The last few months have witnessed the appearance of a burgeoning cottage industry of take-writing about the rise and appeal of Donald J. Trump. In her latest post, Rachel Held Evans has voiced her opinion: Trump’s appeal among evangelicals is down to racism, xenophobia, celebrity worship, and his promise of power to supporters.
This is reassuring for any comfortable middle-class progressive Episcopalians who might momentarily have been afflicted by the nagging thought that Trump’s strong appeal among the white working class and its sizeable constituency of evangelicals might owe something to an unfair marginalization, rejection, and pathologization of valid concerns of that class by those of us who don’t belong to it. Well, crisis averted: It turns out that our prejudices about white working class voters were justified all along.
By vocally articulating our opposition to Trump supporters and confessing our white privilege—those uneducated white working class evangelical rubes just don’t get it!—we can now demonstrate our virtue to others within our social class on social media and tut-tut about how stupid, evil, deluded, and backward wide swathes of our Trump-supporting compatriots and coreligionists are.
The above has an element of caricature to it, of course, but the subject of the caricature is recognizable—many of us, myself included, have borne more than a passing resemblance to it on occasions. In exaggerating some unattractive features to the point where they firmly register in our consciousness, my hope is that we will start to be more suspicious of the reassuring and self-obliging lies that we tell ourselves about other people in order to feel better about ourselves. I highly doubt that the truth so readily underwrites our prejudices and sense of moral superiority.
What, then, are some alternative reasons for Trump’s appeal? The following are a few suggestions, suggestions that flatter neither Trump’s supporters nor most of us who oppose him.
Trump’s brilliance as a communicator is widely under-recognized, but a select few pieces on him have brought this aspect of his appeal to the fore (Justin Taylor highlighted a couple of these in a recent post). Some might consider it strange that Trump could be seen in such a way: His speeches so consistently feel disjointed, clumsily phrased, lacking in substance, jolting from one gaffe to another.
Yet this is to judge Trump according to a standard to which he is not seeking to conform. Trump is not attempting to speak the hedging and slippery language of the professional politician, which reeks of disingenuousness to the general public, but the language of a master of influence and persuasion. Trump speaks the language of business, advertising, and sales. He uses simple and emotionally powerful words, he paints bold images, he makes masterfully effective impressions while his opponents stumble to make arguments, he uses calculated vagueness, etc. Many modern politicians attempt to patch such language onto their arguments, but it is Trump’s natural tongue and he is peerless at using it. Trump is selling feelings, not facts.
The power of arguments to persuade people is greatly overestimated. People—perhaps especially people raised on TV—are more accustomed to persuasion through the disjointed emotional impressions of advertising than they are to persuasion through the logical progression of a carefully crafted and sustained argument. Trump is perfectly at home with such language of persuasion. Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) discusses Trump’s incredible talent as a communicator in this video. Trump can even take some of the most difficult questions and turn them to his advantage through such techniques as anchoring or linguistic judo, where the force of a challenging question is turned against it and it is left lacking even the strength accorded to a contrary opinion.
Trump’s version of dominance politics has real appeal to many voters.
Josh Marshall recently commented on Trump’s brand of dominance politics. Trump’s attacks upon his opponents serve to make them look weak and him look strong by comparison. Calling Jeb Bush ‘low-energy’, for instance, was a genius insult. With this insult Trump deployed an anchoring effect to set his own standard against which Bush’s later performances will be gauged, a standard that hurts Bush whichever way he goes. Likewise, calling someone like Ben Carson ‘nice’ is a perfect way to nudge his hearers gently to dismiss the man: Nice guys are inoffensive, but they are bland and not real contenders. The media conversation is also all about Trump because Trump has dominated, outwitted, and surprised everyone: the media, those running against him, people on the other side of the political aisle, even liberal Brits and the UK parliament.
The dominance that Trump is showing over everyone else at the moment appeals to those who value a president who is a bold and aggressive figurehead, projecting American strength to the rest of the world, over an ideologue or a policy wonk. As the American government appears weaker to the rest of the world nowadays—and international perceptions of Obama would seem to be part of that—it is unsurprising that many of the public want someone like Trump to deal with countries like China, Iran, and Russia.
