Redemption and the Ideological Temptation of Trumpism
It has been but fifty days into the beginning of the new administration, but to foe and friend alike, it most assuredly feels far longer. That, perhaps, is all that is agreeable between the warring sides across the yawning chasm. To Trump partisans, he has kept his promises and remained true to the anti-politician he promised to be, taking it to the mocking elite with a satisfying pugnaciousness. To opponents, he has in essence declared war on nothing less than the Superman trio: truth, justice and the American way. If nothing else, Trump’s ascension can be understood as a national rejoinder to then-Sen. Barack Obama’s seminal 2004 speech that launched his national profile, in which he declared that there is no blue America and no red America, but just one, indivisible United States of America. The early days of the Trump Administration have evaporated the yearning of unifying theory: yes, Virginia, there is a Red and Blue America, glowering at each other sullenly over an impassible and rapidly widening divide. But it is not unity alone that is a battlefield casualty of the political wars. Obama-ism itself, a belief that coolheaded, technocratic assessments of complex problems would act to unify Americans of good character across the political divide around neutralist, center-left policies, has been discarded. But what, precisely, has risen in its place? What is the underlying dogma guiding the new administration? What, ideologically, is Trumpism?
First, we have to reject the knee-jerk and flip answer of “nothing”. It is tempting to read the President as an empty vessel, a dog wagging his tail solely on the basis of the expectation of a pat on the head and nothing more. The deep ocean of ideology, requiring rigorous, and consistent analytical assessment of problems and solutions, is one for the Paul Ryans and Barack Obamas of the world to swim, so it is said; Trump merely rides the current of popular affirmation, clinging close to the shore and disdaining anything which sounds in intellectual uniformity. Supporters view the lacking core as a positive, affirming his status as a transactional deal-maker without the confining straightjacket of required ideals. Conservatives and progressives manifest alarm, meanwhile: conservatives for Trump’s heresies to Randian thought, progressives at his erratic illiberalism. Central to each such assessment is that Trump arrives at an aggregate policy platform like Dr. Frankenstein, sending various Igors into graveyards to assemble positions by choice of popular affirmation rather than philosophical consistency, and amalgamating them into a mismatched monster. Compounding the difficulty is weeding out the actual promulgation of policy from the showman’s manner in which they are delivered, itself an updated and bastardized version of the 60s’ era mantra that the medium is the message.
This belief in inherent emptiness, while understandable, is a serious misread of Trump, and causes outsized reactions. Focused on the man himself, liberals assail Trump as sexist and racist, shutting down further argument once such scarlet letters are applied, pushing Trump supporters to open mental umbrellas to deflect the torrents of perceived condescension. Establishment Republicans, meanwhile embrace Trump, and his administration, as an imperfect vehicle for accomplishing the overarching goal of rejecting liberal bromides and returning the federal government to a more Reaganite setting. Neither believes in Trump as anything other than a mirror in which their own presumptions are reflected.
He isn’t. The aggregate policy position, fitting neatly into no modern category, creates this vertigo. A “big, beautiful” wall on the Mexican border. A total shutdown of Muslim immigration and a stepped-up campaign against illegal immigrants within the country. A return of, in the loaded phrase of days past, “law and order”. Reduced taxes, but increased infrastructure spending. An explicit preservation of Social Security and Medicare, but deep cuts to antipoverty programs. A more isolationist, less moralistic view of foreign affairs, with more positive attributes assigned to revanchist Russia than the European Union. And of course, a return of bygone jobs overtaken by technology and globalization by rejection of free trade. Taken together this platform does not suggest either the Republicans’ smaller government market-based solutions nor the Democrats’ liberal internationalism and progressive taxation. Trumpism does not call for the government to be, in Grover Norquist’s charming phrase, small enough to drown in a bathtub, nor does it aspire to Bernie Sanders’ bromides against billionaire plutocracy.
