Pub Talk in Public: How Trump and European Nationalists Test Democracy

By Stephan Manning.

The political climate in the U.S. and Western Europe is changing dramatically – authoritarian populists are on the rise: Donald Trump keeps winning primaries and is likely to become the Republican U.S. presidential candidate. At the same time, nationalist parties are gaining ground across Europe. Recent example: The ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD), a populist right-wing party that campaigns against refugees, climbed from zero to double-digit percentage figures in the latest state elections. Supporters of Trump and European right-wing populist parties have several things in common: they are mostly male, yet rather diverse in terms of age and socio-economic status; they are not loyal to any political party, yet concerned about order and national identity; they are anti-establishment and include many prior non-voters. For example, in the German state Saxony-Anhalt, the AfD received a record-breaking 24% of votes mainly thanks to prior non-voters making up 40% of their votes. Trump is betting on such voters as well, and according to him, his supporters will start ‘riots’ if the Republican National Convention blocks his nomination. Where does this nationalist movement against the establishment come from? What drives prior non-voters to ballot boxes in favor of authoritarian leadership? And what does that mean for democracy?


In my opinion, both Trump and European nationalists have been able to do something established political parties are failing at (or are refusing to do): making ‘pub talk’ acceptable in public. ‘Pub’ literally means ‘public house’, a place where traditionally mostly men meet and debate life and politics while having a drink. It is a public space where norms of communication adjust to the amount of alcohol consumed. The more you drink the easier it becomes to express anger, to call things out ‘as they are’, at least how you instantly feel about them. I am not suggesting that supporters of Trump & Co. are pub regulars, but that the tone of debate many appeal to resembles ‘pub talk’. After a few drinks, building a wall along the Mexican border to stop illegal migration, as Trump proposes, may suddenly make sense. And it may seem ok to turn violent if people disagree with your viewpoint, and Trump’s call to ‘knock the hell out of people’ who throw tomatoes at him does not seem so outrageous anymore. An eye for an eye. Conflicts and controversies meet easy and agreeable solutions – if you don’t think too hard about it later on. But why has pub talk recently become an acceptable means of political communication outside the pub? Why do people cheer for Trump and right-wing populists simply because they ‘say things out loud’?

Inclusion, diversity and inequality. Life in Western societies has become more complicated. On the one hand, society has progressed in recent decades, e.g. in granting more rights and opportunities to women and minorities; in allowing freedom of religion, various sexual orientations and partnerships; and in raising the overall standard in the way people treat and talk to each other. On the other hand, certain problems have remained the same or gotten worse, such as socio-economic inequality. Developing and maintaining inclusion and diversity as values in an unequal society requires a lot of effort – while being enriching when things go well, they become easy scapegoats when problems or conflicts arise, or previously privileged groups feel threatened. Aside from that, some may ask what’s ‘in it for me’? What if your own life is not benefitting from greater inclusion and diversity? Several studies suggest that Trump & Co. have benefited from the backlash to equal rights regulation, especially from white working class men.

Global threats and media negativity. Aside from growing complexities at home, the world has become more interconnected, which threatens many people. Free trade agreements are a good example – while many U.S. politicians welcome collective gains from trade, Trump is paying close attention to the worries of many Americans that their jobs and incomes might be in danger. For the same reason, Trump, like Bernie Sanders, is very critical of the abuse of H-1B temporary work visas replacing U.S. tech workers with cheaper, mostly Indian staff. Similarly, while most established parties in Germany largely support efforts towards helping and taking in Syrian refugees, the AfD clearly expresses what many Germans think to themselves: We don’t want that and it’s too much for us. The media thereby plays an unfortunate role in amplifying anxiety among people. In emphasizing conflict, violence and protest, media has a negativity bias in presenting reality worse than it actually is. A recent documentary on anti-refugees protests in a little town in Saxony, Germany, illustrates that: Even before refugees arrived, the media covered in great detail how citizens came together to protest and express their anxieties. After the refugees had actually arrived, the town calmed down; nothing happened to provoke any anger. Yet the media stayed away from reporting this rather peaceful outcome – it was not ‘newsworthy’. No wonder anxieties about various global threats escalate in massive support of nationalist politicians.

