Sunday, January 29, 2017

Nine days in: a sketch of Trumpism


I. Trumpism as a Style of Politics
            Donald Trump won the Republican primaries by distinguishing himself sharply from more conventional contenders. How much his November victory relied on his distinctive political style, as opposed to his simply managing not to lose control of the Republican electorate, is not the question of this paper; it is enough to say that his success ratified his style and brought it to the very center of national politics.

            What is that style? To summarize, it relies on open irrationalism and indifference to fact, an ethno-nationalist version of the nation that puts a friend-enemy distinction at the heart of politics, a derogatory and belligerent manner that plays on misogyny and other forms of bigotry, and a fantastical image of what it means to understand or act in politics. There is a certain inadequacy in a laundry-list of particulars, as the distinctiveness of Trumpist politics can seem (and seems to me) greater than the sum of its parts. With that caveat stated, here is a list to get us started.

            A. The Characteristics of Trumpism
            1. The Eclipse of Constitutionalism
A quite specific (and possibly parochial) but, I think, telling point to begin: in the course of his campaign, Trump scarcely talked about the Constitution. Not all candidates do, of course; Bernie Sanders, the other signal insurgent of 2016, did not much.[1] But there is a standard lexicon of American political rhetoric that centers on the idea of constitutional community, the speaker’s preferred versions of liberty and equality, and (not identical but snugly integrated into these), a narrative of American history that vindicates these nation-defining principles in a more or less straightforward fashion.[2] Ted Cruz, who came as close as any opponent to stopping Trump in the primaries, makes for an instructive contrast. Cruz’s stump speech was a paean to First Amendment religious liberty, set within a familiar story of rag-tag colonists, an emancipating Civil War, and Ronald Reagan’s restoration of constitutional balance. In these respects, Cruz’s speeches presented held up a right-wing mirror to Barack Obama’s center-left Lincolnian rendition of the same themes, which emphasize the need for recurrent, cumulative redemption of principles of liberty and equality that have often been betrayed.[3] As this pairing suggests, the language of constitutionalism is in no way politically neutral (whatever that might mean). Rather, as a mode of persuasion it invokes a substantive version of political community, amplified by the claim to transcend partisanship, aiming at an intimate form of intellectual coercion by its appeal to identity: if you do not side with me, you are not really (normatively speaking) an American, not who you say you are.[4] Nonetheless, it does in some way call people together, or, perhaps better put, assume a commonality that then has to be further built out of contest & struggle, but locates that struggle within the premise of an under-specified, constitutive commonality. Trump broke with the most familiar practice of American political rhetoric, the constitutional language that braids every partisan assertion with a symmetrical insistence on the defining, abiding commonality of American identity. (A skeptic might contend that abandoning these forms of constitutional rhetoric advantaged Trump precisely because of widespread recognition that they are in fact partisan codes.[5] Maybe so.)

2. The Politics of Friends and Enemies
Trump’s rhetorical departure from American political convention chimes with a second signature of his style, marking divisions within the political community with the language of “friends” and “enemies” (and rather profligately deploying the same language at the borders of territory and citizenship as well). It was remarkable when Trump tweeted ironic New Year greetings to “my enemies” at the end of 2016, but it was also a vivid instance of a pattern. Notoriously, he threatened to put his general election opponent Hillary Clinton, in prison after the campaign (and then won points for magnanimity when he withdrew this astonishing provocation). In January of 2016, he told students at evangelical Liberty University that Christians suffer from insufficient tribalism: “We don’t band together, frankly. Other religions, they do. We’ve gotta band together around Christianity. We’ve gotta protect [sic] because bad things are happening.”[6] These contrasts were crystallized in an extraordinary pronouncement at a May 2016 rally: “The important thing is the unification of the people, and all the other people don’t matter.” This sentence has become key evidence in political theorist Jan-Werner Mueller’s argument that Trump’s populism shares with that of the new European right a twisting of popular sovereignty that identifies the normative “people” with a subset of the actually existing people - a subset that may be identified racially, linguistically, religiously, ethically, or through a series of slippages among these. The emphasis on slippages strikes me as providing the best characterization: the internal enemy will always be, in one specification, the indisputably bad or dangerous person - the rapist, to take a notorious example - but the category will soon expand to include the “Mexican” generally, or the political opponent, or whichever group the speaker wishes to mobilize sentiment against. Another representative move in this respect was Trump’s tweeted proposal after his victory that people who burn the United States flag should be stripped of citizenship; everyone from George H.W. Bush to Hillary Clinton has taken advantage of Supreme Court precedent to propose consequence-free criminalization of flag-burning, but it was emblematic of Trump’s political style to go further and propose expulsion from the political community.

