The Deeper Struggle

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.

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19 Responses to The Deeper Struggle

  1. 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.

    How do you propose that the brutalists who choose not to leave should be made to leave? Via body bags?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I have no answers here except that it should be plain that offering dialogue, education, patience, mutual tolerance are all both proven empirical failures and ethically naive. When you come to something that simply is non-negotiable, when you come to people with whom you cannot negotiate not because they don’t get it or you haven’t hit on the right appeal but because they absolutely and finally do not want what you want and never will, negotiations are over.

    Liberal democrats sometimes fantasize about giving brutalism its own domain and leaving it to its own devices. It is a fantasy and a seduction, another kind of dalliance with appeasement. Replying to brutalism with its own vision also seems like a mistake as you imply. I suppose the closest thing I can think of is de-Nazification: that you don’t get to work for a pluralist liberal democracy without being a pluralist liberal democrat. How to do that without the dystopian charade of loyalty oaths, I dunno.

    So I have no answers, just an attitude. Negotiations are over. What that leads to, I don’t know, but if we can’t get past our own illusions about what we’re dealing with, we will ourselves in time be lost. Perhaps quite soon, perhaps after a delay of game. What we value is going to face tests far worse than the Proud Boys in a century’s time.

  3. Ilana Gershon says:

    Where do the 35% of Americans that don’t believe in democracy actually get to experience anything remotely resembling democracy? Not in their homes, and most assuredly not in their workplaces. One of my current puzzles is why Trump supporters are so angry at the possibility of experiencing any government regulation, when the workplace regulations they experience ALL the time are so much more onerous. There is no freedom of speech in the workplace — and workers are even fired for what they say on Facebook or Twitter when they aren’t at work. So why aren’t they angry about the corporate regulations they face, why displace all this anger onto the government? And if it is an issue that they are in fact experiencing autocracy in most of their lives all the time, why should they believe in democracy? It suggests that there may be some hope for change by changing people’s everyday experiences.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I think this is the same point in a different way that Frank makes in his Kansas book: that the Democrats abandoned the provision of economic justice through public policy and so people drifted into diversionary languages to talk about what they weren’t getting, and started believing that public policy could not provide justice (where once they had believed it ardently).

    I take it seriously, e.g., that you may be right that people have had such little experience with democracy that they don’t even know what it might mean. This of course goes for more than the Trump base: most of us have increasingly attenuated experiences with anything like democratic deliberation in our workplace or civic lives. Our lives are lived at scales that don’t support that and our lives are lived in institutions where managerialism and its largely unsatisfying invocations of “inclusion” are not democratic at all. We pretend in academia that we are educating our students for a kind of citizenship based on critical thought that doesn’t even exist inside most academic institutions. (Or if it exists, is ill-tolerated and often monopolized by people who mistake critical thought for operatic self-absorption.)

    And yet, that said, I think there are a set of people who have been with modernity since modernity’s birth who are not its beneficiaries and yet are neither its victims who simply disagree in toto for reasons that are not purely self-interested with the premises of liberalism or democracy. I want to start taking them seriously as something other than inconsequential heretics who have yet to hear the word or have yet to experience the benefits of the best that liberal democracy could offer–but the paradox is that taking them seriously in that regard requires treating them as barbarians, a dangerous impulse for liberal democracy that has been all too frequently one of its to-go moves since its advent.

  5. Jonathan` Reynolds says:

    The key is that in many Fascist and Authoritarian states, the bargain is that supporters will be rewarded enough for their identity and loyalty that they will willingly give up real equality before the law and quality of life. They know folks like Trump (or Batista or Buhari or whoever) are reaping disproportionate rewards and power, and as a result will enjoy freedoms and luxuries they will never get but a hint of, but they’re happy with their slice, so long as people they don’t like will have even less. It’s hardly a new thing in the US or elsewhere, when you get down to it.

  6. Mark Shirk says:

    There is a recent essay by Jefferson Cowie in Boston Review on ‘white freedom’ which gets at some of what you are saying here but claims that the Trump base does want freedom but that they freedom can only be had at the expense of others (and they want the freedom to dominate). Obviously this is not liberal democratic but has a different flavor from your brutalist lens. Wonder what you think.

    I am also left wondering if there has ever been a time or place where a liberal democratic (or any really) society has not had this large slice of people thinking like this. That this is a problem that never goes away but can become dormant. Obviously the form and efficacy of such movements will be different depending on culture, history, etc.

