In Focus
Mar 4, 2017

Trinity’s Newest US Politics Lecturer on Trump, Fake News and the Rise of Populism

Dr Emanuel Coman discusses the future of the Trump administration, the real impact of fake news and whether the upward trend of populism will continue.

John ConwayJunior Editor
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Ivan Rakhmanin for The University Times

Two and a half weeks on from the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the US, Dr Emanuel Coman says that, regardless of ideology and political inclination, the recent developments under the new administration have occurred at an “astonishing pace”.

Coman, who is from Romania and received his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and lectured at the University of Oxford for the last two years, is currently the lecturer for the new Politics and Government of the USA junior sophister module. Coman moved from Oxford last summer after being offered a permanent position in Trinity. However, the result of the Brexit referendum in June definitely “didn’t help my determination to actually stay at Oxford”, he says.

An awareness of and reaction to current events is central to his lectures. At the beginning of each lecture throughout the year, Coman speaks with his class about the events that have occurred in US politics during the previous week, resulting in what he sees as “a more engaging class”. He also expresses how students are “following the news more than I expected”. However, with the unexpected advent of the Trump administration, Coman has had to alter and adjust his module content for Hilary term. For example, Coman has had to remove one of his assigned readings on US social policy relating to the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. The original reading was a link to the White House presentation on the healthcare initiative, but since Trump’s assumption of office, the link is “gone”. He notes, “It sounds like a minor thing, but actually I think it speaks to the new optic of the administration”.

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For Coman, the recent rise of populism “is not a unique phenomenon”, and he points to similar movements in Europe during the 1990s. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the father of current French presidential candidate and leader of Le Front National, Marine Le Pen, managed to get to the run-off election in 2000 but ultimately lost convincingly to Jacques Chirac. What has made the most recent spike in support for far-right, populist policies more impactful is, according to Coman, that these movements have been “more successful in gaining majorities” by “moving towards more mainstream and coming with more pointed messages, in Europe at least”.

For a Briton living in London, his or her neighbourhood obviously has changed from 30 years ago. It’s very difficult to explain to them that it’s impossible to go back to Britain from 30 years ago but political entrepreneurs can actually sell that

Le Pen is the “new face” of this type of populism, according to Coman, as the eurosceptic politician has moved away from the “brute, xenophobic” front of her father to anti-EU and anti-Eurozone policies. “One of her promises is to get France out of the Euro and then put EU membership to a referendum. So she’s way more pragmatic than her father, I would say”.

Coman also thinks that another potential cause of the growth of populism is the ongoing refugee crisis, with many contesting “some decisions” that were taken at EU-level, particularly refugee distribution, as “encroachment into national politics”. The expansion of the EU into eastern Europe has played a role in this too, for Coman. With immigration levels from eastern European countries increasing since expansion, “for a Briton living in London, his or her neighbourhood obviously has changed from 30 years ago”. He adds: “It’s very difficult to explain to them that it’s impossible to go back to Britain from 30 years ago but political entrepreneurs can actually sell that and probably Nigel Farage is the best example of that.”

One issue relevant to this topic, which has become news in itself, is the emergence of so-called “fake news”, which Coman describes as “critical to the rise of populism in general”. However, Coman is unsure if fake news is crucial to deciding one-on-one elections as the impact of such stories is on the respective bases of the left and right, but not particularly on the middle-voters “who are the ones who actually decide elections”.

During the US presidential election, Coman believes that the Trump campaign was “very good at actually controlling the agenda”. As this generation “has less and less of an attention span to news” and is more likely to “just read the titles and just browse through it and get them through our friends” due to habits learned from social media, Coman thinks that it has become easy “to just disregard some important news and be easily moved to something else”, enabling the Trump campaign to consistently alter the news cycle and thus control the agenda.

Coman also believes that the fake news phenomenon is “bigger than you think” and the way that many websites spin real news and make up news stories is “unbelievable”. The source of fake news, however, is “another question”. He cites a Buzzfeed News article from November which revealed that teenagers in a Macedonian village were behind 140 fake news sites, making money from American social media users sharing these fabricated stories online.

“So, I don’t think it’s premeditated by, I don’t know, Russia or whoever you want, but it’s a self-funding business. It’s a really genius business and they keep doing it.”

Things that previously would have been regarded as blunders are just part of the new normal

The rise of “alternative facts” in the Trump administration is also “quite concerning” for Coman. Pointing to Presidential Counsellor Kellyanne Conway’s invention of the Bowling Green Massacre and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s first appearance before the White House press corps, Coman suggests that “things that previously would have been regarded as blunders are just part of the new normal”. This ties in with the policy-making process in Trump’s administration, with Coman thinking that there is “less emphasis on intelligence, on intelligence briefings, on expertise in general” in Trump’s White House, but that “it’s still too early to make a judgment”.

On the future of the Trump administration, Coman says that it is “very hard to tell” where it will end up, but “if he goes at this rate of controversial decisions with low popularity, something’s going to burn”. Coman holds that while Trump will lose support from some Republicans, it is “very unlikely” that the Democrats will take back either the House of Representatives or the Senate for “different reasons”. Regarding a potential impeachment, Coman states that he “would be very reserved about that”. He explains: “As we know, the rules are very clear about what constitutes as reason for impeachment and incompetence is not one of them, let’s put it that way.”

As for the future of populism in general, Coman reasserts that it is “difficult to tell, for sure” and that it will depend on a variety of political, social and economic factors. While “mainstream” political leaders want the popularity of the right “to just go away” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel is up for re-election this September, centrist parties want populism “to be gone”.

Leaving the EU, it’s such an unknown and it’s such a tough process that they may actually not be that eager to get behind the message of leaving the EU or just vote for populists in general

Returning to the refugee crisis, Coman thinks that this will have a strong influence on the lifespan of this particular rise of populism. Positing that if the “waves of refugees” continue to seek refuge in Europe, this will keep providing the far-right with “fodder for xenophobic sentiments”. Coman also identified how the Eurozone and EU will “adapt to new necessities” as another influential factor in whether populism will continue to rise.

Furthermore, how Brexit will materialise will be “very important”. Coman notes that “Brexit actually gave right-wing leaders across Europe some kind of impulse that [leaving the EU] can be done”. “Leaving the EU, it’s such an unknown and it’s such a tough process that they may actually not be that eager to get behind the message of leaving the EU or just vote for populists in general.”

Overall, Coman thinks that support for populism fluctuates over time. While there may not be an apparent end in sight as Trump settles into the Oval Office, recent polls suggest that Le Pen will win the first-round of voting for the French presidency and the Dutch far-right Eurosceptic party Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) are topping opinion polls ahead of this year’s general election, we can take solace in Coman’s assertion that “far-right extremism comes and goes”.

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