Arvanitakis on American politics: The Trump revolution without Trump

| October 19, 2019

With the impeachment scandal deepening, the increasingly erratic behaviour of the Trump Administration and the changing public mood towards the President mean there are many who think that Donald Trump’s days are increasingly numbered.

While there is some evidence that this is occurring, including the arrest of two associates of President Trump’s private lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, tied to the Ukraine scandal, there are also many who feel this should not be a priority for the Democrats.

There are also concerns in some sections of the conservative media that the Democrats are not following accepted processes by abandoning bipartisanship and holding meetings behind closed doors.

Regardless of what happens next, the problem for many of us is that Donald Trump, and the Trump Presidency, is merely the symptom of the challenges facing liberal democracies, not the root cause.

The deeper source of the disruption to liberal democracies represented by the Trump Administration is a loss of trust in the political systems that have served our nations in the past.

The desire for ‘chaos’

This idea was captured in a recent paper delivered by Michael Bang Petersen, Mathias Osmundsen and Kevin Arceneaux at the American Political Science Association conference titled, A Need for Chaos’ and the sharing of hostile political rumours in advanced democracies.

The authors believe that a growing segment of the American electorate which was once both peripheral and ignored are now drawn to ‘chaos incitement’ and have become increasingly influential.

They argue that this influence is driven by the “rise of social media” that “provides the public with unprecedented power to craft and share new information with each other.”

While the sharing of information at dynamic levels is not necessarily problematic, the information has a low evidence base and often gives air to “conspiracy theories, fake news, discussions of political scandals and negative campaigns.”

These type of “hostile political rumours”, the authors claim, are directly “linked to large-scale political outcomes within recent years such as the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

This desire for chaos is not driven by Trump, but he has shown the ability to channel it.

This phenomena should not be seen in isolation and may also explain why data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study — a massive election survey of around 50,000 people – found that 12 percent of people who voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries went on to vote for Trump in the general election.

While any analysis comes with a number of caveats, there is evidence that these voters turned away from the establishment they felt no longer represented them.

This may well mean that even if the Democrats are somehow successful in removing Donald Trump from office through a process of impeachment, the under-current of distrust and desire for chaos will remain.

This sentiment was captured by Steve Bannon, Trump’s former advisor, when he said that you may not need Trump to have the Trump revolution.

Missing the point

Tom Frank, an American political analyst, historian, and journalist has long written about the way mainstream politics has continued to fail the middle class. His 2005 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, chronicled the disconnect of progressives from ‘middle America’.

More recently, Listen Liberal notes that despite Democrats occupying the White House for sixteen of the last twenty-six years, the decline of the middle class has only accelerated.

Reading the work of Frank, one can almost hear him screaming at progressive politicians, commentators, journalists and academics that, ‘you are missing the point’.

While many of us may find Trump’s actions concerning, by concentrating on his personality, we continue to fail to see the stream of resentment gaining ascendency across liberal democracies.

This was highlighted in a recent opinion piece published in the New York Times by columnist David Brooks titled, ‘Why Trump Voters Stick with Him’, although, while I have a great deal of respect for much of Brooks’ work, I have to wonder why he chose to present an ‘imagined’ conversation with an ‘imagined’ Trump voter.

In this cliché-ridden piece, Brook’s imagined Trump supporter – whom he labels ‘Fly Over Man’ – concludes with the following statement:

“Here’s a confession. I used to think Trump was a jerk. Now, after three years of battle, I see him as my captain. He deserves my loyalty, thick and thin.”

Someone should have pointed out to Brooks that almost 63 million people voted for Trump in 2016 and so I am sure he could have found one who was willing to talk to him.

The problem with the piece is that it confirms to many the disconnection between the so-called ‘elites’ and those who have supported Trump – and many on social media had a field day with it.

Donald Trump and his tumultuous Administration have long been a focus of derision: from the way he speaks to his unusual hair. While I love political satire and enjoy the roasting that Trump receives from legions of US night-time hosts – from Stephen Colbert to Seth Meyers – the gap between the disaffected and the mainstream continues to grow.

The risk is that, unless a connection is made with those people so disillusioned with politics that they want chaos in our established democratic institutions, then the spiral of resentment so well harnessed by Trump, Bannon and others will continue long after this Administration is gone.

And one thing we have learnt over the last few years is that the next Donald Trump is just around the corner.

Photo by Tim Mossholder.