    So eventually the question becomes how we drive this underground and/or how we try to prevent its re-emergence. Both are probably impossible but can be achieved in degree. I am reminded here of Dewey’s arguments about democracy being something we should always be working on, that it is not based on freedom loving or in institutions but instead on the work its people put in. I feel that at some point in the 20th century, the US forgot this point and believed that democracy was on autopilot. But this does mean that brutalism (or white freedom) can be driven underground though it is a multi-generational effort to keep it there. And multi-generational efforts are often forgotten as times goes on.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    I’ll have to read the Cowie–sounds good. I think yes, that’s another way to describe what I’m thinking about, but I also think “freedom for me but not for thee” is different in some ways. Depressingly, in fact, “freedom for me but not for thee” is actually pretty consistent with the real history of liberal democracy to date–that people who profess belief in pluralistic liberal democracy find ways to authorize illiberalism towards many groups. (As arguably I’m doing in this essay.) I do think brutalism as I imagine it is different. The “freedom for me, not for thee” vision still values a language of rights, individual sovereignty, laws not men, etc. but it is comfortable with some group of subjects being denied rights, acknowledgement of individuality, or recourse to laws. The brutalist doesn’t even believe that he himself has rights, nor does he believe in laws except as statements of dominion. He doesn’t see himself as a free individual, but as a person who is under power and holds power. He may want to be favored by power in a consistent way, but he doesn’t expect to be entitled in some covenant or legal doctrine to that favor. The brutalist I think also has no trouble acting collectively, but in ad hoc assemblages united to do violence or wield power. If they hold together past a moment of convenience, what holds them together is a memory of shared action and sacrifice, a discourse of honor forged through action, not laws or permanent structures that stand outside of those bonds.

    The point that this brutalism has always been with us, at least in the modern era, is a good one. I do not accept a Hobbsean view that it is what we all are, or that this is human nature. I think as with any political subjectivity and culture, there could be a tangible intellectual and social history of it. Appiah’s book on honor is one interesting way to go, and diving back into what one might imagine as a “popular Counter-Enlightenment” could be another. As could looking at fascism “from below”, as scholars of German, Italian and Spanish history in the 20th Century have done.

    I suppose what I am imagining is a liberal democracy that understands the reproduction of brutalism and is determined to interrupt that reproduction on a persistent, dedicated basis–to not be in perpetual danger of being seized, subverted or attacked by it. That’s a very hard mission to undertake, though.

  8. August Pamplona says:

    What you are talking about here is a psychological predisposition of authoritarianism.

  9. Eric says:

    This is going to be a scattershot of ideas, each paragraph a thesis for its own essay.

    I have always felt that looking at this as a moment in time and not a constant was a mistake. “These people” have always been with us and exist in every society throughout human history.

    The universal consistency is “To every hammer all problems are nails.” To us, educated intellectuals, the answer to problems can be reasoned through and education is the balm for the societal ills. If you’re not the sharpest tool in the shed, then why would you value mental persuits? If violence is a tool you’ve seen used and have used yourself, successfully, that’s all the answer you need. Note: this is not meant to imply a false dichotomy.

    I notice a bias towards denigrating “them” as immoral or stupid, which isn’t helpful, to understanding “them” or our analysis of “them.” What I’ve noticed about those people isn’t that many of them lack compassion or morals, which is how they tend to get painted. They are nice and kind people on the face of it. Nor are they “simpiletons, ” they understand complex machinery and can solve complicated problems. The problem seems to be an inability to abstract. Nancy Reagan changed her tune about AIDS after her beloved nephew got it. They will give the shirt off their back to you in person, but hate paying taxes to help “freeloaders.” They live in concrete terms of their people, their way of life, and their community – to which they are loyal and generous. “Nepotism” and ” cronyism ” aren’t a problem, that’s who you look out for, your own.

    Related to the above: whilst they are not simpletons they do live for a simple worldview. The convoluted calculus of abstract answers that could be wrong is a hard sell when compared to, believe in God & country and you’ll never go wrong. The world will never make sense and as soon as you ivory tower types figure something out it changes, so what’s the point? As long as I’m on the right side of God and the law I’ve got no worries. if only you damned (literally) liberals would stop trying to pervert what those things stand for.

    I think part of our problem is that we, ironically, intellectually examine these phenomena “from the bottom.” We’re ignoring Trump’s appeal to the ruling class which also has a disdain for your definitions of a democracy. The constitution was written by and for landed gentry, the wealthy, the ruling class. it was based on the model of classical democracies like Athens and Rome, which had slavery and an understanding of “the natural order” of societies. The Republicans are GENUINELY fighting for THAT democracy, where the ruling class rules together.

