Trump: Return Of The Great Communicator
Donald Trump is Ronald Reagan Redux. Like Reagan, the secret of his success is that he can speak directly to the people.
Nicholas Lemann, professor of journalism at Columbia University, reviewing a recent pair of books on Ronald Reagan in the New York Review of Books writes: “By focusing so powerfully on the language and framing of American politics, Reagan was able to have large effects, in a rightwards direction, on the country’s governance too.”
But first, Reagan the actor, story-teller and spokesperson for various entities including General Electric, a former governor of California, had to secure the Republican Party nomination in a contested Republican convention.
Today, as Donald Trump moves closer to securing the Republican nomination, the contest is being held amidst the consternation of friend and foe alike, as people are searching for an explanation to Trump the ‘phenomenon’.
Trump’s tumultuous progress brings back contrasting memories of Ronald Reagan, an altogether smooth operator, from the self-same ‘party of Lincoln’. Reagan comes to mind, not so much for how different he was from Trump, but because he too had the gift of directly communicating with the people.
In hindsight, amongst several achievements of the Reagan presidency, what stands out is the historicity of what no one thought was happening at the time. It was Ronald Reagan, perhaps already feeling the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, the most hands-off of presidents, who scored high in strategic terms, perhaps even higher than Nixon and his opening up to China.
Today, it is Reagan who is credited with having made the moves that brought the Cold War to an end, and caused the collapse of the USSR.
And this, by the deliberate and conscious, we know now from the copious Reagan diaries, and seemingly simple expedient, of breaking their bank.
Reagan sharply stepped up the US military budget and launched the colossally expensive ‘Star Wars’ missile-shield programme. He knew the Soviets were having a tough time maintaining military parity anyway, and would simply not be able to keep up.
The long and short of this strategy was that the world, in a binary power equation ever since the end of the WWII, though the Bamboo Curtain too was up, was changed to a unipolar force, with America assisted by its NATO allies, in sole charge.
This is under challenge today from the multipolar narrative, with China/ North Korea/Pakistan emerging from behind the new Bamboo Curtain as a fresh military-economic Axis.
And also other scattered and weaker poles such as a newly assertive Russia under Putin, the much battered BRICS with India standing out from within it, groupings like the G-8/G-20, APAC, ASEAN, the once powerful OPEC now in reduced circumstances.
The EU, home of NATO, is economically battered, and as Trump points out, it is the US that has to finance European security too.
But, even today, the overwhelming military and technological superiority of the American military machine, plus the might of its preeminent economy, still gives the US the head-and-shoulders-ahead edge. But yes, its reluctance to commit to any boots-on-the-ground warring, weakens the strategic advantage.
But if Reagan brought about the biggest change in the post WWII scenario, Trump as president, may well be the one to break the back of Islamic terrorism, and also the tacit bid to leverage, power, and influence of Islamic nations worldwide.
He could do this with a frontal assault on its ability to wage terrorism on US territory, leaving other nations to work up similar resolve and commitment for themselves. Trump has no intentions to go on a Dubya style rampage abroad, particularly since oil is no longer in the strategic balance! And from all indications, Trump intends to realign other economic and strategic equations also, to suit his unipolar vision for America first. If Reagan busted the Soviet bank, Trump intends to teach the rest of the world about which country is the undisputed boss - but without taking on their responsibilities too. It is a new and unabashed isolationism, because Trump does not see the rest of the world as America’s frontier anymore. But there is the old are-you-for-us-or-against-us assertion.
He has already thrown down the gauntlet to Islamic terrorism/extremism in terms that include bald threats to the families of suspected terrorists, and what Trump considers the legitimate and ‘minimal’ use of torture-waterboarding. This has got most Islamic nations, including ally Saudi Arabia, squealing in outraged protest, but to little effect.
Conventional wisdom across the globe, including amongst his Republican/ Democrat rivals, distinguishes between Muslims as followers of a great religion, and Islamic terrorism, that purportedly ‘has no religion’.