When people claim that Trump’s overblown yet touchy ego is a sign of his weakness, I suspect that they don’t understand the sort of game Trump is playing. Trump is a perfect exemplar of ‘honour culture’, a culture within which people must earn and protect their reputation. Taking offence in an honour culture is a way of expressing power and dominance; weak men can’t afford to take offence, but strong men must be treated with the most exacting honour and respect or there will be payback. Honour culture prevails in contexts where people need to stick up for themselves and there aren’t reliable third party channels to handle disputes. Anyone who has watched wrestling or has the vaguest familiarity with rap culture should know the sort of world that Trump’s politics come from. Honour culture is also the prevailing culture of the working class and—don’t be fooled by his money—Donald J. Trump is a working class guy through and through.
By contrast, most of Trump’s opponents are political class people from a culture of dignity, where individuals are expected to take smaller slights and deal with larger offences through the involvement of third parties. In a context of stable institutions to deal with offences, one no longer needs to rest upon one’s reputation for strength. Alongside this dignity culture, there is a rapidly rising ‘victimhood culture’, where a sensitivity to the smallest slight (like honour culture) is coupled with an extreme dependence upon third parties (radically unlike honour culture), encouraging officious and censorious bodies that manage all interactions. Such victimhood culture thrives in such places as college campuses or online social media where there are many ways such recourse can be made. To honour culture people, dignity culture individuals, with their typical incapacity to stick up for themselves against those who attack their honour will appear weak (although at least they can ‘take it’); victimhood culture people, with their ‘running to mummy’ manner of dealing with conflict and challenge will appear even weaker (neither able to ‘give it’ or ‘take it’).
Honour culture people also probably see something real about the weakness of dignity culture politicians. Such politicians may work well in the context of Washington DC’s dignity culture, where there are third parties to resolve and moderate their disputes. However, international politics and foreign relations requires an ability to operate in a highly agonistic honour culture. In the world of foreign relations there isn’t a robust structure of third party institutions to appeal to. You must demonstrate strength and dignity culture politicians like President Obama aren’t great at doing this, making America itself look and act weak as a result. The slights experienced by a nation that isn’t accorded respect by its enemies will be taken more to heart by honour culture people, who will typically desire leaders who won’t lightly stand for such treatment.
One point that is repeatedly referenced among Trump supporters is Trump’s ‘honesty’ or ‘authenticity’. The connection of these two terms is important: Trump’s ‘honesty’ is not the accuracy and truthfulness with which he speaks of the world, but the unfeigned manner in which he dispenses his wild opinions and expresses himself. Trump’s bluster and willingness to say things no other politician would say wins him lots of support. Trump isn’t limited by political correctness: He tells it as he sees it. Trump may be full of bullshit, but, in contrast to the other politicians on the stage, Trump’s is authentic bullshit!
Trump is never pretending to be anyone other than Trump, which is what our regnant cultural value of authenticity is all about. This is the politics of personality, rather than the politics of character. In the politics of personality, candidates for high office are judged less on how well they conform to external standards of behaviour, but on how effective they are in tearing up the rulebook and making up their own rules as they go along. Trump’s personal brand enables him to do things that other candidates can not.
The American white working class—to which a disproportionate number of evangelicals belong—are well aware that they are hated and pathologized by upper middle class coastal liberals, who dominate key institutions in American life. They are branded with the stigma of racism, xenophobia, backwardness, and unprogressive attitudes. Liberals and progressives try to force enlightened thought upon them in a patronizing, officious, or censorious manner, and often despise, ridicule, and want to freeze their voices out of public life. For such people Trump represents resistance to their pathologization and marginalization. Trump is prepared to stand with them in being despised, hated, and pathologized by the establishment, speaking on their behalf. As people rush to write think-pieces demonizing Trump and his supporters and to demonstrate their fittingly enlightened sensibilities against the caricatured foil of the vicious racism, misogyny, and xenophobia of the white working class, it only makes the scapegoat status of the American white working class more apparent. No matter how enlightened our policies, people will react against us if they can tell that we despise them and their culture. They will generally love politicians that choose standing with them and bearing the slights cast at them over cosying up to the establishment.
The ease with which a progressive Episcopalian like Rachel Held Evans will chalk up Trump’s—overwhelmingly working-class—appeal to racism and xenophobia, with little attempt at a more charitable construction of other concerns that might be in play, is a depressing reflection of the widely dismissive attitude of the concerns of outgroup people (the linked post is a must-read) of lower socio-economic backgrounds that one all too often encounters among progressives (and among various conservatives too, for that matter). Such opinions may be great for virtue-signalling in our privileged circles on social media, where middle class pieties are more powerful factors than working class realities, but they exhibit little regard, respect, or concern for Trump’s working class supporters, who might know a few inconvenient truths that we would prefer to deny. A preparedness to put a charitable construction upon Trump’s supporters, and a willingness to listen carefully to what they have to say, without dismissing them based upon ugly class prejudices could go a long way. The dismissive treatment of the white working class as pathological and the use of them as a scapegoat through whose castigation we can all signal our virtue is part of the disease that creates a space for people like Trump in the first place.
