Explaining Trump’s Popularity to Germans
As a hyphenated-American and English language teacher living in Germany, I am frequently quizzed by students about Donald Trump. Earlier in the year his rise as a contender was treated here with disbelief, as if it was some kind of joke. No, I insisted, it is certainly no joke, it is part of the American democratic process. What’s more, I found his chances of gaining the Republican nomination quite good. The reaction from my students upon hearing this was typically one of incredulity. With weeks to go before the elections and Trump soaring in the polls, the incredulity has been replaced with sheer horror. I am still asked why Trump is so popular, only now with a hint of urgency and seriousness. I try as best as possible to take the explanation beyond the headlines and the hype, and to delve in to public sentiment. What are the American people thinking? My answer has to do with the nature of honesty, the evolution of the English language and the status-desire of the American Dream, the last of which I exemplify with the story of personal encounter with Trump-mania some ten years ago.
- Trump tells the truth
Trump tells it as it is. Or at least the way he sees it. It doesn’t seem to bother him if he is wrong, he is simply very engaged with his own personal truth. After all, one can philosophically argue that the only truth is personal truth. In a world where real facts are reduced to perception and can be bent to any purpose, the only truth remaining is the personal. Trump’s deeply-felt opinions might change weeks, or even hours, later, but that doesn’t matter either – it keeps him and his thought processes relevant, and the voting public involved, albeit confused. The media can’t keep up with all the twists and turns, tying itself in knots trying to make sense of it all, inadvertently keeping Trump, the figure they revile, in the spotlight.
This style of politics is not something particular to Trump, it is an acknowledged phenomenon which has swept across the world in recent years – it is called post-factual (or post-truth) democracy. Up is down, black is white, it doesn’t matter as long as you believe it, and feel it. British politician Michael Gove summed it up perfectly during a Brexit discussion on the BBC when he stated that “I think people in this country have had enough of experts”. There are a few things happening in Gove’s statement – the blatant anti-intellectualism, the appeal to emotive reaction, the voice of the (imagined/weary) silent majority – but notice the “I think” at the start, it’s the ultimate disclaimer. Trump uses such constructions as the bulk of his speeches.
Take, for example, Trump’s assertion that Obama was born in Kenya, a claim which he upheld until only the last few days and was echoed by innumerous “Birther” conspiracy-theorists. It’s an opinion with deeply troubling racist undertones – the skepticism that an African-American could be self-made and rise to the nation’s highest post. Despite the overwhelming weight of evidence, certificates and even eye-witness accounts of the birth, many still refuse to abandon their conviction on the subject. It is deeply felt, and the number of those others who feel it, and are willing to voice it, further vindicates that belief. It is an opinion, one need neither confirm nor refute it, it is just a belief.
Post-factualism has not taken a foothold in Germany as yet and thus merits some form of explanation here. For a German politician to shoot off an opinion, insult or accusation without the hard evidence to back it up would most likely end their credibility completely. To lie would end their career. Unlike America, there are restrictions to what one can say in public – making accusations could lead to a libel suit, expressing certain extreme right-wing views can land you in prison. Senior politicians are usually highly qualified, have doctorates or decades of experience behind them, and tend to avoid risk to reputation. In such an arena, a maverick loud-mouth businessman like Trump would not make it as far as the stage. It is a highly bureaucratic country where facts, figures and professionalism in presentation are of utmost importance. All this makes Trump’s ascendancy in America, a country Germany has historically felt close to, so astonishing to German people.
Humans instinctively don’t trust liars – we’re just wired that way. In America’s political climate, where all politicians are looked on as liars, Trump comes across as rather honest in comparison. It doesn’t make a difference to his followers that he is only being honest about his opinions and not with the relevant issues or facts. This, unfortunately, has a lot to do to with the level of education of his audience – which brings me to my next point…
- Trump uses simple language everyone can understand
According to a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, Trump speaks like an 11 year old child. Compared to other past and present presidential candidates, he even ranks below George W. Bush in vocabulary range. Conclusions can be drawn from this – that he appeals to the lowest-common-denominator, that his language matches the average comprehension level of his supporters – but the reality is even simpler than that: Trump is a salesman, it is what he has been doing all his life. He is selling his brand to the country, and he has perfected his spiel, it is one area in which he is really expert. In fact, he is heavily utilizing a form of speech used by “influencers” of his generation, a pseudoscience used in marketing and hypnotherapy known as neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). It’s basically confidence-building and persuasion using suggestive mantras.