But Trump deliberately flies in the face of this reckoning. He holds all Muslims responsible for this Frankenstein, sprung up in their midst. That moderate Islamic nations have neither protested ISIS, LeT etc. nor agreed to take in Syrian refugees, illustrates Trump’s point.
So Trump has already put all Muslims in the US on notice. He also proposes to prevent Muslims from elsewhere visiting the US, till better security measures have been put in place.
No country with sizeable Muslim populations, have dared to take this kind of tough position, and indeed many liberal regimes, including those in the beleaguered EU, go so far as to refuse to ‘demonise’ their Muslim immigrant populations, even as they are bloodied.
Meanwhile the bombings and killings are intensifying, taking advantage of this moderation, not only in Europe but in Islamic Turkey too. Of course, the ISIS, that has laid claim to the latest atrocity in Brussels, explaining that it, and the Paris attacks before it, are retaliations.
Trump has expressed anger and pointed out that this is exactly what he means. That there are Islamic neighbourhoods in Brussels which are even unsafe for police patrols to enter! And there are similar ghettos in many other capitals and cities around the world.
ISIS says everyone who is not with it, Russia, France, the US, UK, are on notice. Of course, they, and other Islamic militant groups, also cite the recent arrest of their operative in Brussels, and the activities of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, as additional reasons.
In addition, Trump has pronounced similarly radical right-wing views with regard to immigration, particularly from Mexico, and has vowed to return jobs to America, with special reference to manufacturing.
Trump’s wild and sudden success comes from having struck a chord with the American people. He is always blunt, very clear and unambiguous, but also, sometimes, incoherent and evasive. And yet, many people, across the country, as more and more primaries are showing, seem to understand and support what he means.
And he has not alienated as many from non-white ethnic groupings as was hoped for by his opponents and antagonists. Hispanics, ethnic immigrants, and African-Americans too, vote for Trump, and in significant enough numbers to see him win.
His detractors, both in the Republican Party and outside amongst the Democrats, attribute Trump’s popularity to a range of outlier issues, holding up his lack of clear policy prescriptions, ignoring what he does say for its unorthodoxy.
Trump is seen to uphold very few traditionally Republican positions. He mixes in idea raids into the democrat lines. Then there are other inspirations, presumably from the business world. His detractors mock it all, unable to understand what the public sees in it, and are panicked into jeering denial.
They cite broad sociological markers and trends for Trump’s popularity - public anger with professional politicians, and lightly educated redneck supporters. But they also think he appears to have the antidote to urban poverty and declining middle-class living standards. While it is rhetorical, Trump’s critics agree he strikes a chord with his promise to make America great again. Like Reagan’s, the numerous Trump generalisations work too.
But who would have thought that Trump is proving to be a great communicator by breaching political taboos, shunning excessive political packaging, breaking rules of engagement, going above the heads of the professionals who analyse everything a serious presidential contender says?
Trump has received millions of dollars worth of free-to-air political coverage and analysis. He projects himself as a deal-making businessman, who can be a better president precisely because he has never been a professional politician.
Trump tags his rivals with a taunting descriptor, the now dropped-out Little Rubio, Lying Ted, and the latest - Irresponsible Hillary. He also expects Hillary Clinton to be indicted by the FBI and debarred from contesting for her allegedly illegal and mysterious emails off an unsecured private server as secretary of state. At least, by constantly hammering away at the possibility, he is diminishing her credibility quite effectively.
Whatever happens at the imminent Republican convention, and assuming Trump fords that particular river, in November 2016; it is clear that he has shifted American politics rightwards, and in his success might extract some of the poison of extremism from the body politic of the world too.
But this bold and brutal change, flying in the face of a great and paralysing liberalism, reminiscent of Chamberlain’s ‘peace in our time’ trip to Berlin, won’t even be attempted - if Trump is cast aside.
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