The platform is real and unified, and his supporters recognize it even as commentators do not. It is not just the bombastic Trumpian style. The thematic thrill of an outsider riding in to fix the desiccated and demoralized is a common trope in literature, but central to the acceptance is that indeed, one believes in the inherent goal of that outsider: a brick smashing a window gathers support for what follows after the glass settles. Hiding in plain sight is that Trumpism actually is a coherent, logical policy platform set within a longer American narrative- and that thusfar, Trump’s slavish devotion to it is manifest. His supporters see it, and support the ideology. We must recognize what it seeks in order to understand the waters in which the ship of state is likely to sail.
Trumpism is not principally a creed seeking traditionally conservative nor liberal end goals, but rather redemption. The guiding light connecting Trumpism’s various policies, none of which fit perfectly into the current boxes of the left/right divide is race, and more specifically, shared historical identity corresponding heavily to racial distinctiveness. It is considered impolitic to point this out, as in the modern parlance, being called a racist is an offense to propriety equivalent to actually being a racist. Yet noting the connection to race is not the same as asserting that the platform itself is racist, nor that those who respond to Trumpist policies positively are themselves consciously racist. Rather, Trumpism is the latest, and first in the modern American age, to create a political philosophy typing a specific subset of Americans as emblematic of a larger national culture, and authoring policies meant to enhance or protect the power of the subset. This ideological approach exploits a divide between traditional conservatism, which offers aspirational goals but little in the way of concrete policy beneficial to the middle and lower classes, and liberalism, whose coalition of coastal pro-finance social liberals and minorities concentrated principally in urban areas seemingly offers little to a large segment of white working class populations which feels increasingly divided from both subgroups.
Trumpist policies speak to white middle and lower class Americans, predominantly Christian, who live in more homogenous, less urban settings, and seeks to cast their struggles, desires, triumphs, and shared memories as the dominant theme of a redeemed American identity. The platform is integrally innovative in formulating a clannish ethno-identity as the basis of an electoral strategy, and yet distinctly, and anachronistically, tribal.
The whites who thrill to Trumpism respond closely to the policy mixture, not just the style of deliverance: they recall the safety and security of bygone industrial America and hope for its resurrection, yet despite recalling these days of self-sufficiency, they require the sustenance of New Deal and Great Society programs to remain solvent today. They further seek to preserve the specific culture, infused by patriarchal Protestantism as the core of the national civilization, to be defended from modern interlopers from south of the border, across the seas, and from the high priestesses in the temples of modernism — the American cities. And they make the assumption that temporal correlation is causation: the final success of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s in opening up political and social nominal equality to minorities occurred exactly as the postwar economy of strong, industrial jobs and high prosperity for middle class whites foundered on the shoals of economic exhaustion. Rising inequality and decline of their own economic standing dovetail perfectly in shared memory with rising taxes, urban riots, crime ridden cities, and increasing visibility for sexual and racial minorities. The time of shared prosperity, culture, and primacy is but a wisp of positive memory, harshly contrasted with today’s all encompassing day to day struggle. Disillusionment with the modern administrative state that has seemingly abandoned them plays a role as well: lower taxes and less foreign adventurism (highlighted by the very personal cost their sons and daughters paid in Iraq and Afghanistan) plays to their current concerns of reasserting control over their own lives within their specific, as opposed to national communities- largesse (which they perceive is at their expense) is rejected in favor of minimalism. They seek both sustenance and renewal, pride and ordering, and above all, elevation. Like whites in the ashes of the Confederacy, Trumpism creates a tribal identity, and promises its adherents the redemption of their lost youth.
None of these policies, taken individually, suggests a specific racist intent to benefit whites at the expense of other American citizens- obviously, minorities benefit no less than whites from preserving Social Security or the return of industrial jobs. Yet the marriage of a less restrained federal government to an ethos of redemption is a new platform with the American system. With an ear tuned to muttered disgust, Trump and his advisors realized that while masses of whites across the country have not retained the economic or social primacy of halcyon days past, the tribal pride remains. When pride and reality clash, anxiety and anger dig for the surface, ready to be twisted by a talented grifter heeding the weary rage which is all that remains.
