not his daughter left many perplexed about whether or not he was being serious. Perhaps this was just a wisecrack to check the pulse of potential voters. Or maybe it was the latest attempt to liven up an electoral debate that has so far seemed sterile and distant from the reality of everyday American life. One thing is certain, according to a high-level official in the Obama administration speaking at a congressional event, “Only Trump can stop himself at this point. But frankly, I don’t see how”. In any other country, statements such as those made by Trump about Muslims, Mexicans and closing parts of the internet would have resulted in the candidate being hounded out of the electoral race by an indignant public, outraged over his antidemocratic style. But this is not the case. The media continuously cover Trump (thanks in part to the crisis in journalism, which is clearly not merely an Italian or European phenomenon). But people are also talking about the blonde-coiffed business magnate in the hipster coffee shops on 14th Street and in taquerìas in the northern part of Columbia Heights.
Why is Trump so popular, even in places where he really shouldn’t be? There are two main reasons. The first is clear: Trump is making a big investment, paying for his electoral campaign out of his own pocket. He didn’t seek financial backing from big pharma, Wall Street or corporate America. He is putting his money where his mouth is. This factor has helped him impress many voters that are tired of the old system of financing candidates. Hillary Clinton is openly sponsored by Warren Buffet, George Soros and Wells Fargo, Wall Street’s most stable bank. On the Republican front, prior to self-destructing with his inconsistency in the debates, Jeb Bush was supported by Goldman Sachs and Henry Paulson, secretary of the treasury at the time of Lehman Brothers’ collapse. The big players in the US market do not hide their political sympathies, but usually this inflames the (legitimate) suspicions of voters that, once in power, both Democratic and Republican candidates will repay those who financed their campaigns with favours.
To make a very general comparison, it’s possible to see the Trump phenomenon in the same light as the early days of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, railing against the establishment and calling for change. The continuous attacks against those whom Trump has branded “the old ruling class” are all hitting their targets, without exception. There is also a growing perception that, for the first time, the Iowa primaries will not set the pattern for the electoral campaign. A Carnegie political analyst explains, “We know that for Trump, Iowa counts little or nothing. He’s going to carry on speaking up, whatever. This is the real game changer”. The formula is simple: the louder Trump shouts, the more he manages to corner his adversaries, who are loathe to descend to his level, and so he manages to win approval.
The other reason that Trump is so popular is the context in which he is operating. America, explains a study by Stratfor at the end of 2015, needs an enemy in order to feel alive. Be it the Soviet Union, the financial world, Cuba, China or the stagnating economy, it doesn’t matter. Each time Washington has a clearly defined enemy, the US manages to win power and influence on the international stage. When America seeks dialogue and mediation, however, it risks failure. Trump can be seen to be providing US citizens the pretext to create a new enemy. Islamic State (IS), illegal immigration, energy independence, the abuse of the internet as well as the feeling of insecurity on the streets are all elements used ad hoc to both scare US citizens and fill them with indignation, just as Grillo’s Five Star Movement did, or tried to do.
We should not be surprised, therefore, if first- and second-generation Americans can also appreciate what Trump is saying. Clinton’s measured tones and rationality can’t win against slogans. That is, not unless she is prepared to enter the world of shouty politics, as radical Bernie Sanders has done. The 74-year-old US senator from Vermont now appears to be a genuine challenger to the former secretary of state in the race for the Democratic Party nomination.
Meanwhile, images of Columbine are still as painful for Americans as other recent episodes of gun violence, including the killings in San Bernardino. And the state appears to be losing legitimacy. The Black Lives Matter movement, highlighting the excessive use of force by police against the Afro-American population, is gaining momentum. The general opinion is that Barack Obama’s presidential legacy will not be one of the finest. On the world stage, the US has lost its central position in international diplomacy. And at home, there is a widespread feeling of insecurity among the population (see the increase in firearm sales in the last year). All this plays out against a backdrop of considerable uncertainty, from the declining manufacturing sector to the threat of international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and IS. This is the terrain that Trump appears to be riding through like a cowboy and that Clinton and Sanders, at least for now, seem unable to traverse.
So far, as various political sources have it, the only alternative would be Michael Bloomberg. The former New York mayor, a dignified operator, knows Trump well and also knows how to silence him. Many in the DC club hope that Bloomberg would succeed where a subdued Clinton, an explosive Sanders and a plethora of spineless Republican candidates haven’t. But is it already too late for Bloomberg to stop hurricane Trump?
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