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Smell What Sells: Explaining The Rise of Donald Trump

How can we explain the unexpected rise of Donald Trump?

Dan Peacock

Naked Politics Blogger 

Those like myself who religiously watch the UK’s version of ‘The Apprentice’ will be aware that, every series, Lord Sugar sets the candidates a task where they are given a budget, a warehouse full of cheap stock ready to be liquidated, and 24 hours to choose and purchase a collection of wholesale stock and sell that stock to the public at a profit. Key to the task is to be responsive and constantly return to the warehouse to purchase more stock. Whoever ends up with the most profit wins the task. Simple. The secret, of course, to success in this task is to “smell what sells” – as Lord Sugar frequently likes to surmise. Namely, if a particular product is selling well, you take note, restock and sell.

Across the pond, in a not-quite-parallel universe, Lord Sugar’s US Apprentice counterpart Donald Trump is currently demonstrating with flawless ease and panache just how to succeed in this task. Future candidates take note. This is “smelling what’s selling” at the highest level.

There is a paradox inherent at the heart of the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. The problem is as follows: every policy that gets added to Donald Trump’s manifesto and every word that exits his mouth simply drips with ignorance, fear and fatuity. Some of the things he comes out with are so mind-numbingly stupid and contrary to reason that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the source was Cletus from The Simpsons. And therein lies the problem: Donald Trump is an exceedingly intelligent man. You do not achieve the level of success in business that this man has without being as bright as a button. Period. So what gives? How can a businessman that is clearly so intelligent produce such bile on an impressively consistent basis?

This seemingly irresolvable paradox leads me to the following conclusion: Donald Trump does not believe a word Donald Trump says. The clue is in the word ‘Businessman’. I think he knows full well that what he is espousing is, for want of a better phrase, utter BS. Trump is a businessman through and through. Business and commerce is in his blood and defines the very essence of who Donald Trump is. So when he is espousing what he knows is nonsense, Trump is just doing what any good businessman would do, he is smelling what’s selling. He has found a product that fills a gap in the market and has proven a hit with consumers. The product in question is fear, scapegoats and nationalism disguised as patriotism (henceforth FSNP). Noteworthy items found in the FSNP range include a wall built across the US-Mexican border (With an exclusive 100% Discount!), mass deportation of illegal immigrants and their children, and a ‘Make America great again’ guarantee. All items are limited edition of course, so Americans need to buy now or miss out.

The point I’m trying to make – with a degree of both facetiousness and utmost seriousness – is that Donald Trump knows his politics is completely vacuous, and that what he is saying smacks of ignorance, xenophobia and fear-mongering. But it has clearly struck a chord with significant segments of the US population. With a struggling economy, near-third world levels of inequality and poverty, and a population gripped by fear at the omnipresent threat of Islamic State, millions of Americans are understandably growing increasingly weary and antagonistic towards the status quo and are looking for answers, and more importantly, hope. Acutely aware of this state of frustration and fear (the aforementioned gap in the political market), Donald Trump has offered his own answers and his own vision of hope (the product) in the form of visible and tangible scapegoats, a need to resist ‘the other’ that is Islam, and a resurrection of the American dream in its purest form that the liberal tide of the Obama years has slowly distinguished. And swathes have bought it. And if a product is selling, you keep selling it, even if you know it is a cheap and nasty product. That is not your problem, as long as the profits – in this case votes – continue to flood in, Trump will not care.

But this still begs the question: why? Why the switch from selling real estate to selling political narratives? I have a theory.

This theory begins with the fact that throughout the history of American democracy, right from its conception to the present day, US politics has been structured and tailored to perpetually satisfy the interests of an elite business class. This point is articulated most brilliantly and convincingly by the famous American public intellectual, Noam Chomsky, in his recent documentary ‘Requiem for the American Dream’. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you watch it. Chomsky speaks of what he calls ‘the concentration of wealth of and power’, in which political power and wealth become mutually reinforcing, and become more and more concentrated as each increases. For example, wealthy corporations and individuals fund election campaigns, who in return introduce pro-business legislation and as a result receive more funding from said corporations, and so the cycle continues.

Chomsky demonstrates that US politics has always perpetuated this concentration of wealth and power, and has always acted and been structured in the interests of the wealthy business class. We can see this in the fact that the US constitution initially gave greater power to the unelected Senate which was handpicked from the wealthiest Americans, in the way that organised labour and greater democratisation has always been resisted, in the mass market deregulations and corporate tax cuts that of the Reagan years, and in the bailout of the very banks and investment firms that caused the 2008 crash. The list goes on. This all sounds like conspiratorial Marxist nonsense, but it isn’t. It is cold hard fact. Chomsky even quotes letters and reports from leading US statesmen over the last 50 years, who have literally said almost word for word that too much democracy and empowerment is bad for business. This is the reality of US politics – and to a large extent, world politics.

So back to Trump. What the above demonstrates is that in America, politics and business go hand in hand. For a corporate businessman like Trump, a political decision is a business decision, so to enter politics is not a career change, but a logical business decision. So the question is, what business motivations are there for Trump to enter politics? My belief – and it is only a belief, a speculation, a conjecture – is that the Obama administration has proven bad for corporate business. We have seen an $800bn state intervention into the economy in order to stimulate and rescue the economy after the recession, including billions of pounds invested in welfare. We have seen Obamacare, which imposes far stricter minimum standards and healthcare provisions upon Private medical insurance companies and subsidises health insurance for millions of the poorest Americans.  We have seen the Dodd-Frank bill, which introduced the greatest increase in regulation of the financial sector since the Great Depression. These are but a few examples of how the policies of the Obama administration have often been counter to the traditional corporate desires for a completely free, deregulated market free from state intervention.

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Therefore as the head of a multi-billion dollar corporation, this is highly concerning for Trump. The monopoly that corporate business enjoys over the US polity has come under threat during the Obama years. And this, according to my theory, is why he has entered politics: to put the interests of an elite business class back at the heart of American politics. All the hubris and the rhetoric about immigration, walls, Islam and the American Dream is just clever marketing. Trump is smelling what’s selling, although this time the end goal is votes rather than a healthy profit margin. I don’t believe for a second that Trump actually believes in the politics he is espousing. They are a means to an end, the end being the Oval Office and control over the financial and fiscal levers of the world’s largest economy. This is strictly business, and it therefore should come as no surprise that Donald Trump is edging closer and closer to the Whitehouse. Underestimate him at your peril.

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