The Anatomy of Anti-Trumpism: Ten Thoughts and Reconsiderations

1. “Trump is liar; how could anyone think he’s honest”

What progressives didn’t or wouldn’t understand is what at least some Trump supporters meant when they called him honest. At least some of them understand perfectly well that he is personally dishonest about most of his business dealings; that he claims to have not done things that he very likely did, sexual and otherwise; that he often says that he didn’t say something that he is recorded as having said. Or at least they regard all of this as unimportant in relationship to the honesty that they prize in him. What is that? That Trump doesn’t sound as if his speech has been heavily managed by interlocutors and consultants, that whatever he says is from him. Perhaps honesty here is better translated as “authenticity”. Some progressives understand that Trump is regarded as authentic, but they don’t seem to understand why that’s valued by his supporters, and why the inauthenticity of most other politicians, including Trump’s primary rivals, is scorned. It is not that Trump’s authenticity is perfectly aligned with the sociocultural lives of his supporters. Most of them don’t live in a gilded penthouse atop a Manhattan skyscraper that they own. But even that’s part of what makes him honest. Many of us laugh at Trump’s tastes (“the poor man’s idea of a rich man”) and call them vulgar, but it is that laugh that anoints him an honest man. He doesn’t even follow what the hoi polloi deem fashionable or appropriate. He does it his way. What you see is what you get–even down to the personal dishonesty, the sexual harassment, the vulgarity.

The contrast is with the political class and their associated coterie of professional supporters, who usher politicians through a Goffmanesque universe of varied performances. If it is Tuesday and Iowa, then it’s farm subsidies and corn dogs. If it’s Thursday and the Cato Institute, then it’s the free market and cocktail shrimp. If it’s Saturday and Houston, it’s oil and barbecue. People in my universe were laughing at Trump right up to November 7 for the amateurish campaign, for the lack of research, for the missing ground game, for not having a sophisticated apparatus, for sounding in interviews with television journalists the same way he sounded in rallies in Scranton. Which just raises a sharp question about who the amateurs really are. You don’t need a massively complicated ground game and zip-code precise marketing technology if you motivate people strongly enough simply because of who you are and because you seem like something different in a time where people are longing for something different. (Even people who hate Trump were longing for something different: isn’t that what we all thought we’d got in 2008, far beyond “first black President”?)

I was struck in a recent social media conversation at the ardent defense that some people were making of the necessity of performative lying in international relations. That, for example, everyone “in the know” understood that allies spy on each other and intercept communications whenever possible, but that it was an act of Russian-sponsored political sabotage for Edward Snowden to have revealed in public that the National Security Agency was taking messages from Angela Merkel’s cellphone, intended to damage German-American relations. How could it, if everyone’s in on the secret? The answer is: everyone who is an insider is in on the secret, but not the German or American public beyond the corridors of power and elite knowledge. They, poor rubes, still think it unseemly for allies to spy on one another, and hence, their rulers are obliged to pretend as it were so.

People know too much now about the Goffmanesque performances elsewhere. Just like amateur poker players, weaned on a decade of televised looks at the hole cards of professionals, now understand systematically how people who knew the game played the game back when the pros routinely beat amateurs. In that case, knowledge is power. In the case of national politics, it’s further alienation. How to know when someone is telling you the truth of what they mean to do as a leader or a representative? You know they’ve told other people in other rooms something different, and that they talk in still another way when there are no mikes or reporters or donors around. The only way to know someone is telling you the truth is when they have persistent values or a persistent ethos and they’ll talk that way whether it’s strategic or not, whether the consultants want them to or not. Every time Trump took back his Twitter account from his consultants and fired off another unbalanced tweet, he verified his honesty. Every time he was attacked for lying, it was from people who live in a professional world of cultivated, performative, mannerly lying.

Until progressives start to understand this point, they’ll lose except in places where Goffmanesque performativity is a culturally and economically valued practice. A candidate who says what he or she means and is guided by deep-set values that he or she expresses regardless of whether it’s situationally wise to say it, is going to seem like a kind of middle-American Lenny Bruce, ripping up phony bourgeois manners, being the bull in someone else’s china shop. Yes, he’s a liar; yes, he is honest.

