Dr Brendon O’Connor
Associate Professor in American Politics at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney
Section 8: Result and Beyond
- Trump and the populist earthquake in American politics
- Democracy Trumped
- The narcissistic capture of American nationalism
- With a mainstream politics seemingly devoid of answers, many vote for the previously unthinkable
- Irrational beliefs matter
- The politics of de-legitimacy
- Reflections on the 2016 US Election
- The Wørd: stupid power
If non-Americans could vote for what is often called “leader of the free world”, Hillary Clinton would easily be the next US president. WIN/Gallup surveyed world opinion and Donald Trump’s support is extremely weak (apart from in Russia). Trump polled at 15% in Australia, 8% in Germany, 5% in Mexico, 4% in Spain, and 3% in Jordan, Japan and South Korea.
Some of this has to do with Trump’s possible foreign policies: the Japanese and South Koreans are key allies one day, and on their own the next day with encouragement to nuke up. Mexicans have been told they are going to pay for that “tremendous wall” along their roughly 3200-kilometre border with the US, which would cost approximately US$12 billion to build. This boast was unlikely to win Mexicans over to Trump.
However, while there is widespread disapproval of Trump’s nationalist, protectionist and racist policies, it is his persona that most repels non-Americans. Trump is strongly disliked across the world because he is the archetypal “ugly American”: obnoxious, uncouth, boastful, materialistic, and duplicitous.
I am writing a book on negative stereotypes about Americans, and Trump is the gift that keeps on giving. He is one of those Americans that foreigners have instantly strong opinions about. When George W. Bush ran for the presidency, and when Sarah Palin was chosen by Senator John McCain as his presidential running-mate, there was a mountain of criticism around the globe about their ignorance and parochialism.
People everywhere seemed to be saying – based on very little information – “I know this kind of American and I do not like them”. This reaction occurs because there is a long-standing stock of stereotypes about Americans that go back to the early 19th century, instantly available to animate one’s feelings.
My research, based on reading more than 100 travel books written by Europeans from the early 19th century, argues six dominant stereotypes were constructed in the 1820s and 1830s. They have persisted ever since. These were: that American manners were extremely deficient; that Americans were often anti-intellectual, uncultured, and ignorant; that Americans lived ultimately bland lives; that Americans were particularly prone to boasting and annoying patriotism; that Americans were money obsessed and financially untrustworthy; and finally that Americans were hypocrites. Trump, for many, is the embodiment of these negative national stereotypes.
- Trump’s manners: In terms of manners, Trump is the schoolyard bully as CEO. Trump’s bad manners could generously be viewed as anti-elitist populism challenging the failing status quo.
- Anti-intellectualism: Forget Trump’s Wharton School MBA – and his boast that “I know words, I have the best words”. When it comes to uncouth anti-intellectualism, Trump’s simplistic solutions, lowest common denominator attacks on opponents, and constant disregard for experts and their findings, makes him top of the class of loud-mouthed American bloviators for many. In an earlier American generation, such rhetoric was associated with the Know-Nothing anti-immigration movement.
- Bland lives: The third stereotype – that Americans are sameish and live bland lives – would seem at first glance to miss the mark with Trump. This view of Americans is that their lives, to quote de Tocqueville, are particularly “unpoetic” and they live by cliches and hollow catchphrases like “have a nice day”. If one takes a deeper look at Trump and his enterprises, he has a remarkable talent for making glamour bland and soulless. Behind all the bluster, Trump’s vocabulary is repetitive and dull as he repeats the same platitudes and self-praise over and over. And for all of his money, the Trump diet consists of lots of McDonald’s meals, extremely well-done crispy steak, diet cola, and no alcohol. In a world where eating a variety of food has become commonplace, Trump’s diet lacks sophistication and imagination. Not only unhealthy, but for many trashy.
- Trump the patriot: When it comes to boasting, Trump is constantly self-congratulatory and arguably the biggest self-promoter in living memory. His patriotism is wrapped up in his claim that America will get so used to “winning” everything under a Trump presidency it will get sick of winning. He vaingloriously promotes his poll numbers, primary victories and the dismissal of his opponents as “so easy to beat”.
- Money, money, money: His claim to have “made it” financially is central to Trump’s appeal to many Americans. However, outside of America, boasting about wealth and fame is largely seen as gauche.
- Hypocrisy: Lastly, the saying that “those in glasshouses should not throw stones” is something that never occurs to Trump. Being a hypocrite clearly does not concern him and this is one of those infuriating traits that makes him so strongly disliked from Norway to Chile.
It is tempting to proclaim Trump is very familiar to us because he embodies the worst things about Americans. However, these traits are apparent across the world. Trump therefore is not merely an “ugly American” but amplifies commonplace cultural trends, such as narcissism, self-centredness, gnat-like attention spans, obsessive self-regard, preoccupation with the number of followers one has and a lack of interest in listening to others. These trends can be passed off “American”, but if we are honest, this behaviour is all around us. To prevent the next Trump – and there will be more – requires challenging the sources of selfishness in modern culture that are on the rise everywhere.
A version of this article was originally published on The Conversation.