Using NLP, Trump repeats what he says, seizes on keywords and drums them in. He promises a return to greatness and the priority and protection of American interests. He plans to do this by building a wall with Mexico, renegotiating deals with China and asserting its military more aggressively in the Middle East. He will somehow manage all this while re-kickstarting the economy and slashing taxes at the same time. It appears he has not yet taken into account whether foreign countries will cooperate with his plans or the fundamental laws of economics will allow his fiscal policy, but such reasoning does not concern him for the moment. The only goal in sight is getting to the position of power. He, as the salesman, will be the only winner in the end.
America might need a visionary leader to fix its many problems, yes, but it certainly doesn’t need a carnival barker at this sensitive time. Trump overestimates the appeal of his country abroad as much as he does his own charisma. His proposals may all sound great to the Americans who would benefit from them, but will be unattainable without trade partners and military allies, who are so a far utterly unconvinced with his style of approach. His hardball tactics will not be well received – America is not the only country holding the cards and international relations doesn’t work like the New York property market. This will lead to problems if he is elected, to say the least.
While post-factualism may not have made inroads in German politics as yet, it has not however been exempt from the global rise of new-nationalism. The right-wing, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party has made significant gains this year. They advocate the same brand of exceptionalism and protectionism behind Trump and the disaster of Brexit. It spins the belief that the state is under pressure, whether from real or perceived external factors. Nonetheless, the AfD is still only fourth or often fifth place in state polls, mostly confined to the former East. They are not yet in a policy-influencing position, but resistance to and disgust with them has gone mainstream.
But why is protectionist ideology not as popular in Germany (which has 1 million Middle-Eastern refugees) as it is in English-speaking countries (which have fewer combined)? The answer to that might mostly lie in historical reasons, but also partly in the evolution and construction of the language employed when the issues are being discussed. German is a language of blunt practicality, indeed much of our English scientific lexicon contains words loaned from it. German words can be easily combined to make new words to explain complex concepts in the best way – Lumpenproletariat, Schadenfreude, Weltanschauung and even the recent Willkommenskultur have all found their way into English. While the word exchange may be greater in reverse, there is no arguing that the English imported into German is much simpler, more social or emotive: browser, chat, fuck and recently, chill. It might be a broad assertion to make, but the construction of the German language itself might facilitate a more balanced political and social discussion that the reductive trend of English.
As an English teacher, I take notice of the decay of the English language, the tendency towards simplification. While Global-English spreads to every corner, it is diminishing in flavour and flexibility along the way. We say less to convey more, words fall into obsolescence, the vocabulary bank shrinks. Most of my students use a simplified (second-language) English and I berate them constantly for not consulting a thesaurus before turning in essays. If they repeat too much and can’t find a better replacement word to explore context into a meaning, I give them a poor mark. I recognize many of my students’ common mistakes in the speeches of Trump, Palin, Farage and others of their ilk. I can understand how using simplified speech can make complex issues more digestible to a reader or listener (although with a relative loss of content or context), but the depressing thing is that this stratagem is being utilized to great effect by the wrong people for the wrong, retrograde reasons.
- Trump embodies the American Dream
In 2007 I worked in a bar on the east coast of the USA which was owned by an ambitious young east-European man. Having arrived several years before, he had worked his way up from kitchen porter to manager and was now in business for himself. He was living the American Dream. He would often bring his wife to work and she would sit at the bar quietly – pale and sickly looking – as he flirted with the waitresses. He had “big plans”, he told me, and was often off on business trips, usually to “leadership workshops”, get-rich-quick seminars and the like. Returning from one trip he brandished his new iPhone at me, wanting to show me something it contained. On it were pictures of he and Donald Trump together in a plush Manhattan suite in various poses – shaking hands, thumbs-upping, looking pensive, mid-dialogue, sharing a joke – there were nearly fifty photos in all. He called him “Donald”, and was very proud. I enquired, of course, as to how this meeting came about. Simple, he said, he had paid $10,000 for an hour of his time.
