This weekend at the Edenbridge bonfire in Kent, near where I live, an effigy of Donald Trump will be burned. Last weekend, at Halloween, people up and down the land went out dressed up as him, or as a woman being groped by him. It is hard to imagine any American doing anything like this in homage to our own least popular political candidate in a generation, Jeremy Corbyn. And that’s caused me to wonder why, exactly — when we’re so turned off by our own politicians — we are so enthralled by the Donald across the pond.
Having watched him trash Hillary, followed him on Twitter and listened to him repeat the word ‘China’ endlessly on YouTube, I’ve decided that we mainly love Trump as a result of the presidential debates, the spectacle of which we just didn’t want to end. Bored by vapid, politically correct discourse over here, we are riveted by the Donald. Or at least I am.
Yes, I am embarrassed to admit: I am addicted to Donald Trump. Not on account of his hair (even though I marvel at it). Nor his tiny hands (though I am transfixed as he waves them about so camply in the air). It’s his oratorical fireworks I can’t get enough of. In over a decade of writing about politics, I can’t recall any other political performance that has been anywhere near as entertaining or engaging.
By comparison, the 2015 pre-general election debates in Britain were pedestrian, dull and didn’t even feature the woman who is now Prime Minister — so they were ultimately pointless to boot. But we’ve been given a ringside seat as America makes its decision — do they want Trump, who seems to stalk his rival across the stage, or do they prefer Clinton and her ice-queen response (which, to be fair, is probably the only way to deal with him)?
I think the key to Trump’s perverse popularity over here is the power of his rhetoric. He manages to be informal, chatty, offensive, repetitive and parochial all at the same time. He makes speeches so full of-hyperbole that they verge on complete inarticulacy. He favours the terms ‘bigly’ — some fans maintain it’s ‘big league’ — and ‘-yuuuuge’ even though they aren’t, actually, words.
He starts making a point, interrupts himself mid-sentence and answers a completely different question from the one he was asked. His famous claim ‘I know words, I have the best words’ has caused Americans to rush for their dictionaries. Merriam–Webster now tweets out a glossary of terms — because some of them almost make sense. (‘Lookups for braggadocio spiked … the word employed by Trump was braggadocious, which is a dialectical word from 19th-century America, meaning “arrogant”.’) And he appears to have some knowledge of Yiddish (although the phrase ‘she got schlonged’ — which refers to male genitalia — does not mean, as the Donald intended,
And yet academics explain that this rambling style has created a powerful discourse that grips us — even though over here we can’t even vote for him. Trump has successfully connected with his audiences.
According to George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at Berkeley, Trump’s habit of repeatedly referring to his audience as ‘folks’ cements an intimacy between him and them, while his ‘cautionary narrative’ has also gone down well.
Take his vociferous defence of the Second Amendment which apparently demonstrates that he is, in fact, ‘very careful and very strategic in his use of language’. Trump laments that there is ‘nothing’ you can do to protect the Second Amendment — if Hillary is elected. ‘Nothing.’ And he repeats this and repeats this and repeats this until we all get the message: ‘Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment…By the way, and if she gets to pick — if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.’ He also brandishes his wealth as much as possible: ‘I’m using my own money. I’m not using the lobbyists, I’m not using donors. I don’t care. I’m really rich. I’ll show you that. That’s something.’
Trump’s team are fans of a ‘see it, grab it, nick it’ approach to rhetoric — which is perhaps best illustrated by his wife, Melania, allegedly plagiarising chunks of a speech delivered by Michelle Obama. Even Trump’s slogan, ‘Make America great again’, is the same one that helped deliver Ronald Reagan a landslide victory in the 1980 election.
MAGA is a direct call to action, placing responsibility for the future of America directly in the hands of voters. Plus it beats the hell out of Hillary’s strapline, ‘Stronger Together’, which sounds like something Ed Miliband would invent — a phrase no one can object to because it is totally meaningless. By his own admission, Trump is ‘tired of this politically correct crap’ — so that resonates with us, too.
However much his supporters enjoy his speeches, most high-profile commentators still sneer at him. So perhaps we see Trump, oddly, as the underdog in this fight. I think we sympathise also because, when he’s talking about politics, Trump often seems racked with nerves — and that’s rather endearing.
I watched him deliver a speech at the opening of the Trump International Hotel in Washington DC and he was far easier to comprehend. His awkward hand gestures (pressing thumb and forefinger together or waving the index finger) were minimal. He interrupted himself far less, and instead spoke in actual sentences.
He used this speech to explain how the project was a metaphor for his political message: ‘My theme today is five words,’ he promised. ‘Under budget and ahead of schedule.’ Which is six words. And that’s funny.
But whether we’re laughing with him or at him, dressing up as him or burning him on a pyre in the middle of the village green — when this campaign comes to its tumultuous end next week, if Trump disappears from the world stage, I think we Brits are going to miss him. Bigly.
After the American people have voted, what next for the US and the rest of the world? Join panellists including Sir Christopher Meyer, KCMG, former British ambassador to the US, for a discussion chaired by Andrew Neil on 30 November at RIBA, London. Tickets include a drinks reception. In association with Seven Investment Management. Book now.