How did Trump get this far?
Explaining Trump's message- Part 3
In this last article on Trump's message, I will take a closer look at his speech in Mississippi on 24 August 2016, show how he uses the opportunities to the fullest, and reveal how he does indeed make ‘sense’.
(This article is a follow-up to two previous articles (1) 'Is Donald Trump a 'dangerous clown'? and (2) 'The celebrity businessman and vox populism')
The American nation, the scapegoat and the dream
Trump’s speech in the 10,000-seat Mississippi coliseum was a speech for the 'in-crowd'. Mississippi is known as a republican Southern state, the only one with the confederate emblem still integrated in the official state flag. Trump was not there to convince Democrats or undecided voters to vote for him. He was there to create momentum (and to collect money to fuel his campaign). Of course, the event was not limited to the coliseum; his speech was also transmitted on YouTube and on his Facebook. A poorly taped 15-minute long smartphone video-fragment is posted as a Facebook-live-video with the subtle title: “Join me in MISSISSIPPI for a few minutes! It is time to MAKE AMERICA SAFE AND GREAT AGAIN!” (Note the use of capitals in all his social media posts reminiscent of the Trolls on forums and underneath articles). More than 700.000 people have watched this fragment on his Facebook. 70.000 people have liked it, and 26.000 people have commented on it.
The Facebook video-fragment went viral. The online dimension of his speech is massive, which is something that many commentators fail to notice. The Guardian (Teague, 2016) for instance, analyzes his stop in Mississippi as having a focus on ‘money’, not on voters. What they miss is: (1) the online dimension and (2) the fact that Trump does not aim for the center to convince the undecided voters in swing states. He instead focusses to mobilize all disillusioned voters. The audience of his Mississippi speech was not limited to the thousands of people present; Trump reached out to more than 700.000 online viewers. They witnessed a thundering speech and a deep connection the candidate made with the live assemblage. Let us take a look at the opening sequence ( If you don't have Facebook, you can look at the YouTube video below from 1h.26m.25ss - 1h.28m.43ss.):
“The dreamers, we never talk about them, are the young Americans. Why aren’t young Americans dreamers also. I want my dreamers, to be young Americans. [Audience applauds and screams approvingly] Hillary Clinton also wants to push, to bring in 620.000 refugees. In a first start. [audience boes] A large number of whom come from countries where women and gays are horribly brutalized which will weaken our tolerant way of life. I only want to bring people in our country who share our values and love our people and are capable of loving America. [audience applauds and screams approvingly and starts yelling USA, USA, USA] Important, I will also create millions and millions of jobs for our people. [audience applauds and screams approvingly] We are going to cut taxes, reduce regulations, fix our trade deals, unleash American energy and repeal and replace the horror –show known as Obama-care. [audience applauds and screams approvingly] We are going to create jobs, jobs, jobs. [audience applauds and screams approvingly] I will be the greatest jobs-president that God ever created, believe me. [audience applauds and screams approvingly] So we could have millions and millions of jobs, jobs like you have never seen in this country before, because our jobs are being stolen from us, our companies have been stolen from us. Our manufacturing is down by 40 percent, by 50 percent, and numbers that nobody even believes. Those days will be over if Donald Trump is elected president of the United States. [audience applauds and screams approvingly]” (Trump, 2016a)
This excerpt will not make it to the history books. It will not be remembered as one of the highlights of America’s civil religion. Trump is no Lincoln nor Obama. But he is no George W. Bush either. This excerpt is not only a coherent piece of discourse, it creates a message that resonates with the audience present and online (The like-thumbs and the heart clearly out number the angry faces). The basic mechanisms that Trumps deploys here are old skills: this is textbook-material populism. Of course the package and the concrete content is unique, colored by his style (i.e., his idiosyncratic persona and speech), but the discursive tacticss are not new at all. Furthermore, they have proven their effectiveness.