  10. MDC Bowen says:

    I like Andrew Sullivan’s take on the matter in which he flatly states that Trump is nothing more or less than an opportunistic tyrant who has taken advantage of the chaos and divisions in American society. Nobody took him seriously because he was so obviously under-qualified, like Richard III. The fact that Republicans fielded 16 candidates in 2016 demonstrates this chaos and division clearly. I think drawing ‘white-supremacist’ lines from Gingrich through the Tea Party is a sad attempt to simplify the default of the Progressive left in capturing the center instead spending so much energy in anti-war and gay marriage activism, and the pollution of the humanities.

  11. dave mazella says:

    Agree with all of this, but I think at this point there’s enough comparative scholarship to show that something like a widely-distributed “authoritarian personality” is shared by a lot of places but then geographic, historical, and institutional reasons affect why it might come to capture the nation-state, which I think has been modernity’s solution to the problem. A competent political class and sufficiently flexible institutions should be able to manage this, because if they don’t, it takes something on the scale of military defeat and national humiliation to exit what seems to be self-reinforcing towards, say, one party rule. I think historically what we’ve found in the last 20 years is that the internet, Facebook and social media have enabled and encouraged isolated authoritarian groups to coordinate and grow inside and outside national boundaries. My guess is that any solution would entail reversing a lot of the emptying out of the state that’s happened in the last 20 years, and confronting the political power of the platforms and monopolists who have helped strengthen these groups.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    I think he’s an opportunist, but I also think in a sense that the one social coalition that knows what it wants from a leader is the one I’m talking about in this essay. To some extent, they have molded Trump to them rather than the other way round. Like every skilled grifter, he responds quickly to the signals coming from his marks and recasts his pitch, but in this cases they’re not marks–they’re knowingly pushing him towards the George Wallace-like political space that some of them have been questing for their whole lives, even if they were born long after Wallace left the scene. Some of the older Trump voters saw the same thing in Ross Perot, but he couldn’t quite play along, plus he was too self-protective and realized what the likely consequences might be if in fact his ego trip carried him into the Presidency.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    The incompetence of the political class created in the post-1945 world is one of the ills besetting most nation-states today and I think it’s a big reason for the global rise of right-wing ethnonationalisms. (Much as it was the fuel for the Arab Spring: not just authoritarian repression but also gross incompetence and corruption.)

  14. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    You might be interested in _Taking America Back for God_ by Perry and Whitehead. They’re sociologists who discovered that there’s a complex of ideas which include the belief that God favors America and that Trump is a good thing.

    It’s called Christian Nationalism, but they’re using “Christian” as a trademark and a prestige tool. They aren’t interested in church attendance, reading holy books, or charity.

    Some 20% of the country is in strongly in favor of it and another 30% is somewhat in favor of it. (This is based on a lot of research, there’s data about surveys and interviews in the book.)

  15. John Emerson says:

    This post relates to things I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I grew up in a small, unprosperous, all white country town which went about 48-46 Obama in 2008 while I was living there and campaigned for Obama, but 60-30 Trump in 2016 after I’d left (10% third party, not Green). I’ve been argusince 1948 or so relied on a ing for left populism for years but fear that that might be impossible now; people who might have gone one way or the other at some time in the past may have permanently gone in the Trump direction.

    The town was very seriously hit by the 2008 crash and many lost their homes, including my sister. Democrats always seem to underestimate the importance of that factor. I know that many people voted for Obama out of hope, but their hope were not fulfilled. My guess (I haven’t been back there since about 2011) that this led to a kind of vengeful cynicism or nihilism based on the belief that little was possible any more. Trump represented the strongman politics of the bully who breaks the rules and knocks heads. People gambled that they would be on Trump’s good side and would be able to sadistically enjoy watching other people be hurt. (That was what the Apprentice was all about as I remember). Servile underdog politics, as opposed to populist or leftist underdog resistance politics, and people aren’t necessarily confident that Trump will be nice to them but are just willing to take their chances in hopes of seeing someone else hurt.

    One reason for the desire for a strong man was a loss of faith in due process, and I share this loss of faith. Fukuyama has talked about a “vetocracy”, where nothing can e done without paying of dozens of gatekeepers scattered through the system. The blocking of the Clinton health plan and the Obama health plan (which helped many people but not TOO many, and which did nothing to reduce costs) are examples of this. (Lazare’s “The Frozen Republic” is good on this).

