Trump, Trauma, and the “Mexicanizing” of American Politics
Here in the middle of election season, we bring you a guest post from independent scholar Byron King, who unpacks the historical foundations that may have some part in Trump’s rise as a leading presidential candidate. King has previously written about Beyonce’s “Formation” video and deconstructed Canada for this site.
Trump and the problem of violence
On Wednesday, March 11 a protester at a North Carolina Trump rally was attacked. According to a Washington Post article, Rakeem Jones was “sucker-punched” by John McGraw as the former, who had been protesting at the rally, was being led away by local police. The next Friday, Trump was forced to cancel a Chicago rally after thousands of protesters gathered outside the event, and a number of fights broke out.
Trump’s response to these disturbances has been consistently belligerent and inciting of violence. Of his supporters’ violent responses to protesters, he remarked at a Republican Debate that:
When they see protest and some cases, you know you’re mentioning one case which I haven’t seen, I heard about it, which I don’t like. But when the see what’s going on in this country, they have anger that’s unbelievable.
Later he lamented that, “We’re not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days,”
But these back-to-back incidents are not isolated or unusual, as the number of attacks on Black, Hispanic, and Muslim protesters at Trump rallies has increased steadily since commencing last August when, citing a Trump speech as their inspiration, a pair of brothers from Boston allegedly urinated on and severely beat a homeless Latino man.
But his supporters have not only directed their violence at minority protesters: the number of attacks on reporters has apparently grown since the well-known Univision reporter Jorge Ramos was ejected from a Trump event last August.
In March Trump’s own campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was implicated in an attack on Breibart reporter, Michelle Fields, an attack which he denies, despite photographic evidence, full-color video and audio-taped transcript of the altercation.
According to Poltifact, Trump told an alternate version of events during the March 29 CNN Republican Town Hall, a version that exonerated his campaign manager :
(Fields) said she went to the ground, or something to the effect of she almost went to the ground,” Trump said at a March 29 CNN town hall. “She was in pain. She went to the ground. When she found out that there was a security camera, and that they had her on tape, all of a sudden that story changed. She didn’t talk about it.
To defend this claim they have shown the recent rally where Trump had his supporters raise their right hand and swear to vote for him in the upcoming elections.
They then transpose these images to those of brown-shirted Sturmabteilung (SA) troopers at a Nuremberg Rally or beating Jews and other dissidents on a terrible Kristallnacht.
“Heil Trump!” happened at a rally today. How did we Nazi this coming? #Klandidate
— JHunterJokes (@jhuntercomedy) March 5, 2016
It is difficult to deny how similar Trump rallies appear to Nazi ones.
But Where did the “Trump Phenomenon’ come from?
But where did the “Trump phenomenon,” with its violent bullying, pompous anti-minority political posturing, group oath-swearing and frightening militarism come from? Of course, true to form, many Republicans blame the businessman’s recent political rise on the weakness and political machinations of President Obama himself.
Bobby Jindal, the former Republican candidate and former governor of Louisiana, states the prevailing attitude of many in his party succinctly in his March 3rd Wall Street Journal op-ed when he claims that:
After seven years of the cool, weak and endlessly nuanced “no drama Obama,” voters are looking for a strong leader who speaks in short, declarative sentences.
Trump’s rise, they claim, is a direct result of Obama’s weak, “laid-back” and diplomatic style of governance. Jindal, however, betrays the extremely partisan nature of his accusation when later in the piece he argues for how Obama SHOULD have governed. He foolishly and unconvincingly argues that:
Imagine if Mr. Obama had actually worked with Republicans in an open process to bring down health-care costs—instead of pushing through, on a partisan vote, the largest expansion of government-welfare programs in a generation. Or if he had listened to the message that voters sent in the first midterm election by putting Republicans in charge of Congress—instead of petulantly relying on executive orders, and using an eraser and whiteout on the Constitution, to shove the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies deeper into Americans’ lives.
Given the obvious obstructionist tactics employed by Republicans to stall or defeat anything proposed by The President since his election, Jindal’s diagnosis resonates with a hollow and very partisan ring.
