Donald Trump is a great performer. No one is better than him at displaying the hyper-sensitivity and aggressive uncouthness of a self-professed patriot who feels himself scorned by better educated liberals.
These qualities were on display at his press conference after the mid-term elections. Many people will feel they have better things to do than to watch the whole of this performance, which lasted for an hour and a half, but one can get the gist of it from this clip of Trump’s row with Jim Acosta of CNN.
What is to be done about such atrocious manners? Many Democrats feel the urge to punish Trump for being such a bad person. They search, and will go on searching, for ways to impeach him.
This reaction plays into Trump’s hands. It enables him to play the role of victim all the more convincingly. Look, he can say, the metropolitan elite really is out to get me.
He confects one row after another, engages in one tasteless stunt after another, precisely so that his critics will try to shut him up. The politics of grievance demands a constant supply of “enemies of the people”, and Trump has a genius for provoking counter-attacks which enable him to portray himself as their victim.
The President plays the misunderstood patriot, sneered at by the liberal establishment.
And the Americans love a performance. It is so much more entertaining to watch Trump take on Acosta than to witness some polite, balanced, responsible exchange of views between consenting adults in public.
Trump is a master of reality TV. And one of the reasons why he is so good at it is that he is so vulnerable. He really is very sensitive to the taunts and sneers of his betters. He puts himself on show, and a great many viewers who themselves feel acutely sensitive find in his performance something of themselves.
This is not a new form of politics. Andrew Jackson, President from 1829-37, played the same game. He too was a touchy, uneducated, intuitive patriot, ready at a moment’s provocation to get into a fight, and whenever possible to shoot his opponent stone dead. He had no programme, and is said only to have read one book in his life, The Vicar of Wakefield. But he had an unassailable set of grievances.
Trump is a kind of cut-price Jackson. He doesn’t actually fight duels, or only on television. But his supporters still admire his fighting spirit.
And the Left can’t get the hang of him at all, any more than it understands such populism on this side of the Atlantic. As Matthew Goodwin observes in The Guardian,
“The left has always struggled to make sense of national populism which seeks to prioritise the culture and interests of the nation, and promises to give voice to a people who feel that they have been neglected, even held in contempt, by distant and sometimes corrupt or self-serving elites. And today’s thinkers, writers and groups on the left have subscribed to a number of theories, all of which are incorrect. They claim this volatility is simply a shortlived backlash against something – whether immigrants or ‘the system’ – rather than a positive vote for what national populists are offering, not only more restrictive immigration policies but also a more responsive political system and more equal economic settlement.”