Political correctness and the spiral of silence. Another thing both Trump and European nationalists do very well is break the ‘spiral of silence’. According to German political scientist Noelle-Neumann, many people share a fear of isolation which leads them to remain silent when they feel their views do not match the majority opinion. Only in ‘safe settings’, maybe among drinking buddies, those suppressed viewpoints surface. Again, mass media play an important role in setting spirals of silence in motion. Trump & Co. now reverse this principle by condemning established media and politicians for being overly ‘politically correct’ – a term that initially referred to avoiding offense to anyone, especially minority groups. By questioning established norms of communication, populists like Trump open the door for unfiltered ‘pub talk’ to enter the political arena. This lowers fear of isolation and in part explains why all of a sudden prior non-voters feel free to express their viewpoints, not least at the ballot box. Yet, studies also show that many Trump supporters, especially from the middle class, are afraid of revealing themselves in public. This however strengthens Trump’s position as an opinion leader of the ones feeling ‘silenced’.

Now what does that mean for democracy? I admit that I partly agree with what AfD politicians said right after the state election: The AfD – whose views many regard as ‘undemocratic’ – managed to mobilize way more new voters than any other party, thus serving democracy. And indeed the rise of populists unveils an often neglected dimension of democracy: the need of people to be heard, no matter if this improves their situation or solves any deeper structural problem. At the same time, in order to function, democracy requires respect for minorities, human rights, and freedom of opinion. But the current trend also shows the danger of expecting too much from people, e.g. their willingness to accept large numbers of refugees, rather than allowing them to adjust to new situations through their own experiences. The case of the little town in Saxony is a good example. Yet, how can democracy become a ‘lived experience’ rather than a matter of political correctness? How can representative democracies better manage the gap between pub talk and public debate, between what people think in private and what they can vote for? And what role can the media play in better informing democratic processes?


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5 thoughts on “Pub Talk in Public: How Trump and European Nationalists Test Democracy

  1. I like how the article explains the political scenario deviations in Western Europe and U.S. and how these changes would affect democracy. Focusing on U.S, I believe that Trump is not only a test, but he is a threat to democracy. His beliefs and actions denigrate the country’s reputation. In order to build a powerful nation, U.S. had to fight in several wars; therefore, American citizens should respect those who fought (and still fight) for their country by not allowing a “clown” to represent them. Trump’s outrageous and lunatic ideas clearly demonstrate that he’s a threat to democracy and human rights. It’s undeniable that he has a great business career and his able to persuade people with his strong leadership skills. However, Trump’s actions and racist statements show that he doesn’t have the abilities necessary to run this country. In my opinion, he is a mere reality show celebrity who’s using the presidential race as a way to have some lights towards him and increase his prestige. Honestly, It’s hard to believe that he has made this far.

  2. When it comes to politics, especially in the U.S., the American people are sick of being lied to. Politics has slowly turned into false promises and empty hopes. Many voted for President Obama based off of his speech and the promise of change so many longed for. With a candidate like Trump, even if one agrees with everything he says or not, many enjoy the breath of fresh air his “pub talk” brings. At a time politicians get up on stage and have become masters of avoidance if a particular question is brought up, he has gone against current and answers directly without concerning himself with political correctness. This can at times be absurd, but he has provided voters the ability to see the truth behind the candidate and what he stands for. The problem I see with Trump is he builds off of peoples emotions such as the anger of so many jobs being shipped overseas, or the expanding threat of terrorism and groups people as a whole together. This can be just as dangerous as neglecting the issues altogether. Regardless, many have turned to Trump because he is saying what everyone has wanted to say. Instead of sitting at a bar having a couple drinks and building up the courage and anger to address it, he has done so under the public eye. It will be interesting to see now that he is going to more than likely be the Republican candidate this upcoming November how he changes his ways and how he addresses them in order to look more “presidential”. There have been many issues I have agreed with him on, and many I don’t, but taking both into account, I see him addressing issues with feelings, but I don’t see them all being carried out, or for that matter being let carried out by the government. Trump has mastered pub talk in order to stimulate the American voters interest and can either be beneficial, or the exact opposite, detrimental.

