Donald Trump: don’t feed the troll of American politics

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 6 October 2015. Donald Trump seemed a lot funnier at the time.

“Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich.”

As the contents of this week’s Comment section should go some way towards proving, the world is rapidly transforming into an episode of Black Mirror. The example under consideration in this article is, of course, Donald Trump, who provides this article’s epigraph, a quote which bears the unusual distinction of being  simultaneously a grotesque and shameless indictment of a crassly materialist capitalist culture and quite possibly the single greatest chat-up line in history. In the three months since the OxStu last hit JCRs, Trump has emerged as the favourite for the Republican nomination, and made a number of horrific comments on his way up, including calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and implying that the female moderator of one GOP debate was on her period when she asked him a few questions he didn’t quite like. All of this, obviously, is stupid and vile, and marks the point where Trump stops being funny. It’s where he goes from being a Disney villain to a Dickens villain- exaggerated and clownish, but decidedly nasty as well as ridiculous.

Now, there are already plenty of articles about the awfulness of Donald Trump. I’m not saying that any of them are wrong, and I admit they present a compelling central image. Donald Trump comes across as the political system’s monstrous id, a walking embodiment of everything wrong with American politics and capitalism in general, sputtering red-facedly through hazy, half-formed policy ideas seemingly made up on the fly in a bid to grab as many scandalous headlines as possible.

The thing is, that image is not entirely accurate. For one thing, it’s not like Trump even has a majority of Republican support; the last poll from NBC and the Wall Street Journal puts Trump as the front-runner with 21%, with Trump’s nearest rival, Ben Carson, just following with 20%. The poll has a 6% margin for error. Trump’s success may make a great image, and certainly plays to British stereotypes of the craziness of American politics, but Trump cannot even win a majority of support within his own party. They are not stupid.

Nor, for that matter, is Trump. I mean, he probably generously over-estimates his own intelligence and business acumen, but he remains extremely savvy in one specific area: self-promotion.

One aspect of Trump’s campaign which is not often commented on is the fact that he pulled this stunt at the last election too. Pretending to run for the 2012 GOP nomination, Trump made a number of public appearances and said a few outrageous things, including the quote at the start of this article. Back then, however, he pulled out at a  much earlier stage than he has done this time. One gets the sense that Trump realised his promotional campaign would require a bigger push this time around, and so has gone on to the later stages of the process, specifically those involving massive exposure on television. The second GOP debate was the most viewed program CNN ever broadcast, pulling a whopping 23 million viewers. It’s doubtful as to whether any advertising campaign could have pulled that many eyeballs, let alone persuaded them to pay attention for nearly three hours. While there is something more than a little perverse in the sight of an incredibly wealthy man co-opting the tools of a system of democracy for his own narcissist ends, I have no doubt that Trump’s continued high-profile posturing will continue having its intended effect; to forcibly insert Trump into the public consciousness. Hence this article. Trump has pulled off a weird apotheosis of politics and showbiz; attaining widespread exposure and success by being a deliberately incoherent and ridiculous candidate.

The Economist was right when it advised Republicans to “listen carefully for Mr Trump, and vote for someone else.” I am confident that they will do exactly that. Trump’s arguments do not stand up to basic scrutiny, and he has yet to even issue definitive policy statements on anything other than tax reform, the second amendment and immigration. He knows he doesn’t need to. And we should all respond to this deliberate non-engagement with non-engagement in kind; Trump has clearly demonstrated that he is not interested in engaging his electorate, so why should his electorate, or indeed anyone else, engage with him? He is the great troll of American politics- the more attention one pays him, the more he, in his own eyes, “wins”.

At the end of the day, Donald Trump is neither a clown nor a supervillain. He lacks the wit to be the former and the charisma to ne the latter. He is not a threat to democracy. He’s just kind of sad.

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