1984. The ever-popular President Ronald Reagan is seeking re-election. Running against Walter Mondale, he pulls into various campaign rest-stops, giving as many speeches as he can to convince the American public to vote him in again for four more years. The wrinkles drooping down the former actor’s face, he needs breaks between his speeches. As each momentary break occurs, a piece of music is played in the background – appropriate music to place the public in the exact mood he wants them in. Choosing a song extolling the virtues of being an American, the new, hip tune that all the kids are listening to, Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen, comes blaring through the speakers.
Shortly after, his campaign gets a call from an agent representing Bruce Springsteen. Bruce, an opponent of Reagan, is angry at Reagan’s co-optation of a song about the despair of a Vietnam Veteran into a happy, blindly nationalistic anthem.
Something about that blind, somewhat pernicious manipulation of the public into voting for whoever the powerful want them to vote for strikes a depressingly familiar note. Yet the ignorance of a neoliberal former FBI informant seems quite preferable to the reactionary fear-mongering of a narcissistic agitator.
Watching the current US Presidential election feels like – for the first time in my short life – an active observation of history. The story that unfolds before my eyes is one I have heard many times before, but never experienced; the story of a duel between a mighty yet decadent establishment and a rousing yet authoritarian populist. I’ve heard it before in Ancient Rome, I’ve heard it before in Feudal France, I’ve heard it before in Pre-War Italy. I know that stories this have two endings; the destruction of the old order and the ascendance of dictatorship, or violent revolution succeeded by freedom and prosperity. I know I don’t want either, but I also know my choice doesn’t matter.
In many ways, the very concept of the United States of America should not exist. It is a state bound to unity in the same way Yugoslavia and the Federal Republic of Central America were. A decentralized, sprawling republic uniting its people not through a common tongue or culture, but through the concept of unity itself. A nation borne not of people, but of ideals. America is often referred to as a ‘melting pot’ – it eschews any sense of perpetual ‘Americanness’, in favor of unanimous assimilation. The definition of an American becomes ‘one who defies definition’, one who exists in a perpetual state of change. It is a wonder the country has survived these past 240 years.
It is often said that Donald Trump – more often than not the subject of these conversations – would not, could not, exist in any other election. But we see his phenomenon across the world. We see him in Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, in Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and in Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. In that case, is his rise the beginning of the end of the US, or is it just part of a global trend towards right-wing authoritarian populism?
The problem with facing Trump is that ideology, populism. Populism isn’t inherently left or right – it is the representation of the people’s will. The idea that Trump does not represent traditional conservatism has been thrown around since Ted “Zodiac Killer” Cruz accused him of harboring “New York values” during a primary debate. I agreed with this view, but only comprehended it during the first Presidential Debate with Hillary Clinton. Clinton posited the idea that Trump has not released his tax returns – a norm for presidential candidates for over 40 years – because they could reveal that he hasn’t paid any taxes, hearkening back to when he revealed his tax returns in the 1980s and revealed he hadn’t paid any due to tax loopholes. The moment she uttered this platitude Trump leaned in front of his microphone and replied:
“That makes me smart”
The thought of an American presidential candidate claiming they are ‘smart’ for exploiting a tax loophole – a Republican no less – is jarring. The action is in no way illegal, but is in every way immoral. A candidate representing the party of morals openly bragging about his lack thereof is a dichotomy I thought I’d never seen. It spits in the face of traditional conservatism in favor of what I call a ‘Potestocracy’.
I will not be one of the many ‘critics’ who claim Donald Trump is a fascist or proto-fascist or any of the other various nouns that align him with Hitler. As unlikable as Trump can be, he is not a Nazi. Instead, I prefer to call him a Potestocrat, a word I made up deriving from the Latin word for authority, ‘potestas’. A Potestocracy is not fascism: fascism is an ultra-nationalistic system of government wherein a totalitarian ruler is revered and everybody constantly walks, talks, thinks, lives and breathes the state. Fascism is a far more extreme version of Potestocracy; a system wherein democracy and freedom can exist, but everything is second to the one true concept: the fetishization of power.
A Potestocracy is built upon the idea that those who hold power are to be admired and replicated. Everyone falls in love with power, and is obsessed with attaining it, regardless of who or what has to be cast aside. This is how Donald Trump can get away with rampant tax evasion: by claiming said action makes him ‘smart’, he shows off his power, making him appear more attractive. This is how he averts his blatant lying. According to Politifact.com, 53% of all statements that Donald Trump says are flatly false, but he doesn’t care about this. During the debate, Donald Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton 51 times, one time merely saying “wrong” to a true claim Clinton had mentioned. This grandiose disregard for the facts help Trump fetishize his power even more. By simply saying ‘wrong’, Trump creates the illusion that he holds a monopoly on the truth, further making himself look even more powerful.
Trump’s unfettered fetishization of power is also what makes him, in the grand scheme of American Presidents, rather unremarkable. The specifics of the election – eg the lack of polity – may appear different, but the broad strokes are identical to almost every other American election. What makes Trump incredibly ordinary is what he – the astute businessman – is selling: Hope.
When Americans vote for their President, more often than not they are not voting for ideas or policies, but hope – specifically, the hope that one day, if they just put their mind to it, they could wind up like the man they’re voting for. Trump frequently refers to the small amount he started off with, and how he expanded his business empire. Clinton, similarly, has capitalized on this, advertising herself as potentially the first female President of the USA, a position which gives hope to millions of women and other dis-empowered groups. The candidates both sell hope, but in different ways and to different people.
A Trump Presidency would not mean the death of America; neither would a Clinton one. The candidates might cause damage to the nation, but to destroy it altogether would take an incompetence neither of them could ever dream of achieving. What the candidates and the political atmosphere in general have accomplished is the installation of a grand sense of fear not found since the Reagan era: fear of illegal immigration, fear of Islam, fear of the alt-right, fear of Potestocracy, fear that your vote doesn’t count, fear of your cosmic insignificance, fear of ennui etc.
And in the end, voting-in one candidate purely in fear of another is as American as Apple Pie.