  3. I think in westerns society like here in the U.S there many that share Trump’s opinion, but they don’t say it out loud. And when they encounter someone like Trump, they cheer and support him. As prof. Manning mentioned, nowadays there’s more equally in terms of inclusion but in socioeconomic terms, the gap has increased considerably.

  4. Prof. Manning examines how Donald Trump in the United States and nationalists in Europe have been changing the political landscape. The similarities and differences the way these authoritarian forces are operating and the role of media are analyzed.

    Democracy– ‘lived experience’ vs. political correctness: One can say that US democracy has been a lived experience in most part with a rich history of political stability. Even Trump’s ability to secure the nomination has been a fair political process. If this process is not satisfactory to anyone (political correctness), it has to do with the internal politics of the Republican Party for their inability to stop him. The way Trump differentiated himself alienating the immigrants and other religious minorities qualify him as leading a nationalist movement. On the other hand, the nationalist movement in Europe appears to be strengthened by their opposition to admit Syrian refugees in response the terrorist attacks throughout Europe in the name of ISIS or other organization. Thus, the nationalist movement in Europe can be characterized as political correctness and it is not a “lived experience” as it represents only a small minority.

    The gap between ‘pub talk’ and public debate: In the US, the public response to Trump fits into the characterization of ‘pub talk’ as it escalates based on the information or misinformation he feeds to the public. The raise of Trump in the US is attributable to the vulnerability of other republican contenders and to the popularity of anti Obama rhetoric among the republican primary voters. The anti-immigrant talk, instigating fears about the lack of success in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Syria, and the terrorist attacks have been energizing the republican base to sway in favor of Trump. Further, Trump has been exploiting the loopholes in free-trade agreements that some big companies have been abusing. All these issues have been playing in favor of nationalist movement in the US. However, there is no real public debate to determine how Trump could defend his positions on each of these issues in the presence of his political opponent in the general election. Similarly, the nationalists in Europe have been using anti-immigrant rhetoric as pub talk while the ruling majority has been using public debate sensibly in admitting more refugees, even after terrorist attacks, on humanitarian grounds.

    The role of media: The media should scrutinize the Trump propaganda more carefully at it contains outrageous unsubstantiated statements. The media has a duty to report the news that matter to the public, but we do not have to know each and every word a candidate says. Perhaps, it is one of the perils of the 24 hour news networks. Similarly, the initial report that some Syrian refugees raped a local woman in one of the rallies in Germany was propaganda by the nationalists. The media jumped on it without verifying. In general, media should use some restraints, but scrutinize the truth to be credible.

  5. In his stimulating blog, Stephan has pointed out what political parties are not doing: namely to tackle people’s worries and frustrations. We would like to extend this aspect by arguing that the sudden rise of both Trump and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is, not least, due to major failures of the established parties.

    In Germany, the two ‘people’s parties’ have long departed from traditional values. The Social-Democratic Party (SPD) has watered down its stance for social equality, while the Christian-Democratic Party (CDU) has sacrificed conservative beliefs in favour of a more open society. And both parties have been eager to adopt neoliberal policies and sell these by means of populist claims. All this has, for various reasons, undermined the trust of large sections of their members and voters in official politics, and played into the hands of the radical right.

    Similarly in the US, problems underlying Republican politics are behind Trump’s success. On the one hand, the Party demolished the major democratic principle of compromise by striving to boycot Obama. Hence the trend towards ruthlessness, which Trump has only perfected. On the other hand, the Republicans pushed free trade and managed to implement antisocial measures in the name of ‘trickle down economics’. This paved the way for desparation particularly among the working class. Hence the impact of Trump’s emotional offensive, on the lines of ‘I love the poorly trained; I will protect your social security…’.

    However, instead of waking up to these self-inflicted challenges, both the Republicans and the German parties appear to be paralysed!

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