    Democratic Party politics after 1948 depended on constant growth, steadyincreases in standard of living, and the steady inclusion of more and more people in the prosperity. “A rising tide raises all boats”. This stopped happening sometime after 1970, which meant that a lot of people were disappointed and a lot of people came to realize that they couldn’t expect much. This was demoralizing, and the response to what happened wasn’t based on an understanding on the reasons for what had happened, but was at the gut level. Various forms of resentment which had always been there came to the fore. Racism, immigrant-bashing are the obvious cases, but for another example, people also started resenting the advantages union workers had when they realized that they themselves would never have a union job. And I have mentioned elsewhere that many have come to regard the educated as simply a self-interested political interest group fighting for a bigger slice of the pie, with the result that to a considerable degree for them, no one who knows what is going on can be trusted.

    For little awhile during the good years there was an anti-racist, semi-liberal welfare state consensus, a vaguely defined set of principles that most people mostly believed, and that people kept their mouths shut about when they didn’t believe it. (For example, Eisenhower and Reagan both affirmed Social Security. Eisenhower actually meant it, while Reagan knew that the time had not come to attack Social Security). Consensuses are mushy and only weakly rational but when they’re in place, they’re powerful. But, partly because it is no longer greased by steayd economic growth, the consensus the Democrats relied on has been lost and racism, in particular, is now back on the table. (Young people do not understand why I will never forgive Andrew Sullivan, who is trying to regain relevance, for his part on that).

    One of the things about the loss of a consensus is the disappearance of trust and the loss of any moral authority. People now are nostalgic for Walter Cronkite. Cronkite wasn’t a genius, a deep thinker, or a radical, but he did speak for an existing consensus and was trusted. When people miss Cronkite they’re mourning the lost consensus

    One potentially hopeful thing about this is that racism and the other forms of resentment are non-boinary. Most white people are probably more or less racist, but over recent decades people have been increasingly willing to express their racism and move it to the front of their concerns, to the point that the racist bloc has become a more powerful force than it has been for a long time. What hopefully might happen is that some of the present racists might be convinced to again move their racism into the background again. But they have to be given a reason to do that, and while Sanders made a try at it, but he was blocked.

    I agree with Eric above that we need to also look at the changes in the politics of the commercial, industrial, and financial elites when we think about these thing, not just changes in the opinions of the general public. There is plenty of evidence that a significant proportion of them gave up on democracy some time ago. (See Nancy MacLean, “Democracy in Chains” and Philip Mirowski, et al, “The Road From Mont Pelerin”). The decreased access to higher education, the commercialization and dumbing down of the financialized media, and the attacks o

  16. Egg Syntax says:

    “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…It’s a fully-worked out, fully inhabited vision of human life and it has been with us for quite a while.”

    Could you point me to some primary sources that are articulating this perspective? I’m interested in reading some essays or articles from people who hold this view. I realize that one of the other core attributes of this group as you’ve described it is that they’re not typically coming from academia, but I’m wondering in particular whether there’s a magazine or website which is centered in this outlook.

    I’m not criticizing your analysis here, but it clashes with my impressions of Trump’s base, so I’d love to get more direct exposure to the folks you’re describing.

  17. Corey Gallagher says:

    Tim,
    I also have the experience of being highly-educated but also knowing the GOP base well. You make a lot of great points. I’d add a bit.

    First, yes, 35% of the country doesn’t believe in democracy. They’re authoritarian personalities. But a good fraction of MANY countries are authoritarian personalities. What’s different in America today versus 1974 (when Nixon had 19% support when he resigned) is … rightwing media. I promise that not all of that 35% hates democracy. Some are genuinely brainwashed by Fox and Limbaugh.

    If you don’t believe that, and most liberals are resistant to believing that others’ views can be shaped by their information environment, please watch “The Brainwashing Of My Dad”. It shows this effect by anecdote. If you want more data-founded version of the argument let me know and I can send studies.

    Second, it’s clear that the minoritarian structures in this country make it possible for 35% of the country to rule the rest. We don’t have to change everyone’s mind (again 19% of the country supported Nixon when all the information was out), we can have a stable country if 20% are authoritarians and the rest support democracy. Although I am not sure that will be stable unless we get our massive lying rightwing media problem under control. After WWII, Father Coughlin was pushed off the air. Will we do the same with Hannity, Limbaugh, and Murdoch?

