Interpreting Trump Through the Politics of Fear


views of Donald TrumpLast year – before the Brexit vote and before Donald Trump was recognized as a serious candidate for U.S. president – Ruth Wodak’s book, The Politics of Fear – What Right- Wing Populist Discourses Mean came out. Its 256 pages sought to describe the upward trajectories of populist and right-wing parties across Europe even as movements such as France’s National Front, Hungary’s Jobbik, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Finland’s Finns Party, Britain’s UK Independence Party and the Austrian Freedom Party in her native land, were grabbing headlines.

While the U.S. was by no means absent from her Euro-centric account, Trump’s name did not appear in the text and the references to American politics were tilted toward the Tea Party movement and luminaries such as Sarah Palin. A year and a few months later, and Trump’s name dominates discussions about populism in the U.S. and well beyond.

Ruth Wodak

Ruth Wodak

Social Science Space interviewed Wodak specifically about how her lifetime’s work on discourse, especially as concentrated in The Politics of Fear, could help analyze the Trump phenomenon. Speaking by phone from Vienna, the distinguished professor and chair in discourse studies at Lancaster University reviewed the Republican Party presidential candidate’s own discourse and messages, his appeals to anti-intellectualism, ability to drawn on the skills he learned as an entertainer and the “calculated ambivalence” he displays to the truth. “He apologizes but he doesn’t mean it,” Wodak said. “He’s constantly signaling to his electorate that even if I apologize I still think I’m right.” This politics of denial, and how partisans and opponents of populism seem to exist in parallel worlds, is “something you can observe in Europe, too,” as Wodak explained in this interview on SAGE Connection a year ago.

From Vienna, where she retains an affiliation with the University of Vienna, Wodak was also keeping an eye on “the second round — of the second round — of the [Austrian] presidential elections,” where the right-wing candidate Norbert Hofer hopes to defeat the Green Party’s Alexander Van der Bellen, an economist whose initial win was later annulled by Austria’s constitutional court. That revote comes on December 4, “so the U.S. election will likely have some sort of impact there, too,” Wodak predicted.

Were she still working on the book, Wodak explained, Trump would indeed be included and in two key ways: as evidence supporting her depiction of right-wing populist parties as trading on exaggerated fears and in simple solutions to wicked problems. Trump’s basket of fears – invoking economic disaster, existential threats from immigration, military weakness, and broken institutions, among many – are matched by his claims that only he can solve them. “First constructing fear, and then providing hope,” Wodak said. “So in that way he provides ample evidence for my claims and assumptions about how this construction of fear and scapegoating and staging oneself as a savior works.”

Trump’s statements about building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico “fits perfectly into the picture” of right-wing populism that her Politics of Fear attempts to paint, she said. “He’s protecting the nation, which he wants to make great again, and he only wants certain people in this nation.”

Politics of Fear cover

The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean, by Ruth Wodak. SAGE. 2015

She’d also have to add more pages about the specifics of America’s electoral process and about how Trump makes use of his mid-life vocation as an entertainer, something which has paid dividends as he presents the persona of an “authentic simple man.” It’s something that Wodak has dubbed “the arrogance of ignorance,” in which his aw-shucks approach turns traits which would seem to be deal-breakers for prospective presidents – flip-flopping, not having concrete program proposals, ignoring the realities of international relations – into deal-sealers since they demonstrate his avoidance and disdain for experts and for nuance.

His authenticity is, of course, mediated by who he has styled as the arbiters of the authentic, which is common among right-wing politicians, she said. “They claim to speak for THE people, the only people – the real Americans, the real Austrians, the real Hungarians, whoever. … They also define who these real people are. In Trump’s case it’s without the elites, without the intellectuals, and without the Muslims and probably without women, one could say.” This in turn segues into Trump’s claims that the election is rigged. Wodak laid out the syllogism: “if he’s the real authentic representative of this real American people, then it could not be the case that he loses. If he would lose, then there must be a conspiracy.”

Asked what terms she might use to describe Trump, she suggested authoritarian and demagogic. Tipping her hat to German sociologist Theodor Adorno, she listed some of the hallmarks of the “authoritarian personality” which she perceived in Trump: claiming to know everything, and being dogmatic, sexist, and xenophobic. “On the other hand,” she added, “he’s also really a demagogue. He knows how to play the media and how to mobilize masses.” This has allowed him to maintain his popularity, Wodak said, “even though he is lying so much. You think, ‘How can it be that people still believe in him. It’s the demagogy, which he mobilizes in clever ways. Not every right-wing populist is able to perform in the way that Trump does.”

She argued that Trump’s apparent gaffes are likely just more evidence that he knows “how to play the media.… Every new scandal which he provokes, and I think very strategically provokes, dominates the media agenda, even in newspapers which take positions of supporting Hilary Clinton.”

Wodak said she’s reminded – as are others — of Italy’s former prime minister, media magnate Silvio Berlusconi:  “a very rich man, from the media, thinks he’s above any conventions, politeness or rules that everyone else if obliged to follow.” Much as the genital-grabbing tape from 2005 tarnished some of Trump’s luster, Wodak noted that it was the ‘bunga-bunga sex parties’ scandal, and not the rampant corruption and Mafia connections, that most seriously damaged Berlusconi’s brand.

She also noted that some of Trump’s populist fellow travelers – admirers like Marine Le Pen and Vladimir Putin, and outright allies like Nigel Farage – also help place him in her firmament of right-wing fear-mongers.

Ultimately, though, it’s his words and not his friends who place Trump squarely in Wodak’s scholarship. “Trump plays into this enormous anger that’s out there. They think, ‘He’s saying everything we don’t dare say.’”


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