Now, The President, more credibly, denies any culpability in the creation of the conditions that facilitated Trump’s political popularity. He, in his stead, blames rather this highly partisan and obstructionist spirit among the Republicans themselves wryly commenting that the problem lay in:
a notion that everything I do is to be opposed; that cooperation or compromise somehow is a betrayal; that maximalist, absolutist positions on issues are politically advantageous;
that there is a ‘them’ out there and an ‘us,’ and the ‘them’ are the folks causing the problems you’re experiencing.
The President argues more convincingly that the blame for the violent and obdurate rise of the vigorously anti-democratic and anti-minority violence occasioned at these rallies should be placed squarely at the Republicans’ own feet. Since his inauguration they have championed a strategy of implacable hostility and opposition to any measure he might advocate–even when he advocates positions previously held by large groups of Republicans such as the Affordable Care Act, an arguement outlined by columnist Paul Krugman in a 2011 piece called the “Conservative Origins of Obamacare,” which argued that these foundations were visible in the RomneyCare plan from when he was governor of Massachusetts, which itself came from the Republican think-tank, the Heritage Foundation plan laid out in 1989.
Trump’s strongest supporters aren’t archconservatives; they’re white working-class voters, especially in the Rust Belt and coal country, who traditionally leaned Democratic and still favor a strong welfare state.
Douthat explains that these voters had been drifting away from the Democratic Party since the 1970s, but Obama has made moves that effectively slam the door on them: His energy policies, his immigration gambits, his gun control push, his shift to offense on same-sex marriage and abortion. It was possible to be a culturally conservative skeptic of mass immigration in the Democratic Party of Bill Clinton. Not so anymore.
Of course this process has been a two-way street, as bigotry inclined some of these voters against Obama from the start, or encouraged them to think the worst of him eventually. And political coalitions shift all the time: There’s nothing inherently wrong with the Obama White House’s decision that a more ethnically diverse and thoroughgoingly liberal coalition held more promise than continued efforts to keep Reagan Democrats in the fold.
Douthat appropriately identifies Trump’s core constituency, i.e. white working class Reagan Democrats. (I would quibble, however, with his statements that would have subdivided this group, sorting out the archconservatives and including only Rust and Coal Belt members, as a second part of his constituency IS archconservative, the working class white Southerner. His sweep in the primaries of much of the traditional South evidences this increased constituency.)
But if, Douthat is more honest than Jindal concerning both the social nature of Trump’s appeal with a particular subset of the American electorate, he too allows his partisan zeal to blinker him somewhat concerning the rationale for this group’s hatred of Obama and his policies (and he does list several.) For Obama has not been an extremist champion of any the issues Douthat underlines as reasons why the President remains an anathema to this group:
Both Obama’s pro-clean energy (i.e. anti-coal) and same-sex marriage policies have been hesitant and advanced only as the general electorate’s will has progressed on these issue; Moreover, his “anti-gun” initiatives exist almost exclusively as a shibboleth in the minds of conservatives, for despite speaking often of the need to address the troubling issues of rampant gun violence and mass shootings, he has proposed almost no significant legislation on this account.
And as for his recent executive orders on immigration, his choice to prevent the deportation of the foreign-born parents of American children seems not only consistent with America’s historical compassion for families, but is less radical than similar actions taken by various Republican presidents including, Eisenhower, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush. Despite vociferous claims by Republicans to the contrary, Obama has hardly proven to be a radical politician. In almost all politically-important ways Obama’s policies are a continuation of the centrist policies championed by Democratic administrations since the 1970s.
But Douthat unveils the partisan spin in his last paragraph when he admits that this group’s primary gripe with Obama is his willingness to compile “a more ethnically diverse” electoral coalition. Obama’s policies are not what sets him apart in the eyes of this group. Rather, he haltingly, if surprisingly, concedes that their inherent “bigotry inclined some of these voters against Obama from the start, or encouraged them to think the worst of him eventually.” This group hates Obama NOT on account of what he has done as President, but on account of who he is: he is the first African-American President.
Thus, in this way, I think Douthat correctly correlates Trump’s rise to that of the President himself. Douhat even admits magnanimously that, while he gave birth to “Trumpism,” Obama didn’t do so deliberately. Early in his piece he says:
But Trumpism is also a creature of the late Obama era, irrupting after eight years when a charismatic liberal president has dominated the cultural landscape and set the agenda for national debates. President Obama didn’t give us Trump in any kind of Machiavellian or deliberate fashion. But it isn’t an accident that this is the way the Obama era ends — with a reality TV demagogue leading a populist, nationalist revolt.