  18. John Fletcher says:

    This post both resonates with and depresses me. My work as an academic and activist has focused broadly on navigating deep ideological differences (worldview divides) within plural liberal democracies. As a left-progressive sort, this has meant that I study groups and movements on the political and cultural right. I’ve championed initiatives aimed at dialogue, mutual understanding, and depolarization between those groups and my own.

    In these efforts your writings on this blog have been touchstones for me, especially your insistence that “you can’t afford to treat communities and groups that you politically oppose, however fiercely, as if their motivations and habitus aren’t as complex and historically intricate as any other community or group. . . You have to be curious about everything, or you might as well be curious about nothing.” I have tried to incorporate curiosity about the other as a scholarly and personal discipline. I am aware that such curiosity is possible only in conditions where I am relatively safe. Approaching enemies with curiosity is a privilege, not a criterion for being a good person. But, I have maintained, critical curiosity is a vital gear to be able to shift into when you can do so safely. I want there to be someone, somewhere, able and willing to be curious, rigorous, and nuanced about even the most toxic groups/ideologies. When that someone is me, I try my best to rise to the challenge.

    It stings, then, to hear you describe your own thinking along these lines–if I understand you correctly–as “climbing voluntarily into a right-wing apparatus of profoundly self-aware tendentious manipulation and contributing indirectly to the moving of Overton windows.” Certainly that is how critically curious studies of/engagements with culturally brutalist groups can appear to those most directly and immediately victimized by those groups. There is a feeling sometimes that attempting nuanced or rigorous representations of “them” amounts to a betrayal of “us.” I’ve resisted such sentiments in the past as too uncomfortably similar to the all-or-nothing worldviews I both study and resist.

    That said, I hear–and join–the exhausted disillusionment in your words. There’s only so much nuance I can point to without acknowledging a radioactive core of aggrieved white entitlement (and rapacity, frankly) on today’s populist right. Engaging that core, I’ve come to recognize, risks spreading and being sickened by its radiation. (And, so far as I can tell, those within that ideological/cultural core feel similarly about me and mine.) In multiple ways over multiple decades, many on the right have told us repeatedly and volubly that we have no place in the world they wish to create. Perhaps it is time to be clearer about the reverse: the future has no place for de facto or de jure white supremacists. Dinosaur, meet meteor.

    But there’s no meteor, no magic Infinity Gauntlet snap where enemies conveniently crumble into dust and blow away. (And a lot of me is horrified at the parts of me that would even fantasize about such a thing.) There is, at best, long-term demographic shifting and white-minority retrenchment of power-resource monopolies. The 35% is with us–nationally, locally, even familially–regardless of what happens after the election. And, as you mention, “with us” is relative given the reality of clustering.

    Some of us live in places where we know mostly or only folk who believe as we do. Others of us do not. Rarely do I hear my East- and West-coast megacity colleagues who call out the privilege of curiosity acknowledge their own privilege of disengagement. They have no one in their personal or professional bubbles who votes for the other person. Those of us in “flyover country” are often obliged to adapt to the reality of everyday coexistence with people who would prefer us gone (and who know/believe we think the same of them).

    I guess what I’m saying is that curiosity and careful engagement–even with groups and people who espouse utterly vile ideologies–are the only tools I have. I’m not able or willing at present to take up arms and root them out of my community, nor do I have access to magic gloves that make them vanish. All I have is the discipline of curiosity tempered by the reality of survival.

    There’s a performative element here (performative as in illocutionary, not as in “fake”). I must behave as if the brutal 35% can become more than, different than, what they are now, even if I don’t see how that could be so. And–not always, but sometimes–I have found that performative gesture yields results: I do discover things salvageable and precious in the other. I see people stepping outside of aggrieved white entitlement. I sense my own presuppositions shifting in that same painful-productive way that I feel when I successfully grapple with a complicated research question. There are no conversions, no grand reversals. But there’s something.

    Of course, that’s mainly on person-to-person levels, and only sometimes. I don’t know if or how that scales up. It certainly doesn’t work at digital media levels. And I don’t know whether such what-I-do-to-get-by measures end up helping or hurting things. Am I normalizing rapacious brutalism? Am I moving the needle, micron by micron, more toward a better world? Both? Neither? My thinking on that question changes from day to day, hour to hour.

    The TL; DR: is there any bathwater with that baby of curiosity and engagement worth keeping? And what other choice do we really have? In any case, thanks for your work and vulnerability.

