What is the appeal of The Donald as president? Trump imagery over Trump policy, I suspect. But why? Reading The Englishman’s Boy, I got a clue from a 1923 fictional Hollywood studio boss:
Last year Mussolini marched his Blackshirts on Rome and the government, the army folded. The government possessed all the material force necessary to prevail, and yet they gave way to a few thousand men with pistols in their pockets. Why? Because Mussolini orchestrated a stream of images more potent than artillery manned by men without spiritual conviction. Thousands of men in black shirts marching the dusty roads, clinging to trains, piling into automobiles. They passed through the countryside like film through a projector, enthralling onlookers. And when Rome fell, Mussolini paraded his Blackshirts through the city, before the cameras, so they could be paraded over and over again, as many times as necessary, trooped through every movie house from Tuscany to Sicily, burning the black shirt and the silver death’s head into every Italian’s brain. [p. 109]
Guy Vanderhaeghe published The Englishman’s Boy in 1996, long before the phenomenon of Trump the Candidate. Trump moved on a fractured Republican Party, and America, the same way Mussolini moved on a post-WWI fractured Italy and Europe. Like Mussolini, Trump knows the power of image. Donald Trump is showbiz and glamour, gossip and myth. His actual beliefs? Do we know? Do we care? Donald Trump is a green screen of outrageousness. You can project whatever meaning you want on to his words. Be offended or be empowered.
Trump as Green Screen
To his supporters, he is Everyman: just like us, with money. If you squint right, you can see the Horatio Alger story in him. A “small loan” from his father set him up to become fabulously wealthy, so he says. He knows how to play the system. We go to his casinos, hoping that Lady Luck gives us a helping hand. We dream that we could parlay that stake into our fortune. Those with a more scholarly approach subscribed to Trump University, hoping to learn the art of the deal.
But if we can’t, maybe he’ll do it for us. He will stand up to big corporations and job-stealing nations and immigrants. He’ll out-bully the bully boys of international politics (who are ‘taking advantage of us’). He can arm-wrestle Vladimir Putin figuratively and probably literally.
To his opponents, however, he is racist, sexist – every ‘ist’ that is vile and not part of the mantra of “diversity and inclusivity.” Including fascist. (Here is an excellent article on Trump and fascism.)
Stylistically, he is everything that gilt and mirrors are. Braggadocious, as he might say, décor. The décor of his houses. But his political and social philosophies are less consistent. So look at his statements and performance and choose your interpretation. For example: he’s anti-women because he insults women; he’s pro-women because of his hiring practices.
Whatever the topic, his very public life provides the canvas upon which you can draw the picture you want to see. He knows the art of the image better, perhaps, than he knows the art of the deal. This election campaign is proving to be more about imagery than about deals and policies.