I’ve been grappling with the problem of what we now call “the Trump base” for the entire lifetime of this weblog, now 17 years going back to its original hand-rolled HTML version. I started this weblog during the administration of George W. Bush, when it was clear that the social formations supporting the conservative political project that had its first major rollout in the Reagan Administration had produced a deepening cleavage within the American nation-state and were in the process of rewriting institutional norms and processes at all levels of American life to intensify that project. Writing through the Obama Administration, I noted with dismay a number of times that the leadership of the Democratic Party, including Obama himself, seemed to not understand what was going on around them and continued to try and govern within the “Third Way” norms that Bill Clinton had represented as a replacement for post-New Deal liberal politics.
The problem with politics-as-usual was that it misunderstood the depth and power of the social formation that had come into being through Gingrich’s “Contract with America”, through Karl Rove and the Koch Brothers’ projects of redistricting and financing local and state-level political organizing, through the Tea Party. Either the usual pundits and experts pronounced that there really was no red-and-blue divide, that we were still in reality a purple nation, or they said that all of what looked like a genuine social faction was just “astroturfing”, just a bunch of money producing a phony and performative prop politics that had no actual social underpinnings. Or, perhaps most disastrously, both liberals and progressives imagined that they could reach out to the conservative base and complete their education on various subjects: climate science, racial justice, democratic norms, economic policy, public goods and safety nets. That had some especially noxious paternalistic variants: “nudging” or “framing”, both of which proposed that people who know better could simply identify the mystical underpinnings of reactionary practice and hey presto! tame the savage beast. It had some especially naive variants: this blog was driven by attempts to have honest dialogues and create meaningful understandings with conservative readers in the hope that I and people like me would also be understood and listened to in turn, which mostly amounted to climbing voluntarily into a right-wing apparatus of profoundly self-aware tendentious manipulation and contributing indirectly to the moving of Overton windows.
So. Here we are then. The Trump base is both a product of this history and is something deeply socially real that will not disappear no matter what happens in November or its aftermath. It is long past the time to drop thumb-sucking security blankets like “astroturfing” . It is a highly immobile, now fully manifested social formation that is probably about 35% of the active electorate and maybe 25% of the residents of this national territory, distributed in concentrated clusters. (Much as liberal democrats and progressives are.) It basically has three fundamental cohesive propositions keeping it together as a base.
First, every poll, every election, every real manifestation of the base shows that its heart is the resentment and alienation of people without a college education against those who do. There are people with college educations in the Trump base, certainly, but some of them are people who share the resentment because their education is deemed of lower long-term value and some of them are people who have a high-value credential but have decided there is a better market return to be had in derogating the value of higher education. This is the sentiment that gives many progressives and liberals the most comfort: we feel safe in saying that of course it’s better to be more educated, that reality has a bias towards greater knowledge, that the economy is just changing and sorry that’s the way it is. I myself stand confidently on the value of my own expertise, the value of my own profession, and on the importance of the truths that modern knowledge systems so ably (and sometimes uncomfortably) produce. But in fact, if there’s anything that the majority of Americans who stand opposed to the Trump base should feel uncomfortable about, it is this underlying foundation of its existence. We should not be surprised: once upon a time, this is precisely why progressives questioned globalization, promoted unionization, worried about the commodification of higher education, and so on. Here and here alone we should be hearing a signal that our own deep political commitments mandate that we have to listen to: a signal of the accelerating marginalization and precarity of a large number of American citizens and residents. Not just because our politics demands attention to that kind of change, but because it now appears just to be a foreshock of what the economy of disruption now is doing to almost everyone else. Professional labor is now also being squeezed and derogated, small businesses are being bought and consolidated, property ownership is vanishing down the maw of limited-liability holding companies with no human names or faces, brick-and-mortar retail is being melted to slag in the furnaces of private equity.
Enough, however, with the sympathy. Because the grounds on which common cause could be made–or a liberal democratic politics realized in solidarity–are thoroughly poisonous and uninhabitable. And not by what we have done, unconsciously or otherwise. The second glue holding the Trump base is the most familiar and discussed in the liberal-left public sphere: white fragility and resentment. It is what prevents the Trump base from making common cause with the other victims of credentialism, the other laborers working in meat-packing plants and as itinerant hourly laborers. The base is held together by people who expected their own credentials or capital, their own social worlds, to be permanently overvalued less by the invisible hand and more by a white-sheeted thumb on the scale, to be always pegged to the Whiteness Index. To have whiteness always finish first in the race, regardless of the runner’s speed. That expectation is under real threat in 2020. It always has been even when white people happily sat for photographs in front of lynched black men, or when they held up souvenirs of the burning of Rosewood and Black Wall Street. Because white people who value their overvaluing have always known how damned unfair that was and have always expected that they would have it taken from them the moment they wavered even slightly in the violent maintenance of white dominance. Which the Trump base now furiously imagines the rest of white America did.