Trumpism as Response to Cultural Trauma
But per the famous dictum from statistics that “correlation does not imply causation,” the existential correlation of Obama’s Presidency and Trump’s political ascension does not mean that, as Douhat, or Jindal, or a number of conservative pundits claim, the President or his political positions caused this rise.
Rather, Trumpism, is a particular, and I would argue inevitable, group response to a perceived cultural trauma. While it represents a psychological affect disseminated across a large subset of the American electorate, the origin of this trauma lies primarily, although not completely, in the 2008 election and the 2012 re-election of Barack Obama as President. A second source lay in the 2008 Wall Street Crash and financial crisis which occurred under Obama’s predecessor, George Bush, but which helped propel Obama to victory. By many accounts, while Obama’s subsequent policies have undone much of the damages this crash did to financial markets, these policies have not aided the working-class and the poor very much in dealing with the “Great Recession.”
But as cultural critic, Jeffrey Alexander notes in the first chapter, “Towards a Theory of Cultural Trauma,” of the very influential collection of essays, “Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity” (2004) while:
[c]ultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways, (1)
it, nevertheless, remains different from personal psychological (Alexander uses the term, “lay”) trauma in that lay trauma springs naturally from an individual’s direct contact with a psychologically overwhelming event or series of events. Cultural trauma is produced, rather, through a social process of imaginative representation. Alexander calls this the “trauma process,” Although it may, in Aristotelian terms, serve as a material, or even formal, cause, the “event” so repeatedly represented in the traumatic response is not the “real” efficient or final cause of the trauma. Later, in the essay, “Cultural Trauma and Collective Memory,” in the same collection of essays, Alexander’s co-contributor, Ron Eyerman cites yet another critic, Cathy Caruth, to fully elucidate this distinction arguing:
In Cathy Caruth’s (1995:17; Caruth 1996) psychoanalytic theory of trauma, it is not the experience itself that produces traumatic effect, but rather the remembrance of it. In her account there is always a time lapse, a period of “latency” in which forgetting is characteristic, between an event and the experience of trauma. As reflective process, trauma links past to present through representations and imagination. In psychological accounts, this can lead to a distorted identity-formation, where “certain subject-positions may become especially prominent or even overwhelming, for example, those of victim or perpetrator…wherein one is possessed by the past and tends to repeat it compulsively as if it were fully present.
Thus, cultural trauma is a memory, mediated from a distance, by influential “carrier groups,” whose purpose is to offer a convincing narrative which rhetorically tries to identify and address three goals: (1) the nature of the pain the event has caused; (2) the nature of the victim of this traumatic event; and finally (3) the nature of the relationship this victim has to the wider audience involved.
Thus, Trumpism, with its flashy “reality show” spectacle, frighteningly fascistic tendencies, overt racism and open appeals to violence is itself, like Jindal or Douhat’s, a politically-engaged and very theatrical attempt to argue over, and hopefully reverse, the basic nature of the Obama Presidency. Moreover, while Trump’s violent and racist fascism isn’t new, despite many reviewers’ claims to the contrary, its best antecedents lie not in the relatively modern, oppressive authoritarian regimes of Nazi Germany or Mussolinian Italy.
Rather, Trump’s neo-Redemptionist strategies hearken back quite directly to the far more American brand of fascism exemplified in the 1870’s South, where conservative whites employed a unified, and ultimately successful, strategy of nostalgic propaganda, fascistic spectacle intended to overawe audiences, and finally, both real and threatened violence to cow Blacks and Northern whites alike, in a bid to create the generally still-accepted history of their region and “undo” the group trauma caused by the Civil War and establish a suitable regime as similar to the Antebellum society they remembered as possible.
Trumpism’s True Southern Strategy
While a thorough discussion of the post-Civil War South in the 1860-1870s would (and has—cf. Eric Foner’s “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877” require a voluminous treatment of hundreds, if not thousands of pages, a fair, if quick, treatment would, I think, necessarily treat five major issues relevant to the era:
(1) the problems of Republican rule,
(2) the conservative opposition,
(3) the rise of the Klu Klux Klan,
(4) the resulting regional political and social instability
(5) Southern Redemptionist success in the Compromise of 1877.
