Jim Carroll

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The strongman delusion

Why do so many believe a businessman like Donald Trump or Michael O’Leary is the answer to all our woes?

Make America rant again. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP Photo

Tue, Oct 25, 2016, 09:45


Say what you like about the US presidental election, but it has produced some quality pieces of journalism. While the mud-slinging, insults and high-energy invective between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton may have debased political discourse, the campaign itself has energised many writers. You could probably spend all your time from now until November 8 just reading the many quality stories covering all angles about the candidates, the process and the state of America today. The current issue of The New Yorker, for instance, has some fantastic reading in it, especially a stop-the-lights piece by George Packer examining just why the white working class viters stopped supporting the Democracts and moved towards the Republican Party and Trump.

Trump’s appeal, as Packer notes, is fairly straightforward, even if it’s hard for anyone who views him as a clownish, sexist, racist, bragging loudmouth TV cartoon to accept the fact that he’s one election day away from a four year rent-free stay in the White House. “It shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise when millions of Americans were suddenly drawn to a crass strongman who tossed out fraudulent promises and gave institutions and élites the middle finger. The fact that so many informed, sophisticated Americans failed to see Donald Trump coming, and then kept writing him off, is itself a sign of a democracy in which no center holds. Most of his critics are too reasonable to fathom his fury-driven campaign. Many don’t know a single Trump supporter. But to fight Trump you have to understand his appeal.”

The appeal of a “crass strongman” like Trump is not limited to the United States. Voters are attracted to these strongmen and salesmen because they say the things out loud that many people think but rarely express. There are many strongmen who feel the need to ventilate their views like Trump yet, unlike the businessman and serial gobshite, rarely decide to put their names on the line when it comes to election. This is something which marks him out from the mob of businessmen who feel that their success (or “success” given what we now know about how Trump’s businesses have operated over the years) in their respective sectors gives them the right to shout about how they’re going to fix the country they live in.

Michael O’Leary comes to mind here. He’s a man given to ranting and raving about Ireland when he’s given a platform and it’s an approach which has resulted in plenty of publicity for the gobby Ryanair boss which in turn means even more platforms for him to stand on. His latest tirade, at a Fine Gael fundraiser, received plenty of coverage which must have pleased him no end. Indeed, “the speech was said to have been well received by the “behind-closed-doors, invite-only audience” who “laughed and clapped at his stinging jibes” about RTÉ, gardaí, transport unions and cyclists.

It adds to the impression of a no-nonsense, can-do businessman who could sort out the country inbetween flogging cheap airline tickets, racing horses and operating a taxi. I don’t know about you, but I’m not quite ready to live in O’Learyland. Many would disagree, though, seeing O’Leary’s rants and raves as the perfect riposte to the politicians we keep electing and O’Leary as the right strongman to go into various government departments to kick some arse.

Just as Trump has energised a huge number of American voters with his unpalatable promises of what he would do in power – and remember, win or lose, Trump has done far, far better than most pol corrs and commentators expected when he swanned down the escalator to announce his candincy in June 2015 – the likes of O’Leary always win approval from those who disagree vehemently with how the democratically elected government of the day decide to operate. He could do what our spineless politicians (our politicians are always spineless for many) will never do. A strongman like O’Leary, these voters reckon, would do far better with the mess the country is in. To a strongman, the country is always in a mess and in need of some no-nonsense plans to clean things up, chiming nicely with Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine theory.

But what exactly would a strongman do when he or she gets into power? Well, in the case of Trump, according to Robert Draper’s campaign notes in the New York Times, he’d do the same as he has done in his everyday business and get someone else to do everything. “For all of his authoritarian impulses, Trump has sent signals that in the increasingly unlikely event of his election next month, his would be the most outsourced presidency in recent memory.” He would be “a big-picture chief executive who delegates the grubby mechanics of governance to like-minded professionals from the private sector”. Yep, the same experts who were responsible for a lot of the mess that Barack Obama has spent the last eight years of his life fixing. The same experts that many of those who will vote for Trump want to run out of town.

That’s the thing with strongmen: they’re grand and dandy when it comes to mouthing off and shouting and stamping their feet and shaking their fist, but it’s a whole different barrel of fish when it comes to actually governing a nation. Government is not like running a business, no matter how often the two are conflated. It’s also not like a tech start-up but that’s a whole other hill of beans. Just because you’ve been a successful businessman does not mean you’re going to make a great politician when it comes to making policy decisons when impact on thousands and millions of people. Granted the teachers, solicitors, barristers and publicans who make up our elected representatives are no great shakes either, but it doesn’t stand to reason that a bunch of Michael O’Learys or Donald Trumps are going to be any better.

Yet the strongman delusion will still hold and, as we’ll sadly see in the years to come, Trump will not turn out to be some outlier. Instead, we’ll see electorates turn more and more towards these figures who promise the sun, moon and stars and speak in a manner which makes it appear as if they’re not your run of the mill politician. Instead of bemoaning the fact that so many people are tricked by these shysters, it would be far more valuable if we took the time to understand why so many people are fed up of what passes for politics that they’re attracted rather than repeled by carnival barkers like Trump and his buddies.