“I’m not a reality TV star, but I play one on television.”
I admit that “seriousness” is not the first trait that comes to mind when thinking about either Donald Trump or Rob Ford. I will get to the “performance of seriousness” in part 2 of this post. Part 1 focuses on what Trump and Ford have in common, particularly in terms of the strength of support they have among their base. I’m trying to get a handle on Trumpism (what else to call it?) through the lens of critical theory, which Max Horkheimer described as focusing on “the question of the connection between the economic life of society, the psychical development of individuals, and the changes in the realm of culture.” Updating this work for the 21st century could be an important key to understanding the resurgence of authoritarian populists like Trump and Ford.
In September, back when I (mistakenly) thought Trump was about to flame out, I tweeted:
Four months later Trump is still around and going strong. This, of course, despite numerous statements that, in an earlier, more innocent political era, would be called “gaffes.” Trump can say that Mexican immigrants are rapists, assert that he will get Mexico to pay for a border wall, call for a ban on all Muslims entering the US, mock other candidates for their physical appearance, and it does nothing to dent his popularity.
It is worth remembering that Ford similarly managed to not only persevere, but in some ways thrive, on things that conventional political wisdom would have described as mistakes or failures. Even with mounting evidence of serious substance abuse problems, not to mention allegations of criminal activity, Ford couldn’t be counted out of winning re-election as mayor until he formally withdrew from the mayoral race shortly before the vote for health reasons (he was still re-elected to City Council with 58% of the vote in ward 2).
The upshot of Ford’s political career, particularly but not only as a city councillor, was that he was (is) both a very effective retail politician, and also terrible at (or not interested in) engaging in the collaborative business of governing. Ford famously dealt with all kinds of little problems for individual constituents, but was often at odds with virtually everyone else on city council, frequently finding himself on the losing end of 44-1 votes. There is an excerpt from John Filion’s book about Rob Ford, “The Only Average Guy” up on Slate (full disclosure: I haven’t read the book). Filion summarizes Ford’s appeal to a certain demographic as follows:
They believed the elites had been given so much that little was left for them. That sense of unfairness put a chip on their shoulders….
“They’re not self-aware, so once they’ve made a decision, they have a hard time admitting they’re wrong. That’s Ford Nation,” [former Ford campaign manager Nick Kouvalis] said.
Kouvalis also puts this in lay psychoanalytic terms:
“It’s all about their upbringing,” [Kouvalis] said of the rock-solid Ford supporters. “It’s all about their fathers treating them like shit. That determines their behaviour going forward.
“Ford Nation inherently has been treated like shit. That’s how they feel. They didn’t get their fair share in life. They were rejected. They were deprived of love or of something. Fundamental core stuff: love, security, food.”
A lot of this applies, at least in fairly broad terms, to Trump supporters, too. This seems, at least to me, to be an undercurrent of the view that Trump supporters are those who are in the process of losing racial privilege, and/or economically disadvantaged by American neoliberalism. Marc Tucker in the Huffington Post notes Trump’s support among people with low educational levels, and makes a similar point, but emphasizing socio-political rather than family dynamics:
What is motivating Trump’s supporters is an overpowering sense of resentment against a world that has passed them by, a world dominated by highly educated elites who dismiss them and their values, and who, far from offering them a hand up, keep them pinned to a demeaning position, elites who flaunt their success at the very same time they are denying this group access to success. I am describing a world in which, for many people, what has been lost is not just the means of making a decent living, but something far more important to them: their self-respect.
It isn’t a matter of choosing between these two levels of analysis – macro-level socio-political forces versus micro-level psychology. The two are interrelated and probably impossible to fully tease apart. (The same could be said about the debate over whether Trumpist ressentiment is a function of economic insecurity or racism.) As the quotation from Horkheimer at the beginning of this post suggests, we should be trying to understand how they are connected.
One thing that is interesting to note in some of the recent commentary on Trump is the way that his supporters’ relative lack of education can work as both a descriptive shorthand for this neoliberalization (these are folks who don’t have the education or credentials to succeed in the new economy), and a normative and pathologizing diagnosis. (Tucker, to his credit, notes that “The people who support Trump are not dumb and they are not oblivious to their own interests.”) Trump’s supporters (like Ford’s) are seen by many as a particular problem because they lack self-awareness and don’t allow facts to change their minds.
Kouvalis, once more, describing a focus group of Ford supporters to Filion:
These folks had so completely identified with Rob Ford that they couldn’t cut him loose. They’d made him their hero and had congratulated themselves on making such a smart choice. If Ford had screwed up, Kouvalis explained, so had they. “They don’t want to admit it because that means they fucked up in their life. They had an opportunity, and they blew it. They don’t want to admit that to themselves.
All of this I think can be helpful in understanding the resilience of Trump’s support. It’s also worth noting, for those who take comfort in the fact that Trump appeals to those who are described as less likely to vote, that the same was true of Ford. As Filion notes, Ford’s mobilization of those disenchanted with the political system, which significantly boosted voter turnout, was one of the keys to his 2010 election victory.
In part 2, I’ll explain the “performance of seriousness” as something that accounts for Trump and Ford’s shared ability to re-engage people disenchanted with the political system.