Reconstruction as Southern “Redemption”
I have discussed elsewhere Foner’s radical, but seminal, departure from the “Dunning School” which essential described Reconstruction as:
a baleful discussion of poor Southern whites’ attempt to “redeem,” themselves from the terribly unfair and melodramatic burden of military failure and economic and social predation by both external “Carpetbaggers” and internal traitors, the “Scallywags.
As I also argued earlier, Reconstruction began in 1863, when Lincoln imposed his lenient “Ten Percent [or Louisiana] Plan” on an occupied Louisiana which allowed that “once ten percent of a rebel state’s population signed a loyalty oath and abolished slavery, it could then “adopt temporary measures regarding blacks consistent […] with their present condition as a laboring, landless, and homeless class. Such a government would be then entitled to representation in Washington.”
The Problems of Republican rule
Thus, at the War’s conclusion, this plan allowed for the election of very conservative Southern state governments, which, despite accepting the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery, enacted “Black Codes,” which severely limited the social and legal status of Blacks. But soon, afterwards, of course Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865, allowing Tennessean Vice-President, Andrew Johnson who was sympathetic to the strong racist sentiments of Southerners, to become President. Johnson did little to combat these Codes or to stifle the looming power of the ex-Confederates.
Northern anger at Johnson’s pro-Southern sympathies and the murder of Lincoln led to the political ascendancy of the so-called, Radical Republicans in the 1866 elections who took control of Reconstruction from the recalcitrant President Johnson. This Congress enacted the Reconstruction Acts, which placed ten of the former Confederate states (Tennessee was exempted) under the control of five military governors.
Congress implemented the increased military presence to guarantee Blacks the right to vote and protect officeholders from violence. Additionally, under martial law, former Confederate leaders were excluding from holding political offices. Some military governors, such as General Sheridan in Texas, were scrupulous in excluding former Confederates from even minor offices, (and thus enjoyed deep vilification by conservative whites in their districts.) By 1870 all ten states had been re-admitted after they had successfully re-written their constitutions to outlaw slavery and guarantee Black men the right to vote.
On account of the newly enfranchised freedmen vote (and the exclusion of many former Confederates,) the Southern legislatures were initially controlled by Republicans, who began to seat Freedmen among them. While these various state legislatures were of varied quality depending on the intelligence and expertise of their elected members, they were usually civically-minded and often raised taxes to support their increased electorate or repair the devastated Southern infrastructure that the War had thoroughly destroyed. One real problem among these bodies was their consistent tendency to lend or give state monies to individuals and groups who invested in the “growth industry” of the period, i.e. building railroads. Too often, these groups were friends and associates of the Republican lawmakers themselves. One can read a good first-hand account of this problem in a letter submitted to the Raleigh [North Carolina] Daily Standard, April 16, 1869.
Another problem for these early Republican governments was the imposition of a more “Northern” tax structure on the South. Before the War, wealthy landowners had been allowed to self-assess the value of their property, thus allowing them to opt out of contributing to the common weal. When this ability was removed after the War, all levels of society were now forced to contribute, but, of course, many wealthy Southerners balked at this new regime. Foner discusses this issue in Chapter 8, “Reconstruction: Political and Economic” of his book on Reconstruction. (cf. especially pp. 375-376 on the problems of ad valorem taxation.)
While this new system had its dissidents, i.e. wealthy landowners, it worked for a while, until the late 1860s as the former Confederate states were re-admitted and the former Confederates regained their electoral franchise. Now that they could vote again, Southern white men not only swelled the ranks of the Democratic Party (known as the Conservative Party to distinguish it in Southern minds from the collaborationist national Democratic Party,) but they either joined or supported paramilitary terrorist organizations such as the Klu Klux Klan, the White League, or the Red Shirts, whose purpose was to assert white supremacy through violence and murder, prevent Blacks from voting, and to force them to accept a subordinate status in Southern society.
The “Old’ War on Terror
At first, the North, and a number of state governments resisted. Disgusted at the terrorism of the Klan, Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment in February of 1869, which protected the Freedmen’s right to vote and access to due process. And in 1871, the Klu Klux Klan Act authorized the government to act against terrorist organizations such as the Klan.