2. “Trump voters are stupid; Trump is stupid”

First, let’s get this out of the way: Trump is not stupid. Not like George W. Bush, who seemed indolent about understanding the basics and was readily manipulated or ignored by his ostensible subordinates. Trump is not at all knowledgeable in an expert sense, but he is clearly is extremely canny and quick to grasp the basic truths about a situation he’s confronting. We should not be mocking out of hand his assertion that given a basic read-in on a complex situation that he will in many cases arrive at a reasonable fascimile of a position that a more sophisticated and knowledgeable expert would take on the issue. Trump’s nakedness as an emperor is profound, but there are other forms of deshabille to be found at the top of our political hierarchies. There are experts who know so much that they effectively know nothing, or have no ability to decide what of the things they know is most consequentially useful in a real-world decision.

Are Trump voters stupid? We use the word in a lot of ways. When I’m blaming myself for something I did that I should have known better than to do, say if a power tool almost hurts me because I put too much pressure on it, I’ll often say, “That was stupid”. If I make a bad decision where I should have known more about what I was doing (or did know more and ignored what I knew), I say, “That was stupid”. So in the sense of, “You shouldn’t have done that, you had enough information to know better than to do that, but you did it anyway” stupid? A contingent stupid? Yes, they’re stupid. Yes, they did a stupid thing that is going to hurt the rest of us, already has hurt the rest of us. In the sense of, essentially unable to think well, uneducated, dumb about everything? It may help to vent anger to say so. But in almost any other comparative context, people with more education and more economic possibility regarding people with less education and economic possibility as stupid in this sense would look like class ideology, not empirical observation.

Yes, I know that you know a Trump voter who is actually a bona-fide idiot. I know a couple too. But I know Clinton and Sanders and Stein voters who are bona-fide idiots. I know professors who are bona-fide idiots. I also know that I’d never conclude that large groups of people whom I don’t know personally are, in some generalized fashion that applies to the entirety of their lives, “stupid”.

3. “Trump is completely incompetent and will screw up because he knows nothing.”

Here I already have largely said my piece. If there is a problem here, it may be with our entire model of executive leadership. Perhaps we pay too much attention to titular, symbolic executives whose role is largely to act as the symbolic representative of their organization, and not enough to the people with specific executive responsibilities who govern in their domains of responsibility. Most of those people–Cabinet secretaries and undersecretaries; vice-presidents in corporations; heads of institutes and provosts in academia–are where knowledge or lack of knowledge has its most meaningful impact. On this score, yes, Trump’s Administration is a fairly terrifying prospect to behold, but not because of incompetence born of ignorance in many cases, but instead because his Cabinet and likely his undersecretaries in turn seem to be people who know a good deal about their areas of responsibility but whose knowledge is wholly antagonistic to the administrative and regulatory responsibilities they will inherit. Many of them are not “make government small” people, they’re “destroy everything that government has done in this domain for the last century”. That should not be mistaken for incompetence.

4. “Trump is an unbalanced, rude, cruel narcissist without impulse control, that’s scary.”

Yes. He certainly seems to have impulse control problems, as well as exhibiting a streak of unabashed cruelty which hasn’t been seen in American political life for a very long time. Which I agree is scary for a variety of reasons.

But at the same time, we have to step back and look at ourselves from outside to understand why Trump’s rhetoric and behavior provokes such strong responses in many of us and a seeming indifference among many Trump voters or passive-non-voters. First, we have to ask where it is that people routinely encounter individuals whose uninhibited personal failings and tyrannous behavior towards others go unpunished and perhaps even rewarded. Basically, the average lower middle-class or non-union industrial workplace. Educated professional elites mostly work in organizations with strong cultural and formal constraints against this sort of raw, florid abusiveness, or if they do come up against this sort of behavior, they often feel it is possible to switch jobs. Professional life and high-energy start-up businesses have other kinds of abusiveness, of course, either more subtle forms of bullying or pervasive institutional pressures. But Trump in this way is a familiar kind of boss character whose existence is accepted and sometimes even celebrated in other working lives–mercurial, dictatorial, preening, self-involved, capricious. We are horrified by him in ways that rhetorically mark off how unfamiliar we are with Trumpish behavior, how much we have built working cultures that mark off that kind of behavior as unmannerly.

