Understanding the appeal of Donald Trump

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He is regarded as the human embodiment of a YouTube comments section, while she’s accused of empowering terrorists through her gmail account. Together they’re the two most disliked candidates in American political history. Opposition to Trump has come in many forms, from The New York Times compiling a full list of his Twitter insults, to members of Congress calling his candidacy ‘disgraceful’. Yet Trump’s appeal with grassroots supporters remains strong, even despite the recent leaked recording of his lewd comments about women.

Tapping into fear

Matthew Sharpe, Professor of Philosophy in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University, specialises in political psychology and voter bias. Prof. Sharpe says that to understand the appeal of Trump, we have to understand the anxieties shaping American society, ‘Economic inequality is nearing record levels. Coupled with the fallout of the GFC and de-industrialisation, many people feel left behind.’

Trump pushes hard on this sense of insecurity in society, using fear rather than facts to win over voters. He has painted Mexican immigrants as ‘drug dealers, criminals and rapists’, called to ban Muslims entering the US for fear of terrorist attacks and declared to audiences that ‘jobs are fleeing the country’ despite unemployment declining in America over the last five years.

Trump’s scapegoating of minorities, has a dangerous historical precedent, says Prof. Sharpe. ‘I’ve previously said I think “fascist” isn’t entirely the right word for Trump, but the most prominent example of his kind of tactics working is how Hitler seized power.’

'He turns complex problems into simple equations: build a wall, nuke ISIS. Simplistic, but compelling.'

Associate Professor Matthew Sharpe,
Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

An American saviour?

Prof. Sharpe explains Trump positions himself against the ‘Washington Insiders’ – politicians – whom he paints as the villains in his tale of who’s to blame for America’s woes. Trump is styling himself as a sort of anti-establishment action hero – ready to save the country and make it great again. ‘He’s imitating John Wayne. His swagger and disregard for respectful language make him a wild cowboy,’ says Prof. Sharpe. In speeches Trump is known for speaking off the cuff, attacking critics, bragging, and making inaccurate or offensive comments. Rather than being shocked by this un-presidential behaviour, his supporters seem thrilled and energised at this daring irreverence.

But there’s also a warmth to his style. Prof. Sharpe says there is an element of a strong protective father in Trump’s appeal. ‘He never seems to express any doubts. He turns complex problems into simple equations: build a wall, nuke ISIS. Simplistic, but compelling,’ Prof. Sharpe explains. By imitating a stern authority figure, Trump emotionally reassures his supporters.

Competing against Clinton

It’s against this backdrop that Clinton faces one of her biggest challenges: sexism. Trump has previously accused Clinton of not being able to ‘satisfy’ her husband and interrupted her repeatedly during their first debate. But there is a more insidious subtle sexism from Trump that Prof. Sharpe describes as ‘dog whistling’. Trump’s attacks imply, rather than directly describe, negative stereotypes about women when he describes Clinton. Her lack of ‘stamina’ after a recent bout with pneumonia, for example, was highlighted by the Trump campaign to imply an inherent fragility that would make Clinton unsuitable for office.

By campaigning alongside Obama, Clinton is appealing to Americans’ desire for hope and change, which inspired so many during Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. This empowering message is at odds with Trump’s assertion that America is currently a troubled, weakened country with a lot to fear from the outside world. ‘Clinton’s campaign construes Trump as a threat not only to the presidency, but to the progress the country has made as a whole,’ explains Prof. Sharpe. ‘No matter who wins this election, America will remain divided,’ he concludes.

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Professor Matthew Sharpe
Professor Matthew Sharpe

Associate Professor of Philosophy, Deakin University
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