The bully at the pulpit


Far & Near column in the Hindustan Times (published August 12, 2017)

Donald Trump’s voluble threat to bring “fire and fury” upon North Korea was surprising for a number reasons, including its forum. He made the pronouncement at a press conference, not on Twitter, the usual arena of his bluster.

Trump has sought refuge from his political struggles in two places, one virtual and the other physical. His presidency has become synonymous with his outbursts on Twitter, the online platform he uses to rant and rave (and sometimes, to his credit, cannily direct and distract media attention). He does not subscribe to the maxim that “silence is golden”. Where most leaders maintain highly restrained and calibrated public persona, Trump seems offended by the very compulsion of restraint. He is happy to defy enemies and allies alike with his intemperate, crack-of-dawn Twitter ramblings.

However, Trump’s “happy place” (apart from the golf course where he is currently holidaying) is not Twitter, but the rather old-fashioned pulpit of the rally. After winning the presidency, he has convened many public gatherings of his supporters. It’s a measure of how reluctant he has been to turn from campaigning to governance, or how he sees governance as a kind of endless campaign. Trump is in his element in forums like the rally he held in Ohio on 26 July. He delivers his trademark heated, stream-of-conscious speech, and gets to soak up the applause and roar of his supporters.

Political analysts obsess about the ways modern technology and social media are transforming democratic politics. But nothing really trumps the primordial power of the rally. Public manifestations have been a central part of the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. It’s difficult to imagine the Turkish president without the teeming squares of flag-waving supporters massed in front of him. Likewise, Narendra Modi has masterfully built his political persona through rallies. These leaders recognise that much of the public wants to feel mobilised, that people crave not technocratic policy detail but drama and passion.

As his rhetoric against North Korea shows, Trump believes strongly in cultivating drama. Americans were shocked in July when Trump turned an appearance before a convention of the Boy Scouts – a bland but hallowed America institution – into a rally. Some critics saw disturbing echoes of totalitarian regimes in the sight of thousands of uniformed boys chanting their approval of the president. The head of the Boy Scouts has since apologised for the insertion of “political rhetoric” into their convention.

Trump is, of course, entirely unapologetic. He revels in the cult of personality he has spun around himself. “It’s much easier to act presidential than what we are doing here tonight,” he told his fans in Ohio, suggesting he is almost proud of the strangeness of his presidency. These rallies provide Trump all the affirmation that his chronically low approval ratings (36.9% at last check) cannot. They offer the veneer of strength and momentum when in fact his administration is plagued by infighting. He attacks the media for stymying his agenda, when he has really been thwarted by divisions within his own Republican party.

But most importantly, these rallies help cement Trump’s position among the minority of Americans who remain firmly in his camp. His rallies are like the passion plays of medieval Europe, figuring a virtuous hero against forces of evil in a quest for the redemption of the people. By some calculations, 25% of voters are committed Trump loyalists. Their support for the president has not been dented by the ongoing investigations into his campaign’s links to Russia, nor by the chaos of his White House, nor by his failure so far to pass any of the major reforms and measures he promised, nor by his dangerous brinksmanship with North Korea. They see themselves as participants in a greater struggle, removed from the boring detail of politics, a struggle for the spirit of the nation.

I’ve never felt the appeal of a political figure in this emotional way, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of these spectacles and what they represent. By conventional political standards, Trump is a shambolic leader. His presidency so far has been inept to the point of farce. And yet he retains a core following who believe in him at a level beyond politics itself. His opponents may find it hard to topple him if they can’t inspire that same faith.

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