By Ian Buruma, Special to Gulf News
Donald Trump, the real estate tycoon and reality-show host, also known as “The Donald”, is unlikely to be the next president of the United States. He is loud, crude, ignorant about most things, and looks absurd in his puffed up blond comb-over hairdo. Even ardent Republicans have dismissed him as a “rodeo clown,” and his campaign as a “circus.” The Huffington Post covers Trump’s campaign strictly as entertainment news.
Yet for the moment Trump is leaving all his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in the dust. Even in US politics, which can be very strange, this is extraordinary. What explains Trump’s popularity? Are all his supporters “crazies,” as Senator John McCain, perhaps unwisely, called them?
Trump’s critics argue that he is playing to the basest instincts of disaffected voters, who hate foreigners (especially Mexicans), distrust bankers (or anyone with a higher education, for that matter), and still can’t get over the election of a president whose father was black. Trump, in the comedian (read clown) Jon Stewart’s words, is “America’s id,” or at least the id of a large number of mostly white, mostly older, mostly small-town Americans.
Now, all this may be so. But Trump is part of a wider phenomenon throughout the democratic world. Disaffected voters can be found everywhere, whether in the US, Europe, or India. But they are not only turning away from mainstream political parties and following populists who promise to clean out the corrupt elites from the centres of power; they also share a taste for political entertainers, or clowns if you like.
|Beppe Grillo, Italy's opposition leader|
In a sense, of course, Italians already voted three times for a clownish figure as prime minister. Silvio Berlusconi, another real-estate billionaire, who began his career as a crooner on a cruise ship, was even more outrageous than Trump, as well as a master of the mass media — literally so, as he owned most of it in his country. As is true of The Donald, many people, especially men, liked him not despite his outrageous statements and behaviour, but because of them.
Prickly hostility to elites
Apart from peculiar hairstyles (the balding Berlusconi has his head painted), the new populists have several things in common. Whether billionaires or not, they share a prickly hostility to so-called elites, from whom they feel socially excluded. Wilders and Trump, among others of their ilk, also play on popular anti-immigrant sentiment. Trump called Mexicans in the US “rapists.” Wilders wants to ban the Quran and stop Muslims from moving to his country. Wilders wants to stop the Islamification of Holland, Trump, the Mexification of America.
But this, too, is part of the same resentment against elites, who are blamed for allowing foreigners to arrive in the first place.
That hostility arises from the 'entrenched elites' inability, or refusal, to see that the rising wave of Muslim immigrants will turn their countries into Islamic states complete with Sharia Law, within a few decades.
To include Wilders in the 'clown' list because he has dyed hair is a bit absurd. Or perhaps he is included because of his anti-Muslim immigration stand. That being the case it is more telling of Professor Baruma than Geert Wilders.
But I think there is a more basic reason why political clowns are doing so well. Many people are fed up with the professional political class. In the past, politicians of the left often came from the trade unions, while conservatives were rich businessmen or landowners. Social classes had their own interests, which were represented by parties divided by clear ideological differences.
Increasingly, however, people see no difference between politicians from one party or another. They are lumped together under such rubrics as “Washington,” “Brussels,” or “Wall Street.” This perception is exaggerated, especially in the US. The country really would be a different place under a Republican president, especially with a Republican majority in both houses of Congress. No kidding, what a terrifying thought, if either party were to dominate both houses and the White House.
But it is certainly true in many places that ideological differences have largely collapsed. Social democrats govern in coalition governments with laissez-faire conservatives. Neoliberalism reigns. More and more, politics looks like a rigged system whereby members of the same political class compete for jobs, rather than for the victory of ideas, or on behalf of larger collective interests.
Trumpism, then, or Grilloism, is a revolt against the professional politicians. Trump is not just trying to run against a Democrat for the presidency; he is running against his own party’s establishment as well. His supporters are disgusted with the compromises made in Washington between leading Republicans and Democrats. To them, bipartisan cooperation is not necessary to the governance of a large and diverse country; it is a form of corruption.
That is why they voted five years ago for Tea Party politicians, who preferred a government shutdown to a negotiated deal with Democrats. And that is why they are cheering for a showy loudmouth like Trump. But without compromise a democracy becomes ungovernable. The US is in grave danger of this now. Even though Trump will not become the next president, the populist damage has already been done.
— Project Syndicate, 2015
Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College, New York, and the author of Year Zero: A History of 1945