Kenneth Burke, for instance, described these mechanisms in detail when he identified Hitler’s unification device. That ‘device’, in the particular case of Hitler’s 'Mein Kampf' had the following features:
- The idea of an ‘inborn dignity’ of the German people,
- The construction of a ‘projection devise’ of an external cause of all the ills of the nation "thereby getting purification by dissociation",
- These two devices, when coupled, result in 'symbolic rebirth' which provides his followers with a "positive view of life"; they can get "the feel of moving forward", towards ‘a goal’, and lastly
- Selling a "non-economic interpretation of economic ills" (Burke, 1939-1940: 9-10).
These devices, according to Burke, allowed Hitler to tap into different wells of frustration and problems that were real- or at least experienced as real- by the people. They were very successful in mobilizing these people for his Nazi-nightmare. Of course Trump talks in a very different timepace (the U.S. in the 21st century), but we do find similarities. The economic situation of the U.S., especially for the working class, is not favorable: the financial and economic crisis has shattered dreams and hopes of many people. Unemployment is devastating, debts cannot be paid, people have lost their homes and their jobs. Having a job or even two is not necessarily enough to make ends meet.
Trump’s unification mechanisms
If we now look at Trump’s discourse, we see how he adjusts the abstract mechanisms that Burke identified to the particular timespace. Trump uses what Burke calls, ‘ideas as imagery’: He lets people imagine a dream of a ‘better’ America: an America where young people can dream again, an America where there are jobs, millions of fantastic jobs with good wages. Of course, this rhetoric taps into the old ‘American dream’ allegory. He speaks as an American, and he speaks coinciding with a long tradition. He appeals to the American identity and aligns himself with the ‘history of American greatness’. This doctrine – American exclusiveness – he shares with Hillary Clinton. Both think and believe that the U.S. is, was or at least should be the greatest nation in the world. Trump stresses that America can be truly great again; presupposing that it once was the greatest. The first mechanism – 'the symbolic rebirth' – is identified. Trump builds a dream, but that dream can only become real if and only if the American greatness is unleashed after ‘the ills’ are cured. All mechanisms of the classic unification device are present.
(1) Trump speaks in a very particular way about the American people. He uses a nationalistic discourse that has been dominant in Europe for at least 20 years. ‘The people’ are not defined in terms of race, but in terms of common values. Trump takes this ethno-cultural nationalism on board. Whereas in the discourse of Obama, or Bernie Sanders or even Lincoln, America would be imagined as ‘a nations of immigrants’. In Trump's discourse America is implicitly constructed as a far more homogeneous group of people. ‘We’ are Americans, ‘We’ share values and 'We' love America. We have a ‘tolerant’ way of life. Now revealed is an adaptation of the first mechanism Burke described: the dignity of the American people is not inborn or racial, but is cultural – the American cultural dignity.
The ‘American We’ is defined in terms of values – typical American and patriotic values that are shared among all Americans. The American greatness is not a thing in the genes, but in the values. We have seen this type of discourse emerging in the last decades around Europe. It started with right-wing parties who combined this type of nationalism with racism, anti-migration standpoint and a resistance against globalism. Today, it is a dominant discourse in Europe (Maly, 2007, 2009, 2012 & 2016). Just like the European extreme-right, - it's no coincidence that Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party was a guest-speaker at Trump's Mississippi conference - the American citizens defined as 'the people living here lawfully today' are distinguished from 'the illegal immigrant' and the 'foreign nationals seeking entry' (Trump, 2016b: 1h.12m. - 1h.13h).
This radical anti-migration, ethno-cultural nationalism is a successful unification mechanism. It enables the construction and unification of ‘the people’ through vagueness and implicit communication. One moment African Americans are included, the other time they are excluded (Trump, 2016b: 1h.10min. - 1h.13m.) This flexible nationalism enables politicians to say very radical things, to utilize racist talk yet retain a certain protection against the label ‘racist’. It produces a more ‘subtle’ form of racism and enables them to the denounce racial categories and avoid explicit racism. They avoid sounding too much like white supremacists, without losing their votes. Even more, the definition of an American ‘We’ in terms of values is not necessarily something that Clinton could easily criticize: this is quite common discourse, and makes it very powerful.
