Fear and loathing in political rhetoric

Professor Peter Miller works at the University of Tampere as Fulbright visiting professor during this academic year.

Professor Peter Miller works at the University of Tampere as Fulbright visiting professor during this academic year.

An American election researcher sees worrying signs of a changing political discourse in Trump’s success. What if the words will become deeds?

The presidential election in the United States is one of the phenomena, which have recently shaken the global community. The business tycoon Donald Trump’s rise from political obscurity to a serious presidential candidate has caused jaws to drop in both Europe and America.

According to Professor Peter Miller, who works at the University of Tampere as Fulbright visiting professor during this academic year, Trump’s success could be explained by political scientist Ronald Inglehart’s post-materialist theory.

According to Inglehart, economic prosperity widens the scope of values in society. The more secure the economy, the freer the citizens are to pursue higher values and open self-expression. In times when money is tight, security becomes the most significant value, and attitudes become harsher against all such things that are actually threatening or are imagined to threaten one’s safety and well-being.

“If we apply Inglehart’s theory in practice, the United States referenced in Trump’s rhetoric is facing various threats. Trump has articulated strongly against immigration and free trade. At the same time, he has defended torture as a form of punishment. Such talk gives us the impression that we live in a society which is all about survival,” Miller says.

It could also be thought and articulated that the United States is a rather vigorous superpower and that the nation is enriched by immigration.

“But we don’t say this. Hillary Clinton has not argued strongly about post-materialist society, either.”

One reason for the prevailing rhetoric is the economic situation. The economic collapse of 2008 shattered the income and sense of security of many Americans.

“When these people think which is more important: themselves or their neighbours, they will say themselves. And this is what Trump is referring to. The idea that we must protect ourselves. It may mean building a wall against the Mexican border or limiting free trade agreements. People need an outspoken leader who has clear opinions and the will to see them through. This is in spite of the fact that Trump’s politics will not necessarily restore his voters’ standard of living or their jobs.”

Another explanation for Trump’s success is given by the US electoral system. Especially the presidential primaries are a multifaceted process, which each state carries out in different ways. There is direct voting, delegates and combinations of the two.

“For example, in the South Carolina primaries Trump only got thirty-three per cent of the votes but won all the delegates. In other words, two thirds of the voters voted for someone else, but Trump still won. If the method of calculating the votes were different, the result might also have been different,” Miller explains.

Or not. Miller reminds us that the rise of such populist politicians as Trump is a widespread phenomenon, which is nothing new.

“In fact, the United States could take a lesson from Europe. We saw at the beginning of the 2000s in Europe how the populist politician Pim Fortuyn and his party gained popularity in the Netherlands. In many respects, Fortuyn was a similar phenomenon as Trump. He was also against immigration and suggested that the entry of Muslims in the Netherlands should be prohibited.”

Similar voices can now be heard all over the western world. According to Miller, the reasons are the same everywhere.

“Europe has also been hit by a long-term recession and the economy is recovering very slowly. Even slower than in the United States.”

Miller reminds us that it is not just a question of Trump but that there are signs, which show that the whole political debate is becoming harsher. For example, Trump’s much cited remark about the second amendment to the US constitution – which has broadly been interpreted as a threat against Clinton – was not the first of its kind.

“Sharron Angle of the Tea Party movement said much the same thing about her rival Harry Reid in the Senate elections of 2010. That kind of a remark at that time caused Angle to lose popularity quite quickly. Now similar statements are made during presidential elections. The question is how low can the political discourse go in disrespectful statements.”

Should we be worried about all this? Is the fact that Trump may end up in the helm of one of the world’s leading superpowers a threat to global stability and social order?

Miller takes a long time to consider his reply.

“There is no doubt Trump is unpredictable. When he was asked whether the United States and NATO would help Estonia if Estonia faced a military threat, Trump responded vaguely that one should first check whether Estonia has paid its bills. Such statements will certainly not create trust in the United States’ allies in the world.”

Trump went one step further by blurting: “We have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them.”

“Such statements cause the public to drop their jaws. The idea of nuclear weapons as a means to conduct foreign policy is very far from the ordinary political discourse. It is even beyond any imaginable discourse.”

“It is another question whether the election of Trump as president would mean that there is an increased risk of nuclear warfare. I hope not. But when we are talking about Trump, we cannot know for sure.”

Peter Miller
Fulbright-University of Tampere Scholar in 2016–17. He comes from the University of Pennsylvania.
Political scientist. Researches elections and voting behaviour.
Miller works in the North American Studies Programme at the School of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Text: Hanna Hyvärinen
Photograph: Jonne Renvall