Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1329, (26 January - 1 February 2017)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1329, (26 January - 1 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The culture of Trump

There are powerful cultural explanations behind the electoral victories of new US President Donald Trump, writes Ammar Ali Hassan

The din of politics overwhelms. It drowns out all other sounds, even though these might be from forces having a stronger influence in shaping political stances and behaviour.

A case in point is the route pursued by billionaire businessman Donald Trump from the moment the idea of running for US president came into his head to last Friday when he was sworn into office as the 45th US president. The setting in which he conducted his campaign, the commotion it stirred and the factors that led to his success were all consummately cultural, from the values that prevailed in his publicity campaigns to the reinforcement of the exotic and the spectacular that he used in the media.

Along the way, the paradigm shifted, to use US philosopher Thomas Kuhn’s term, as circular and linear thought ceded way to the plexiform, and the role of the Internet in shaping people’s lives gained precedence over the ability of writers, artists and other cultural leaders to influence public opinion in the times of Twitter and Facebook.

Trump is an exponent of a cultural condition that is growing in the West. It emerged in Europe while it was still submerged in the US, but then it shot to the surface in all its glory. That condition is characterised by the rise of a pattern of perceptions and cultural values that is antithetical to everything the American political establishment and successive administrations in Washington have been exporting to the world as though they were incontrovertible and immutable truths.

Such is the nature of all empires that have ruled on earth from the Pharaonic to the American, passing through the Persian, Hellenic, Roman and Islamic empires up to the French and British colonial empires upon which the sun set in World War II. All these empires enveloped their expansionist drives in a cloak of humanistic values that spoke of liberation, equality, the end of exploitation and the attainment of the heights of progress and civilisation.

In the American case, this kind of propaganda has ceased to fool anyone because of the growing international awareness made possible by the communications revolution. The ideas of “benevolent intervention” and “liberation” through “regime change” can no longer be taken seriously by millions, and many have scathingly exposed the true nature of such drives.

Eventually this scepticism also began to spread to the US, where propaganda about the US role in spreading the values of democracy, championing human rights and promoting peace has begun to lose its power to convince Americans themselves. This is why the Democratic Party failed to attract a majority of voters by espousing this discourse, which can no longer match the lure of that which unashamedly promotes the opposite.

A second cultural fact behind the Trump victory can be found in the influence of ideas emanating from Europe on the American mentality. The US is a relatively new country, though it has its roots in the Old Continent and came into existence after eliminating or marginalising the indigenous inhabitants of the New. Every idea that emerged in Europe quickly found its way across the Atlantic. After all, most American pioneers in philosophy, political science, sociology, economy, psychology and other fields originally immigrated from Europe.

Most of these people even wrote their first works before emigrating to America in order to disseminate their ideas more fully and attain self-realisation.

This process still continues today. As a result, ideas first advocated by the European extreme-right have taken flight and soared across the Atlantic, intriguing the American public through news that is broadcast 24/7, articles that fill US newspapers and magazines, television programmes that leave nothing untouched and books from European languages that are translated into English.

In this state of affairs, it could not have been long before the rise and increasing popularity of the extreme-right in European political and social life would be mirrored in the US. This became patently obvious during the Trump campaign. His adversaries in the Democratic Party and in the camp of the party’s candidate Hillary Clinton believed that the outrageous ideas voiced by Trump would alienate people and lead to his defeat. Their predictions proved wrong.

But Trump’s victory also took the world by surprise. Public opinion outside the US was familiar with the European extreme-right. Europeans are more inclined to voice their political opinions than Americans, the majority of whom are more concerned with concerns that affect their daily lives, especially materially.

Such “pocketbook” issues have generally determined the outcomes of US presidential elections in the past. However, this time round the lure of extremist ideas took an increasing hold among large segments of the American public, regardless of the decades of efforts that had been made to reinforce ideas of civil rights, equality, freedom and the values of citizenship.

These extremist ideas then precipitated a wave of votes for Trump that brought him a comfortable lead in the election campaign and defied the predictions of the opinion polls and political analysts.

PUBLIC DECLINE: A third cultural factor behind the Trump victory relates to the declining power of cultural figures to influence public opinion in the US.

There used to be a political maxim that said that “the candidate that Hollywood supports will win.” But Trump broke this rule. Entertainment industry celebrities and others were opposed to Trump, and many aired their opinions about him openly and extensively. Some warned that his very candidacy was a disaster for the US and harmful to its image abroad. Others appeared on television, were active on Twitter and Facebook, or wrote articles or gave interviews in the press. But they did not succeed in diminishing Trump’s electoral prospects.

This is not surprising in the light of studies that have shown a decline in the role of public-opinion leaders in countries around the world. No sooner are their ideas and attitudes publicised than they are challenged and controversies are battled out on social-networking sites. As a result, the views of celebrities have lost much of their allure since the days when conversations were essentially one-sided and audiences were passive recipients.

The world has shifted from a circular or linear to an interactive mode of thought shaped by the Internet, with its clustering capacities, its fusion powers, and its sprawl across all shades of knowledge and ideas. Now a total unknown who posts news, ideas, or images on Twitter and Facebook can have a great or greater impact than any star of the screen or stage, however great their celebrity status.

A fourth cultural dimension behind Trump’s victory was the growing appeal of the exotic and the eccentric in literature and the arts, a trend reflected in fiction and cinema in the US. Trump himself personifies this phenomenon and not just in his political views. His lifestyle, attitudes towards social mores and political discourse all break familiar moulds. His choice of words, tone of voice, imagery and fantasies have all stirred the minds of his followers.

There has also been a wider rebellion against the traditional political elites that is more of a cultural phenomenon than a political one. The American people, especially the country’s young people, are fed up with the old establishment, which they see as merely rotating positions among its own elites, whether in the Oval Office or in other positions of power.

These people’s votes for Trump were a manifestation of this rebellion, which has been seething beneath the surface but which has not previously found an outlet because of the little difference between rival candidates for office. It is also a trend that has been evident for some time in European societies, where the younger generation has been voicing its discontent with the establishment of political parties for quite some time.

This is why the European extreme-right has been able to attract mounting support, and this phenomenon has now crossed the Atlantic and found its most successful beneficiary so far in Donald Trump.

The writer is a novelist and socio-political researcher.

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