The Trump phenomenon has left analysts baffled. Who would have thought that such a clown can stand a real chance of becoming the next President of the United States? While most of the experts were still figuring out what on earth has happened, the explanation came from an unlikely source: South Park.
The reason why Trump and the likes of populist foul-mouths managed to rise to power is two-fold. They are outspoken and they build on nostalgia. Let’s start with the former. The ongoing season of South Park tv series depicts the alter-ego of Trump breaking political taboos by speaking his mind. It seems that the more extreme things he says, the more people like him – lauding him for daring to step out from the dull language of political speeches.
As the ancient Roman adage goes: people desire only bread and circuses. Now they have ample bread. No period in the history of the human race has ever been so prosperous, safe and comfortable as today. Poverty is shrinking and being poor means something else now than it did a hundred years ago, when even the poor were poorer. In today’s affluent society people can afford to have more free time, innovate more or care for the environment. They can even allow themselves to be socialists (as long as their have enough money). With a lot of money you can afford to be stupid. Trump just doesn’t care. But people do, because Trump provides the circuses. He is a brilliant showman and he shook up the dullness of politics which up until now was unattractive to most people.
Political speeches eloquently convey nothing new or nothing at all, a lot of hot air surrounds barely any content. But the voters are bored by this monotone political communication, they don’t want diplomatic and politically correct language. Trump managed to capitalize on this phenomenon brilliantly, but his approach is by no means unique.
Political correctness is, indeed, suffocating freedom of speech but let’s not confuse honesty with populism. It is one thing to speak to the voters truthfully, not sugarcoating a situation, but saying what voters want to hear and doing something else is a despicable act. For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s populist propaganda is always contradicted by his actions. He doesn’t speak the truth, but rather says what people want to hear. He is an even worse version of Donald Trump let loose on Central-Europe, whose policies have a detrimental effect on the Hungarian economy and civil rights.
South Park’s invention of Member Berries was spot on while explaining the other reason why the Trumps and the Orbáns of the world easily gain popularity: Nostalgia. ‘Member the time when you were young and everything seemed so good? ‘Member the times of which you only heard about but they look good in movies?
Despite the fact that we live in the best of times, a lot of people still feel miserable. The social media is not helping, as users usually share only the good news, so we tend to feel less well-off than our friends online. Thus populist politicians conjure of images of a mythological idyllic time which they promise they will bring back. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, or Orbán’s veneration of the 1930s Hungary, draw on this approach as well.
‘Member Franklin Delano Roosevelt? In his 1932 presidential campaign, he blamed incumbent President Hoover – who was running against him – for all misfortunes, while at the same time he was extremely vague on the policies he would implement as a president. His famous campaign song and slogan: Happy Days are Here Again built precisely on nostalgia, nothing else. Does this remind you of someone? Trump and his fellow populists do the same thing. They find an enemy to rally against (Trump wouldn’t have been able to become this popular if the other candidate weren’t deplorable), they make vague and contradictory claims and promise the return of a better time. After all, Happy Days Are Here Again evokes similar connotations as “Make America Great Again”, doesn’t it?
South Park also points out that after a while circuses cease to be funny and clowns turn quite scary. What started off as a joke or publicity stunt turned dead serious. When the South Park version of Trump realized that he actually has a chance of winning, he tried to back out from the race. The real Trump, however, is too much of an egomaniac to do that.
Trump is contradicting himself on almost every issue and constantly denies his former utterances . Orbán grew to fame for his anti-Russian sentiments, yet he is helping Putin attain his goals, he berates Brussels – while at the same time he begs for more money he can embezzle, violates human rights to stop refugees entering Hungary to make Europe safer from terrorists yet he is dealing with a Saudi businessman who might have supported Osama bin Laden.
So there you have it. South Park sheds some light on the mechanisms behind the success of the foul-mouthed populists and clearly shows that we are the losers of their success. However, there is one more point to be made. The key winner of the emergence of the populists is not the Trumps and Orbáns of the world, but Putin. Not without a reason does he support these people on some level. So take heed before you cheer on someone for breaking taboos while you remember the glorious past. Breaking taboos is marvellous if there is substance behind it, a vision of progress. The past serves as a lesson to be remembered, which inspires but also cautions. Let us not repeat the same mistakes.