When I first took an interest in international politics, I was so young I’d sometimes confuse Eisenhower with Adenauer. It took me a while to sort them out, especially because the Soviet papers conflated both under the same rubric: enemy.
Since then I’ve followed with some interest the tenures of all subsequent 10 US presidents, which provides a fair basis for comparing Trump with the others. And in some aspects, he’s well-nigh incomparable.
No other president in my memory has aroused so much passion, pro or con.
As far as I can tell, the middle ground of the US electorate is made up of people who like Trump well enough to vote for him, considering the alternative; those who find Trump revolting but would still see him as the lesser evil (I’d fall into this category if I still voted there); those who think Biden is incompetent but still preferable to Trump; those who don’t care much one way or the other.
Without having reliable poll data at my fingertips, I’d estimate that all those groups together make up about 20 per cent of all voters. The rest seem just about evenly divided into those who either adore or loathe Trump, at equally hysterical pitch.
Trump’s policies in his first term don’t strike me as sufficient to rouse either passion. Some of them were good, others not so much, and I’d say that domestically the former outnumbered the latter, while in foreign policy they were the other way around.
Either way there wasn’t that much in it. So why all that hysteria among both the pro and con groups?
This is an interesting question because the answer goes to the very core of the American national character. Whether or not Trump wins a second term, he’ll be gone in the blink of an historical eye, whereas a national character is considerably more enduring.
His obsessive detractors fall into various subgroups, none of them attractive. Some are simply lefties who hate every word Trump has ever uttered, every policy he has ever put into effect and the palpable contempt he has for political correctness.
Others are simply conformists in passionate love with the establishment. They define the establishment as political mainstream represented by former lawyers sporting perfectly capped, unrealistically white teeth perpetually bared in fulsome smiles. Such men appeal to the peculiarly conformist nature of many Americans.
It’s peculiar because Americans are usually associated with the rugged individualism depicted in Hollywood Westerns. Americans do have such qualities, but they usually reserve them for commercial activities. In matters of the spirit, intellect and culture, however, most Americans tend to toe the line, wherever it’s drawn.
That is reflected in their language, overabundant in clichés. Many such come from TV advertising, proving yet again the effectiveness of my former profession.
I’m not as au courant with American speech as I used to be, but even in the streets of London one hears visiting Americans say things like “It’s Miller time”, “I’ll reach out to you”, or “Don’t leave home without it” – all of Madison Avenue provenance.
The cultural equivalents of these Americans in Britain would be embarrassed to show they can be influenced by advertising straplines, but Americans wear them on their sleeve as a badge of honour or at least identification. Alas, clichéd language, if overused for many years, may lead to clichéd thinking, and then to cultural and intellectual conformism.
Whatever else someone might say about Trump, he certainly doesn’t come across as a pillar of the political establishment. That by itself is enough for many Americans to hate him with the fervour of believers confronting heretics.
More interesting than Trump’s policies is the nature of his appeal to broad swathes of the American public. That, I think, offers a valuable insight into that great nation.
What I find repellent about Trump is his vulgarity, ignorance, narcissism and absence of higher (which is to say statesman-like) intelligence, a gap that’s only partly filled by a horse-trader’s common sense.
His admirers, including those who I know are otherwise capable of impeccable judgement, either deny such defects or, if they don’t, crack a Gnostic smile and say Trump only puts on that façade for popular appeal. At base, however, he’s a keenly intelligent man of refined tastes and unimpeachable morals.
Since neither I nor, by and large, Trump’s admirers know him intimately, his public persona is really all we have to go by. Hence whether he is all those unpleasant things for real or as make-believe doesn’t matter. What matters is that he was elected president, meaning that enough Americans either don’t mind those traits or, interestingly, actually like them.
This reflects America’s ideological commitment to the common, which is to say vulgar, man, whose advancement has been elevated to the aspirational peak of the American Dream. America was the first Western country genuinely committed to that desideratum, and in many ways it remains the only one.
Coming across as common men is essential not only for America’s politicians but even for her cultural figures. I recall that even the late writer William F. Buckley, a man of erudition and refinement who possessed (or rather used) the widest imaginable vocabulary, scattered much more slang around his narratives than any comparable British figure ever has.
It was as if Buckley was telling his readers: “Yes, I’m more cultured and talented than you, richer, better-educated, and I routinely use words like ‘encephalophonic’ even in everyday speech. But I know that Americanism is a club demanding membership fees, and I’m willing to pay them.”
That doesn’t mean that common Americans necessarily have all or any of Trump’s despicable qualities. But they must feel that his being proudly, triumphantly common outweighs whatever drawbacks he has.
They see him as the richer neighbour next door, or at least around the corner. And if having more money comes with being a narcissistic boor, then so be it – provided he’s a common boor.
If I still lived in America, I’d feel uneasy about the image of my country, as refracted through the prism of Trump’s personality. But then it’s largely to immunise myself against such disappointments that I left America in the first place.