Rethinking America

Virility as Political Asset? Trump as a Huckster and Hustler

To explain how Trump almost pulled off his reelection requires a deep dive into the less familiar buildings blocks of American culture.

Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Being a hustler, a huckster and a macho is looked down upon in most Western cultures. But they are considered virtues in inland parts of American culture.
  • Most Western societies, by tradition and temperament, value a smoothly running, well-organized bureaucracy. Not so in the US.
  • Managing “by the seat of their pants” is not just an old American idiom. It also captures a widespread preference for considerable chaos.
  • The Trumpian chaos greatly irritates slightly more than half of all Americans. But the other half loves it. It considers it refreshingly “revolutionary.”
  • Foreign observers and US elites have always struggled with the cultural importance of reality TV in the US – and just how well Donald Trump has used this form of surrealism.
  • Joe Biden is rightfully viewed as an experienced and dedicated public servant in Europe, Japan and many other countries. Not so in the US.

Even though Donald Trump has narrowly lost the 2020 presidential election, a major puzzle remains in the eyes of the world: How on earth could he get so close to reelection?

After all, the U.S. economy has tanked, his management of the pandemic was at best inept and also his other displays of irresponsible behavior were near-endless.

Not to mention his disdain for science and the environment and the tremendous income and job losses for many. Despite all this, close to half the American people are still behind him.

Only in America

I venture to say that this would be impossible in any other civilized country. What then almost did the trick for Trump?

Trump has a set of character traits that are looked down upon in most cultures. However, they are essentially considered virtues in the American culture.

That is why Trump being a hustler, a huckster, a macho and something of a (wannabe) streetfighter were assets to him in the 2016 and 2020 campaigns.

The virtues of a hustler and streetfighter

In that context, even the fact that Trump often seemed in over his head didn’t really hurt him. Americans actually like people a great deal who are obviously struggling, even against long odds. It’s the old underdog phenomenon.

Even the readiness to be caught in the act of failure – in Trump’s case, a very public act – is considered courageous and a worthy endeavor in the United States. Not so elsewhere. U.S. culture, with its lone ranger movies, is enamored with struggling, even failing fighters who labor hard not to go down.

Coolness? Only the U.S.’s Europhiles love that

The contrast between Trump and the “cool” Obama – the epitome of having himself always under control, never appearing even to struggle – couldn’t be starker.

But while Obama’s detachedness as President was something that his fans greatly liked, it is far from an all-American trait.

In fact, in the context of American culture, acting in that manner is widely considered elitist, if not arrogant. It is a behavior considered better suited to French kings and European courts of old.

No question, compared to Trump’s impulsiveness, a steady-hand approach to governing has clear advantages. And, to be sure, it is the preferred course of action in most Western societies.

By tradition and temperament, they put a great deal of stock into a smoothly running, well-organized bureaucracy that holds up well under pressure.

Loving to be present at the creation of failure

In contrast, Trump and his administration often made things up on the fly. But managing “by the seat of their pants” is not just an American idiom, but also captures the country’s widespread preference for a less bureaucratic style.

No question, the Trumpian chaos greatly irritates slightly more than half of all Americans. But the other half loves it. It considers it refreshingly “revolutionary.”

As it happens, the people who disdain Trump are mostly the ones equipped with passports and a love to travel to Europe’s and other world regions’ finer locations.

These individuals stand a world apart from their fellow Americans who are curiously devoted to fatedness and greatly thrilled to be “present at the creation” – even if that means having a front row seat to very public forms of failure.

Having a front row seat when the master of disaster lays hand on the nation apparently has it charms – even if the fallout from Trump’s failures, socio-economically speaking, hits his own fans to a significant extent.

Reality TV as an umbilical chord

Foreign observers and U.S. elites have always struggled with the cultural importance of reality TV – and just how well Donald Trump has used this form of surrealism. They find the notion of doing close-ins on everyday people distasteful.

At the core of this concept is a peculiar form of exhibitionism. The participants in these shows all share one character trait: A ceaseless will to display their own person(ality), especially with regard to personal defects and failings.

Apparently, they consider the act of exhibiting these as a form of cure. This is the umbilical cord shared by Trump and the reality TV nation.

However, this is not just Trump’s viral way to connect with large swaths of Americans. Paradoxically, in a peculiarly American way, it is also his form of honesty and appearing very approachable.

Biden, the affable “Average Joe”

Contrast all of that with Joe Biden. He is an affable and likable fellow – an elegant version of the “Average Joe”. He is also advertised as a “safe” pair of hands.

Biden certainly has a long and distinguished record in public office and is rightfully viewed as a dedicated public servant. In Europe, Japan and many other countries, that provides a politician with a lot of standing and reputation.

Not so in the inland parts of the United States. There, close to half of all Americans finds that boring – and prefers a huckster, hustler, liar and macho.

The U.S. as a paradox of insecurity

That steadiness and a safe pair of hands, even in these tumultuousness times, is not the quality that just under 49% of voters in the United States look for makes the entire country a paradox.

In all likelihood, that Trump came so close to reelection, especially under what must be considered the most adverse of circumstances, points to tremendous stresses that U.S. society still has to come to terms with.

Stunning levels of male insecurity, the absence of a dependable social safety net and the self-defeatist love of billionaires by those in the lower half of the U.S. income distribution are some of those factors.

They are all the result of the fact that the United States never had a real, i.e. a social revolution. The misguided American revolution was just focused on the federal government, then occupied by the British.

Phenomena like Trump, Black Lives Matter and many more are the inevitable consequence of America’s stunted revolution.

Conclusion

That Donald Trump is constantly running on high adrenaline may be bad news for the United States and the world policy-wise. But it gives him an air of virility.

And that makes for remarkably good news for Trump and the Republicans at the ballot box, even if he lost by a squeaker.

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About Stephan Richter

Director of the Global Ideas Center, a global network of authors and analysts, and Editor-in-Chief of The Globalist.

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