If the American economy were a patient, even Republicans would clamor for its immediate access to health care. What was once the prime driver of American power and the American dream–steady employment for white men between ages 25 and 54–has fallen into an unbridgeable chasm, with deleterious effects for the body politic. Median income for white families remains significantly higher than for African-American or Hispanic families, and by a similar percentage as each year going back to the 1960s. But all median income has fallen from its 2000 height, meaning all racial groups have suffered similarly from the widening gap in income inequality that has become a permanent fixture in the American economic landscape.
Yet those who had achieved the heights feel the fall most harshly. Whites, perhaps, have been more optimistic in the American Dream their ancestors lived (and denied to others), making its demise all the more painful. Accelerating the descent into anxiety and curdling it into anger is the widespread belief that minorities are not struggling as whites are, no matter the macroeconomic data. The author Arlie Russell Hochschild’s recent study of Louisiana found a “line-cutting” mentality dominated struggling whites: that they waited patiently in line, played by the rules, and were cut in line by undeserving minorities and immigrants receiving welfare, food stamps, and affirmative action. (Left unsaid is that these whites used to be the only ones in line at all). Against this conceit reality is but a noodle slapping against the steel door of motivated reasoning. The zero-sum belief in the struggles for the scraps of the American welfare state sets tribes against each other in search of the scarcity of sustenance: more than eight in ten Trump supporters in a mid-2016 poll believed that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against other racial and ethnic groups, with a similar number agreeing that discrimination against Christians is a serious problem.
This cultural soil was bound to bear bitter fruit. Into the cavernous void where zero-sum economic stagnation met a sense of mounting social grievance stepped competing set of policies tailor made to exploit legitimate and illegitimate frustration alike. The alternative philosophies which captivated interest in 2016 were the Sanders populism of proto-New Dealism, and Trump’s catalog of tribal policies, offering redemption for whites believing the federal government was fit only to demean and place burdens on downmobile whites. Trumpism triumphed among so-called swing white voters because the predicate for New Dealism is the inherent faith that the federal government will deal fairly with all its citizens. Lacking that faith and adopting the politics of scarcity, hordes of white voters resorted to a brotherhood of tribalism and sought sustenance in homogeny. Between Sandersism and Trumpism, the federal government itself was on trial in 2016, and the voters chose the vision of the past which assigned less beneficial effects to federal government potency. That is not the same as saying that voters believed, a la Ronald Reagan, that the federal government is not the answer, but the problem: Trumpism merely attempts to point the hose of alleged governmental largesse at different recipients. It is the politics of utilizing–not rejecting–state power in hopes of redemption of a lost era for those who recall the era fondly, adopting the regional and personal concerns of a racially and religiously homogeneous set of the population as the drivers of national policy.
Suffice it to say that this is not conservatism in any recognizable form. There is nothing, after all, classically conservative about a trillion dollar infrastructure policy, a $25 billion Game of Thrones-esqe wall, and a military buildup, all unpaid for by tax receipts. But surely there is something purely tribal in preserving Social Security and Medicare, beloved of the white working class as due and earned, and slashing the anti-poverty programs cherished by coastal liberals and utilized by the poor as a lifeline. The perception of minorities suckling as the wounded teat of hard-working whites, while partying by night and lazing by day at that, occupies as outsized a space in the perceptions of Trumpist voters as welfare queens did for their fathers before them. That perception was not unnoticed: Trump’s first budget, after all, dramatically slashes funds for means tested social programs while leaving intact the infinitely bigger and more expensive entitlements. Trumpist economics don’t fit a recent American archtype — but they look awfully familiar to the far-right policies prompted by their elder brothers in Europe. Front National, the French nativist party founded by Jean Marie Le Pen, promotes what scholars refer to as “welfare chauvinism,” whereby the right wing supports the benefits of the welfare state while arguing for its restriction to native born (i.e., mainly white) residents, to the exclusion of immigrants.