Sadly, much of the left is too preoccupied with narcissistically and competitively demonstrating progressive pieties in privileged echo chambers on social media and in academia (using unenlightened working class persons and others who can’t navigate their linguistic minefields as pawns and scapegoats for solidifying their status as the morally superior ingroup). At its best, however, it is the left that has historically been committed to standing with the working classes, listening to them, ‘steelmanning’ their positions, and representing their concerns in the most cogent, compelling, and effective way they could. When this responsibility is shrugged off we shouldn’t be surprised to see the space that was abandoned filled by unpleasant clowns such as Trump.
Trump is an incredibly effective troll of the liberal establishment. The UK parliament even debated banning Trump from entering the country in response to a popular petition that was created in response to Trump’s remarks about banning Muslims from entering the US. The fact that liberals are so reactive to and scared of Trump is a mark in his favour for people who are bullied and despised by that establishment.
The white working class and evangelicals know that ‘political correctness’ is not just about ‘treating people with respect’ as some suppose, but is a whip to keep them in line, a calculated means of stigmatizing certain viewpoints, excluding challenges to liberal orthodoxies from public conversation, and imposing a set of tendentious ideological values upon the public in a manner that precludes serious contestation. Rather than appeal for a more respectful and open civil society, political correctness takes meddlesome, officious, and censorious measures to stigmatize or root out speech that it finds objectionable, often resorting to force and authority over persuasion where possible.
The working class and evangelicals know that political correctness is a powerful tool for dismissing their valid concerns. If they complain about the effect immigration is having on their communities they can be told that they are being xenophobic. If they honestly report the reality of crime in their neighbourhoods as something highly shaped by ethnicity and religion, such as the systemic sexual abuse of girls by Asian gangs in Rotherham in the UK, they can be told that they are being Islamophobic and racist. If they do not believe that an inner sense of one’s gender is sufficient to constitute you as a member of the other sex, they can be dismissed as transphobic, apart from any serious engagement. If they believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, they are homophobic, driven by hatred, their conscience deserving no protection. If they question various feminist orthodoxies they risk being labelled misogynists. Branded with such pathologizing labels, ideological lepers from society, they can be conveniently excluded from public discourse and its institutions, and their concerns will be unaddressed.
Trump’s discourse is frequently uncivil, crude, and morally objectionable. However, Trump has demonstrated his readiness to flout the illiberal and officious policing of discourse that evangelicals and the working class have suffered under in many quarters and by which they are slowly being frozen out of public life. Trump’s demonstration of his ability to resist the shaming and ostracization by which progressives police speech and determine those who are allowed to voice opinions publicly is a sign of hope to such people for the breaking open of an extremely narrow Overton Window.
Trump, unlike most liberals and those on the left and many conservatives, stands for America as a nation, not just America as a market within which detached individuals of diverse backgrounds can succeed. The latter conception of America is alienating for many, denying their sense of identity as a distinct people. America has a particular historical national character and a very particular tapestry of interrelated peoples within it. And Trump wants to make it ‘great’ again, to make people feel proud to belong to a particular nation, not just to happen to live as one deracinated cosmopolitan individual among countless others in an identity-lite region under a shared administration. On the ground many people know a truth confirmed by much study: in many cases diversity has not strengthened community, but has weakened it. Immigration, while good and effective in some instances, is not an unqualified or universal success story and the failures show recognizable patterns. Some groups never successfully integrate, let alone assimilate and the introduction of such groups weakens neighbourhoods and often forms resistant and bitter underclasses (a key factor here is marriage patterns—Arab Sunni Muslims, for instance, are predominantly from cultures where consanguineous arranged marriage at a younger age on the father’s side is common and are often very tight knit, patriarchal, and clannish in their loyalties and character as a result, even a few generations after leaving their country).
Politicians who largely speak of America as if it were primarily an economy to be managed for the interests of detached individuals and their families and don’t recognize the fragility yet significance of America as a nation won’t resonate with working class people as Trump does. National identity is more existential for people who are more regionally rooted, yet keenly suffering the effects of a globalized economy and unwelcome effects of poorly managed immigration in their neighbourhoods.