Americanism, in essence is a ‘non-economic interpretation of economic ills’.
(2) The second mechanism of the unification device is also enabled: 'the projection device'. In Trump’s discourse, globalism is the name of the ill. Even though ‘America and the American people’ are great and are destined to be great, the political elite screws them up; instead of choosing for America, they support globalization. In his account, the bad things that are happening to America are the result of policies that Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton have unfolded. They are held responsible for the bad trade-deals, the costly Obama-care and the many 'dangerous' migrants entering the country. The people are thus constructed in opposition of ‘them’, the political ‘cosmopolitan’ elite supporting globalism which destroys American energy and let the migrants enter.
Migrants are only one result of that globalism-policy of the elites. The migrants bring economic and cultural threads with them. And both undermine American greatness. The cultural threads come from the migrants of whom "come from countries where women and gays are horribly brutalized which will weaken our tolerant way of life." Quotes like these, combined with Trump’s statement on Mexicans, Blacks, Syrian Refugees and Muslims, define ‘the real American’. ‘Our’ jobs, ‘our’ values and ‘our’ way of life implicitly refers to ‘white Americans’ only.
Context is important in the construction of the meaning of ‘we’. We should remember that Trump speaks in a Southern state, for a Southern, predominantly white Republican audience. An audience that puts up a confederate flag stating 'Trump 2016'. The stress on ‘our people’, makes it abundantly clear what he means. There is no need for Trump to make this explicit – it would only open the gates for criticism - ; the ones who need to understand, understand it. That is why he has the support of the Alt-Right, the Ku Klux Klan, white evangelists, Southerners, and jobless people including Blacks and Mexicans. His value-based definition allows them to imagine themselves as part as the American people; and at the same time it allows him to please racists.
Trump’s answer is simple. There is one cure for globalism: ‘We must replace the present policy of globalism – which has moved so many jobs and so much wealth out of our country – and replace it with a new policy of Americanism’ (Trump, 2016c). If globalism is what holds America back from greatness, Americanism is the answer. The impureness (the ill) is dissociated from the American people, who are born to be great. In order to get that Americanism working, one thing is urged: Vote Trump. Trump is not a member of the political establishment, he will realize Americanism.
(4) Americanism, in essence is a ‘non-economic interpretation of economic ills’. Trump’s understanding of Globalism does not target its neoliberal economic doctrine. On the contrary, he pushes the same old neoliberal doctrine forward again. Americanism can be captured as radical neoliberal ethno-cultural nationalism. It aims to create a strong nationalism (including a wall to protect the border and keep migrants out) and adopt radical neoliberal policies so that this nation can flourish:
“Under this American System, every policy decision we make must pass a simple test: does it create more jobs and better wages for Americans? If we lower our taxes, remove destructive regulations, unleash the vast treasure of American energy, and negotiate trade deals that put America First, then there is no limit to the number of jobs we can create and the amount of prosperity we can unleash.” (Trump, 2016c)
The problem, according to Trump, is that the ‘American energy’ is caged by regulations, taxes and globalist trade deals. Once all these restrictions are removed, American energy will prosper again. This discourse deflects the attention from the economic factors (neoliberal policies) in explaining why unemployment rises, why wages drop and why companies delocalize. It also has an enormous unifying potential: it addresses the American elites (especially those producing in and for the American market) as well as the (white-) working-class (in the Rust belt) and the middle class.
Such social right-wing discourse has proven to be quite successful around the world in this particular timeframe. More widely, during times where the distrust in democracy and general politics coincided with economic crisis and the idea that cosmopolitan, left-wing liberal elites control the world. In Trump’s discourse, this is not very different. America is not the only superpower anymore, but is oppressed by the global powers: ‘The only people who get rich under Hillary Clinton’s scheme are the donors and the special interests. In Hillary Clinton’s America, we have surrendered our status as the world’s great economy, and we have surrendered our middle class to the whims of foreign countries.’ (Trump, 2016c).