If we are generous to the policy creators, the guiding assumption is that what is good for those seeking such redemptive politics is good for all Americans, regardless of race. But such an assumption wears historical blinders. Given the struggles of minorities in the pre-civil rights era and beyond, the redemptive focus acts as an exclusionary agent for those whose historical memories are not of greatness, but of injustice and hardship. Minorities full well understand that the “Again” of Make America Great again is largely understood as a time of greatness for thee, but most assuredly not me. In this, Trump merely accelerates the schism that has been growing for decades. In 1996, then-Sen. Bob Dole made an explicit appeal to redemption, asking in his acceptance speech to “Let me be the bridge to an America that only the unknowing call myth. Let me be the bridge to a time of tranquility, faith and confidence in action.” But times of tranquility to some were times of timorous subjugation and rising turmoil to others. The bridge Trump acolytes instinctively remember may be the Verrazano-Narrows, completed with American labor in 1964, not the Edmund Pettis, stained with American blood in 1965.
Perceptions of decline concentrate the mind on tribal resurgence and recoil from a sense of communal aspiration. The struggles of white America, particularly non-college educated white America, weigh heavily in answering why Trumpism appealed so strongly; not for nothing was “Coming Apart” the poignant title of Charles Murray’s study of White America over the past half-century. The white middle class is not just coming apart economically, but physically and mentally. A late 2015 report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that middle-aged, white Americans have been getting sicker and dying in greater numbers over the past half-century, even as the rest of American society is living longer and healthier. The effect is not solely based on access to healthcare: although middle class whites remained economically stronger than middle class minorities, minority death rates continued to decline. The deaths of middle class whites are deaths of despair, suicides and drugs leading the way, the expected promise of America crushed under the spokes of modern red clawed economics and haunted by unquenchable anxiety for the future in a whirlwind world. The trend was most prominent in seven states- West Virginia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and Arkansas. Trump won all of them easily. Despair, isolation, and economic terror make communities fearful, and in that fear, receptivity to tribal solutions to solve intractable problems increases dramatically.
If you fish with bait tastiest to downmobile whites, that is precisely what you will catch. Sure enough, Trumpism found its surest footing among whites who found the package of policies spoke to their fears, desires, and needs on a tribal level. White voters without a college degree split their votes roughly equally between parties as recently as 1996. By 2016, they voted for Trump 67–28%, a far greater split than offered to Mitt Romney or John McCain, both of whom cleaved to traditional Republican conservatism, with any appeal to working class whites heavily coded at best. Whites with a college degree went for Trump no differently than they did for McCain. Even Evangelicals, expected to resist a thrice-married libertine vulgarian, broke for Trump at a rate of 80%. Whatever their beliefs in the metaphysical, here on earth they were even more likely than their secular brothers and sisters to vote tribally. Identity as an American of a certain socioeconomic and racial community was more potent than the Bible; Trumpism trumped the Sermon on the Mount.
What Trumpism offered its recipients was and is a set of policies meant to psychologically, if not physically, ameliorate the obvious educational handicap in the new economy, while simultaneously bringing them into an in-group based on tribal loyalty, highlighted by reinforcing fears of non-tribal members. This is a cohesive ideology, whatever one thinks of it, and Trump has not been shy about asserting it: his RNC acceptance speech declaring “I am your voice” presaged his inauguration speech broadcasting that ideology in stark muted colors. That address was targeted at the “forgotten men and women of our country [who] will be forgotten no longer”, spoken in the context of blighted towns and factory closings. It is an appeal not to minorities, who have seen progress over the past few decades, nor immigrants seeking the sunny shores of burgeoning opportunity, but to white Americans who face a future in an economically anxious, sundry nation decidedly more insecure and diverse than the one they recall.
One might ask, in short, “So what?” The government has favored minorities before in specific policy platforms, has it not? Maybe it’s time to re-elevate the American middle class Protestant white. Yet the artificial elevation of one tribe, particularly one historically dominant within the country’s power structure, by deliberate policy threatens an obvious turbulence in the social compact. Tribes, if prompted, will perceive themselves as the defining center of even a nation as polyglot as ours, and the reaffirmation of dominance carries with it a less rosy result. Policies to uplift minorities to the level of whites generally seek equality by aspiration upwards- a hand up, rather than a slap down, even if unartfully crafted at times. The promise of walls, incarceration, torture, and religious bans is a policy not of aspiration but degradation- the politics of fear, of stepping on the shoulders of another to reach the surface, not aspiring upward in collective bonds of citizenship.