Scott Alexander’s discussion of the distinct ways that ‘America’ serves as a signifier for ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ political tribes is very important here too. As Alexander observes, the Blue tribe’s relationship with American identity is deeply ambivalent and often involves a lot of pointed distancing and criticism. The term ‘America’ is only wholeheartedly owned by the Red tribe and comes to stand for them. He argues that similar things are true about the term ‘white’: with the partial exception of ‘stuff white people like’, ‘white’ is a code term for the Red tribe. Cosmopolitan and college-educated middle class white liberals and progressives can talk rather a lot about ‘white privilege’ precisely because ‘white’ doesn’t really label them so much as those Red tribers who fail to check their privilege. For them, speaking of their ‘white privilege’ can serve as a way of distancing themselves from any stigma of the term in a way that marks them out as enlightened and only superficially ‘white’.
‘Making America great again’ is a slogan that resonates against the guilt complexes that such enlightened progressive persons often seek to impose upon the white working classes. It declares that, for all of its faults, America is not and has never been as pathological a society and nation as liberals and progressives present it as, that there are many things to take pride in, and that those who truly value its culture and identity aren’t going to let it be condemned to the toxic branding of liberalism.
Trump’s supporters don’t trust big politics or big business.
Many in the working class don’t trust the American political system. They see the money and the control of big business interests upon politicians who receive huge campaign donations. They see that their voice often counts for little by comparison. Trump represents a movement beyond such corruption for many. He is (in their mind) a self-funded person who is beholden to no business interest. He has the power to stand for them and against big business and the damaging effects that it exerts on their lives (and capitalism—which is not, contrary to much popular misconception, the same thing as free markets—is one of the most socially destructive forces known to humanity). He knows the world of business and, unlike regular politicians who are in the pocket of business and too weak to stand against it (many people, probably justifiably, feel that power in American society is migrating away from politics towards business), Trump can wrest some power back and exercise it on their behalf.
Trump represents the gifted dealer and broker of agreements who can work his magic in a world of politics that is hopelessly unable to get things done effectively. He knows ‘people’, ‘smart people’, ‘experts’ (the vagueness is important here). He will blow away the stifling cobwebs of inefficiency and inefficacy and make change happen using his own adaptability and instinct for business. More generally, many in the public may recognize that Trump knows how to work people, not just play around with ideas and policies on paper.
The success of Trump, if I am correct, is in no small measure a result of the failure of other politicians and the establishment more generally to take a number of genuine public concerns seriously, to treat the working class with respect and dignity rather than self-righteous superiority, to address the ineffectiveness of government, to resist the special interests of lobbyists and business that undermine the government’s commitment to the public interest and the common good, to stand for America as a nation, and to encourage a society of robust civil discourse rather than officious and censorious speech policing and pathologization.
When the establishment has demonstrated its lack of genuine respect or concern for a large segment of the population, it is not surprising that such pronounced anti-establishment sentiment should arise. Much as one might wish that Trump supporters—especially the evangelicals among them—followed politicians that sought to maintain a well-ordered and dignified political system, the appeal of Trump is at least as unflattering a revelation of the failure of the establishment to serve the common good and its captivity to party interest as it is of the sentiments of people who will vote for him.
I have written all of the above as someone who is resolutely opposed to Donald Trump. I believe that various of his policy positions on issues such as immigration are appalling and profoundly objectionable (besides being quite unworkable). I find the sort of politics that Trump represents are not just deeply distasteful but harbour terrifying danger. If you worry about ‘American exceptionalism’, just wait until you have the ‘presidential exceptionalism’ of the politics of personality, the ruling clown who makes up the rules as he goes along because he is being ‘authentic’. Italy has recently experienced such a president in Silvio Berlusconi and Americans would do really well to pay attention to how that worked out for them. The polarization of American politics is unpleasant enough as it is without falling into the realm of politics advanced through insults and dominance games. The integrity of political discourse will only be further degraded through the adoption of language of sales and influence as its primary rhetorical mode and vague impression-making as its primary form of persuasion.
However, a man such as Trump does not gain traction without reason. This post is a modest attempt to suggest that, if Trump has widespread traction in the white working class, it may have something to do with an unaddressed classism in American society, a noxious classism illustrated and perpetuated by many of those who have commented on the Trump phenomena. Rather than taking another opportunity to castigate and condemn the white working class, their values and concerns, perhaps it is time to turn some unflattering critical light back onto ourselves.