How did Trump get this far?
There wouldn’t be much fuzz about Trump if he was a clown. Nobody would worry about him. The reality is different. Trump’s message is carefully constructed: the eccentric millionaire who challenges the political establishment. He is the bully who dares to say ‘the truth’. He targets the one ill that keeps America from unleashing all its energy that keeps itself from its culturally-destined greatness. Trump’s message synchronizes many different discourses into one new one: American patriotism and the idea of the 'American dream' are blended together with European style ethno-cultural nationalism, anti-immigration rhetoric and a dash of racism. All this is framed as speaking in name of the common people. This vox populism says the unpleasant truth, and Trump claims to speak their voice: he will shake up the establishment.
Trump’s message does make sense, at least for many of his followers. He rejects the rational-content priorities used by his critics to call him a fool, and opposes a far more layered and multifaceted persona. He presents himself as 'the man' - just because he is rich and independent - who has the courage to address and cure the ills of the nation. He identifies the 'real problems' - globalism, open borders, migration, Islamic terrorism and the elites who make America dependent of the global powers and turns them into one illness. And illness he can cure. He will change everything "despite the fact that they let you believe that it can't be changed." More even, he promises that change is simple: America (read Americans) will come first again! He is the man who listens to the commoner, and he is not afraid to stand up against the elites. The fact that the five living presidents don't see him fit to be president, only adds to his message of being 'anti-establishment'. What the 'elites' call racist and sexist, is only proof that they are scared of his ability to change it all, to threathen the establishment. By producing this message he succeeds in addressing and uniting very different audiences – from the poor (unemployment) working men, the alt-right movement, over the middle classes to the filthy rich capitalists. And he does this with speech that taps into different sets of hegemonic ideas: from the American dream to the distrust of the political elites.
Additionally, his discourse is not new at all: it is a blend of different, successful political rhetoric. If you look around the world, you will see that in many European countries, extreme-right parties (and in their wake mainstream parties) have successfully adopted similar discourses. Nationalism, anti-migration talk and speaking in the name of the people targeting ‘globalization’, hits a sweet spot in this timespace. Trump masters it and takes it to new highs - or lows - depending on your point of view.
In his first contribution Ico Maly focuses on the negative messaging: 'Is Donald Trump a 'dangerous clown'? In his second article Maly focuses on Trump's positive messaging: Trump, the celebrity-businessman and vox populism.
Burke, K. (1939-1940). The rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’. The Southern Review, (1939-1940), pp.1-21.
Maly, I. (2007). Cultu(u)rENpolitiek. Media, globalisering en culturele identiteiten. Antwerpen: Garant.
Maly,I. (2009). De beschavingsmachine. Wij en de Islam. Berchem: Epo.
Maly, I. (2012). N-VA. Analyse van een politieke ideologie. Berchem: Epo.
Maly, I. (2016). ‘Scientific’ nationalism. N-VA and the discursive battle for the Flemish nation. In Nations and nationalism. Volume 22, Issue 2, April 2016. Pages 266–286.
Teague, M. (2016). Trump's Mississippi visit is story of his campaign: focused on money, not votes. The Guardian.
Trump, D. (2016a) Facebook Live Video: Join me in MISSISSIPPI for a few minutes! It is time to MAKE AMERICA SAFE AND GREAT AGAIN! (25 August 2016). Donald Trump Facebook Page. Last retrieved on 29/09/2016.
Trump, D. (2016b) FULL EVENT: Donald Trump Holds Rally in Jackson, MS 8/24/16. YouTube. Last retrieved on 5/10/2016
Trump, D. (2016c). Press Release: TRUMP DELIVERS SPEECH ON JOBS AT NEW YORK ECONOMIC CLUB. Donald Trump Campaign Website (15 September 2016). Last retrieved on 27/11/2016.