Which is the second part of the problem. I’m not sure how conscious Trump is about the buttons he is pressing with his tweets and remarks. Like any halfway competent class clown, he’s looking for attention, and he seems to have an intuitive grasp of how to remember and intensify the kinds of statements and rhetoric that most provoke a response. But this is the same thing that other right-wing figures have been consciously, programmatically doing for the last two decades. At least half the time, the outrageousness of what has been said in some forms of conservative media is intended for liberal ears. A comment that provokes liberal outrage is money in the bank, a confirmation that the commenter is legitimate. What provokes is not the content of the sentiment but the ways in which it violates mannerly civility. If Rush Limbaugh had said that he objected to activists like Sandra Fluke demanding insurance coverage for contraceptives because he worried that ease of access to contraceptives played a complicated role in encouraging promiscuity, the content of his remarks would still have been objectionable, but if he was careful to say it in a mannerly way, he would have gotten little attention for it.

Trump seems to have taken this to a new level, as his incivility doesn’t even feel particularly ideological. It’s not about policy positions, it is about generalized transgression of manners. Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack, Delta House in Animal House, and so on: everything and anything that offends against the club which he’s just joined. The thing is, manners become something to offend against primarily when they seem to be less about locality and more about controlling social mobility. Nobody objects to being told how to eat an unfamiliar food when they sit down to dinner with folks whose lives are built around that food. But our own culture is full of tales of folk heroism about offending against snobbery, or about rejecting seemingly arbitrary but ubiquitious manners (say, in men letting their hair grow longer).

We have to learn to reinitialize the parts of our discursive manners that reflect deeper ethical principles and then to live up to those principles more consistently. If it’s wrong to be cruel, it’s always wrong. If it’s wrong to be self-involved and self-promoting, it’s always wrong. If it’s wrong to get obsessed by criticism, it’s always wrong. Or if it is wrong for a President but not wrong for ordinary people, we need to explain exactly why it is that a President must be different–and if it is because a President must be a moral exemplar, then we’re right back to needing to explain in fresh and more convincing ways the difference between our manners and our morals.

5. “Trump voters will never get what they want, nobody can bring back jobs.”

Very likely this is true, but it is one of the things that we should not assume that his voters (or voters who abstained this election) are being stupid about.

I’ve written about this particular issue many times in the last ten years, and I’m not alone on this point. The first problem here is that many progressives, even people ostensibly far to the left, can be disturbingly sanguine about jobs lost to globalization and automation. (These are frequently treated as completely separable, when I think they are part of a connected reorganization of capital, labor and society.) That these are losses that no one could have prevented and that no one can remedy. At best, progressives talk about job retraining and about worker relocation as solutions.

The second problem is that anyone thinks that those policy suggestions are either philosophically or pragmatically adequate as answers to these changes. It’s like suggesting to early modern high-ranking guild-based textile producers that they think of taking up a starter position in a putting-out system for woolens or moving to one of the new urban slums and looking for wage labor as if that’s an answer rather than an ultimatum in the face of the Industrial Revolution. Anybody who is in a line of work that is losing jobs permanently due to these structural changes wants to first hear that someone actually understands what is happening, and understands what it means to say, “Retrain and relocate”. Even when people engage in labor migration in a more or less voluntary way, it is often a momentous decision, and something that many of them would just as soon not do.

