The Limits of Rhetoric

Despite the bluster of the Republican presidential nominee, it seems quite unlikely that recent poll results on the popularity and support of his campaign can universally be discounted. The recent ABC/Washington Post Poll brought matters to a head, showing an immense 12% lead for Hillary over Trump. Of course, poll results vary (probably a result of both sample bias or political maneuver, but in what proportion is anyone's guess), yet there seems to be a consensus no matter which poll one looks at: Clinton is firmly in the lead. Of course, with about a hundred days left till the start of the primaries, there is hardly any certainty about the results; the volatility of recent events attests to that fact. From the Orlando shooting to Brexit, to the resulting fallout in the financial markets where more than $2 trillion in equities was wiped out, the last few weeks has been spectacularly chaotic. Politics is a vast public undertaking, relying on mass communication to galvanize the people; every word uttered is scrutinized many times over. Yet Trump's showmanship might only be noise: pure advertisement (see the article on Trump). While it might certainly be the case that his mastery of pure rhetoric is formidable, even rhetoric must have a modicum of coherence and consistency in order to sustain the attention of people or it will push suspension of disbelief to farcical levels. Demagoguery aside, Trump has also failed to co-opt the support of big business and international actors, unlike his rival Hillary Clinton. Stratified as it is, American society, indeed any society, can only be understood as the amalgamation of diverse conflicting interests. All these must be rationalised into a single force capable of sustaining the President through difficult decisions and diplomatic challenges. Failing that, the President would find the exercise of his or her executive powers nigh impossible, given the opposition in the Senate, in the House of Representatives or even amongst the general populace. Nowhere is this better illustrated than by Obama's inability to pass new bills on immigration through Congress, mirroring his difficulties with passing Obamacare ('Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act'). Only a reworking of Obamacare at every juncture to accommodate differing interests allowed it to pass. These show that compromise and workarounds are what makes American government work, neither which are Trump's strong suits.

The Republican presidential nominee took to twitter on the 26th of June to criticize the veracity of the ABC/Washington Post poll results, characterizing it as 'very dishonest'. It is nothing new; rather tame in fact, considering the nature of Trump's typical vitriol. Yet it is telling of the weakness of the foundation on which the 'Make America Great Again' campaign is built upon. Much of the insults hurled by Trump against the Democrats and their Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton focus on personal attacks, dredging up Clinton's alleged corruption and Obama's failures as POTUS while contrasting his own superior prowess in vague areas like 'business' or 'deal-making'. Such divisive rhetoric may have helped Trump win the nomination, but it has had a polarising effect on the electorate, on the one hand fanning the flames of nationalism and on the other rallying opposition around the more level-headed, sensible and experienced Democrat Hillary Clinton. An MSNBC report on Trump's scripted 'big anti-Hillary Clinton speech' by Steve Benen, dated 22nd of June, described Trump as being "lost beneath 'an avalanche of falsehoods'". This is an apt illustration of Trump's campaign: his main selling-point is the indignance of the masses against corporate support of Clinton (whom Trump supporters bash as evidence of her corruptibility) and vapid insults against his opponents, the main butt of which are Clinton and Obama. While his rhetoric does strike a chord with supporters, he does Clinton's work for her by making unsubstantiated off-the-cuff insults. Clinton does not need to lie when it comes to her rival, because Trump gives her all the ammunition she needs. Stretching rhetoric to such an extent, and lacking any programmatic policies beyond symbolic pledges, Trump thus allows Clinton to clinch a more broad-based support through an appeal to other sectors of society. Appeals to nationalist sentiments tends to be counterproductive when it opposes a large swathe of the cosmopolitan, globalist middle-class and makes enemies of a growing portion of the non-white population.

Donald Trump's pretension to strongman status is belied by societal realities. The strength he attempts to portray is a luxury accorded only to leaders in societies whose most powerful actor is the executive: in other words, countries with rather less democracy and rather more authoritarianism. According to Hillary Clinton, Trump 'tried to turn a global economic challenge into an infomercial' with his utterances on the Brexit, in an attempt to draw parallels with his own campaign. And he did. But Hillary used it as well, to disparage Trump's crass comments and to point him out as obviously unqualified to be president. The difference was that she did it with far more finesse and without the obvious bluster - the trademark unrefined and unsubstantiated accusations Trump periodically throws at his opponents. In a democracy, many actors vie for power with the executive: the legislative and judiciary to name two, as well as numerous other NGOs, activist groups and business and political interests. Trump cannot afford to discount the interests of other groups or communities, at least not as one might in more authoritarian societies. Even there, politicians have the habit of establishing patron-client relationships with powerful business interests to protect their hold on power.

The Republican Party has of late found it difficult to support their nominee. Trump's loss of support contrasts starkly against Hillary's slow but sure growth in popularity amongst Bernie Sanders' supporters. The most recent NBC/WSJ poll shows that a solid '45% of Sanders' supporters have a positive view of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, while 33% having a negative view of her'. This shows marked improvement in her popularity as seen from the May poll (38% negative/41% positive). On the other hand, the Republican Party has seen much turmoil, with conservative commentator and columnist George Will renouncing his Republican political affiliation and refusals from many notables to speak at Trump's Republican convention. It is not surprising, considering much of the nominee's comments can be construed as racist, misogynistic, unconsidered, narcissistic and inflammatory. As long as unbridled rhetoric is the weapon of choice, consensus cannot be achieved, even amongst supposed allies.

Leaders cannot only profess their ideological predilections - they must be able to back that up with real clout, or at least the semblance of one. Clinton has been able to show her ability to garner support from businessmen, Democrats, LGBTs, women and proportions of other activist groups. Trump's rhetoric works as long as it gets the press it needs and as long as there is some form of believability to entice credulous folk. In recent days, the store of ingenuous Americans ready to throw away common sense has been exhausted. Yet it is still much too early to give any verdict: the volatility of the financial and political weather defies any definitive forecast. Furthermore, the following months could see more cogent policy initiatives come from Trump's campaign, if his change of adviser is anything to go by.




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