White male grievance is shaping the US presidential election this time

  • Kanishk Tharoor
  • Updated: Jul 25, 2016 09:10 IST
Republican Presidential Candidate Donald J. Trump (AP)

When journalists are diplomatic about Donald J Trump and his demagogic presidential bid, they describe his rhetoric as “refreshing” or “unvarnished.” Trump supporters applaud his bluntness, excited by his supposed plain speaking, his abandonment of “politically correct” codes. The truth is that Trump’s oratory is not only filled with lies and unveiled racism, it is indefatigably dull.

He accepted the nomination of the Republican Party on Thursday with a turgid speech that lasted over an hour. As he prolonged his coronation with yet another squinty-eyed scowl, even the delegates on the floor of the Republican convention seemed to be flagging, forced to draw on their own reserves of vitriol to make it through.

Unlike his usual off-the-cuff screeds, his remarks in Cleveland were tightly scripted. For him, this was the most important spectacle yet in a life built on spectacle. Trump delivered the speech with a malice that seemed directed not just at the scarecrows of immigration, economic ruin, and emasculated national power, but at the English language itself. Every statement blew from him as if pumped out of a blacksmith’s bellows. Unable to modulate his voice, Trump spoke in a relentless, staccato imperative. There was no guile, no humour, no grace, only his particularly acid combination of bravado and resentment.

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One of the more perplexing commonplaces of the ongoing US presidential campaign is the notion that Trump is blessed with “charisma.” There wasn’t much charisma on show on Thursday. “I am your voice,” he yelled shrilly. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” Between the barrage of first-person declarations, Trump would draw down the corners of his mouth in a thin scowl, narrow his eyes, and bob his ruddy chin like a puffed-up goldfish playing at caudillo. This performance only confirmed for many Americans his status as villain-in-chief.

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And yet it doesn’t matter that Trump is an artless public speaker. It doesn’t matter that he trades on lies and misleading messages that are routinely debunked in the mainstream media. Trump has invented his own truth. The singular achievement of his campaign has been its conjuring of an impression of reality – the image of a “losing” nation swarming with sanctimonious social justice activists, rabid Muslim terrorists, and murderous illegal immigrants – that panders to the frustrations of the vote bank that might enthrone him: White men.

In a moment of truly refreshing candour, Sean Duffy, a Republican representative from Wisconsin, admitted to CNN on Friday that Trump was aiming for the affections of this group. “White males have been left aside a little bit in the politics of who speaks to them,” he said, talking to a white male host on a network whose leading anchors are white males. Duffy sits in Congress, a legislative body composed 80% of white males to represent the interests of a nation that is only 31% white male. The country’s most celebrated businessmen, actors, sports coaches, and writers are white males. Every president in American history, with one recent exception, has been a white male. Nevertheless, the strongest force shaping the 2016 election is white male grievance.

Trump’s appeal in this election is born from the astute realisation that many white American men are unhappy with the way their country is changing to include people who are not white men. Though Trump has suggested some preposterous policies (a wall along the border with Mexico, for example, and banning Muslims from coming to the US), what’s striking about his rhetoric is its imprecision. He has made his campaign a conduit for people to channel their own desires and fears.

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There are at least three strands worth separating in the welter of angry emotions pushing Trump closer to the White House. The first is simple racism. As the New Yorker writer Evan Osnos has ably uncovered, the Trump campaign from its early days won the support of far-right white supremacists. Their numbers may be relatively small, but their hateful beliefs have crept into political circulation through Trump’s campaign.

The second strand is socio-economic. In the ‘Rust Belt’ states of middle America, where manufacturing is in prolonged decline, many white working class voters feel that they are casualties of globalisation, cut off from the new economies booming in cosmopolitan cities like New York and San Francisco. Come November, states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan will play a huge role in electing the next president. Trump is already courting these voters, knowing full well their importance in the general election.

The third strand has to do with the white American male imagination, the fear that white men are losing their traditional primacy. The New York Times journalist Anand Giridharadas sketches this feeling as a “sense that society is growing more feminine, increasing numbers of people speak a different language, immigrants are pouring in unchecked, and the government is more concerned about other demographic groups.”

For voters unsettled by the rise of women and minority groups, Trump’s peculiar elixir of machismo and apocalypse has proven irresistible. He will continue to peddle this toxic brew between now and November, with many occasions remaining for the exercise of his dark charisma. “Remember,” he huffed victoriously at his supporters on Thursday, “all of the people telling you that you can’t have the country you want, are the same people telling you that I wouldn’t be standing here tonight.”

Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories

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