1 : a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power
2 : a leader championing the cause of the common people in ancient times (from Merriam-Webster)
If you follow american politics, even a little, then you are aware that Donald Trump is RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT. Depending on your political inclinations you either find this awesome, scary, funny, or some combinations of similar emotions; I suspect there are very few people who have a neutral opinion of Mr. Trump.
The American pundit class, a huge group of people who churn out endless articles, opinion pieces, and TV shows that try to influence the world’s most powerful democracy have a love-hate relationship with Donald Trump. They love him because he is easy to write about and draws a large audience. They hate him because they have very little power over him.
Trump is one of the great Demagogues of capitalism. He may seem crass and tasteless, brash and ignorant, but to many he is a prophet of the real gods of our times: money. power, and fame. He has a large body of work advising people on how they can be like him (SUCCESSFUL!), and while his guidance might be dubious, it is something he has consistently pushed for the better part of three decades (Art of the Deal came out in 1987) and he has staked out that territory very loudly. The Trump name is synonymous with glitz, gold, and the gaudiest branding in the world.
What does Trump have to do with Fantasy Fiction you ask?
Well for one, heraldry might not be as gaudy as huge, golden “TRUMP” letters on the side of a building but it serves a very similar purpose from a times when literacy was very low. The trappings of the trump empire are very similar to the luxuries sought after by the nobility of old; we’ve just traded in the castles for magnificent glass towers and the garden for the gold green and country club. The gold, the glitz, and the heraldry are still there.
One large difference between Trump and a medieval nobleman, however, is that Trump not only puts his name on everything so that people recognize that it is his and he has power, but also because he wishes to reside in the public consciousness. Trump is very concerned with what the working and middle classes think of him, not because he is afraid of a peasant revolt like a wary noble, but because he understands the power of opinion in a democratic society. In fact, as a master of branding, Trump definitely understands that opinion can outweigh the truth.
Trump is a Demagogue. He would call himself a populist, a man of the people, and in some ways he is. He certainly seems to spend a lot of his time trying to tell people how to be successful. It is quite possible he genuinely believes that he is helping people and not just pretending to care in order to cash in on his brand and make more money. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he actually wants to help people be rich and successful like him. Does that make him a populist? yes, however, even genuine concern about the people does not stop him from being a Demagogue.
Demagogy relies on abusing information in order to provoke an emotional reaction and circumvent rational debate. It is very similar to branding in many ways. Here are a few examples of Trump using false factoids to stir up the people he is currently selling to (the Republican base), just from this past week.
- There are 93 million unemployed people in America. (The population of the US is 321 million, and that includes people who aren’t looking for work.)
- The US is the most highly taxed nation in the civilized world. (What?)
- There are 32 million illegal immigrants in the US. (WTF? 1 in every 10 people in the US is an illegal O.o)
These claims are easily verifiable as not true. But the people Trump is aiming his comments at are willing to take these comments on faith. They fear illegal immigration and everyone hates taxes and is terrified of unemployment. Trump confidently exclaims that he has THE BEST SOLUTIONS and moves on. When someone tries to poke a hole in his plans or call his ideas into question he insults them and moves on. The modern pundit class uses these same techniques, so they know what he is doing, but their business model isn’t based on the truth or good journalism so they don’t really have an easy counter for Trump. Trump appeals to the same visceral emotions that they have been using to sell their work for years. Cynical and well-informed people can see right through the man, but they aren’t his target audience and he knows it. And this brings me back to Fantasy Fiction.
Modern fantasy often scoffs at brash, larger than life villains as much as it does with heroes. And yet in Trump we have someone who often seems like a caricature of a man mining a deep vein of resentment and anger in order to gain power. A villain like Sauron suddenly seems less unrealistic when you compare him to The Donald. Its not like Trump is going to try to take over Middle-Earth any time soon (can you imagine what he would do to The Shire? even Saruman would blanch) but it is easy to see how one can appeal to fear and hatred to gain a fervent following. History can teach us how such a movement can spiral out of control, as well. Trump is just abusing people’s prejudices for his own ends, but he serves as a reminder that sometimes the simplest type pf villainy can be compelling in both real life and fiction. Racism and fear-mongering may be cliché, but they sell baby, boy do they sell!