Tag Archives: affect

Anger Management, or, Politics after Trump

Although there have been a number of false endings before, it may be that the last few days’ combination of bad recent poll results, even worse fundraising, and the firing of his campaign manager, signal the beginning of the end of the Trump campaign. There are a number of ways this could play out, including a general election loss in November (with or without a third party “spoiler”), a convention coup that denies him the nomination in July, or even the prospect that Trump might be bought out.

Jeet Heer has argued against a convention coup (and presumably the buy-out, as well), on the grounds that the best way to move past Trump is to defeat him through existing democratic institutions. The argument against this view is that, politics being what it is, if Trump has the Republican nomination, then virtually by definition he has a chance of being elected in November. If a Trump presidency is the worst conceivable outcome, then better he is out-maneuvered or bought out earlier. On the other hand, Heer is certainly right that how Trump loses matters for the post-Trump world. And for a while, I’ve been thinking that a more plausible Trump victory would not involve getting 270 electoral college votes in the election night count in November, but rather (and more frighteningly) convincing a sufficient number of people that the election was “stolen” from him. The constant references to Clinton as “crooked Hillary” seem to be a piece of this strategy. And in a strange way his lack of fundraising success and alienation from some of the GOP establishment, and even the seemingly strange campaign decisions not to focus on swing states, supports it as well.

Both preventing the above (unlikely but not impossible) scenario, and dealing constructively with the post-Trump political landscape, require mitigating the anger that is at the heart of trump’s campaign.

From the start, a lot has been made of Trump’s success in connecting with voters characterized as “angry.” In particular, commenters have focused on white male working-class voters who have seen various forms of racial and gender privilege eroded along with the economic security afforded by the long post-war boom. Racial divisions aside, Rob Ford tapped into the same set of grievances. And while a Trump flame-out is unlikely to take the same form as Ford’s, Trump has the potential to engage in behaviour that is just about as spectacularly unhinged.

We can think of Trumpism as a politics of anger that is different and bigger than Trump himself, and could be intensified in a reaction against a thoroughly “hinged” candidate¬† – someone like Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, or Hillary Clinton. If Trumpism can survive the demise of Trump, then that anger will need to be dealt with. Plenty has been written about its social and economic root causes: particularly the hollowing out of the American manufacturing economy and the loss of self-worth and optimism about the future that comes with it. Trump’s success, it is said, lies in his uncanny ability to “tap into” or “channel” this anger, even more effectively (or “authentically”) than the dog-whistle politics that has characterized the Republican party for decades.

But this language of “tapping” or “channeling” doesn’t adequately capture what is going on, insofar as it presents that anger as a pre-existing substance, whose quantity is effectively fixed: there are always angry people out there, but until Trump came along, they were disengaged from the political process. To be sure, Trump didn’t invent white American male rage, and there is probably some truth to the idea that his directness engages some people who weren’t engaged by previous, more coded versions of similar messages. But two political theoretical tools can help us to think about that anger as curated, rather than naturally occurring.

The first is William Connolly’s idea of the evangelical capitalist resonance machine. The idea here is that (some of) the sensibilities of evangelical Christianity and capitalist free-market ideology (“cowboy capitalism”) resonate with each other, and through various cultural forms and communication media (Hollis Phelps also discusses Trump in the context of the evangelical capitalist resonance machine here). It is similar to the idea that narrowcasted media outlets have created an “echo chamber,” where we are increasingly only presented with ideas and perspectives that conform with our pre-existing ideological convictions and political preferences. The “echo chamber” metaphor generally presumes that what echoes are ideas. For Connolly, what resonates are “affinities of sensibility,” and in particular in the evangelical capitalist resonance machine, feelings of resentment. Contemporary media experience is an affective amplifier.

Romand Coles’s new book builds on this idea, in particular by noting the ways in which the communication and amplification of these affective messages happen at what he calls a “cellular” level. Coles draws on recent developments in the science of mirror neurons to highlight (quoting neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni) “the fundamentally intersubjective nature of our own brains,” and thus the ways in which (Coles): “We are born, formed, carried along in, and transformed by waves of intercorporeal resonance that precede all recognition.” (p42) We are created by resonances, starting with babies whose smiling intensifies in response (resonance) to their parents’ smiling at their smile, and right up to putatively rational-deliberative settings, from political meetings to seminar rooms, where “deliberation” is deeply affected by the ways in which we carry our bodies and set our facial expressions.

This “intercorporeal resonance” – the affective amplifier – occurs before and beneath the level of discourse and rationality. The resonance machine is not so much (or not only) about the repetition of particular talking points or memes, or even about the use of particular rhetorical tropes to whip up emotional reactions. Rather it is about particular bodily dispositions that precognitively set us to receive messages in particular ways. Fox News, for example, provides a

“continuous audiovisual resonance of loud voices, angry faces, mad gestures…. The pulsating fury of these audiovisual performances appeared to be shutting down human capacities for paying attention, receptivity, and curiosity and tarrying with the complexities of different people’s lives.” (p33)

Trump’s speeches can be unscripted, because the content that really matters is not the words, but the affective disposition that he projects and generates.

The second idea has to do with the susceptibility to the kinds of affective resonances that the Trump campaign taps into and produces. Back in January, Matthew MacWilliams wrote about Trump’s appeal among people who could be classified as having an “authoritarian personality.” The “authoritarian personality” (the “F-scale”) draws on mid-20th century research, done by Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno, in collaboration with a group of more empirically-minded American psychologists. Peter E. Gordon has an excellent article that contextualizes Adorno’s relationship with that research, and how it helps us to understand the phenomenon. The article is really worth reading in full, but at least part of the upshot is that according to Adorno, it is wrong think of “personality types” (including the authoritarian personality) as static or ahistorical categories. Rather, specific personality types (and even the possibility of categorizable “personality types” itself) are produced by historical forces and circumstances. So it isn’t the case that there are always going to be a certain proportion of people in a society who have authoritarian (or other kinds of) personalities. Instead, different kinds of societies are more or less likely to produce authoritarian personalities.

Gordon cites Adorno’s unpublished remarks on the authoritarian personality study: “People are inevitably as irrational as the world in which they live.” Like many of Adorno’s aphorisms, this cuts both ways. On the one hand, authoritarian personalities are produced out of what Adorno called “totally administered society,” which included not only fascist societies, but also Soviet Communist, and advanced capitalist ones. The dominant forms of society in the mid-twentieth century tended to produce people who craved authoritarian relations. In Coles’ and Connolly’s more contemporary terms, in the evangelical capitalist resonance machine, the anger-tariat on Fox News and elsewhere, effectively short-circuits our capacity for democratic (non-authoritarian) engagement at an affective, cellular level. But on the other hand, it is those who are most well-adjusted to the world as it is – the perfectly “hinged” political candidates who represent the establishment, for example – who can be characterized as irrational. Opposing Trump is not enough, if that opposition is conceived in terms of a return to the status quo ante, the conditions that generated Trumpism in the first place.

For Coles, the project is to cultivate “radical receptivity” – one can think of it as the polar opposite of the disposition cultivated by Fox News in the quotation above – as a response to this situation.

“In a rapidly changing world on the brink of collapse, where people of different traditions, new movements, and emergent experiences are tossed together in order to address problems, it is difficult to think of a more important ethical and political art.” (p34)

I find it hard to disagree with this. In part I take it to mean pivoting from #NeverTrump – an absolute demand that has authoritarian overtones of its own – to cultivating a more genuinely democratic, and thus less angry, politics.