3. Aggression and Love
There is an emotional corollary to this friend-enemy political rhetoric. Trumpism is also marked by personalized aggression as a style of political confrontation: personalized toward opponents, such as Trump’s demeaned and unmanned primary opponents, and in his nakedly misogynistic attacks on Hillary Clinton and his tweet attacking Indiana union leader Chuck Jones, who had criticized him during the Carrier factory controversy there; and personalized in the attacker as a style of self-presentation that is his signature. Trump offsets this aggressiveness with pronouncements of “love” - for his audience especially, but also for worthy members of whatever nationality or other group he has just attacked.[7] “We’re going,” he promised a North Carolina audience in October, 2016, responding to new charges of sexually inappropriate conduct, “to be a unified nation, a nation of love.”[8] The rawness of the emotional assertion, oscillating between incipiently violent and embracing, is arresting. I am tempted to call it political emotion unsublimated.

            4. An Ethno-national Polity
Trump’s friend-enemy contrast and personalized emotional rawness blend easily into another characteristic of his political style, an ethno-national and/or religious picture of national community. To be sure, he reliably falls back on assurances that he embraces law-abiding immigrants (and all Americans), and his electoral support among some immigrant communities indicates that plenty of people take those declarations seriously. But Trump is also the candidate who called repeatedly for a blanket ban on Muslim admission to the country, invoked an explicitly Christian “we” in a call for intensified tribal solidarity, and moved without any simulacrum of a logical transition from grim images of undocumented criminals to the suggestion that a descendant of Mexican-American immigrants could not fairly adjudicate a case involving Trump. Trump’s racially and nationally selective friend-enemy language must be taken, too, in light of the views of his chief political strategist, Stephen Bannon, who argues for a “global Tea Party” of middle-class nationalist movements, explicitly invoking affinities with Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharartiya Janata Party, Marine le Pen’s National Front, and the advocates of Brexit - each in its way an exclusionary consolidation of national identity in contrast to a religious and/or racial other.[9] There is a certain coherence between Trump’s indifference to constitutional versions of national unity and his embrace of versions built of “the people” that are partial and exclusionary. It is as if the ethno-national version of shared identity filled the space previously occupied by the constitutional one.[10]

5. The Political Agency of the First-person Shooter
Trumpism is also marked by a bizarre form of hyper-individualism in its approach to political knowledge, judgment, and action. Trump’s famous “I alone” boast of his unique power to change a compromised political and economic system, uttered during the Republican National Convention, expressed an image of how political action happens that has been recurrent in his campaign: a pumped-up great-man image in which one special person, acting with force and decision, rips away institutional barriers and other constraints. This is “strong-man” politics not just in the sense of favoring a swaggerer and braggart as a candidate, but a vision of what politics is, and how one makes things happen in that medium.

This hyper-individualist image extends from political action to political knowledge. It is emblematic that Trump began the current version of his political career purveying the claim that Barack Obama was born outside the United States and was therefore constitutionally ineligible for the presidency. And he concluded his presidential campaign with a two-minute television ad accusing Hillary Clinton and her Democratic allies of “secret meetings” to “undermine American sovereignty,” the stock-in-trade of right-wing conspiracy thinking in this country since opposition to the League of Nations, if not since the French Revolution scare of the 1790s. (The latter contributed to the Federalist Congress’s passing the Alien Act, an early instance of ideological xenophobia.) In between, Trump almost gratuitously suggested that primary opponent Ted Cruz’s father had been connected with Lee Harvey Oswald, John F. Kennedy’s assassin, a National Enquirer-worthy claim premised on an old photograph of someone who might have resembled the senior Cruz.

Both strongman imagery, which Trump takes to a comic-book super-hero pitch, and conspiracy theory are basically forms of fantasy. The fantasy is that one’s own powers could press back the opacity and resistance of the political world, revealing patterns hidden to others and grabbing levers of effective action. Trumpism appeals, evidently, to people who find this fantasy charismatic rather than ridiculous, who would like to identify themselves with it even if they do not quite believe they can embody it. If I may speculate, it seems plausible that such a view appeals to people who experience the world’s obstacles as obdurate and opaque, and nonetheless have a sense of themselves as meant to enjoy mastery over it, or at least feel frustration rather than resignation at lacking that mastery.

