Donald Trump is a buffoon. He is a demagogue. He rambles incongruently, bewailing the tripartite menaces of Mexico, China and Islam to animate the atavistic nativism of his ass-whoopin’, gun-totin’ supporters. But he is not an idiot, and to dismiss the easily stereotyped Trumpeteer as such would be foolhardy.
It may be unsurprising that Mr Trump’s vocabulary in his bombastic campaign speeches scores at a reading age of less than 10 – compared to 14 years and above for most of his presidential rivals. He relies on short, blocky words such as “SAD!”, “GREAT!”, “DUMB!”, “LIAR!” and “STUPID!”. He asks himself questions and proceeds to ad lib a crowd-pleasing answer. His reductionist geopolitical solutions – “bomb the hell outta them!” and “I’m gonna take the oil!” – may not impress security experts, but they strike a chord with millions of untrusting voters. When he senses he may be losing the attention of his crowd, he resorts to the war cry of Trumpery: “I’m gonna build a great, huge, tremendous wall along the border – and it’ll be a beautiful wall”, he promises his followers, “and who’s gonna pay for it?”; “Mexico!” they howl back in unison, whooping and chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” as they go. His simpleton language and pantomime performances, though, are clearly cutting through to a hefty proportion of Republican (and non-Republican) voters. Maybe we can learn something from the Donald.
“Leaders cannot please everyone all of the time, but they must at least attempt to please everyone some of the time”
The typical Trump voter is the angry voter; the left-behind voter; the losers from the game of globalisation. Free trade, mass migration and secular-liberal political correctness are what antagonise these voters. Most have lower levels of education and income; many are not even particularly ideological. But they harbour a great ire towards the elite; the free-trading, liberal Washington Establishment – Republican and Democrat – that they feel has sold them out. Mr Trump speaks to these anxieties and enmities. Psychologists reckon that his provocative, big-talking, simplistic answers to complex problems and his self-aggrandising outsider image attract many to his style. The instinctive reaction – to dismiss these voters as racist blockheads – only reinforces their anger. To scorn at them is to scorn at the insecurities of so many people. It is to scorn at democracy.
The grandstanding, virtue-signalling British MPs who petulantly called for Mr Trump to be banned from the UK showed a fundamental disrespect for this uncomfortable truth of any democratic system. We may state that only idiots or bigots hold certain unpalatable views – banning Muslim immigrants, for instance – but the nature of a democracy is that idiots and bigots are as entitled to their vote as is the holier-than-thou, sandal-wearing, tofu-eating, most metrosexual of liberal lefties. The established left, right and centre of US politics are reaping the punishment for years of condescension and disregard towards so many. Even now, his Republican rivals are failing – out of abject fear – to challenge him properly.
As the Founding Fathers knew, demagoguery was a vice to stable democratic politics and it does not suffice in the serious business of governing a nation – particularly not in the world’s largest economic and military power. Nonetheless, patrician elites who believe ‘they know best’ sow very potent seeds for revolt. Robotic politicians are dispiriting and creepy. It is part of the human psyche to put faith in people who sound like we want them to, even if we don’t entirely agree with what they’re saying.
I hope that Mr Trump will not win the Republican nomination – even more so, the presidency itself – but this grievous experience for the Grand Old Party should serve as a lesson to all believers in responsive democratic politics. Leaders cannot please everyone all of the time, but they must at least attempt to please everyone some of the time.