Tag Archives: US Politics

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.

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Trump / Schmitt

“I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding….

… You have to get people in, grab them, hug them, kiss them, and get the deal done.”

-Donald Trump, Eighth Republican debate, Feb 6, 2016, New Hampshire

Yesterday, Donald Trump decisively won the Republican Nevada caucus, and if things continue this way, he will win the Republican nomination. It’s true that there is still lots of room for unexpected events to disrupt the race. Bill Clinton didn’t win any of the first four primaries in 1992. Which means there is still hope for Marco Rubio (or, for that matter, John Kasich or Ben Carson). But given everything that has so far failed to put a dent in Trump’s campaign, increasingly outlandish scenarios have to be concocted.

The decisiveness of Trump’s Nevada win (45%) also makes the conventional wisdom – that Trump is so toxic to so many people, that he has a hard “ceiling” of support that makes him unelectable in a general election – a little more shaky. Maybe it’s true. But Trump has defied expectations pretty regularly throughout the campaign. And the deep Republican antipathy for Hillary Clinton in particular means that the GOP establishment might learn to love their monster in the end.

The juxtaposition of the two quotations above, both from Trump’s performance in the New Hampshire Republican debate (debate transcript is here), show the essence of Trump’s appeal, which seems to owe quite a bit to the political philosophy of Carl Schmitt.

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Carl Schmitt/Donald Trump

In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt says that the political is the sphere that is defined by relations of friendship and enmity. The friend/enemy distinction is the fundamental political distinction: it is what all real politics is built upon. For Schmitt, many of the things that we might normally think of as “politics” don’t qualify. Normal elections, passing legislation, court decisions, contract negotiations: all of these things determine how a society is administered – “who gets what, when, and how” in Harold Lasswell’s famous definition of politics – but they don’t get to the essence of the political.

For Schmitt, politics provides the foundation which makes all of those other things possible. Electoral, legislative, judicial and other such processes of governance can only work within a community that has a certain level of existential security. It’s only if we know that we are going to be around next week, next year, or the next election cycle, that we have a reason to build those kinds of governance institutions and accept their outcomes as binding. At the same time, it is the parties being bound to the rules (and therefore outcomes) that makes those processes non-political. The political only becomes visible when those rules are in question. If we are faced with an “enemy,” in Schmitt’s sense of the term – someone who is an existential threat – then we need to be able to do whatever is necessary to ensure our survival. Trump’s statement about waterboarding was in response to Ted Cruz being pressed by the moderator to defend an earlier statement that “torture is wrong, unambiguously, period. Civilized nations do not engage in torture.” Cruz responded by parsing: waterboarding doesn’t fit the legal definition of torture, and I would bring it back, but not in “widespread” use. Trump responded by following Schmitt’s logic: I am prepared to engage in “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” because (implicitly) otherwise we risk losing civilization entirely. (Totally consistent with this, Trump sides with the FBI over Apple.)

For Schmitt, it is in this moment, this willingness to consider that which is forbidden, that we see the political, and can determine where power really lies. Anyone can follow the rules. But, in Schmitt’s famous formulation:

Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.

Part of the reason for Trump’s appeal is that, post-9/11 in particular, we inhabit a culture that is infused with this Schmittian view. When I explain Schmitt’s understanding of politics to my students (his is one of a few definitions of “politics” that I run through early on in my Intro Politics course) there are plenty of pop culture examples to draw on Agent Jack Bauer from 24 maybe the most obvious, although it is getting dated. More recently,  Chancellor Thelonius Jaha explains in an early episode of season 1 of The 100: true leadership means knowing when to break the rules. The hard-headed pragmatism of it has a certain appeal. When the appeal of this view of politics starts to sink in, I point out that Schmitt was also one of the most important legal theorists of the Nazi regime.

The point of mentioning this is not to invoke Godwin’s law. Rather, I use it to illustrate the point that definitions of politics themselves are shaped by context. When you think about it, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that, writing in the chaos of interwar Central Europe, Schmitt defines politics in terms of existential choices about collective survival. Or that in postwar America, with its Fordist economy, Lasswell defines it in terms of regularized distributional processes.