This relates to the third problem: people who are at the ground zero of structural change in the economy (which is different, remember, from places that have been mired in structural poverty continuously since the 1950s or earlier) often don’t really believe that there are or could be government-based solutions that match the scale and character of that change. To some extent, they buy into the naturalization of economic transformation projected by neoliberalism: that this is just what economies do. So even more so, what many of them want is less a ten-point plan with specifics and more a full-throated acknowledgement of what has happened. In a paradoxical sense, a vague authoritarian promise to change everything is more believable than a specific policy initiative. Not just because the specific policies in such initiatives are so inadequate to the experience of change, but because we’ve all watched the endless, hopeless unleashing of policies on other communities and societies that liberals and technocrats believe should be “developed” or changed. One more for the people aren’t stupid column: almost everywhere in the world that has become the subject of technocratic policy interventions is a site of perpetual non-transformation. Economic and social change for the better mostly happens to places that are untargeted by “development policies”. (Though also, when it happens for the better, it often forces people already living there to leave: none of this is to celebrate the wonders of unfettered capitalism.)

Trump is the only person who spoke about social transformations of economic life in a way that matched the emotional magnitude of change in communities that feel (correctly, by and large) that they have lost ground, that possibility is now vested elsewhere. He malevolently linked his address to race and immigration in a terrifyingly consequential way, but the counter to this is not technocratic policy. (Nor is it silent complicity in the racism that Trump has so devastatingly mobilized and strengthened.)

6. “Trump won only on a technicality.”

I’ve talked about this kind of claim before, but it’s a terrible argument for the same reason that most of us teach our kids that good sportsmanship means shaking hands even with cheaters and then figuring out a way to beat them next time–or get the rules enforced next time. Look forward to how the next contest will go, and advocate changes when they don’t seem like narrowly targeted, short-term alterations of the rules intended to deliver you a one-time victory. The time to fix competitive systems that have the potential to deliver bad outcomes is when you win. The Democrats and their progressive backers have had no interest in fixing the Electoral College in years when they have either been the beneficiaries of it or have believed that would favor them in the future. A pure popular vote that required a majority rather than a plurality would have thrown the 1960, 1968, 1992 and 1996 elections to the House, or to a run-off system; a popular vote that allowed the largest plurality winner to take office would be subject to a very different set of complaints about how undemocratic it was. The Electoral College is not an obscure rule, and it’s not just something that applies to the presidential race. It’s only one of a number of ways that federalism is the basis of American political authority. It may be that there are good arguments against federalism–some of them going all the way back to the 1780s and before–but you have to treat those arguments seriously rather than as a self-evident principle. Any systems for competing for political authority in a society where there are at least two fractions of the population that are bitterly opposed to one another are going to be subject to complaints that they privilege one fraction over another. We’re going to be living with close contests for a while. Building a system that is consciously intended to solve that problem by permanently disenfranchising one group or another is never a valid answer for anyone who believes in democracy, especially not when there is such a sharp political divide. (Indeed, that’s why Republican efforts to disenfranchise people are so objectionable.) It’s true that Trump should have little mandate, given that he lost the popular vote and that an even larger majority of Americans disdain and fear him. But “mandates” are less essential to the uninhibited exercise of power than we think, and we shouldn’t expect this to slow him down one iota.

7. “Trump only won because Clinton was a bad candidate.”

This has been the subject of more bloodletting discussion among progressives than any other point. Despite the fact that I think Clinton was a bad candidate (both for reasons not of her making and reasons that are) I think it’s foolish to regard this as a sufficient explanation of the loss. It’s appealing to some people precisely because they think that nothing else would need fixing besides the candidate, and that the candidate was only selected by conspiratorial action. But Clinton’s weaknesses are John Kerry’s weaknesses and Al Gore’s weaknesses and Michael Dukakis’ weaknesses and even to an extent Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s weaknesses, give or take some individual quirks and qualities of each person. These are structural flaws in the Democratic Party and its contemporary infrastructure. To some extent, I think they go back to the Carter Administration, where being “clean” in the context of Watergate meant less Carter’s own admirable personal morality and more the replacement of local politicians by technocrats within the leadership of the party. If you want better candidates, you need a different pipeline. You also need to stop thinking about the Presidency as the alpha and omega of electoral politics. Even if Clinton had won by a squeaker, she would have won an election where the Republicans held the House and Senate and controlled a solid majority of state legislatures and governorships. Meaning, she would have won in a context where the only power she had was executive power–and the more that the Democrats build up executive power as something that can be used without oversight, the more that they are creating the precedent structures that a future authoritarian–or a present one–may use advantageously. I fear very much that we’re about to see just that in the next four years, that Trump will be the beneficiary of the uses of executive authority by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. (At the very least, he has already signalled his intent to use the authority that Obama used in order to reverse every single thing Obama accomplished without legislative confirmation.) Clinton was a bad candidate, but that is far from the only reason that Trump won.