It was this moment which made Trump’s political ascendancy no surprise to me, and I have been thinking back to it often of late. If Trump is good at anything, it is winning the confidence of idiots and persuading them to part with their money (or votes in this case). He is the perfect symbol of success (regardless whether the wealth was inherited or not). According to the Great Book of Trump, this world is divided into winners and losers and my boss was in the former and I, as employee, was clearly in the latter, enabling his success. My boss probably thought of me as a fool, as I did him, but it was his perception that mattered in this world.
One late night when leaving work, I noticed the dishwasher, a young veteran of the Iraq War, a white Southerner, was still in the parking lot, sitting in his beat-up car. I was curious as to why he was there and as I approached he noticed me and seemed a little panicked. He came out and apologized, saying his car wouldn’t start. It was then I saw that his wife was asleep in the passenger seat, his two infant children in the back, all their possessions piled about them. They were living in their car. I nearly burst out crying on the spot, gave him everything I had in my pockets by way of cash and left, I didn’t know what else to say or do.
America is a place of great disparity. We have wealth inequality in Europe too, but it’s not the same – here there is a social net, healthcare, housing and payments. America is built on survival of the fittest, and society is geared to utterly punish those who can not succeed. It is wired into their education system, it permeates nearly every level of interaction, it is the measure by which people live. Living the American Dream is a status which anyone can achieve by hard grind, so how come you aren’t there yet? It’s an incentive as old as the country itself, upon which it was founded. But it’s not for everyone – to have winners, there must be losers.
My boss paid ten grand to Donald Trump because he believed that simply being in the presence of greatness would make a success of him too. Of course, the only winner in this situation is Trump, who is that much richer. Back in east-Europe (I won’t mention the country in order to avoid stereotypes) my boss was the big man – he had “made it” in America, he knew “the Donald”, the very figurehead of capitalism, he was a “success”. Meanwhile, I discovered, during all this time his wife had been suffering with cancer. His money, and his time, could have been better spent looking after his dying wife, but he forsook his responsibilities to bask for an hour in greatness. I quit working for him in disgust shortly after finding this out.
The reason I refer back on this brief time in my life is because of the characters involved. They are the real America – the boss, the wife, the dishwasher and even me, the outsider. The boss, no doubt, is voting Trump. Donald is a good buddy, he is invested in this dream. The dishwasher, angry at the injustices he has experienced, is looking over the fence and probably thinking to himself – “this sounds good, I want some of that too! It’s my turn now!” The boss’s wife, the wallflower, is most likely dead after so much neglect. Me, I jumped ship years ago, long since disillusioned with it all, I want no part of it.
A Trump presidency would be bad for all of us “losers”. He is the perfect storm of sociopath and the cult of personality, post-factualism and new-nationalism. His rise has much to do with the decrepit standard of education in the U.S. – the anti-intellectualism which has triumphed over the last half-century has led to this point. It’s the end of a once-great nation, and it is sad to watch. Many of my American friends have retreated into a kind of self-induced apathy at frustration with the current political climate in their country. Most of them will probably not vote. The only calm, measured response to the fiasco of this presidential race I have seen from any of them on social media are the photos of capybara posted at any mention of politics. The photos of capybara might be an expression of the extreme weariness of the average American voter, a form of protest, but, hey, they’re cute. I also find them preferable to a picture of Trump or Clinton, and thus I will share one on here too…
Germans abhor populism for well-known historical reasons. There are no particular lessons to be learned for them from Trump’s rise, because they have encountered this kind of maniac before, and that is why they find it so terrifying. They once had a loud-mouth political upstart who barnstormed the country full of vague, unattainable promises of national priority, protection and prosperity. In heart-felt speeches, he drummed up the belief of a national destiny and found willing troops to act to his merest suggestion. Long the underdog, he swept into power on a wave of patriotic fervour… twelve years later the country was in ruins and some 60 million dead worldwide.