Donald Trump and the Politics of Personality

by Rich Rubenstein on August 20, 2015 · 6 comments

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To Understand Trumpism, Look Abroad!

Richard E. Rubenstein

Despite the deluge of articles, tweets, photos, and jokes about Donald Trump, there has been very little discussion of the obvious parallels to Trump and Trumpism in other countries. Perhaps, this is because it’s easier either to idolize Trump or dismiss him if one considers him a uniquely American character – a modern P.T. Barnum, or a Jay Gatsby. The Donald is an American product, of course. But we will never understand him or appreciate the seriousness of his campaign unless we look at similar figures outside our own boundaries and traditions.

Here is a quiz. Who am I talking about when I describe an ambitious political figure as:
(a) an enormously wealthy businessman with many super-rich friends
(b) an outsized personality who uses his charisma to fascinate the media and create a cult of admirers
(c) a would-be ruler who despises traditional political parties and prefers to create his own “anti-party” movement
(d) a big-business conservative who nevertheless believes in an activist government with a strong executive branch
(e) a demagogic nationalist, unfriendly to would-be immigrants, who promises to project his own nation’s power throughout the world
(f) a special friend of the Israeli right wing and its current leader, Mr. Netanyahu, and
(g) a sexual adventurer famous for making vulgar remarks about women, some of whom are attracted to him anyway.

Whom am I talking about? Trump, of course. But if those taking the quiz are Italians rather than Americans, the obvious answer is Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media baron who ruled Italy on and off from 1994 until 2011, and who is still in the game as leader of his own Sforza Italia party. And if they are Russians, the answer, equally obvious, is Vladimir Putin!

Donald, Silvio, and Vladimir

Consider Berlusconi first. Like fellow multi-billionaire Trump, he converted big business clout into political power. Creating a popular movement based on his own blunt and colorful personality, the owner of three of Italy’s seven TV channels preaches a semi-coherent blend of right-wing economic conservatism with promises to use government power to solve the nation’s problems and return it to world-class “greatness.”

Like Trump, Berlusconi’s hallmark is political incorrectness. The longest sections of the main Wikipedia article on him are those entitled “Jokes, gestures, and blunders,” and “Divorce and allegations of sexual misconduct.” Who can forget his praise for Mussolini, his open contempt for parliamentary politicians, or his notorious “bunga bunga” parties starring underage “escorts” like the teenaged belly dancer, Ruby Rubacuori?

Like Trump, the Italian leader has wrapped himself in nationalist pride and angry anti-immigrant rhetoric. Like Trump, he promises to enrich the country by enriching big business. And, again like Trump, he finds himself dogged by repeated charges of fraudulent or deceptive business practices, conflicts of interest, and connections with organized crime.

Trumpism, one might say, is the American version of what the Italians call Berlusconismo. But, what about its Russian parallel, Putinism?

Except for Vladimir Putin’s original career, which was not private business but service as a high level intelligence officer, the similarities between his political persona and those of Trump and Berlusconi are striking. Putin is also the creator of a cult of personality. He is hated by some but admired by many for good looks and charisma, his blunt talk, macho toughness, love of sports and adventure, and fierce cultural nationalism. His remarks about gays and other members of the LGBT community sound exactly like those of Trump or Berlusconi about women. Although the size of his own fortune (reportedly very large) is disputed, Putin presides over an economic system that combines capitalist corporatism with strong, executive-driven government – what some call regulated plutocracy.

This seems creepily familiar, does it not? For close to twenty years Putin has served either as Prime Minister or President of Russia, creating his own political party (United Russia) to bypass and dominate the traditional parties, and using the media and government institutions to secure his own position and the wealth and power of his cronies. Although Russian political culture differs significantly from that of either Italy or the United States, he strongly resembles both Berlusconi and Trump in the vague, pro-business populism of his domestic policies, the billionaire elite that surrounds him, the aggressive independence of his foreign policies, and his claim to embody the soul or spirit of the nation.

Why now? And what’s next?

Trumpism/Berlusconism/Putinism – their resemblance, interesting in itself, produces even more interesting questions. First, why now? Why do such characters emerge more or less simultaneously in such disparate locations? What conditions are generating the politics of personality?

Second, what’s next? What should we expect if, despite all the pooh-poohing of Donald Trump’s candidacy for president, he should gain the Republican nomination and actually get elected? What can we learn from the experiences of Silvio B and Vladimir P?