It has been well reported that Trump voters, like Clinton voters, believe that average Americans have gotten less than they deserve; but while Clinton voters respond similarly to the question of whether African Americans have gotten less than they deserve, only 12% of Trump voters, as against 64% who believed all Americans were being shortchanged, agreed. The dark underbelly of redemptive politics is perceived purity for the struggles of the in-group and a lack of sympathy for those on the outside; white struggles are macroeconomic, minority struggles are personal failings. In this the voters are both driving and responding to the ideology in implicit conversation; contrast the Administration’s silent response to real white terror against non-tribal members, in both Montreal and now Kansas, with the furious condemnation of fictitious terror attacks against tribal members in Bowling Green, Atlanta, and Sweden–fictitious terror attacks that Trump voters by a majority believed justified the travel ban policy underlying the original tribal appeal in the first place. Signaling is a key part of reaffirming tribal relationships: not for nothing was the so-called Muslim ban, which Trump and his surrogate Rudolph Giuliani almost boastfully stated was intended to show distaste for the religion itself, the first significant executive order signed. Trumpist voters no doubt noted that “religious minorities” — e.g. Christians — were exempted from the ban. While Constitutionally flawed, the ham-handed method of favoring overtly the religion of its most devoted adherents was a feature, and not a bug, of Trumpist immigration policy.
It is easy to simply write this off as pure racism, and the media has been happy to oblige. What is underreported, however, and key to understanding the ideological temptation of Trumpism, is the degree to which Trump voters are segregated from the multiethnic areas of the country. The most important study of Trump voters during the 2016 campaign was barely noticed in conventional literature, but it explained the ethnonationalist core of Trumpism in stark terms. Gallup’s November 2, 2016 working paper entitled “Explaining Nationalist Political Views: The Case of Donald Trump” revealed that Trump supporters were not economically stressed compared to the average American (and in fact, had a higher median income than likely Clinton voters), nor were they disproportionally directly harmed economically by global competition or immigrant workers. What they were, however, was
disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated zip codes and commuting zones. Holding other factors, constant support for Trump is highly elevated in areas with few college graduates and in neighborhoods that standout within the larger commuting zone for being white, segregated enclaves, with little exposure to blacks, Asians, and Hispanics.
Of the 100 most populous US counties, Trump only won 12. The common way to interpret the dichotomy is a city/rural divide. The other, less noted, is that cities being more heterogenous, Trumpism found its most devoted acolytes in the most homogenous racial and cultural swaths of the nation.
Believing in a mixture of policy positions crafted to speak directly to your experience is easier if you simply have no knowledge of the counter-experience of others within the larger polity—if you reside entirely in bubbles, in the contemporary word of choice. Those Louisiana voters studied by Hochschild do not see the struggles of their minority brethren, have no idea that American generosity in food stamps and welfare for all, not just whites, have ossified and cracked under decades of relentless conservative bromides. Writ large, the problem emerges with clarity: we have become so separated that tens of millions can see only what is directly in front of them, and hence become easily led by unscrupulous so-called leaders peddling a vision of unworthy, duskier others sitting easily in the sunlit uplands of federal generosity. Disenthralling the marginalized from the mental castles of unfamiliarity that separate them from the roiling distemper across racial and class lines is the only way to break the grip of Trumpism. Until then, we must recognize the power of the carefully crafted ideology, and face a stark realization: Trump did not triumph in spite of his most outlandish policy prescriptions. He triumphed because of them, and presumably, his supporters will seek his deliverance of the full flower of Trumpism. But this harvest cannot bear sustenance for all: tribal solutions tear at the American Creed of equality and union. If we do not recognize the danger of the ideology, it will not just be white America which is coming apart- it will be, and is, the national compact itself.