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Donald Trump and The Grooming of America

March 1, 2016

Trump Multiple

Donald Trump is fast becoming worthy of a separate category of posts in this blog. So I’m acutely aware that I’m contributing a few molecules to the oxygen of his publicity. I wish it were not so. Sulphur would be preferable.

By and large, I avoid speaking ill of individuals. I make an exception for Mr Trump. Or at least for the personality he has created for the purpose of the Republican primaries. What I and a host of other horrified onlookers struggle to understand is why so many Americans have fallen for his obnoxious dog-and-pony show. For me it’s doubly horrifying because America is a country I admire above most others.

CJ Werleman in the Middle East Eye has a fair stab at identifying one aspect of Trump’s supporters in a recent article called The ordinariness of Trump supporters is what makes them so scary. After attending Trump’s victory celebration at the Nevada Caucus, he observed that:

The crowd was made extraordinary by its ordinariness. The crowd resembled every white-majority suburban street in America. I spoke to insurance agents, lawyers, realtors, retirees, students, brokers, hospitality workers, frat boys, and even a 97-year-old Second World War veteran of the Solomons and New Guinea. With all proper respect given to the latter, the casino’s ballroom portrayed white socio-economic populism sealed in a bottle. That the audience more resembled a cocktail party for corporate middle managers than an initiation ceremony for Hells Angels bikers is what should scare us the most.

He goes on to say:

No one I spoke with could tell me why exactly he or she intended on voting for Trump. When pressed, attendees would offer morally and substantively vacuous slogans – such as, “Trump is a straight-shooter. He calls it like it is,” or an even more benign, “I like his style.”

He calls it like it is. Or at least like his followers believe it is.

But what Werleman doesn’t do is to explain why. Why all these ordinary people are going into raptures about this ludicrous, narcissistic, orange-tanned, germ-phobic prophet of straight-shooting.

They’re angry, it seems. Just like Trump’s angry. But about what? You name it – Muslim terrorists, illegal immigrants, American jobs disappearing south – he’s angry about it, and so are they.

In Britain, we have our share of politicians who bang on about similar themes, but none are capable of bundling issues with persona into an entertainment package as effectively as Trump. Another difference is that most of us are incapable of being swept away by the kind of crude rhetoric that he spews out to rapturous applause. We’re cynical, us Brits. We don’t do adulation.

So why the rapture? It can’t just be the natural exuberance of Americans – a quality that in other contexts is so endearing.

I have a theory – no more than that. It needs to be tested, proved or disproved. But I’ll throw it out there anyway.

Trump’s followers have been groomed. Not by the man himself, and not as the result of a long-term strategy by some evil genius. But a combination of four factors has produced a willing audience just waiting for someone like him to hoover them up into a collective that may yet send him all the way to the White House.

The factors are these:

Good guys and bad guys. America’s entertainment industry over the past twenty years has made most of its money from blockbuster franchises: Star Wars, the Marvel comic hero movies, Die Hard and so forth. The central theme had always been good versus evil. No ambiguity.

Forget those worthy movies that win Oscars – Spotlight, Twelve Years a Slave, Bridge of Spies. Yes, they make money, and certainly moral ambiguity is their stock in trade. What keeps the studios in business is the likes of Godzilla, Mad Max and the Terminator – direct descendants of the wicked witch and the big bad wolf.

So it seems to me that there are many people out there (and not just in America) whose moral compasses has been warped by the entertainment industry. They respond to what they’ve been fed – good versus evil. Black and white, no grey areas.

Autonomous childhood. Conditioning starts with childhood. For some people, so does grooming and manipulation. Over the past forty-odd years, since the arrival of the video player, kids from an early age have crept downstairs at weekends while their parents slept, and watched their favourite Disney movies. In the evenings, they sit in their own space watching stuff that, because they’re in a separate place, potentially escapes the attention of hard-pressed mums and dads. And more recently they’ve been free to wander through the internet jungle, seeking content that’s exciting because it’s supposed to be off limits. Much of that stuff is at the extremes. Extreme black and extreme white.

Parental control settings on satellite TV and the internet notwithstanding, can any parent honestly say that they’re aware of everything that their teenage and even pre-teen kids are watching? When our kids were growing up, I certainly couldn’t. And even if we could control what happened at home, what about when our kids were visiting friends? Then they were in the care of parents who might have different views on what was acceptable viewing.

It was something that became very obvious to us when our twelve-year-old came back one morning from a sleepover, boasting about the X-rated movies she and her friends had watched.

So we’re not just talking about kids whose parents have left them to fend for themselves around the neighbourhood. We’re talking about children from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, just like the grown-ups who cheered Trump on in Nevada.

I’m not daft enough to believe that the past couple of generations have grown up with no ambiguity and no uncertainty in their own lives. Nor am I saying that the diet of absolutes is all that’s on offer in the movies and on TV. But listening to Trump “call it like it is”, with no ifs and buts, must give many people the same warm feeling as they get when good trounces evil in the movies they’ve been watching since childhood.

And given that right rarely prevails over wrong without cruelty and slaughter, Trump’s rhetoric about terrorists being shot with bullets dipped in pig’s blood works for them just fine.

The pathfinders. The shock-jocks – the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter – have been peddling their message of xenophobia and anger for years. They have effectively played John the Baptist for Trump’s messiah. They didn’t create him, but they paved the way. Again, no ambiguity, raw language and half-truths are what gets people tune in to them on their car radios.