8. “Why don’t evangelicals care about Trump’s immorality?”

I admit that this issue sticks with me personally more than these others. I have a hard time seeing how people who have in other times and contexts made a great deal out of the godliness or lack thereof of public figures can even for one second tolerate Trump, who is very nearly a poster child for the Seven Deadly Sins. I’m not sure there’s been as palpably un-Christian a President for decades. Even devotees of the prosperity gospel should feel uncomfortable, since the point in that preaching is that wealth comes as a reward for pursuing it but also for living a godly life. But when you look at authoritarians, the odd thing is often that they do not actually exemplify the traditionalist or conservative values that they often rule in the name of. Hitler was not a strapping, muscular, blond Aryan warrior. The question this leaves is often, “Do the people who claim that they value those ideals actually do so, or are those values just a thin ideological veneer over some deeper social mobilization?” That is not a question to answer lightly or casually: it takes genuine investigation. I would at least be curious as Trump’s presidency develops to see how evangelical justification for supporting him develops. It is not just his grabbing-the-pussy misogyny, it is also his cruelty and rudeness, his profane bearing, that I would think ought to be an issue. But if “evangelical” is not really at all a body of doctrine but instead simply “being from particular places, being part of particular communities”, if it has nothing to do with church-going, nothing to do with scripture, nothing to do with a specified set of moral values or obligations, even then there is a puzzle: because Trump is palpably also not from those places or communities. His appeal in this sense to the ex-industrial working class of the Atlantic coast I completely understand–even though he was someone born with money, he feels in some ways like a guy who came from those roots and did with his money what a lot of folks in those places would do with it. But the evangelical South and Midwest, not so much.

9. “What is uniquely wrong with America?”

There’s some elements of legitimate American exceptionalism littered in the last year’s events, but American progressives are not going to really understand what’s going on nor effectively react to it unless or until they grasp how much of this is a global story. The deeper story is that the nation-state is a failing institution. It cannot deliver what people all around the planet believe it has promised to deliver, not in its present form. Progressive or liberal political parties all around the globe gave up on delivering social democracy in a sustained way except in a handful of northern European nation-states during the 1980s and 1990s, and generally now run on the premise that they would be better-trained managers of systems that they have no desire to fundamentally reform or change. All over the globe that has become an unconvincing, pallid electoral strategy that generally appeals only to people who see themselves as better-trained managers of their own institutions, and to the people who are their social clients and dependents. Conservative or reactionary parties have gained ground because they offer some grander vision, because they promise (however transparently falsely) to radically reform or abolish failed systems, because they cross social boundaries that progressives no longer cross. I think this is very similar to how Islamist parties made inroads in cases like the coup-cancelled 1992 election in Algeria–not necessarily because people were drawn in positive terms to their message, but because they were the only viable reformist alternatives to business as usual.

A global perspective could help progressives to understand why they are losing ground everywhere. It is not, a la Jonathan Haidt, because conservatism is cognitively natural to human beings. It is that late 19th Century institutions are not working well for 21st Century humanity. If you want to gain political ground, you have to stop incrementalist tinkering around the edges of those institutions. Progressives everywhere stick to that, even people fairly far to the left, because they are the major remaining beneficiaries of those poorly functioning institutions. We need a new set of political aspirations that take us beyond our limitations.

10. “Now terrible things are going to happen to innocent people.”

