Donald Trump and the Power of Rhetoric

A large part of politics is concerned with advertising. It might seem slightly distasteful that candidates making a bid for leadership positions in society, supposedly people with firm moral fiber and incorruptible characters, could be involved in self-promotion. Yet it is a truism. The endeavor is steeped in accusations ranging from the extreme of racist or misogynistic, through hypocrisy, to lighter imputations of disingenuousness and lying. Self-promotion becomes self aggrandizement: promises to fix all the ills afflicting society from poverty to fundamentalism are made regardless of the capacity to fulfill them, made only to pander to the electorate. Grandiloquence must be held together by a minimum of coherence, but the good politician knows to control his rhetoric and avoid becoming entrapped in inflexible vows – in other words lying, but painting it in other ways. That advertisement glosses over the truth or that it involves fabricating white lies and manipulating the presentation of supposed 'facts' disgusts the man of the masses, with his conceptions of integrity. The people need upright leaders who can be trusted to work for the betterment of the people. They require a figurehead to rally around. They need leaders who are not partial to temptation and who can carry the mantle of national pride. Such leaders are necessary to ensure efficient, well-run, incorruptible bureaucracies, to push reform where it is most needed, to avoid splitting the electorate and to draw compromises between the actors in society so as to mollify civil discontents and check radicalism. These same leaders are the face of their countries in relation to other international actors; they take steps to protect their country's sovereign boundaries and, together with financial departments and powerful business interests, steer the economy. The modern political leader is a statesman at the head of a vast bureaucratic machinery of hitherto unimaginable capacity for work. Nations today are richer, far more capable of coercion and able to exact great military destruction with more precision than the empires of the past. Politics is what makes leaders the controllers of power.

The apparent popularity of business tycoon, billionaire Donald J. Trump has stymied many observers. International actors have almost unanimously (exception: Vladimir Putin's Russia) condemned the aspirant as a demagogue, unfit to lead or create anything more than narcissistic reality television. Americans themselves have dragged his name through the gutter, accusing him of everything short of criminality and sometimes even of that, given his business background. To be fair, his rival at the upcoming election, the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, has to a lesser degree suffered the same thing, as allegations of her own ostensible criminality is paraded by Trump supporters.

The world faces an acute shortage of awareness. Some still believe that the chances are slim that Trump will actually become the next American president. Many thought his bid for the Republican nomination was a joke, yet here he stands as the Republican nominee. His actual accession to the Presidency of the most powerful country in the world is by no means guaranteed, but to think it impossible is foolishness bordering on lethality. The problem with American politics is that Trump might well be elected to the job based more on his popularity and penchant for populism than his suitability for the rigors of the Presidency. While I would not go so far as to call American politics 'patrimonial', a term coined by Francis Fukuyama to describe the situation where personal connections and proximity to the ruler rather than personal merit are the basis for one's appointment to important government positions, there has been an emergence of some form of 'patron-client' relationships whereby political favors are exchanged for support. The Wall Street lobby is one such example: stymy 'adventurous' financial reform in return for election 'donations', standard quid pro quo. The NRA is another such lobby; how else could lax gun control laws have persisted, in view of the human and national traumas of Sandy Hook, Orlando and other such tragedies?

Times have progressed from when such negotiations occurred behind closed doors. Transparency has laid bare the political decay at work in the United States and this has galvanized civil protest, targeted against social and economic inequality epitomized by the richest '%1'. The Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011 was one such instance. Recently, Senator Christopher Murphy of Connecticut managed to compel, or convince, congress to debate passing gun control laws after a 15-hour filibuster, and constitutes another instance where strong political interests are challenged.

What leaders say they will do to combat the pertinent issues in voters' minds therefore become prominent points debated at elections. In a perfectly functioning democracy, voters choose their head of state according to an objective analysis of whose programmatic policies best addresses their issues. Trump's flexible rhetoric, vague assertions, fantastical promises (not least the promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico) and inciteful words (ostensibly promoting racism against hispanics) belie any real policy framework. To 'Make America Great Again' requires some coherent plan beyond mere inflammatory remarks and demagoguery.

But the way American politics is structured, all that will matter only after, and if, Donald Trump becomes president. The democracy has become something akin to ochlocracy, or mob-rule. The ochlocracy favors demagogues who are able to resonate with voters not on the basis of structured policy frameworks but their ability in utilizing the art of persuasion. Rhetoric is their weapon of choice and although they might be charged with spreading hate, encouraging violence, inciting intolerance, succumbing to impulsiveness and alienating friends, and be guilty of all charges, all these fall to the wayside when it becomes clear voters prize his apparent willingness to do whatever it takes over misconceived notions of virtue. Only one in a series of Strongman type personalities that have been elected or are attempting to be elected to leadership positions, these aspirants use rhetoric to paint themselves in stark contrast to the diddling, deliberating, timid, incompetent fools in the legislature. They compare their ambition to the niceties of their opponents or sheer lunacy of their rivals. They are the 'middle ground', to which too little is effeminate and weak and too much is fundamentalist and radical. It is an extreme, but leaders take it as essential to the continued survival of the country, perhaps showing of their inherent egotism.

A recent CNN opinion piece by Julian Zelizer on 'Why Trump is the next Walter White' draws similarities between the popularity of Trump, despite his inchoate policy plans, and the popularity of anti-heroes in the media. From chemistry teacher and sometime drug lord Walter White (Breaking Bad) to Mad Men's Don Draper, the anti-hero first described by Lord Byron inevitably finds avid supporters. It is opined that Trump will be strong and demanding, that he would not bow down to enemies of the state or take half-measures in destroying murderers like ISIS, that he will protect against illegal immigration and root out the problem of the 'drug-dealers, rapists' that he alleges come from Mexico. All these are what he claims that he will do, promises that will be subjected to the demands of feasibility, just like every president in the past. The point here is that he says what incites the most fervent support for him, although it also inflames opposition of equal intensity.

That he is untruthful is a given, but not more so than any other politician. If he is borne into office by the fury of the masses, the consequences might be just as spectacular as the path he has already taken. For the international community and America itself, solace might be found in the fact that a vast bureaucracy oversees the administration of the country, and this is unlikely to be destroyed overnight despite Trump's prescriptions; he might even succeed in pushing reform where others have failed, given his background. His strength is in the art of persuasion, and in the demotic language he uses to mobilize the electorate to the fulfillment of his own designs.




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