What to make of Donald Trump and his campaign? Michael Clarke and Anthony Ricketts write that he’s following long-standing American traditions.
In the voluminous material written about Donald Trump’s polarising presidential campaign one theme has been consistent – attempts to define “The Donald” as a latter-day fascist. Robert Kagan has argued that Trump’s support stems from his offering not of policy alternatives, but “an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence.”
For such critics, it is Trump’s cultivation of “a personalised bond with voters” – such as the now infamous public “oath of allegiance” to his cause at rallies – that is most emblematic of fascism. Indeed, successful fascism, Kagan argues, is not about policies “but about the strongman, the leader, in whom could be entrusted the fate of the nation. Whatever the problem, he could fix it. Whatever the threat, internal or external, he could vanquish it, and it was unnecessary for him to explain how”.
Others, however, have stopped short of definitively labelling Trump a fascist. Jay Nordlinger has arguably come closer to the mark when he speculated that Trump “is simply a populist, in a fine American tradition — a nationalist, a protectionist, an isolationist. A nativist, even.”
Trump, in both his utterances on domestic politics and foreign policy, speaks to two distinctly American traditions. Firstly, to what Richard Hofstadter termed the “paranoid style” in American politics and secondly, to what Walter Russell Mead identified as the “Jacksonian tradition” in American foreign policy.
Hofstadter defined paranoia as “a chronic mental disorder characterised by systematised delusions of persecution and of one’s own greatness”. Hofstadter tracked this ‘style’ through the various anti-Jacobin, anti-Catholic, anti-Mason, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-communist movements that punctuated American politics from founding until the mid-1960s. Crucial to the appeal of such movements, he argued, was their ability to tap “suspicious discontent” through political rhetoric that blended “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy”.
The Jacksonian tradition meanwhile is based on what Mead termed a “community of political feeling” defined by principles of populism, individualism, honour and courage.
Drawing on the work of David Hackett Fischer, Mead identified the basis of the populism central to this tradition with the protestant “Scotch-Irish” element of the British colonisation of North America. The “Scotch-Irish”, Mead argues, shaped by centuries of conflict in Ireland, “established a culture and outlook formed by centuries of bitter warfare before they came to the United States.”
This tradition was central to the establishment by the mid-19th century of an “American creed” whereby many Americans “identified membership in their political community not with freedom for personal liberal callings or republican self-governance…but with a whole array of particular cultural origins and customs.” These were strongly linked to their North European ancestry, Protestantism, a belief in the superiority of the “white race” and patriarchal familial leadership. “Intellectually”, Mead argues, this is “rooted in the common sense tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment” wherein “moral, scientific, political, and religious truths can be ascertained by the average person.”
The central animating factor of the Jacksonian worldview is the belief that “government should do everything in its power to promote the well-being – political, economic, and moral – of the folk community. Any means are permissible in the services of this end, as long as they do not violate the moral feelings or infringe on the freedoms that Jacksonians believe are essential.”
In the foreign policy setting, Jacksonians embrace strongly nationalist and unilateralist positions combining, “a firm belief in American exceptionalism and an American world mission with deep skepticism about the United States’ ability to create a liberal world order.”
These traditions have now been fused under Trump.
Crucially, Hofstadter noted that while major historical manifestations of the “paranoid style” such as the anti-Masonic movement of the early 1800s, “felt that they…were still in possession of their country”, modern versions (such as the John Birch Society in the 1950s and 1960s), “feel dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind”. Such “dispossession” was the result not of the march of history but rather of conspiracy writ large, as Hofstadter puts it:
“The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.”
It is this sense of dispossession at the hands of political (and economic) elites, both Democratic and Republican, among a predominantly white, blue-collar and regional sector of the electorate that Trump has directly appealed to and fed off.
Trump has ridiculed the twin assumptions that have underpinned the post-Cold War bipartisan foreign policy consensus in Washington, namely that a “strong United States is still essential to the maintenance of the open global order” and “that the alternative to America’s ‘indispensability’ is not a harmonious, self-regulating balance of independent states but an international landscape marked by eruptions of chaos and destruction.”
Trump has repeatedly charged that the Washington elites’ internalisation of these assumptions have led the United States into a series of “bad deals” that have over-extended it strategically and militarily (such as in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), weakened it economically (with deals like NAFTA), and diminished its standing among both allies and adversaries (the Iran nuclear deal being an oft-used example).
What unites Trump’s foreign policy positions with those he has adopted on a range of domestic issues, from immigration to trade policy, is the desire to portray the United States as existentially threatened by individuals, organisations, and institutions that do not share the values of the Jacksonian “folk community”.
The Washington establishment, both Republican and Democratic, with their symbiotic relationships with the “expert” community of think-tanks, academia and big business is a particular target of opprobrium. Trump portrays them as “the credentialed and the connected” who are advancing not only their own “class agenda” but wanting “to assert truths that run counter to the commonsense reasoning of Jacksonian America”.
Frank Gaffney, a Trump foreign policy adviser from the Washington think-tank the Center for Security Policy, has perhaps presented the most extreme version of this narrative. Gaffney argues that Trump is combatting a “Red-Green-Black” axis between “the Left”, the Black Lives Matter movement and the “Islamists” to subvert the United States. In this scenario Hillary Clinton, with her commitment to a neoliberal economic agenda, open borders, criminal justice reform and support for conservative Middle Eastern states (such as Saudi Arabia) in the struggle against both Islamic State and the Assad regime, forms the “connective tissue” of a conspiracy that will see “the elimination of our country”.
As Trump’s campaign has become mired in controversy, the candidate himself has increasingly struck similar themes.
At a campaign rally in Florida on 13 October, for instance, Trump told his supporters that the controversy surrounding his 2005 statements about women is driven by a far-flung conspiracy involving the Clinton campaign, the “mainstream media” and international finance. “The Clinton machine”, Trump blasted, “is at the center of this power structure. We have seen this in the WikiLeaks documents in which Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends, and her donors.”
Trump told his supporters that the “political establishment” attempting to undermine his campaign is in fact “the same group responsible for our disastrous trade deals, massive illegal immigration, and economic and foreign policies that have bled our country to dry”. The extent and malignancy of this conspiracy, he concluded, means that this would be “the most important election of our lifetime. Indeed, one of the most important elections in the history of our country.” Themes he developed further in this week’s final Presidential debate.
While the strength of the forces that Trump’s campaign has both tapped and encouraged may not ultimately prove enough to carry him to the White House, there should be little doubt that they constitute a contemporary manifestation of enduring American political themes – the “paranoid style” and the Jacksonian tradition – that whoever wins on 8 November will have to contend with.