6. Irrationalism and Emotion
The indulgence of conspiratorial thinking and fantastical images of political agency, which I have suggested might be in part a form of compensation for despair of affecting or even understanding politics in ordinary ways, can serve as synecdoche for a larger pattern in Trumpist politics: an abandonment of even the appearance of adhering to canons of empirical fallibilism, consistency in assertion of fact, rationality linking one’s assertions, and the openness to challenge and disagreement that are implied by taking these standards seriously.[11] It is important, of course, not to make this contrast with pre-Trumpist politics too categorical or self-congratulatory. It is almost too banal to say that political speech is always instrumental and always aims partly at manipulation of feeling. Nonetheless, there is something arresting in the degree of Trump’s defiance of the normative canons of public argument, from shifting sands and disappearing streams of his syntax to the casual reversal of factual assertions and indifference to evidence in favor of the intuition of the moment. The consequence is a switch in the goal of political speech from persuasion to emotional trigger, from an invitation to believe what is proffered to permission to feel something - often, as in the case of deliberate violations of “political correctness,” something Trump’s supporters may believe they are otherwise prohibited from feeling.

7. Hyperbole, Irony, and Deniability
Trumpist politics is hyperbolic. Its hyperbole, however, relies on a quite different quality that complements it. This is a self-aware, even halfway ironic understanding of political utterance as a kind of performance, deliberately overwrought for effect, and to be indulged because it is, after all, performance. Here it feels pertinent that Trump has been, among other things, a promoter of professional wrestling - a vulgar-operatic exercise in friend-enemy hyperbole par excellence. If it has become cliché that politics is merged in a series of ways with entertainment, the introduction to politics of this genre of entertainment is at least worth noting. Part of the point of professional wrestling, after all, is that taking it in any way literally would be a sure sign of failing to understand it. Even as audiences at Trump’s campaign speeches were invited to feel that the country was in “disaster” and that the candidate would soon set everything right, there was another sense in which they were in on the joke of a performance whose key elements included the appeal of the overwrought, the quick conjuring of extreme emotions, but with the ready antidote of the self-checking shrug, the stock line. (“Not going to happen. Not going to happen.”) The genius of the observation that Trump’s supporters took him seriously but not literally was that the element of performance kept up the option of disowning the entailments of what the candidate said. A menacing or inflammatory statement might be, from one instant to the next, or even in the same moment, the sort of thing everyone must take seriously and the sort of thing one knows better than to take seriously. This rhetorical manner is crystallized in the familiar double move of provocative breaches of “political correctness,” which Trump’s supporters often called a major part of his appeal: one the one hand, the Trumpist urges, the dangers of liberal thought control are urgent truths that honest people ignore at their peril and dishonest elites labor to conceal; on the other hand, what, brah, can’t handle a joke?[12]

            B. A Trumpist Worldview: Threat, Identity, and Legitimacy
I now want to attempt a general interpretation of Trumpist politics, focused on two connected parts: the picture of the world in which this style of leadership purportedly makes sense and the sorts of claims to legitimacy that Trumpist politics makes. I argued near the beginning of the first Obama administration that presidential rhetoric across eras of American politics portrayed the nature of political community, its defining capacities, threats, and tasks, in ways that tended to justify one mode of governance or another.[13] For instance, between Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson (with some continuity into Richard Nixon), it was a characteristic presidential refrain that complex economic and social life would overwhelm individual agency without the counter-force of a strong regulatory state. Ronald Reagan perfected a reversal of this mode, in which the site of effective agency moved to individual initiative and community-level cooperation, and the image of the market economy switched from alien, opaque, and potentially threatening force to homelike nexus of mutually beneficial collaboration. Bill Clinton adjusted the register, with a bit more emphasis on community and a bit less on the market, but kept the basic picture. For another example, consider the Lincolnian narration of American history as a long struggle to redeem elemental but compromised principles of equal liberty, which Barack Obama perfected in a tradition that runs through Martin Luther King, Jr., in contrast to a Goldwater-Reagan line of historical interpretation in which redemption would be superfluous because the country has been, with some wrinkles, right from the start.[14]

