Donald Trump is an objectively terrifying candidate. He’s a racist, a xenophobe and a misogynist (in a surprisingly underrated manner). He dabbles in antisemitism and mocks his opponents like a middle school bully.
However, in their effort to critique Trump in a way that is “relatable” and generates clicks, corporate media all too often turn to lazy orientalist tropes and patriotic schlock to “other” him without having to do the messy work of ideological analysis, or running the risk of offending America’s nationalist sensibilities:
- Donald Trump Tweets Like a Latin American Strongman (Politico, 3/24/16)
- Trevor Noah: Donald Trump Is Basically an African Dictator (Crooks and Liars, 1/27/16)
- America Would be Trump’s Banana Republic (Washington Post, 7/21/16)
- ‘Lock Her Up’ Is the Chant of a Banana Republic (Washington Post, 7/20/16)
- Who Said It, Donald Trump or a Chinese Communist? (Foreign Policy, 6/10/16)
- What Hugo Chávez and Donald Trump Have in Common (Reuters, 3/31/16)
- “Donald Trump has the home-decorating taste of a Third-World dictator. This is not a coincidence.” (Business Insider, 7/18/16)
- Trumpmenbashi: What Central Asia’s Spectacular States Can Tell Us About Authoritarianism in America (The Diplomat, 3/22/16)
- “[Trump] sounded like some two-bit dictator of some country that you couldn’t find on a map.” (Politico quoting Elizabeth Warren, 7/22/16)
- Donald Trump’s Un-American Acceptance Speech (Slate, 7/22/16)
The first instinct of many in the US press and political class is to treat Trump as if he’s some foreign entity, an exotic outsider who can only be referenced with regard to Less Civilized Countries. This tic was again found in President Barack Obama’s speech Wednesday night at the DNC, when he called Trump “un-American.” Several pundits followed suit, praising this sentiment as clever and effective. Trump was something foreign, without precedent, that could only be understood in the context of things outside The Greatest Country on Earth.
But, as some on the left have noted, Trump is as American as apple pie. The Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald, when asked about Putin’s “influence” on Trump in an interview Thursday with Slate (7/28/16), noted no outside influence was necessary:
Trump comes from this recognizable, identifiable ideological tradition in the United States. I don’t know if you read Michael Brendan Dougherty’s article in The Week about Samuel Francis. It is really fascinating and probably the best explanation of Trump I have seen. Trump comes from this ideological position of Charles Lindbergh, Father Coughlin, America First, this Buchananite mindset. Buchanan is always an advocate of not going to war with dictators, let’s get along with them, let’s trade with them, let’s have them serve our interest.
Claims that Trump is unique mostly have to do with his refusal to leaven his nastiness with appeals to universalism. After all, Reagan could mock the 1964 killing of civil-rights activists by launching his 1980 campaign at the spot where they were murdered, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, talking about “states’ rights”; Bill Clinton could, just before Super Tuesday 1992, campaign in front of Georgia’s notorious Stone Mountain Correctional Institution, “where he stood next to conservative Southern Democrats Sam Nunn and Zell Miller, as well as Dukes of Hazzard star Ben Jones (recently heard prominently defending the Confederate flag), posing for photographers in front of a group of black inmates.” George H.W. Bush ran ads with Willie Horton and Republicans rebuilt their party around the Southern strategy and “welfare queens.” Yet even as they dog-whistled racism, they still, apparently, appealed to the better angels of our nature, a balancing act that somehow makes those politicians more organically rooted in the history of America.
Brooklyn College political science professor Corey Robin capped off this point: “What do the ‘we’ve never seen anything like Trump’ and ‘Putin is electing Trump’ memes have in common? They both exonerate American history.”
And exonerating Americans is exactly the point of this line of criticism. It’s a popular attack because it nominally positions one as anti-fascist while flattering elites and satisfying America’s insatiable desire for moral superiority.
Embraced by corporate media as harmless feel-goodism, this “liberal patriotism” doesn’t feel good to everyone. Aside from the implication that the US is uniquely civilized, it whistles past America’s own history of racism, normalizes the Democrats’ more subtle brand of immigrant deportation and war-mongering, and propagates xenophobic assumptions about “Third World” disfunction and serves to stoke Cold War panic with Russia.
The theme was also present during this week’s DNC: Bill Clinton putting the burden on Muslims to prove their loyalty, championing LGBT rights increasingly in the context of militarism, drowning out calls of “no more war” with the jingoistic go-to chant of “U-S-A, U-S-A.” Liberals, seeing a weakness in Trump’s disjointed message, have decided to outflank Trump from the right, with little regard for ideological collateral damage.
This post from Daily Kos (7/27/16) provided an almost satirical look at this trend:
This current wave of liberal jingoism reached its nadir when, after Trump made a flippant (and clearly inappropriate) joke about Russia hacking into Clinton’s emails on Wednesday, some pundits unironically called Trump “treasonous.” But as Vox’s Dylan Matthews (7/28/16) noted, Trump can’t be tried for treason because, despite what many pundits say to the contrary, “Russia is not our enemy.” (Emphasis in the original.)
But one could hardly tell watching the fever pitch of late from liberal quarters, indulging in what a recent Nation editorial (7/27/16) called “Neo-McCarthyism.”
As FAIR has noted before, the instinct to explain the seemingly inexplicable rise of Trump by blaming a foreign influence–or likening it to something from non-white or Slavic countries–is as lazy as it is subtly racist. Trump is Trump. Trump is American. His bigotry, his xenophobia, his sexism, his contempt for the media, his desire to round up undesirables, all have American origins and American explanations. They don’t need to be “like” anything else. They are like us. While acknowledging this may be uncomfortable, doing so would go a lot further in combating Trump than treating him as anomalous or comparable only to those poor, backwards foreigners.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.