The key argument against the idea that Trump is simply a hiccup in history is the realization that he is part of a pattern.
Historical comparisons have been made, of course, but they tend to be made to totalitarian and fascist leaders, which is inaccurate enough to be unhelpful. A far better comparison, and one which has been made far less often, is former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi – who is rich, corrupt, comically ostentatious, and indeed autocratic, but not so much “totalitarian” in the political sense as narcissistic and “mediagenic” in the Reality TV sense, and certainly not a fascist (though he is supported by fascists).
This comparison is far more apt – even the smaller details, like misogynistic sexual indiscretions and tax fraud fit surprisingly well – but insufficient on its own. Its implications are properly understood only when it is bolstered by additional comparisons that are almost never made.
But read this description of Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, who was killed in 2004, written by Ian Buruma in 2006, and try not to think of Trump now. I dare you. (Just replace Fortuyn’s boasting of homosexual conquests with Trump’s boasting of heterosexual ones):
“(A) populist who played on the fear of Muslims while boasting of having sex with Moroccan boys; a reactionary who denounced Islam for being a danger to Dutch liberties; a social climber who saw himself as an outsider battling the elite. Still … he did tap into some of the same anxieties that swept across many parts of Europe and beyond. To a confused people, afraid of being swamped by immigrants and worried that pan-European or global institutions were rapidly taking over their lives, Fortuyn promised a way back to simpler times, when, to paraphrase the late Queen Wilhelmina, we were still ourselves, when everyone was white, and upstanding Dutchmen were in control of the nation’s destiny.” “Part walking penis, part phony aristocrat, Fortuyn became a presence, in TV studios, on radio programs, and at public debates, that could not be ignored. Even the voice – a peculiar mixture of camp and menace – was mesmerizing.” “(H)e was driven by resentment, which was perhaps the most genuine thing about him.”
Does it go on to an uncanny degree? Yes it does.
“(H)is resentments found a wider resonance, for they spoke to the grievances of the déclassé. The first people to rally around him and promote him were men who had made fortunes in ways that bought them houses and yachts, but no social cachet: the former disk jokey who became an entertainment mogul, the real estate developers, advertising men, right-with publicists, and organizers of ‘events.’ A whiff of criminality hung over some of these men. All knew that no matter how much money they made, they would never be Our Kind of People. Feeling socially excluded, the newly rich felt their lack of political influence. Fortuyn was their ticket to real power, or so they hoped. Raw self-interest was no doubt a part of their agenda: lower taxes, less bureaucracy, more freedom to make deals. But this was not all. Some, at least, appear to have been inspired by bigger visions, of government by businesslike strongmen who would clean up the mess of parliamentary politics once and for all. A fresh wind would invigorate a society that had been weakened for too long by wishy-washy do-gooders.”
Astonishing, isn’t it?
When you put Berlusconi (a media mogul who served as Italy’s Prime Minister from 1994 to 1995, 2001 to 2006 and 2008 to 2011) next to Pim Fortuyn, a media sensation who became a major Dutch political figure in 2002, next to Donald Trump, you start to see both a pattern and a continuum. And indeed, the major figures of the Brexit campaign – Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage – tend to fit this mold as well.
In other words, for decades now there has been a particular type of political figure rising up in anti-establishment movements across Europe and the United States. Until now – until Trump and Brexit – we had written them off as being idiosyncratic of their time and place. Surely Berlusconi was uniquely Italian; Buruma wrote what he did about Fortuyn thinking that he was a specifically Dutch kind of figure. It is only now that we properly appreciate them as part of a movement across the West.
Such figures are not sui generis to our age – there have been rich, narcissistic, carnival clowns in politics since before there were carnivals to clown in. But their routine appearance in mass political movements over the last 20 years, and their extraordinary success in the last 10, is distinct and indicative.
When a critical mass of people want to veto “progress” in western culture, these are the avatars and figureheads they reach for. Media personalities with no real command of policy, corrupt creatures of the system who are angry that they are not cultural insiders, anti-immigrant (and often rabidly anti-Muslim), who are aggressively libertine despite calling for a return to “good old days” morality. Not fascists, but happy to play footsy with them. They do not value the truth for its own sake, their only understanding of virtue is making money and appearing on television, and they are deeply, deeply, resentful.
Having identified the type, we are now in a better position to ask: why? Why them? Surely somebody better could be found, or at least a wider spectrum of personalities?
But there is a reason, and it is utterly pragmatic. People who want to veto modernity in the West turn to them because, tactically, this works. They are effective at winning against the establishment, and dismanteling its systems. There is no deeper reason. What’s more interesting is the question of why it works.
The reason it works is closely tied in to another question it is important to ask, which we will take up in the next section: Where did all these damn Nazis and Islamic terrorists come from all of a sudden?
This post is part of a series, which first ran on my Patreon.