By Jonathan Freedland
It was the night the American media were too demure to call Pussygate. At the time, Donald Trump had won nothing. Twenty-four hours later, he would be celebrating his first victory in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, setting him on the path to face Hillary Clinton in November. But on this frigid Monday night in February, while a blizzard whipped outside, Trump stood before a packed Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire and prepared to unleash his tongue.
After a rambling monologue that moved from his TV career to the happy, sunny world that would follow his elevation to the White House, Trump came to another of his pet themes: the inadequacies of his rivals. He was attacking the Texas senator Ted Cruz for being insufficiently enthusiastic about the torture technique of waterboarding when a woman in the standing area directly in front of the stage, a kind of Trumpian moshpit, called out, “He’s a pussy!” Trump pretended to look appalled, even walking away from the lectern in faux disgust, before finally, as if under pressure, repeating the insult for the benefit of the cameras that might not have caught it. “She said, ‘He’s a pussy.’ That’s terrible … Ma’am, you’re reprimanded,” he told the heckler, in the manner of a lax teacher going through the disciplinary motions.
And thus Trump secured his dominance over yet another news cycle – as the talkshows, cable TV and his fellow candidates all debated his lapse into vulgarity. As he has been throughout this campaign, starting in July of last year, Trump was the star of the show.
At the same time, he sent a powerful signal. It’s the same one he transmits every time he denounces “political correctness” or violates one of its supposed strictures: mocking the disabled, judging women by their looks, bragging about his fortune, insisting that, when he is in charge, shop workers will go back to saying “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays”. The message every time is the same. It says: I’m outside the system. I don’t obey its rules. I’m different.
Why is this so effective? How have these outbursts – which were at first assumed to be terminal to his candidacy – instead garnered him endless media attention and, more important, millions of votes?
Part of it is sheer showbiz. Ever since he got himself a daily place in the New York tabloids in the 1980s, Trump has known that outrage sells. Long before Australian political consultant Lynton Crosby advised his clients to change the subject by throwing a dead cat on the table, Trump understood that people will always tune in to watch a taboo being broken.
An underestimated part of the formula is humour. Trump is funny. His speech pattern is funny, his use of the word “so” is funny – “It’s gonna be so great” – his flamboyant self-love is funny, his mocking of his enemies is funny.
But most powerful is the thrill Trump generates in the room, and in the audience watching on TV, when he dares reject the rules of the game. For those voters who feel the game is rigged – who feel that the game has turned them into perennial losers – the sight of someone prepared to defy its conventions is exhilarating. It signals the arrival of an outsider, a maverick unbound to the old order and ready to destroy it in favour of something entirely new.
For his followers, Trump’s willingness to trample on the pieties of civic discourse is a sign of his bona fides, even a statement of intent. If he’s prepared to say that about Carly Fiorina’s face, maybe he’ll be prepared to come down hard on an American company about to relocate a manufacturing plant from the US to Mexico. After all, he’s clearly not fettered by the restraints that hold back the rest of those politicians.
On this logic, Trump is the fearless truth-teller. Which may seem an odd accolade to give a man who has been caught out as a serial liar and perhaps the most provenly dishonest candidate to seek, let alone win, the nomination of a major US party. But that is to forget that Trump’s core supporters believe it is the establishment – the media and political elites – that have lied to them for at least two decades. So when those same elites brand Trump a liar, his supporters either don’t believe it, or else they don’t care.
For the next five months, Trump will face off against Hillary Clinton – the ultimate embodiment of the US political elite – in what looks fated to be the ugliest campaign in living memory. But even if he loses, he’s proved that he has deep appeal to a section of the US electorate that has come to regard him as their champion.
Their anger, which Trump has so deftly tapped, goes beyond this or that party, or even the current economic situation. He is channeling a rage at the state of America’s political system. And this fury is not confined to the US. There are versions of it surging across the world, hot with wrath at the status quo. In almost every case, those voicing it claim to be speaking for the people and for true democracy. But in their most extreme forms they threaten to shade into something darker: a revolt against the norms, the agreed boundaries, that make democracy possible.
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