I have searched long and hard for a rationale to explain Donald Trump’s enduring popularity in America. Yes, I know the majority can’t stand him, but enough liked him to get him elected, and he retains the support of a big chunk of these followers even now. I have watched his rallies, as far as I am able, to look for clues. Sure, he knows how to rouse a rabble, but there are plenty of politicians who can do that. It could be that his message provides the answers people have been looking for, but there is no substance or detail to anything he says. Just vague, simplistic soundbites. Trump is pretty much without ideology, but he can work a crowd and tell people what they want to hear. And maybe that’s all there is to it. I had been looking in the wrong place. To understand Trump’s popularity you don’t look at Donald J Trump, you look at (and listen to) the folks in the audience.
Because the power here is in the crowd, not the leader. And the slogans all come from the crowd. They are simple, indignant and often hate-filled.
Lock her up! Lock her up!
Build that wall! Build that wall!
The same three-syllables each time. They say nothing more than “There is lots of stuff making us angry and we want you to promise to sort it out”. Nothing detailed or nuanced is called for. Just good old-fashioned populism in easy-to-digest chunks.
Trump hasn’t so much built this audience as jumped onto its bandwagon. Over the years he’s changed his position and flipped his loyalties on a regular basis, supporting the Democrats as much or even more than the Republicans. The Theory of Trump Relativity is developing on Twitter, where every current action has an equal and opposite historic tweet. Trump has over the years tweeted his disapproval of Obama’s visits to the golf course, criticised Obama for getting through Chiefs of Staff too quickly, for allowing North Korea to test a missile, for attacking Syria, for being soft on Russia. The list is almost endless.
But all of this matters little, as Trump is the chosen one for a significant portion of America’s electorate. Hillary’s ‘basket of deplorables’ have anointed Trump and see in him the qualities they feel their country needs right now. It could be that Donald Trump fits the political zeitgeist purely by syllabic coincidence. Those three syllables work for his name as well as for the slogans he has adopted:
In both the US and the UK we have seen this pattern of unlikely candidates being thrust towards the head of a movement they seem unsuited for. Bernie Sanders suddenly became fashionable after years of being on the outside. Similarly Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage and initially Theresa May in the UK. But of these, it is Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn who have defied all logic and demonstrated a stickability few would have predicted. Is there a syllabic connection?
Britain as the birthplace of the common language can handle a higher level of linguistic sophistication in its terrace chants, managing as many as 5 syllables, all to the tune of the opening guitar riff to Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes. At least it may point to our linguistic sophistication, or possibly it’s because the White Stripes hit it big the UK long before they were accepted in their native land.
One of the sounds of the summer was the iconic young rugby player Maro Itoje being lauded by all and sundry on the British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand – “Woah, Maro Itoje!” Even his team-mates were singing along.
There were players on the Lions tour who had played better than Itoje (Jonathan Davies and Sean O’Brien for example), but it was he who became an icon. Only 22 years of age, he has carried all before him in the last two years. Back to back European titles with Saracens, a Grand Slam and a Six Nations with England, and oh-so-nearly a winning Lion against the All Blacks. He achieved all of this through immense natural talent, but also through drive, intelligence, humility and a fierce will to win. He represented a bright and positive future.
On a very different tour back home in Blighty, Jeremy Corbyn was similarly feted. Firstly in the natural habitat of terrace chants at a football stadium, he was saluted with a noisy rendition of “Woah, Jeremy Corbyn!”. This was then transferred to one of the biggest stages of all – the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. But how could someone so locked in the past herald a bright and positive future?
Could this be the same Jeremy Corbyn who not so long before had been considered unelectable? He soon put that to bed, by the simple trick of not getting elected. No, like Trump and Sanders in America he had not won the audience over, he had been anointed. A significant number of largely young people had decided that they had had enough of what was on offer by the political mainstream, and they chose someone seen as untainted as their figurehead.
The pentasyllabic Hillary Clinton may have done a whole lot better if she had been born in the UK. We can thank our stars that Vladimir Putin wasn’t. Some politicians may just be born at the wrong time. Might Theresa May now be sitting on a significant majority if Here We Go! Was still a popular terrace chant – “Theresa May, Theresa May , Theresa May!”. Anyone?
Or might Boris Johnson’s vault for power have worked out if we were still in the days of the 2-syllabled chants based on The Village People’s Go West!. “Bo-ris! For Prime Minister! Boris!….” He may have missed a trick by not picking up on last year’s chant of the moment to the tune of the Beach Boys’ Sloop John B: “Boris Johnson, he backs what he wants!”
So if there is anything in the idea of the potency of a three- or five-syllable chant in politics then liberals everywhere should be very afraid:
“Four More Years!” “Four More Years!”