The Trump Phenomenon: Beyond Interests and Identity (and Neutrality) - Staying w/Conflict - Election Edition 2016

The Trump Phenomenon: Beyond Interests and Identity (and Neutrality)
by Bernie Mayer

[Note: I am not pretending to be objective or neutral about Donald Trump. I consider him to be very dangerous.  Moreover, I think an effort to present a faux neutral approach to a situation that is as intense and polarized as we now face gets in the way of a rich and useful analysis.] 

Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for President of the United States! Unbelievable.  Or is it? 

This has been an entertaining (if interminable) political season—but also a painful and frightening one.  How can someone like Trump have come this far?  The tragi-comic nature of the drama has been riveting at times, but the potential consequences are enormous, unpredictable and scary.  This is not just what Democrats are saying but what the most prominent leaders of the GOP are proclaiming as well.  According to a NYTimes/CBS poll released on May 4, more than ½ of all potential voters are actually “scared” at the thought of a President Donald Trump.

A vast amount has already been written about the nature of Trump’s appeal and the collapse of the Republican mainstream’s efforts to defeat him. So it is natural to ask what more is there to say?  But I believe the lens of conflict engagement is a powerful one and we should not be reluctant to apply it to the most important conflicts of our day.  So I am going to join the circus.

Why is Trump entertaining? Why is he rolling over the Republican establishment?  Why is he frightening?  Why is he winning  (on the Republican side)? 

The answers to all those questions appear in one respect to be the same:  Trump just doesn’t seem to give a damn about almost anything (except winning).  He gives voice to his most outrageous misogynist, Islamophobic, and racist impulses in a crude and seemingly self-destructive way and his popularity increases. He denigrates John McCain for his years as a prisoner of war, and his support grows.

He assures everyone that when he is President, everything is going to be wonderful because he is going to make it so. Companies are not going to leave the US, illegal immigration is going to end, coal mines are going to reopen, the trade deficit is going to end, Mexico is going to pay for the wall, Putin is going to be our friend, China is going to be brought in line—and America is going to become great again (whatever that means)—all because he says so.  His incredible ability to negotiate is going to overcome all the complexities of the world we live in.  Of course he never quite says how he is going to make all this happen.  And if anyone seriously challenges him he responds with excoriating invectives—and with glee.

Trump the Hero

In a perverse way this makes Trump entertaining, appealing and appalling. Most politics is practiced using the language of interests and of identity. Trump’s campaign is almost all about personal power.  He has the audacity, insensitivity, and gall to say exactly what he thinks and to promise the moon and the stars based on his personal power—his will, his negotiating skill, his chutzpah, and his stardom.  He really does seem to believe in his capacity to make anything he sets his sights on happen. 

This confidence is enticing and seductive – it is the simplest of all narratives, one in which a strong leader will slay all the bureaucratic and institutional dragons that stop the world from being the one we want it to be.  It’s not about good versus evil so much as strong winners versus weak losers. 

The world is a dangerous place—and he taps into the basic fears many have about their survival and security.  “They” are trying to take away our way of life,  (whoever “they” are – the implications around that are ominous to say the least—and whatever our way of life is).  But we have a strong leader who can take “them” on and defeat them.  How do we know he can do that? Because he says he can and he shows his strength by saying whatever he damn well pleases, and by exuding complete self-confidence. 

In dramatic terms, Trump divides the world into victims (everyone whose vote he is seeking) and villains (the list is long—insiders, bureaucrats, Muslims, Mexicans, Republicans, Democrats, and whoever opposes him).  And then of course there is just one hero.

Simplistic narratives have always been appealing.  But they are also appalling. The temptation to turn to strong men (or women—but that has been much rarer) simply because they are strong and promise to take care of all our problems has been the source of many of our most profound historical tragedies.   

Their appeal is not only profound, but banal.  This is a common theme of reality TV and bad drama.  It is the good guy wrestlers strutting their stuff against the bad guys also strutting their stuff.  Don’t look for ideology, a rational approach to promoting values, interests, or policies that can accomplish anything.  Just watch the power plays and enjoy the entertainment.  If you pretend hard and long enough that it is real, it will become real.

The Republican establishment has responded by attacking Trump’s ideology using the language of conservative identity and Republican interests. But the more they have done so, the more they have become enablers of Trump’s narrative.  Their attacks on Trump make them the (weak) villains who are victimizing the very people whom Trump appeals to.  

Similarly, all his Republican opponents could do was to watch this play out, assert their values, ideology, and understanding of the interests of their constituents, and try to point out how unreal Trump’s promises are.  They tried, sometimes mightily so, but it didn’t work.  Not this time around.

Trump the Deal-Maker

Trump’s policy plan is all about deal making.  He promotes himself as an exemplary negotiator.  I doubt that he negotiates the way he says he does or he would not be very effective, even in the business world. But let’s take him at his word and look at how he goes about making a deal. 

His characterization of deal making is entirely power based and positional.  He low balls, keeps his real goals obscure, gives ground grudgingly, and wields or implies he wields powerful alternatives to agreement. 

He is going to get Mexico to pay for “the wall” by threatening devastating economic consequences, which would have tremendously negative consequences for the US economy and for our relationship with Mexico (and would also be devastating to Mexico, but he does not give a damn about this).

He threatens to pull out of NATO or our security arrangements with Japan and South Korea if they don’t pony up more money, with similarly devastating consequences, because he does not give a damn. 

Not giving a damn is Donald Trump’s BATNA - he believes that he can make the rest of the world bend to his will on this.. 

Trump is not interested in figuring out how to address others’ deepest concerns so they can help us address ours.  His is a power based approach to distributional negotiation - he never speaks the language of an interest based integrative negotiator. But that is now how the world works. Competition without cooperation is not reality.  In the end, an attempt to go all-in on a power based approach will run up against the realities of a complex world, in which we are all cooperating and competing at the same time. 

For now Trump can assert that he is strong and powerful while all the others are naïve and weak.  But eventually the little dog will pull away the curtain.  Hopefully not too much damage will be done along the way.  Hopefully, we won’t be so enthralled by the entertainment value of someone who says exactly what he wants to say that we overlook the danger. 

But these are scary times. 


This is blog post is part of the Staying w/Conflict - Election Edition 2016 series. Please check out the entire series by visiting the series homepage:

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