This “War on Terror,” however, fostered regional instability in the South as local massacres such as the Colfax (LA) Massacre, where up to 150 freedmen were murdered by a white Democratic militia or the Battle of Liberty Place, which saw 5000 members of the Crescent City White League in New Orleans overpowered an outnumbered Metropolitan Police force and state militia occupying the statehouse and armory for three days before retreating to Federal troops. Adding to these were the various murders of over 2000 people in Kansas relating to elections, and various political assassinations throughout the South. Throughout the South, states reeled from bitter, contested elections, often with several disputed claimants to various offices.
Cartoon in 1868 “Harper’s Weekly”. via Wikipedia
They Used to Call This the “Great Depression”
But new political and social regimes, together with increased taxation were not the only calamities to befall the post-War South (and the nation as a whole.) In 1873, a serious worldwide financial panic struck. While its causes varied from country to country, one crucial cause was the September 1873 failure of the major American banking firm, Jay Cooke & Company because it had heavily investing in railroad speculation. This collapse set of a chain reaction of bank failures which shut down the New York Stock Exchange for ten days that year. This panic, severe enough to be known as “The Great Depression” until the 1930’s downturn usurped this moniker, caused deep financial hardship throughout the world, and in particular it discredited many of the Republican legislatures who had invested in railroad speculation.
In this atmosphere of social and political contention, cultural terrorism, and financial instability, many Americans despaired that the crucial Presidential election of 1876 between the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and the Democrat Samuel Tilden would lead to yet another national crisis as dangerous as the Civil War had been a decade earlier.
The Problem of “Mexicanization”
Interestingly enough, scholars and pundits of the era gave this potential crisis an unusual name: they discussed the “Mexicanization” of American politics. Their fear, of course, was that the nation’s political and socio-cultural system, severely stressed by the recent Civil War, and weakened by the internecine struggles to reconstruct the South and re-forge national unity in its wake, was rendered fragile enough that the United States might fall victim to a convulsive series of civil wars. In short, they worried that, unless political leaders diminished dangerous sectional crises extant in America, then we would fall into the same series of cultural and political calamities that had submerged Mexico in the previous generation. The historian, Gregory P. Downs, discusses this issue in his essay, “The Mexicanization of American Politics: The United States’ Transnational Path from Civil War to Stabilization” in the April 2012 edition of the American Historical Review.
Downs’ very nuanced discussion of the use of contemporary comparisons between the plights of the sister republics in the US and Mexico, and in contradistinction to the monarchical systems prevalent in Europe in the middle 1870s helped the US to compound a social and cultural compromise, i.e. the Compromise of 1877, which is often regarded with scorn by all sides on the American political spectrum as either illegitimate (Southern conservatives believe that Tilden had actually won) or a betrayal of basic American principle, (many African-Americans, myself included, believe this is the moment that the country betrayed its basic democratic principles and allowed Blacks to exist as second-class citizens in our own country for another almost 90 years.) This Compromise, Downs argues, imperfect though it might be, is the basis of the almost unprecedented social stability that the US enjoyed over the next century.
Downs is correct that this relative social stability was not a permanent feature of the American political system, and by the early 1960s this Faustian bargain had begun to come undone as Blacks, then women, and then other oppressed social groups finally found their social voices and demanded equal social, political, and cultural rights.
Obama’s Election and the Rise of “White Trauma”
While many regarded Obama’s election in 2008 as a world historic watershed moment in American history which fulfilled many of the goals of racial equality espoused by Civil Rights activists of the ‘60s (sufficiently at least for several observers including Lou Dobbs and Chris Matthews to argue for the arrival of a “post-racial” America,) for some (particularly among conservatives) this election elicited a sense of cultural trauma almost as deep as that experienced by white Southerners in the aftermath of the Civil War. For not only was Obama’s election an unwanted surprise, a number of conservatives found the political elevation of a Black man to the highest political office threatening and a clear betrayal of the generally accepted, although hardly ever admitted anymore, doctrine of white supremacy in the US.
The Beginning: Do-Overs and Shady Cabals
Although, given the historic level of pageantry and stress associated with it, and also how common mistakes of this sort are, the first indications of how traumatic the Obama presidency would be to some came early in its initial moments when Supreme Court Justice, John Roberts administered Obama the oath of office.
While administering the oath, Roberts “flubbed” his recitation first by misplacing the word “faithfully” in the middle line of oath, which traditionally says, “that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States.” Later, sensing Obama’s confusion he repeats the phrase, but omitting the word “execute.” While this was a minor error on Roberts’, and then Obama’s, part, the mistake raised sufficient concern that Roberts’ quietly re-administered the oath the next day.