Welcome to the world after 9/11. A world that the Obama Administration did relatively little to modify. I’m perfectly willing to concede that he tried in some cases, as with Guantanamo, and was blocked. This is precisely what made the administration of George W. Bush and his allies, like Tony Blair, so horrific: that they insisted in rewriting the procedural life of the “deep state” on military, security and intelligence practices to legitimize a state of permanent emergency and all the things that go along with it. Much is now thinkable and doable under the Trump Administration that was not so easily thought or done in 1995. So yes, more terrible things to more kinds of innocent people. Changing that will, once again, take more than a sensible professorial temperament placed into executive leadership. It will take a bigger, deeper change in global institutions. And it will take also a different way of responding to terrible things happening to innocent people at the hands of organizations like ISIS and Boko Haram. We have to find something to think and do about their outrages that is more than just invocations of local or particularist “root causes” and more than just treating them as natural or inevitable features of late modernity. What that something else is, I have no idea–but until we think through it, we have no answer to the authoritarians who promise more terrible things and an indifference to the consequences for innocent people.

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8 Responses to The Anatomy of Anti-Trumpism: Ten Thoughts and Reconsiderations

  1. My neighbor came to see me last weekend. When I answered the door I invited him in, which I always do, and he came in, which he almost never does–usually we talk in the front yard and often other neighbors wander over. It is all good. When he sat down, I could see that he was clearly worried. He told me that he was worried about his children. He has three, one in high school, one in the fifth grade, and one in diapers. He and his wife are well-educated. He is a manager for a large national corporation that is growing, and she is a nurse with a very special specialty. He said that he was worried about the future of his children. He said that he was worried about the climate and global warming. He wanted to know what he should do to protect his children. This is the first time this topic has ever come up with him or any of my other neighbors.

    I told him a little about the things I had learned and I told him about key time points that were deadlines, or maybe drop-dead dates. He was anguished. I am the odd duck among my neighbors, I am the science guy or the math guy and they regard me as kind of crazy. But now, for this one neighbor at least, something has changed post Trump’s election. My sense of his transformation is that he, or his wife, suddenly asked, “What if Trump’s critics are right?”

    I have many lifelong friends who are very conservative, and several of them live in Oklahoma. Since the election, they have been letting me have it. They felt pretty good about the election. But I kept asking them what they thought he would accomplish in his first 100 days. Their responses have gotten shorter and shorter. I detect a note of doubt, and they do not want me to see it.

    But, none of this matters at all. If progressives, what a silly term, ignore your advice, which I predict they will, then we are doomed.

    But if some people, like my neighbor, who have finally realized that they have skin in the game, their children’s skin, they may be motivated enough to act–provided that you or I offer them a step-by-step plan to effect change.

    From where I sit the only, let me repeat, the only way forward is to tell the losers in the last election that they have only one more chance and it will come in the next two election cycles. They have four years to get ready and they will be fools to try to work within the present two-party system.

    And there I go again. My wife and I took a vacation to NYC in 1967. We stayed two weeks and had a great time. I had worked there for a while before we went up together, and I told her that one could see anything or anybody on the streets there. We stayed at the Hilton on Fifth Avenue and as we went out the side door, we met a man who was disheveled and wild-eyed. He looked at me and held out his right hand. In it was a huge ball of keys, bound together with chains, string, and ribbons. He said fiercely, “I hold the keys to the kingdom.” I feel like that man.

    I did not give him the time of day, and no one gives it to me either. Good luck to you and yours. I am an old man and I will be lucky to finish the comment, but you seem to have a long life in front of you. I wish I could help you stave off the onrushing catastrophe that is moving your way, but I can’t. I know what to do, but I do not have the ability to motivate people like Trump. I will review your ten points and see if I can learn to lie, or be brutally honest, or be hateful to poor people or people of color, etc. But, on the other hand, if that is what it takes to alter our trajectory then perhaps it is not worth it–but on the other, other hand, I have three grandchildren…

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I’m getting pretty old too. This election scares me because I don’t think it’s just “well, we will have four bad years of policies we don’t like, and then we’ll see”. Though I am trying to get people think more effectively about opposition, I’m deeply terrified by what has happened. Not just for me, but for those who come after. And though I am tempering it for reasons of practicality, I’m furious with people I know and don’t know for having been as thoughtless as I think they have been, no matter how justified they may feel about their alienation from the system. In a sense, precisely because I think they aren’t “stupid”, I am even more angry that they’ve been this careless.