There have been false messiahs – ludicrous individuals like Sarah Palin who have attempted to surf the same waves of fear, anger and prejudice – but Trump’s the one who is truly in tune with the shock jocks’ angry audience.

Attention deficit. Some psychologists claim that the internet has re-wired our brains. We’re incapable, it seems, of reading more than a thousand words or so without tuning out. We like our ideas to be simple, preferably expressed in 140 characters. We spend more of our time watching three-minute video clips than reading about the same subject.

We like our politicians to speak in words of one syllable, not because we wouldn’t understand them if they used a few long words, but because we’ve been conditioned to expect sound-bites, especially those delivered with juddering emotion.

We have so many inputs from so many sources, often simultaneously, that we are losing the ability to concentrate on one thing at a time – to listen, to think for ourselves rather than accepting truth handed to us on a plate.

Socrates would have been appalled. Fidel Castro, who thought nothing of rambling on for four hours at a time, must wonder what the world’s coming to when he sees audiences twitching with boredom if a speaker fails to deliver a punch line at least every couple of minutes.

A trite analysis perhaps, and “we” is not everyone. But I speak as a father whose adult offspring sometimes struggle to respond to a question in anything more than a grunt, because they’re busy watching TV and browsing on their smart phones at the same time.

These  four factors contribute to a resistance to nuance, detail and complexity. And that’s what people like Trump exploit and manipulate. He’s not the only one who does this and he’s not the first. But his current competitors are a pretty charmless bunch, whereas he has charm in spades. A big personality, flaunting the symbols of success, unapologetic about his personal eccentricities. The confidence of a vacuum cleaner salesman or a stand-up comic.

His polar opposite, Barack Obama, also has charm. But he’s nothing if not nuanced, as every president must be. So was Ronald Reagan. So was Bill Clinton.

But Trump doesn’t have to worry about nuance, because ambiguity isn’t what gets you elected. People want to hear the truth as you see it, but not the truth that absolutes are an illusion, that there are no easy answers, no silver bullets and no panaceas. They want to hear you “call it like it is”.

The scary aspect of all this is not so much the rise of Donald Trump. It will take more than one demagogue to subvert the rule of law in his country and overcome the constitutional checks and balances that prevent the rabble-rousers from gaining a truly dangerous amount of power.

But there are other countries subject to the same forces that don’t have institutions as robust as those in the United States. The factors that contribute to the grooming of Americans – denial of ambiguity, disengaged parenting and an amoral internet, are in play all over the world.

In countries where freedom of speech is limited, the shock jocks deliver their messages from the pulpit and the party podium. In countries where the rule of law applies only to the ruled, the potential for virulent extremism to translate into violence and oppression is ever-present.

Even in America, should Trump turn out to be John the Baptist and not the Messiah, has the ground been laid for future leaders who use his tactics to even greater effect? And is there a groundswell of willing executioners ready, in the event of some national trauma, to ride roughshod over the country’s cherished institutions?

As I said at the beginning, I’m offering an untested theory rather than definitive proof.

But I do believe that the combination of influences that has led to Donald Trump’s popularity, whether by accident or design, amounts to grooming. It’s happening in his country, in mine, and every other nation where the big bad wolf lurks in the undergrowth.

And that’s truly scary.

From → Politics, Social, UK, USA

4 Comments
  1. The only reason Trump is doing so well is because Jerry Springer decided not to run this time.

  2. Interesting thought. Springer would have a good chance, though I doubt he has $17.5 million to lend himself!

  3. There is a lot more to think about in what you say though. A classical education was also “grooming” of a kind. I can’t track down the exact quote in British history, but it was dogma that the career of a person in Edwardian/Victorian (?) times was heavily influenced by their parentage. Those sons born to common parentage followed their father’s career. However, for the sons of a noble, things were different. The eldest son inherits his father’s title, the second son serves as an officer in the army, the third son enters priesthood, while the fourth becomes an artist. This allocation continued for further sons. Daughters were relegated to submissive roles, being primarily used to forge social links with arranged marriages.

    The education systems of the times, especially in the Public Schools, reinforced those role models. Sexuality was suppressed to the other extreme of the way it is flaunted today. There is a blind faith in science and technology nowadays – you only have to watch an episode of CSI to see how the forensic investigators are able to make incredible logical connections by having what appears to be the entire knowledge of the internet resident in their minds – yet the average Joe in the street nowadays can’t even find Australia on a map.

    Keep writing on this topic, it’s fascinating.

  4. Thanks Doug. I wonder how commonly the use of the term grooming to describe a form of conditioning (especially as a precursor to sexual abuse) is used in the US. As you say, as less sinister usage is when you groom your successor.

    Yes, it is an interesting topic. I came across another theory which may also at least partly explain Trump’s support. Some academics in the US believe that that there is a latent authoritarian streak that is awakened in people when the feel socially, politically and financially threatened. The article talking about the theory is here: http://www.vox.com/2016/3/1/11127424/trump-authoritarianism.

    There’s another factor that I didn’t mention. That’s the pervasive coverage of the news networks (especially Fox) of anything likely to induce fear among viewers. Weather, terrorism, health, Wall Street and any number of other topics guaranteed to make people feel insecure. And fear leads to authoritarian reaction. Incidents like the San Bernadino shootings, horrible as they were, are extrapolated to give the impression that there’s a terrorist lurking on every street. S

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