Judged by the history of American presidential rhetoric, Trumpist politics is singular in its portrayal of country as besieged at every point, its ordinary inhabitants under threat from (to take a few stock examples from his speeches) criminal immigrants, terrorists admitted as refugees or allowed across porous borders, violent criminals escaped from prisons, and residents of their own dysfunctional neighborhoods. A typical Trumpist name-check of the Second Amendment ignores the doughty armed patriots of a Ted Cruz speech in favor of a frightened couple with “a gun on every table, they’re so afraid” of roving criminals.[15] Absent from his speeches are Ronald Reagan’s Springsteen-appropriating, Whitman-hinting images of steelworkers and farmers whose work is the strong and healthy heart of America. Trump portrays a country traduced and abandoned by its elites, infiltrated by enemies and domestic rot, and in need of strong defense. Not since Woodrow Wilson gave the first inaugural address to describe the lives of women and children, factory workers and dwellers in urban slums, whom he called on a strong government to protect from savage market forces, has a president portrayed Americans as so pervasively victimized and essentially vulnerable. Wilson’s portrait, however, was of social vulnerability created by an order of economic power, which needed a counter-order of political regulation to mitigate it. Trump’s is of infiltrating invasion and moral rot, in need of a strong leader to defend its good elements against the bad, the truly national against the literally or figuratively alien.

            It is also a zero-sum world, in which the purpose of “deals” and strong leadership, particularly in the international realm, is to take a larger share for one’s own people, at the expense of others. A recurrent theme of Trump’s accusation that political elites has disserved and abandoned Americans was this zero-sum image of trade deals and other international accords, in which the premise was that one side must always be left short - frequently ripped off - and the goal was to be on the winning side. “We will bring back our wealth and bring back our dreams,” which had been “redistributed around the world” by disloyal elites, he explained in his hyper-nationalist inaugural address, whose slogan was “America first!”[16] This is, of course, a dramatic rejection of Barack Obama’s theme of globalist reciprocity in trade and political cooperation. More basically, it is an imaginary political economy in which the themes of tribalism and friend-enemy contrast make an inevitable, pseudo-empirical kind of sense. The image is of a country in crisis, set within a world tending to crisis by virtue of its perennial and inevitable qualities of tribalism and zero-sum distribution.

            In this world, presidential leadership serves the following role: to serve as uniquely powerful and effective individual tribune of “Americans,” defined normatively as those who are on the right side of the friend-enemy distinction, who are loyal to the proper vision of the country, who participate in the version of “unity” and “solidarity” that Trump defined as the keys to national identity in his inaugural address. The basis of legitimacy here is the virtual representation, in the person of the president, of a country whose membership is nominally all-inclusive is also recurrently defined with reference to ethno-national, religious, ideological, and ethical lines of authenticity, loyalty, and desert. Substantive alignment with a tendentiously partial version of American identity, expressed aggressively, and powered by the sentiment of belonging (and of rejecting what does not belong) forms the basis of the right to rule.  


[1] I have argued elsewhere that Sanders’s relative lack of interest in constitutional framings for his egalitarian claims reflected his attachment to, and revival of, a version of left politics for which American identity is not especially central, an approach that Aziz Rana argues has been little seen since the early twentieth century. [Purdy, Atlantic essay; Rana, intro to current book manuscript]
[2] Jeff Tulis on presidential rhetoric; Purdy, Presidential Popular Constitutionalism; Rana on “creedal” rhetoric.
[3] Rana’s superb treatment of this; maybe my Guardian pieces from back then.
[4] Siegel, Post
[5] Pozen, Constitutional Bad Faith.
[6] Speech details.
[7] For instance, a relatively scripted and disciplined speech on immigration, delivered in Phoeniz, Arizona on August 31, 2016, included the following: “I love the people of Arizona”; “I am a man who loves my country”; Mexico’s president is “a man who truly loves his country”; Trump’s opposition to immigration is mitigated by “my love for the people of Mexico”; “our right as a sovereign nation to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish and love us”; “to make sure that those we are admitting to our country share our values and love our people”; and “I love you.” http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-donald-trump-immigration-speech-transcript-20160831-snap-htmlstory.html
[9] Bannon’s Vatican speech.
[10] As Aziz Rana points out, constitutional conceptions of political community were relatively unimportant for Progressives of the Teddy Roosevelt era, who were attached to an ethno-national understanding the United States as connected with England and other Anglo-Saxon settler colonies, such as Australia and South Africa.
[11] I have in mind, of course, Jurgen Habermas’s reconstruction of communicative practice in his discourse ethics, especially Volume Two of the Theory of Communicative Action.
[12] Other features of Trumpist politics stand out, of course: One is the casual attitude to the blending of public power and private wealth and influence, the familist inner circle. The familist blending of public and private authority and advantage resonates with a larger sense of the bending or breaking of form-giving limits on the pursuit and exercise of power.
[13] Purdy, Presidential Popular Constitutionalism
[14] One half of this account in Aziz Rana’s essays on constitutional redemption in Obama’s politics.
[15] [Cite to the speech in which he said this.]
[16] Inaugural address.

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