The short answer to the first question, it seems to me, is the crisis of conventional politics. When politicians and parties of the usual sort fail to solve pressing social problems – when, in fact, they bring politics into disrepute by pursuing narrow economic and ideological interests, engaging in partisan spats, lining their own pockets, and refusing to act collaboratively for the public good – the door swings open to the politics of personalismo. Consider what goods Trump-like figures promise to deliver:

• Decisive public leadership in place of political indecision and gridlock
• National unity and purpose in place of political and cultural fragmentation
• Business-driven prosperity in place of economic stagnation and class conflict
• Macho strength on the international stage in place of effeminate weakness
and, of course,
• Colorful political entertainment in place of boring political correctness and policy wonkishness.

The problem, however, is that the political crisis which generates personalism as a response is not simply the result of current leaders’ personal failings. Partisanship and gridlock have systemic roots which the Berlusconis, Putins, and Trumps of the world have neither the understanding nor the will to discover and treat. “It’s the economy, stupid” – and the culture – that produce the sort of aimless, fragmented politics that brings conventional democracy into disrepute. So long as the economy is booming, the personalists can claim to be delivering on their promises of prosperity and national renewal. But economic downturns soon expose the fundamental irrelevancy and pro-corporate bias of their “above all classes” ideology.

How to put unemployed and underemployed people back to work? How to handle the complex problems caused by globalization and mass migrations? How to lessen social inequalities, reconcile warring ethnic and religious groups, and play a creative role in international affairs without constant warfare? None of the practitioners of personalismo has a clue.

As a result, the Trumps and Trump-alikes prove unable to solve the endemic problems that continue to generate political crises. The failings that they had promised to cure remain untreated, and the symptoms of crisis – economic stagnation, cultural fragmentation, political partisanship, gridlock, and corruption – reappear with a vengeance. The political parties and institutions that the national-populists had hoped to bypass gain strength, often with renewed opposition coming from both the Far Left and Far Right. This situation immediately raises the second question: what’s next?

There are two possibilities. One, best illustrated, perhaps, by the political career of France’s Charles de Gaulle, is democratic resignation. Recognizing that he or she has lost the ability to mobilize a national consensus, the Leader goes back to private life. Usually, this also means that his party is dismembered or converted into a more conventional organization, and the nation’s politics returns (for better or worse) to its previous patterns.

Another possibility, however, is considerably less democratic. The Leader, who has always displayed a certain contempt for party politics and parliamentary democracy, and who may consider himself indispensable to the health of the body politic, refuses to retire. Instead, he turns against the political system and vows to alter or destroy it. If he (or she, although women in this position are rare) combines prior commitments to national unity, capitalist corporatism, strong executive power, aggressive foreign policy, and personalismo with anti-democratic measures and a willingness to use violence to achieve his/her goals, the result, almost by definition, is Fascism.

In fact, both Berlusconi and Putin, not to mention Argentina’s Juan Peron, flirted with Fascism before adopting a stance that one might (nervously) call authoritarian-democratic. Both leaders “reformed” political institutions to strengthen their disputed hold on power. Both manipulated or suppressed opposition parties and media, entered into secret deals with powerful corporate oligarchs, and reportedly looked the other way while selected opponents were wiretapped, charged with crimes, roughed up, and, in the Russian case, murdered. In the most insightful analysis of Berlusconism to date, the Italian philosopher and journalist Paolo Flores d’Arcais points out that, despite Berlusconi’s professed admiration for Mussolini, the Italian leader is not a Fascist, since he has not embraced violent methods, dismantled democratic institutions wholesale, or attempted to integrate all aspects of cultural and political life in Italy under a single banner. “Berlusconism is not Fascism,” d’Arcais declares. Nevertheless, he continues, “it is the functional and postmodern equivalent of Fascism. Because it constitutes the destruction of liberal democracy in the conditions of the new millennium, in the epoch of the dominion of the image, of the globalization of commodities, and of the unrestrained manipulation of truth.”

The Italian critic may be overstating his case a bit, but his fundamental insight seems to me correct. In Mr. Trump’s case, its implications are unsettling. When it comes to the deep music of democratic politics, the practitioners of personalismo have, at best, a tin ear. Their fascination with power for its own sake and love affair with the media, their worship of wealth, impatience with procedural niceties, and personal identification as avatars of the Nation naturally incline them toward right-wing authoritarianism. As d’Arcais clearly understands, personalist leaders like Berlusconi are both the products and aggravators of a crisis of democracy.