  3. sibyl says:

    Thanks for this.

    Out of everything that I’ve read in the last two months, I keep coming back to the work of Katherine Cramer (political scientist) and Josh Pacewicz (sociologist). Taken together, their work suggests that changes to industrial and political structures have created two classes: (a) a technocratic class that is largely urban, educated, and globalized and that operates the nation’s financial, political, and cultural mechanisms, and (b) another class that is largely rural, less educated (i.e. high school diploma or lower), and localized (if not quite place-bound), and is not well served by the actions of the other class. Trump’s voters belong to the latter group, and, as you yourself have previously noted [http://blogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/blog/2016/07/18/the-machine-of-morbius/], some of them are exacting a measure of vengeance. Clinton’s strategy rested on persuading the (b) group that Trump disqualified himself on moral grounds, but that wasn’t sufficient; for all his faults, he promised to be a better servant of the (b) voters than she did. That’s my answer to your #8: yes, he’s unchurched and not especially moral, but she’s hardly a moral beacon; and while I am cautious about him, I’ll support him as long as he serves the (b) group — and as long as he doesn’t actually assault any woman I’m personally related to.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I have to say that you are very nearly in I-have-a-bridge-in-Brooklyn-to-sell-you territory if you think his promise to serve (b) voters is either sincere or likely to come to pass, save for the getting-even dimension of it. I think yes, he’ll exact vengeance for harms real and imagined, but it’s the kind of vengeance that will likely harm those hoping to see him exact it as well. Perhaps catastrophically so.

    As someone raised in a sporadically Catholic household with some general familiarity with Christianity, I have to say that “as long as you don’t sexually assault someone I know personally, I’m basically ok with you” is a mighty weird understanding of scripture and Christian tradition. Do you apply that generally to other people accused of sexual assault, harassment and rape?

  5. sibyl says:

    I agree with you that he has less than a 5% chance of effectively serving the interests of (b) voters, and that there is no part of Christian thinking that justifies assault or rape. I was trying to speak in the voice of a (b) voter, not my own voice, and I apologize that I didn’t make that clear.

    I was trying to convey the point that, for (b) people, there are worse things than being unchurched. For them, Clinton’s real and imagined sins stretch back a quarter of a century; she has proven herself to be unredeemable. Clinton made a major strategic mistake in thinking that Trump’s offensiveness would be enough to bring the (b) people into her camp. Part of that was because she seems blind to her own weaknesses. She never saw how hard it is for (b) people to like her.

    (I agree with you that it’s counterproductive to focus exclusively on Clinton’s failings as a candidate and as a strategist, but that doesn’t mean Clinton didn’t have failings.)

    Trump, by comparison, has a shorter track record in public life. (Remember, the people who read about him in Spy magazine in the 80s are all (a) people.) (b) people know several men personally who seem a lot like Trump — willing to make offensive jokes and say sexual things that the political-correctness people think is harassment, but the men they know are 99% bark and 1% bite. They think Trump is like that. He seems to have family members who love him. He plays a bad guy on TV, but maybe he’s a different guy in private, and maybe he’ll be a different guy once he’s President. Maybe moral people like Orrin Hatch and Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell will turn him around. Maybe he will warrant forgiveness, and that’s what Christianity is all about.

  6. The comments so far have been interesting but frustrating. Our civilization is in deep trouble. Analyzing the last election is a waste of very limited time. And don’t say that one has to look at the last election in order to prepare for the next one. Elections are a major part of the problem. Our solution is at once ancient and brand new.

    Rather than waste time working with the current system of corrupt elections and our failed systems of government and economics, we should focus our energies on modifying these systems by adapting the seven superior ideas of Athenian democracy. I have preached this gospel for years, but, like that man with the ball of keys, I sound, and probably appear, nuts. But then, from out of nowhere, classics scholar Paul Cartledge, in the Epilogue to his recently published book, “Democracy, A Life,” has looked with favor on the idea of taking the best the ancient city offers and bringing actual democracy to America for the very first time.

