Trump, Truthiness, and 'race-baiting populism'

Donald Trump.

Donald Trump.

There is a certain temptation these days to treat the US presidential election as some form of over-the-top reality TV show. Bring out the popcorn, bring out a buzzword bingo card, and sit back. There is certainly something of the fantastic in the air: "He couldn't! Could he?"

And yet, he could. We are now just seven weeks from the election date (with many US voters availing of early voting in the weeks leading up to polling day ), and Insider notes that Nate Silver's latest meta-analysis gives Hillary Clinton less than a 60 per cent chance of winning, down significantly from the 97 per cent odds they had her at in early August. The only time in the past three months that the odds have been this tight was in the short period between the Republican and Democratic conventions in late July - and as we get ever closer to the election, there is less time to recover (though, equally, there's less time for Trump to make up ground ).

Much has been made of how the media 'got played' by Trump over the course of this campaign. Turning up for promised 'big reveals' that Trump leveraged to promote his commercial ventures, without the promised policy substance appearing. Focusing on Trump as phenomenon - or as humorous filler - without properly engaging with his mendacity, his fact-free approach to campaigning, his hatred.

Lies, distortions, and 'Truthiness'

The American comedian Stephen Colbert had previously identified this post-factual tendency in politicians like Sarah Palin, with a running joke about 'Truthiness', a message that feels true to its intended audience. In this approach, facts do not matter, and research shows that introducing them after the initial message can actually be counter-productive, leading audiences to double-down on their initial belief.

The media, of course, have been more than merely naïve in their handling of Trump. He has been a boon for ratings; the more outrageous, the better the clickbait. With coverage of Trump guaranteed to result in more pageviews, more reTweets, and consequently more advertising revenue, media companies have been happy to be complicit in his rise.

Colm Meaney's character, in 2001's How Harry Became a Tree, was convinced that "a man is measured by his enemies" and by a similar logic, publicly bickering with Trump - or prodding him to rant at you - can be good for business, when you are in the business of harvesting audiences.

In this light, the move by the Huffington Post (not always known for the highest journalistic standards ) to relegate Trump to the Entertainment section, and to add a disclaimer noting - truthfully - that "Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther, and bully" can be seen not as a high-minded push back against Trump, but as a way to cover Trump as the entertaining clickbait he is for the Huffington Post, while washing its hands of its part in (particularly through the primary season ) providing him with the blanket coverage, the ubiquity, that he needed.


Hillary Clinton - long a lightning rod for conspiracy theorists and misogynistic bullies - is clearly having difficulties campaigning against Trump. In part this is down to, as she admits herself, her preference for policy. She's a details person, analytical by nature, and claims to be much more comfortable engaged in the practice of government than the process of getting elected - but right now that is her role, and it will not matter a whit her grasp of policy if her obituary reads, "the best first female president America never had".

How to wrestle the bowl of rancid jelly that is the Trump campaign is hardly a trivial proposition. It is something that has already bested all comers within the Republican party, the so-called GOP. During the primary campaign it was sometimes noted that this was, to borrow a phrase from the Rev Jeremiah Wright, a case of chickens coming home to roost.

Tapping into discontent

'Part of Trump's story is the success he has had in tapping into an undercurrent of discontent in the American electorate, drawing in those willing to blame their ills on those who are 'other''

The Republican party, at least since Nixon's Southern strategy (an explicit attempt to stoke race-based fears among white voters ), has worked to deflect objective economic concerns (as incomes flatlined or declined for many of those with low levels of education, and many relatively lucrative blue-collar jobs migrated to cheaper locales ) onto subjective racial and cultural concerns.

Conservative donors, like the Koch brothers, have invested heavily in building up highly partisan media outlets, which have then acted as echo chambers, feeding both political polarisation and, perhaps more worryingly, what Cass Sunstein has termed 'cybercascades' where 'information' goes viral within particular groups because of how it fits the worldview of the group, rather than because it is reliable or accurate.

Of course, part of Trump's story is the success he has had in tapping into an undercurrent of discontent in the American electorate, drawing in those willing to blame their ills on those who are 'other'. His very campaign slogan - Make America Great Again - acknowledges that discontent, and suggests a return to some mythical time of prosperity and racial harmony.

Bernie Saunders

In Joyce's Ulysses, Mr Deasy argues that Ireland "has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the Jews" only because "she never let them in." Similarly, Trump's imagined 'harmony' relied on an unchallenged ascendancy for bigotry and segregation. And now, Trump's solution for the entire Muslim world (when he's not 'pivoting' with enough equivocation to give wiggle room to his more tolerant followers ) is to "never let them in".

Trump's race-baiting populism is not the only way to appeal to those feeling left behind by the economic system. Insider notes that Bernie Sanders - a democratic socialist who points to European Labour parties as his model - narrowly missed out to Clinton for the Democratic nomination by tapping into a similar undercurrent of discontent on the Left, but one that focused its critique on oligarchs and economic inequality, and its solutions on things like affordable college, rather than fomenting racial and religious hatred. Sanders has endorsed Clinton and repeatedly urged his supporters to vote for her in the presidential election, but the 'never Hillary' portion of Sanders' supporters are still being vocal, and garnering attention.

Insider is still unsure whether we will face the New Year with a potential 50,000 Irish citizens, many resident in the US for more than 30 years, under threat of deportation by President Trump.


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