But a flustered Chief Justice, it seems was only the beginning of the movement to steadfastly oppose the basic democratic legitimacy of the Obama administration. In a book, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives” (2012,) the journalist and writer, Robert Draper argues that, on the very night of the inauguration, fifteen top Republican lawmakers and strategists met to plot a strategy for Obama’s legislative agenda.
According to Draper, one of the plotters, Representative McCarthy (R-CA) summarizes the night’s effort saying, “”If you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority,” Draper quotes McCarthy as saying. “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.” Draper’s book has been widely discussed and, over time, many of its conclusions have become generally accepted as factual.
White Trauma Becomes a Movement
But these lawmakers (and possibly Roberts, if one believes in Freudian slips) were only the first to oppose Obama based on hardly concealed racial animus. While it generally attempted to present itself as essentially a grass-roots based tax revolt against the perceived extravagances of the Federal government similar to the group of American colonists who objected to the British imposition of tea and stamp taxes in 1773—a revolt widely seen as the beginning of the political movement which culminated in the American Revolution a few years later, much of the rhetoric and social appeal of the Tea Party movement from its inception in 2009 until it petered out some time after the 2010 elections centered around an appeal to “take [their] country back.”
While this slogan is certainly not a new one in the annals of American politics, when employed by the Tea Party group which sees itself as the historical inheritors of a world-altering revolutionary movement by a group who demographically tended “more likely than Americans overall to be white, male, married, older than 45, regularly attending religious services, conservative, and to be more wealthy and have more education” against the policies (and at times) even the person of the first Black President, being suspicious of the potentially bigoted motives of those participating in the movement don’t seem too unfair.
Moreover, their demographics and political goals seems less in keeping with the much more liberal-minded and far less religious Founding Fathers, most of whom where Christian deists, not Christian theists, as were many among the modern Tea Party participants, and far more similar to the Reconstruction-era wealthy Southern landowners who fretted at having to pay their fair share of taxes for the first time.
But Denial Isn’t Just A River in Egypt
Beyond this, the clear racial animus of many in this movement became quite apparent when the group became the hotbed of a number of “birther” conspiracy theories alleging that Obama is not a natural-born American citizen (typically on account of his father’s status as a Kenyan,) and thus, ineligible to be president. In fact, Trump himself took the lead in publicizing the ultimately discredited claims of this movement when he first ran as a Republican candidate for President in 2011.
This candidacy organized itself around the notions of Obama’s illegitimate status as President based on his supposed non-American status. During this run, Trump constantly demanded to see Obama’s “long-form” birth certificate. Moreover, when Obama’s state of birth, Hawai’i, presented his birth documents, Trump refused to accept their legitimacy, threatening instead to fund an investigation concerning the fraudulent nature of these documents.
That this “birther” movement is clearly racialized and politically-motivated specifically to oppose the President is rendered readily apparent by how unimportantly many people, including Trump, have generally regarded the more recent question concerning the far more problematic legitimacy of the Canadian-born Republican candidate, Raphael (Ted) Cruz. While certainly a few conservatives have questioned Cruz’s legitimacy, even Trump when he felt threatened by his competing candidacy, on the whole, this “problem” has been either dismissed or widely ignored by the very people who believed—despite much confirmation of the opposite–that Obama’s parentage rendered him ineligible to run as President.
Trumpism Reaches “Maturity”
There has been more than one eruption of social and political hostility towards Obama as the first Black President. Over the past seven years the pattern of coy animosity has been repeated over and over to the point that it has become a well-rehearsed cultural performance. And, of course, it is a cultural performance mediated not only by Congressional Republicans and the major media, but I think it is fair to say that it has been well-orchestrated by Donald Trump himself, especially in his current presidential campaign.
Unlike most of his Republican rivals, Trump campaign is not particularly guided by a clear political or social principle. Whether one chooses to believe their sincerity, the other Republican candidates have generally based their candidacies around reasonably unified social or cultural stances: Cruz (or Carson earlier) claims to represent the interests of religious social conservatives who oppose gay marriage and abortion; while Rubio (or Bush earlier, though more confusedly) claimed to represent the interests of fiscal conservatism. They were clearly pro-big business. (I’m a little unclear exactly how this equates to fiscal conservatism, but I won’t quibble here.)
