Worldwide rage at Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering America has culminated in a 400,000-plus petition to ban him from entry into the UK reaching the House of Commons for binding debate. Owen Jones labelled him a menace and warned us not to see him as a clown. In this case, our popular rage appears misplaced. Consider the makeup of the Home Office list of banned individuals. This ranges from figures who have said controversial things to serious financial fraudsters, alleged terrorists, convicted war criminals, and human rights-abusing politicians. Strangely, there was no similarly popular petition to ban Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – previously informally banned over complicity in Muslim pogroms as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 – from visiting the UK in October. Our well-meaning efforts ignore not only the context of the Home Office list but also the reality of what Trump actually represents.
Trump’s presidential campaign resembles a billionaire vanity project meets a My Fair Lady/ Around the World in 80 Days ‘gentlemen’s wager’ in which American political dysfunction has allowed to succeed. Republicans candidates are trapped by an alliance of monied lobbyists, donors, and grassroots primary voter groups they fund who can fight politicians who have strayed from absolute devotion to their conservatism. Presidential candidates are being forced further to the right of the American public and can no longer simultaneously serve red meat in the primaries and convincingly return to the middle during the general election. Case in point: Mitt Romney.
The antipathy towards these disingenuous, professionally-trained career politicians has many among the Republican base more willing to support novices. In 2012, Herman Cain – the former pizza mogul whose bizarre campaign ads, naivety, multiple claims of sexual harassment, and a speech quoting Pokemon: the Movie – temporarily led the polls. In 2016 – amid a sprawling 17 mostly conventional candidates – Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Donald Trump have each stood out and held the limelight. Similar to Cain, Carson has fallen due to misleading biographical claims and Fiorina was hurt by aborted foetal organ harvesting claims and her record as CEO of HP.
Trump has succeeded against other novices and establishment candidates because he runs not as a politician but as entertainer. A candidate for the reality TV age in the mould of Simon Cowell or Gordon Ramsay – blunt and mean and whose controversies are treated as mere aggrandisement. Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, in his article ‘Inside the GOP Clown Car‘, argued this was a shift from professional politics in favour of celebrity. ‘He’s taken the Beltway thinkfluencers out of the game and turned the presidency into a pure high-school-style popularity contest conducted entirely in the media. Everything we do is a consumer choice now, from picking our shoes to an online streaming platform to a presidential nominee.’ A typical Trump campaign rally or debate isn’t a political event but a self-aware brand: bouffant hair, spray tan, wiseguy New Yorker attitude playing a reality TV president for the crowd. Even his mocking of the disabled, women, and now Muslims feels less like bigotry and more of a calculated, shameless appeal to bigots within the Republican base. He’s not beholden to politician rules so hasn’t suffered the consequences. If he did, the Sinn Fein fundraiser attendee, Democrat and Bill Clinton supporter, now Republican businessman with dealings with Chinese businesspeople and Gulf State Muslim princes would be at single-digits. Luckily, this hurts his chances in the general election.
Amidst our outrage, we ignore real demagogues like Narendra Modi the politician and elevate Trump to the position of political menace. We’ve confused entertainment for politics. Trump is a clown, but more symbolically he’s a court jester playing a satirical presidential candidate and consequently mocking a corrupt process. Close the petition page, pour a drink, and enjoy this meta-spectacle.