It is not certain, of course, that Donald Trump, once in power, would follow in this direction. He has not yet demonstrated Berlusconi’s sexual recklessness or the violent tendencies of a Putin, nor has he openly attacked democratic institutions. One hopes that he never will. Then again, Trump has told us even less about his philosophy and proposed policies than his notoriously vague Italian and Russian confreres. Perhaps his scurrilous attacks on immigrants and women, his paeans to military power, and his contemptuous dismissal of political rivals are merely temporary tactics rather than indications of an anti-democratic inclination. But in substituting personality for principled politics and proposing vague, meretricious “solutions” to problems he does not seem to understand, he stands directly in the shoes of other personalist leaders from Peron to Putin.

How dangerous to democracy is Donald Trump? The answer depends not only on the candidate’s intentions and character, but also on how one evaluates the depth of America’s political crisis and the nation’s capacity to resist anti-democratic machinations. My own view is that the crisis has deep socioeconomic and cultural roots. It will not be ended until solutions are found to problems related to uncontrolled globalization – problems such as volatile, exploitative markets, mass migrations, stagnating wages, increased social inequality, and threats to ethnic and national identities. Since there is no indication at present that either Mr. Trump or any other major party candidate (with the partial exception of Sen. Bernie Sanders) has a firm grasp of these issues, the crisis will very likely continue, and with it, the temptation to bypass democratic methods in favor of crypto-Fascist, “national security”-based solutions.

Will Americans recognize and resist such measures, or embrace them? The reader’s guess is as good as mine. Let me conclude by proposing a thought experiment. Imagine how Mr. Trump would react to a major act of violence on American soil by the Islamic State or some other terrorist group. Then ask yourself whether his candidacy is a joke or something more serious, and whether it might be useful to take another look at the politics of personality as practiced by figures like Berlusconi and Putin.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Greenwood Johnson August 21, 2015 at 6:50 pm

Very well-written and thought-provoking article, Rich. Much to ponder here.


Rich Rubenstein August 21, 2015 at 8:55 pm

Thank you, Mary. The coming race seems a little more nerve-wracking than usual!


costas apostolides August 23, 2015 at 9:27 pm

Dear Rich,
A very interesting paper. The comparison with Berlusconi is valid and shows the dangers ofoting very rich people to power. He added the public sectorvtationsohis own andominated Italian media threatening democracy. Putting is diffrent. He hasas you state a 20 yeartrack record of governance, andis consideredquite successful. He took Russia out of the chaos it was in in when the economy collapsed and there were massive social problems and millions of Russian womenforced intoprostitution. He reestablished Russia as amajor power andurbed Usa dominance. He also persuaded the USA not to attack Syria and helped make the agreement on weapons of mass desgruction with syria, and was central to the recent agreement with Iran. I would argue that an American view Putin is presented. He is not a bra sh businessman but has a 20year record of governance.
Nevertheless plenty of food for thought. Wish you the best Rich.


Rich Rubenstein August 24, 2015 at 3:06 pm

Costas, I think that your critique of my Trump:Putin analogy is very well taken, and I appreciate the correction. You are quite right to say that Putin has accomplished a great deal as Russia’s leader and that he is far more than a “brash businessman.” I agree, too, that his foreign policy is NOT as arrogantly imperialistic as Trump’s seems to be. I still consider the analogy useful, however, insofar as it calls attention to the dangers of personalistic politics. Despite Putin’s accomplishments (the latest of which is attempting to facilitate peace negotiations in Syria), the combination of “state capitalist” economic policies, social/sexual conservatism, and authoritarian, personality-based politics has toxic aspects —
as does Trumpism.


John Stern January 19, 2016 at 6:56 pm

Rich, there is much to consider in your excellent critique of “The Donald” / ‘Trumpism”. The dark consequence is the world descends towards political and economic chaos. The socioeconomic problems breed a leader similar to what the world witnessed in the 1930’s & 1940’s. A second outcome, which is more likely, the world continues to lurch towards a single community world. The problems that plague the world, slowly get addressed.


Rich Rubenstein January 20, 2016 at 4:22 pm

John, thanks for your interesting (as always) comment. I don’t know which outcome is more likely, although I hope you are right. What particularly worries me is that the failure of “reasonable” people to solve underlying socioeconomic problems (like gross inequality) will strengthen the proto-fascist Right. What we don’t need right now is a U.S. version of Weimar democracy!


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