In that sense, the contemporary resurgence of Schmittian politics can be seen as the bitter fruit of a decade and a half of the War on Terror, with its ubiquitous threat assessments and institutionalized state of exception. Bomb, build a wall, torture, force companies to compromise the security of their products: whatever it takes to secure ourselves against the existential threats we face, until we “can figure out what is going on.”

But along with his outspoken belligerent truthiness, Trump’s appeal is also grounded in his reputation as a deal-maker, as is evident in the other half of the quotation above. What gets a lot of the attention are Trump’s statements about how he would deal with enemies. But an equally important component of his braggadociousness is his claim to be a deal-maker: “I get along with everybody.”

In this sense, the two quotations from the New Hampshire debate are not in contradiction with each other. They are just two sides of the same Schmittian coin: always be willing to work with your friends, and always be willing to be completely ruthless with your enemies. If Trumpism works only to the extent that his audience always believes they are on the former side, then at some point we have to expect that at some point, sooner or later, Trump will mis-step, overplay his hand, and supporters will start to see that they could be identified as enemies as much as friends. But despite numerous predictions that this will happen, each time Trump went “too far” with attacks on Hispanics, Muslims, women, people with disabilities, Bush-Cheney, etc. it hasn’t yet. Why don’t Trump’s supporters recognize themselves as potential enemies?
One weakness in Schmitt’s analysis is that he doesn’t explain how a community, which has definable friends or enemies, comes to be constituted in the first place. As Gianfranco Poggi puts it (in The Development of the Modern State):

His [Schmitt’s] chief error is to take the collectivity of reference (Us) as a datum… How can a collectivity discriminate between friend and foe if not by referring to a conception of what makes Us into Us? (pp.11-12)

It is only by knowing who “we” are that we can figure out who is deserving of “waterboarding and a hell of a lot worse” and who needs to hugged and kissed to get the deal done. So a great deal rests on what exactly constitutes the “Us” that is the contemporary American electorate (or at least enough of it to put together a winning electoral coalition). Democrats are counting on an ideology of freedom that translates into a tolerance and even embracing of diversity, openness to immigration, religious pluralism, and so on. For the last decade at least, if not half-century, Republicans have counted on an ideology of the free market combined with an anxiety that delivered a clear, if coded, account of who the enemies, without and within, were. In the Obama days, the contest could be cast as a battle between hope and fear. Or more pragmatically, whether to mobilize (however cynically) disengaged citizens or disenfranchise those who can be cast as internal enemies. But the dominant emotional tone for Trump is neither hope nor fear. As is commonly noted, it is anger. What makes him attractive to some Republicans is an anger at the failure to recognize the Schmittian nature of politics: a failure to deal with enemies appropriately. (And similarly with friends: his Nevada victory speech included the eminently quotable line “I love the poorly educated.” But it was immediately followed by “We’re smart. And we’re loyal.”)But what makes Trump attractive more broadly, and a threat in the general election, is anger at a broken political system. From a long read today by Matt Taibbi:

the presidential election campaign is really just a badly acted, billion-dollar TV show whose production costs ludicrously include the political disenfranchisement of its audience. Trump is making a mockery of the show, and the Wolf Blitzers and Anderson Coopers of the world seem appalled. How dare he demean the presidency with his antics?

But they’ve all got it backward. The presidency is serious. The presidential electoral process, however, is a sick joke, in which everyone loses except the people behind the rope line. And every time some pundit or party spokesman tries to deny it, Trump picks up another vote.

And stopping Trump is not the same thing as changing the conditions that made his emergence possible.

Donald Trump, Rob Ford, and the Performance of Seriousness, Part 1

[This post is turning out to be longer than anticipated, so I’m splitting it in two. Part 2 should be coming in the next few days. But for now I have to finish digging out.]

“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:

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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.

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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.