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.