I have been using Donald Trump a lot in my teaching this year. I use him to challenge ideas of what society deems appropriate. How society is gendered and racialised. But I also ask students to reflect on his popularity. What makes him so attractive? Is it what he says? Or is it exactly that what he does not say? How much can be said within the liberal margins without losing mass legitimacy? But also how much should be said to win national elections?
The commonly heard claim, especially echoed by his supporters, is that “he says it as it is”. This I have found hugely fascinating because Trump is known to say very little. His vocabulary deliberately seems limited to adjectives of “great”, “huge”, “bad” etc. It is exactly those words which are left out from his speech which seem to speak to the imaginations (of especially white) American voters. The French thinker Derrida but also others described absences and deficiencies as subordinate to a principle of presence.
I’m interested for the most part in what’s not happening, that area between events that could be called the gap. This gap exists in the blank and void regions or settings that we never look at. Robert Smithson, “What is a Museum?” (1967)
In other words, it is the suggestive void he leaves behind for others to fill in that constitutes the backbone of his success. Supporters enjoy the liberty to express their discontent and dissatisfaction (or, indeed, hate) in these gaps he creates. His supporters fill in the nouns and subjects of the sentences he intentionally (or unintentionally? I think not) leaves hanging. He not merely channels sentiments but craftily directs them to align with his own interest.
This is a quantitative shift in fascist rhetorical traditions, which traditionally are much more explicit in their scapegoating of minorities. Older forms of fascism thrive precisely because of persuasive reiterations and creative recapitulations in oral speech, but also in dress, rituals and even architecture. Trump is different because, although his underlying message is very similar to that of his predecessors, the packaging leaves sufficient room for the voter to decide himself/ herself how much racism, misogyny (etc.) is enough “to say it as it is.” The voter always wins because he/ she decides how these blanks are filled in. The limits of what is sayable/ permissible are defined solely by the creator of the sentence. The gaps in the sentence allow for the illusion of appropriation and control. Trump supporters enjoy the feeling of finally being heard but all that is really audible are the echoes of an earlier fascism.
As a 1980s marketeer, Trump knows full well that blanks and adjectives form the basis of all good marketing. Marketing is not about the fulfilling of needs and desires but, and market liberals and Marxist would agree on this point, about the creating of new ones. Happiness, hate and other emotions are by marketeers externally induced, but projected and imagined as if occurring naturally and independently from outside interference. The selling of ideas is not done through classical rhetoric but through the cognitive instilling of the idea of an autonomous will. Trump deliberately creates and leaves the blanks as dots for others to fill in, and then pretends to listen to his voters (or customers) as if their ideas are authentically theirs. This is how businesses operate but it is the same logic which soon will inform the foundation of a newly found American corporatism.