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Enough denial, Trump is made in America

Masses are wildly cheering for ruthless gladiators to mercilessly dispatch their opponents.

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

“The mass crushes beneath it everything which is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated.”

José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (1930).

There is something rotten in the land. Masses are wildly cheering for ruthless gladiators to mercilessly dispatch their opponents. But before they move for the kill, they are expected to taunt, ridicule and bleed their enemies. In these cruel arenas, all weapons are available as long as they are sharp and deadly.

Now that the games have been going on for months the audiences have become numbed to the revolting, surreal spectacles. But every once in a while, the raucous rumble produces new surprises, deadly swift tactics, unexpected maneuvers and strange rhythms. And the insatiable masses keep asking for more. Last Thursday evening, America’s version of Rome’s “bread and circuses” was in full swing, and what an exotic night it was.

The spectators oscillated between extremes of excitement, astonishment and horror. The champion gladiator, Donald Trump scion of a family that accumulated its wealth by questionable means, from the rich province of New York defending his title against the relentless attacks by junior gladiators fresh out of training camp: Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, hungry descendants of poor immigrants from the once protectorate Island of Cuba, where they settled in the low lands of Florida and the endless deserts of Texas, the two Southernmost provinces of the Empire. The nimble challengers circled their towering opponent thrusting their lances against his chain mail defenses, and with each little cut the masses went wild approving or denouncing, but the defending gladiator was breathing fire while lashing at his attackers, hitting and missing, at times losing his balance, or even flailing.

When a culture glorifies a man like Trump, as a model of the successful mogul, as a celebrity with his own reality television show without taking him to task about his shady business dealings and practices, it allows him to live in a universe of his own

Hisham Melhem

The young attackers, Cruz and Rubio while they did not deliver the lethal blow, were delighted with their performance, with Rubio smelling blood and intoxicated like never before. Trump of New York survived the bout, and briefly withdrew to lick his wounds before emerging the following day along with a new ally and a former foe, Chris Christy the governor of New Jersey, a small province that lives in the shadows of New York, who once enjoyed taunting and humiliating Marco Rubio in a public spectacle.

The making of a demagogue

It is no longer enough to call Donald Trump a scoundrel, charlatan or a demagogue. In this space I even said that he is the scoundrel we deserve. Many a commentator called Trump vulgar, mediocre, deceitful, and morally unmoored. But Trump the bombastic phenomenon, who if told about Rome’s concept of Bread and Circuses would proffer to buy the trademark, is not self-made as he would like to claim, but was manufactured, packaged, signed, sealed by a political culture and a specific environment, then unleashed on the American people and the world.

When a culture glorifies a man like Trump, as a model of the successful mogul, as a celebrity with his own reality television show without taking him to task about his shady business dealings and practices, it allows him to live in a universe of his own untouched and ungoverned by what applies to others.

The audiences cheering and shrieking at his large rallies are one step away from a riot. At times he pathetically looks as if he is trying to imitate the populist leaders of a bygone era, with his exaggerated gestures and contortions. He is the contortionist-in-chief of his generation. This was on full display during the last debate. Trump is the end product of the long metamorphosis of the Republican Party in the last half century from a Party that included then moderate and centrist wings that managed to rein in its extremists and cultural warriors with few exceptions, such as the disastrous Goldwater campaign of 1964.

The best and worst in America

Trump is not a lifelong Republican; he is a lifelong opportunist and scoundrel. And in these uncertain times he found his home in a party that was thrown into a maelstrom following the election of an African American named Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the United States. That election brought to the fore the best and the worst in America. Obama’s election was celebrated by many and resented by many. His election helped spawn the Tea Party, and the so-called birther movement which denied that the president was an American citizen, or claimed that he is a clandestine Muslim.

Trump was a rabid leader of these fire breathing denialists. As I wrote recently in this space, “populist demagogues like Trump are not created instantly. They are the product of slow moving cultural and political trends. In the last few decades we turned what should be healthy skepticism of central authority to hatred of government, anti-taxation into a quasi-religion. And a cultural war was waged against those who dared to be different, socially and culturally. Trump is the product of such trends’.

Recently, conservative scholar and historian Robert Kagan wrote an insightful and brutally honest analysis of how the Republican Party’s obstinacy and obstructionism created its own Frankenstein in the form of Trump, who was brought to life “by the party, fed by the party and now made strong enough to destroy its maker”. The screeds, insults and rants exchanged by the three combatants during and after the debate are unprecedented in recent decades. These would be commanders–in-chiefs, the potential healers of national wounds in dangerous times, were calling each other liar, con man, choke artist, low life, and nervous wreck. And like the “bread and circuses” of Roman times, the spectators on the whole enjoyed the brawl.

Masses in times of uncertainty

It is not politically correct to criticize the prejudices and parochialisms that animate many people politically and culturally. That’s one orthodoxy that should be challenged repeatedly. Trump is seen by many alienated people, and voters fearful of fundamental societal and demographic changes, as their savior, as the leader who will deliver them from the fear of the unknown. And public figures like Trump who flourish in the darkness know how to manipulate them and exploit their fears. And the masses in turn show their loyalty to their leader by becoming more susceptible to his machinations.

The history of the 20th century is full of dictators, autocrats and strong men manipulating gullible masses. Trump and his supporters at times wallow publicly and crassly in their contempt of different social groups. Once again, Trump displayed his contempt to free speech, when he threatened the American media the day after the debate. “We’re going to open up those libel laws folks and we’re going to have people sue you like you never got sued before.” Trump added: “we have many things to do. We have many, many things to do.” Trump’s supporters hate the media because they are told it is part of the establishment. When I say there is something rotten in the land, I mean that I see it afflicting some leaders and the masses that follow them.

A recent NBC News survey of Trump supporters shows that 67 percent of them have an unfavorable view of American-Muslims (versus 35 percent of all voters who say this); and 87 percent support a temporary ban against all Muslims who aren’t U.S. citizens from entering the United States (versus 47 percent of all voters). The survey also showed that 55 percent believe illegal immigrants working in the United States should be deported (versus 29 percent all voters).Only 50 percent of Trump supporters want to raise the minimum wage to either $10 or $15 an hour (versus 72 percent of all voters and 49 percent of Republicans).

In The Revolt of the Masses, a collection of essays published in 1930, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset warned against the conformity of the masses, their tendency to negate individual creativity and freedom. He was prescient, anticipating the great and crushing mass movements of ideologies that dominated Europe (and the world) for a long time. One could say that Ortega y Gasset had in mind men like Donald Trump when he wrote the following: “The characteristic note of our time is the dire truth that, the mediocre soul, the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be mediocre, has the gall to assert its right to mediocrity, and goes on to impose itself where it can.”
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Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.