  19. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s a good challenge and it would take quite a while to answer it, because I’d have to come at it from several angles. One of them would be sifting through some of the other common attempts by interlocutors who see themselves as liberal democrats to try and understand the Trump base or its predecessors–George Packer’s The Unraveling of America, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers Among Us, and many recent other books and essays, including quite a bit of online writing, sometimes by people formerly ‘inside’ the right or associated with right-wing groups like the Proud Boys. Across that broad space, I think a couple of themes recurrently come up. First, what I offer here as the first logic of devotion to Trump–a sense of alienation and marginalization from the globalized, knowledge-worker-favoring, urban-cosmopolitan political economy that was to some extent a joint creation of both Republicans and Democrats in the recovery from the oil shock and recession of the 1970s. That goes along with the sense that I think Rick Perlstein among others captures well of bewilderment in the years between Goldwater’s rise and Reagan’s ascension of rapid cultural-social changes that felt like they couldn’t be “real” or “natural” but were somehow orchestrated. (And here the “paranoid style” in American politics has its own venerable school of analysts who see it going back very deep into 20th and even 19th Century sociocultural roots.)

    Where I get the “but they are also authoritarians” is that I think this whole line of explanation (alienation from the globalized, cosmopolitan, multicultural, urban, etc. in American life and a sense of economic marginalization attributed to that change) is insufficient to explain the devotion not just to Trump but to many figures on the right since Gingrich’s “Contract With America”. Because what the allegedly alienated and marginalized seem to seek is neither the restoration of a stable set of cultural and social signifiers and values (they abandon many hobbyhorses quite easily) nor is it the actual remedying of their marginalization via a coherent set of policy reforms that would actually favor their interests. (Trump has had to spend frantically to try and soften the consequences of some of his almost random or unfocused foreign policy and economic policy, and his appeal has always rested on thinking so magical that I just feel many of his supporters must know it is not going to and cannot happen.

    So there’s an alternative line of thinking that you see reflected here in the comments from others: that this is the consequence of a devoted project of 24/7 propaganda (which as Corey Gallagher argues, might be seen as turning 19% support for Nixon in his last days into 35% support for Trump). I think there’s something to this but that it is simply a line of explanation that I am never comfortable with as a historian in any case (that any ideological project ever transfers intact into the consciousness of its viewers without their agency and their creative adaptation of what they hear to their own ends; I at all times want to credit all human beings with a significant measure of agency and responsibility for how they listen to and use what they hear and see.

    There is also just my life of listening and observing to Americans across the political spectrum and I suppose this is a major influence on this analysis as well. What I am responding to in part in this essay is in particular the way that many white, conservative Americans have been talking for at least two generations about law and criminal justice–an outrage at the idea of the expanded legal and Constitutional protections provided by the Warren Court, a support for the building of a massive carceral apparatus, an indifference to the findings of groups like the Innocence Project who have turned up so many cases of deliberate misuse of evidence to produce false convictions, and a comfort with ideas of self-defense that lead to support for moments like George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin. A devotion to a fear-based conception of American society even as crime rates have fallen. Race is predominant in most of that, and yet what’s striking is that it’s one of the few things where small fractions of Black, Latino and Asian-American communities find common cause with the right, even when they are unfairly targeted by police and the justice system and even if they live in varying situations of precarious exposure to criminal violence. I think that’s where I see the strongest manifestation of what I here term brutalism, and I think it has roots that go back to lynching, to vigilante justice, and to the mythology of the Western frontier. A notion that it is better to do what you need to do, what you want to see done, by direct force–even if it isn’t legal and maybe even if it isn’t in any sense moral, and that you want a political system that not only forgives such action but is aligned with it. In more recent years, you could see some of this seeping through the support for American commission of torture and extrajudicial confinement in “the war on Terror” but also in an appetite for a “man on a white horse” who could cut through the stagnation in Washington by decree. We use other words for that sentiment–“populism”, for example–but it is at its heart an impatience with liberal democratic institutions and a belief that direct action by a single leader above us all is the only hope for society. I also do think that ties into a belief that authority is in some sense cruel that you can particularly hear in strongly conservative evangelism that brings Old Testament stories more prominently into worship and engagement with scripture–that the world is hostile, that God’s mystery includes the cruelty of his judgement and that the righteous must be as prepared for his wrath as his love. I think you can see it in prepper culture–that to survive the future that is coming, one must prepare to be the last man standing. Each of those subcultures of ‘brutalist’ thought has its own bibliography, and I’d be glad to talk more about the ones I have more knowledge about where there is something of a literature (both primary sources and scholarship) to reference.

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