Trump’s positions, on the other hand, don’t particularly appear to be guiding by a coherent unified social or political doctrine. He doesn’t credibly appear very religious, nor do his few expressed policy positions seem guided by a particular love for any particular business class, unless he counts as his own class.
What Exactly IS Trump’s Appeal?
What does appear to guide his politics is an adherence to the historical implication of his political slogan, to “make America great again.” Superficially, this slogan appears as a trite and culturally ambiguous statement. It begs several important rhetorical questions such as the following: What does “great” mean? Military greatness? We already possess the most powerful military on the planet and outspend our next ten rivals collectively? Economic greatness? Again, we remain the greatest economic power on the planet. Certainly, we were an even greater economic power in the 1950s, but this was after the Second World War when much of the planet lay in ruins. Unless we find a way to bomb much of the rest of the world, this period of unprecedented economic expansion is unlikely to re-occur.
The achievability, or even the exact meaning, of Trump’s claim, I think is unimportant, as it is more importantly a culturally open (and thus empty and waiting-to-be-filled) rhetorical claim to nostalgia—a claim to return to the “good old days.” The non-specific emptiness of this nostalgic appeal is why Trump appeals not only to Rust or Coal Belt working class white “Reagan Democrats,” who might see the 1950s as halcyon days of yore when a white, working class high-school graduate could earn enough to eventually enter the middle class, but also why he would appeal to conservative Southerners, whose Shangri-la lay in the Antebellum South when, according long-established cultural yearnings, Southern whites saw themselves at the apex of a cultural system that regarded them the landed gentry.
The New Great Financial Panic
If the Southern working class regarded itself as the chief victim of Reconstruction-era legislatures and their Freedman lackeys who foolishly wasted large sums of meager Southern resources funding financial boondoggles which exploded in everyone’s face in the Great Panic of 1873, so too can the modern white worker see the profligacy of the modern Reconstruction, which still possesses a Black face in Obama, which wastes funds on the modern “Great Recession” which coincided with his arrival. It matters not that the wasteful spending occurred in the previous administration’s fruitless wars on terror. The jobless recovery coincided with Obama’s time as President. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. (After this event, therefore, on account of it.) It might be a fallacy, but it is a very convincing one.
What undergirds Trump’s theatrical display is the unspoken cultural trauma of the white working class, which, with the advent of Obama as President, has supposedly lost one of its last cultural privileges—the privilege of white supremacy. It doesn’t matter that Blacks or Hispanics are more likely to be unemployed, or killed by police. Nor does it matter that women still earn less than they do. The supposed loss of racial (and gender) privilege feels like oppression.
For this reason, Trumpism has coincided with a rebirth of white nationalism. Trump has been endorsed by, and stimulated the (re)growth of racist terror groups, such as the Klu Klux Klan. Just as Nathan Bedford Forrest and their Southern forbearers donned the robes and flag of nineteenth century American fascism (both the Confederacy and its heir, the Klan, were fascistic, as they explicitly tied state power to the corporate interests of one group in society—the slavocracy, in order to terrorize Blacks to return to their previous second-class status,) Every state that seceded wrote an “Article of Secession.” And in every document, the explicit desire to protect slavery and champion white supremacy were mentioned as primary causes for secession. The Reasons for Secession In a similar fashion has Trump incited their heirs several generations hence to unfurl similar symbols in the interest of terror and oppression used to support a new “guilded age.”
More than this, this very electoral instability, seconded by the violent electoral terrorism hardly seen in American politics (on the national level at least, as such electoral bullying was de rigeur in Southern politics from the 1860s until the 1950s,) has threatened to “Mexicanize” American politics in two radically different ways: First, and most fearfully, by undoing the cultural stability many Americans (though not African-Americans) enjoyed in the decades after the 1877 Compromise. Trump’s overly theatrical antics, threaten to plunge us in electoral chaos, if not civil war.
Secondly, and more hopefully, Trump’s racism and incitement of his followers to violence has galvanized a heretofore largely quiescent group of Americans, Mexican-Americans, and the Latino community in general, to avail themselves to their electoral power to protect themselves (and hopefully everyone else too) from his vicious and fascistic hatred. Although he probably doesn’t intend it, Donald Trump is thereby “Mexicanizing” American politics in a healthy and positive manner.