    He is a classics scholar, and I am systems designer. How odd it must be that the two of us have come up with the same idea. You should join us. Rather than lament all the ills of our situation, you could do something about them.

  7. In the provinces says:

    This is an elegant and throughout post, filled with important insights. But there are also some problematic features about it, and I would point, in particular, to the assumptions about authenticity and expertise. You assert that Trump was popular with voters and the general public because he appeared as authentic, as someone who spoke what was on his mind, rejecting filtering his words through campaign managers, spin doctors and other purveyors of political expertise. This decisively differentiated him from other politicians, whether Republicans or Democrats, and, (at least implicitly) especially Hillary Clinton. The problem with that assertion is that it comports poorly with the actual course of the election campaign.

    When Trump directly spoke what was on his mind, rejecting the advice of his campaign staff–as he did in the presidential debates, in his tweets about Captain Khan and Alicia Machado and in the pussy tape, his standing fell in the polls, and disastrously so. When the voters and the general public (and even some hardline Republican loyalists) were exposed to the authentic Trump they were repelled.

    By contrast, when Trump made his run, in the last two weeks of the campaign, Kellyanne Conway took his Twitter account away from him and basically hid him from the media and the general public. She and Steve Bannon launched a very sophisticated campaign of negative advertising against Clinton, accusing her of being a liar, a fraud, someone who sends and receives e-mails–a routine act turned into something very sinister–has connections with shadowy international financiers and is also a sex criminal, running a child sex ring out of the basement of a Washington pizzeria and having an e-mail connection to the perverted Anthony Weiner. This display of political expertise, in the long tradition of Republican attack ads, going back at least to the 1988 presidential campaign (remember Willie Horton?) with the assistance, whether accidental or deliberate of Vladimir Putin and James Comey–and the more we learn, the more likely it seems that it was deliberate–and the cheerleading of mainstream media like the New York Times and CNN, as well as the assistance of leftists, like Julian Assange, and Glen Greenwald, brought Trump his election victory.

    So in this sense it seems that your argument should be stood on its head. Trump’s authenticity was not a strong point, but a weakness. It was only when he finally allowed himself to be filtered and guided by political experts that he became successful. Polls showing that a substantial proportion of Trump voters regarded him as unfit to be president supports this point of view. They found him unfit because they were exposed to his uncensored, authentic self; they voted for him because they were convinced by the political experts working for him that Hillary Clinton was uniquely evil

    In fact, I wonder if Trump’s “authenticity” has a considerable appeal to representatives of the culture of expertise–to academics, for instance, fed up with the social, intellectual and economic contours of contemporary higher education.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Thanks for this. Sorry about the technical difficulties in getting it posted.

    I guess I just disagree that it was Bannon and Conway in the last two weeks who professionally tipped the balance by going after Clinton in some especially sophisticated way. Clinton’s negative image was an enduring structural force in this campaign that went back more than a decade. At best they put a minor flourish on it. I also think you have the timing slightly off re: Trump’s own tweeting. He had lower poll numbers (and I think at this point we have to doubt, profoundly, whether there’s anything to those numbers at any moment of the campaign) when he was on a tweet rampage, but his numbers didn’t rise when he (briefly) was muzzled in favor of more professional messaging.

    I think the key thing is to detach the perception among his voters and even his enemies about his authenticity or ‘realness’ from views of him as fit-for-the-office. If you look at the last few days of coverage, one thing that stands out is that nobody thinks he’s playacting at anger–everyone takes for granted that they are seeing the real man with his real emotions. Many are scared or appalled by that, but it is nevertheless a significant difference in American political life that there is near-unanimous accord that what we’re seeing is what really is. For virtually every other member of the political class all the way back several decades, the opposite has been true: both supporters and enemies have assumed that the person we see in their official capacities is not the real person–that they speak and act differently, and have different abiding values (if any) than the ones we see performed in official life. I think we should not underestimate why people might hunger for that.

    I also think we need to understand that for some of Trump’s voters, the man’s unfitness for office is a partially positive value: that they want him to wreck a system that they believe is otherwise impermeable to change.

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