As the seemingly interminable race to the White House enters its final hours, there appears little doubt that this has been amongst the most surreal elections anywhere in living memory: substantive policy discussions have taken a backseat to sexual intrigue, political corruption and atavistic impulses as a no-holds-barred race to the bottom has gripped much of the world’s media.
But stepping back from the soap opera – and notwithstanding the final result – the 2016 United States presidential election will have profound implications far beyond America’s borders, and not merely because of that country’s economic footprint or military ubiquity: the maverick candidacy of Donald J. Trump has probably altered our planet’s political scene forever. After some contemplation, we at Mediolana think that we’ve identified the three most salient ways he has accomplished this:
- Emotiveness. Trump has ramped up the levels of raw emotion within political discourse. In response to a single ‘event’ – the tragic shootings at a community centre in San Bernadino, California – he proposed shutting off the United States, at least temporarily, from 30% of the world’s non-US resident population. Trump has threatened to make real the spectre of mass deportations of undocumented immigrants. And he has made a serious play for the sentiments of certain religious communities – notably Catholics – on deeply divisive issues such as abortion. The fact that these positions are not necessarily consistent or even plausible matters not – he has tapped into the general population’s visceral need to feel something.
- Street Cred. The fact that Trump – a multibillionaire celebrity who was born into substantial amounts of money – is hardly a classical anti-establishment figure has not been lost on numerous commentators. What is truly remarkable is that despite this, ‘the Donald’ has successfully portrayed himself as an outsider, and with no little skill: he has underscored his status as a stranger in Washington circles, contrasting this with his rival’s near-total embedding in the political matrix. In an era where the perceived distance between the ‘elites’ and the ‘masses’ is significant, this represents a PR coup.
- Media Leverage. Donald Trump may not be the first, but he is certainly the most notable figure to transition from being a TV star (who happens to have a property empire) to being a major political figure. He has realised that – to use the phrase of former SAS CEO Jan Carlzon – all business is showbusiness; that many people are now essentially products of the entertainment industry, principally as audience members; and that giving these people – some of whom are genuinely disenfranchised and really have been let down by a corrupt and dysfunctional system – hope of revenge against the machine can put him within striking distance of unparalleled publicity. Trump’s blueprint could go on to spawn a generation of (quasi-)authoritarian populists across the globe.