This brings me to my buried lede. The third and most important glue holding that base together is what we do not discuss nearly so much, if at all. We are glad (if also depressed and horrified) to talk about the white supremacy behind Trump and his supporters. We are smug if slightly uncomfortable about the education gap as a force, as long as we don’t have to dwell on its deeper implications. But the deepest and oldest glue makes us squirm. What we face in the Trump base is not people with whom we have disagreements on matters of discrete principle such as reproductive rights, church-state separation, taxation policy, Confederate memorials, you name it. If their commitments to those issues often seem remarkably mutable (not too many Trump supporters talking right now in the language of lite-libertarianism about big governments) and we howl that they seem hypocrites or inconsistent, it is because we do not understand what we’re talking about or who we are talking to. They are in fact consistent. They are not hypocritical unless we count that tiny subset of the Republican political class in Washington that is actually socially and even philosophically with the rest of us but who feel the need to conform to Trumpism. GOP Senators, White House press secretaries, right-wing pundits (mostly) and their ilk are not of the Trump base, no matter how much the enable it for their own careerist reasons.
What the liberal-progressive world largely doesn’t understand is that the 35 % of the electorate that stand with Trump no matter what he does (maybe a quarter of people resident inside the borders of the US) do not believe in democracy. It is not that they don’t realize that Trump is an authoritarian, etc., that democracy is in danger. They realize it and they’re glad. Mission accomplished. They have a different view of power and political process, of social relations. They are brutalists. Fundamentally they think power is a zero-sum game. You hold it or you are held by it. You are the boot on someone’s neck or there will be a boot on yours. They agree that what they have was taken from others; they think that’s the way of all things. You take or are taken from.
They do not believe in liberty and justice for all, or even really for themselves: it is not that they reserve liberty for themselves, because they believe that even they should be subject to the will of a merciless authority (who they nevertheless expect to favor them as an elect of that authority). We often ask how evangelicals who think this way can stand the notion of a God who would permit a tornado to destroy a church and kill the innocents gathered in it for shelter. They can stand it because they expect that of authority: that authority is cruel and without mercy because it must be. They simply expect authority to be far more cruel to others than it is to them. And they expect to be cruel with the authority they possess.
We keep thinking of this as a deformed or ignorant political sensibility, the product of sleeping through civics class. It’s not. It’s a fully-worked out, fully inhabited vision of human life and it has been with us for quite a while. It is not quite the Straussian or Randian vision of using esoteric deception to cover a project to retain power for a refined elite or scorning altruism as a weakness, though there’s some overlap. This is the full-on sentiment of what Berlin identified as the Counter-Enlightenment. Not that some people are better than others, nor even the favored “Dark Enlightenment” proposition that the masses must be governed by a superior ruler. Simply that what can be taken must be taken. It’s the spirit of Frederick Lugard (or any other imperialist of the early 20th Century) defending their project in the last instance, after all the humanitarian bullshit is shed like the dross that it ultimately was. “The natives have something we value–including their own labor–and we must take it if they cannot stop us from taking it.” It is the spirit that animated fascism in the first half of the twentieth century. It is what makes authoritarianism, whatever its ostensible ideological flavoring, possible, that some proportion of the people living under it are brutalists and accept the consequences of that vision of life–indeed, often yearn for it should it be temporarily overthrown or reduced in its power.
We are not going to ever be able to make peace with this view of human life, educate it, or find a way to include it in democratic process. If we do not want to be perpetually endangered by it, sooner or later we will have to violate our own commitments and basically have some controlled degree of brutalism towards the brutalism in our midst, some form of zero tolerance for it. The brutalists have been fond of saying when challenged or thwarted, “if you don’t like it, you can leave”; if something like a pluralist liberal democracy is going to survive, it has to start saying–and doing–the same. We cannot just limp past the finish line of November and count ourselves safe if we do so. Nor can we even argue for a strong policy agenda that will, if accomplished, bring unity. We can bring people in who feel uncertainly lost or who feel uncomfortable with particular fashions in liberal or left policy sentiment. There will be no peace nor justice nor democracy if we do not acknowledge that we live with people who rationally, coherently, meaningfully want none of that.