By Ruth Braunstein
On March 3, former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney delivered a speech on “the state of the 2016 presidential race.” With the country watching, he delivered a detailed rebuke of this year’s unlikely Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump. With precision (“His domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe”) and a dash of humor (“His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University”), Romney framed this as a pivotal moment in the history of the GOP—a moment when reasonable Americans had the opportunity to choose the light over the darkness.
News outlets aired live coverage of the speech, and pundits and politicos of various political stripes expressed belief (or hope) that this public and pointed takedown from a respected party elder would be just the medicine that was needed to break the Trump-fever that had swept through the electorate. I did not share their optimism. As a sociologist who has spent the past several years studying grassroots conservative activism, I could vividly picture the sneers that Romney’s speech would inevitably provoke among those he most wished to reach. Rather than break the fever, I thought, he was only going to stoke it.
A poll conducted shortly after Romney’s speech now indicates that this was in fact just what happened—thirty-one percent of Republican voters said they were more likely to vote for Trump following Romney’s speech. This was a stark rejection of the GOP establishment’s efforts to break Trump’s stride—and it was predictable. But if we wish to understand why Romney’s speech had this effect, we must take seriously the extent to which Americans – and especially those who identify as conservatives – have grown increasingly resentful of the political establishment.
While the idea of political “outsiders” shaking up business-as-usual has always held some appeal for Americans (think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), the antiestablishment fervor we are witnessing this year is both stronger and more widespread than it has been in years past. Three major Republican candidates this election cycle (Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina) had never held public office before announcing their candidacy for president. And although he is a sitting member of the Senate, among Ted Cruz’s primary selling points are his outcast status among his Republican peers and his defiant refusal to bow to party elders. Together, these antiestablishment candidates have won more than 60 percent of Republican primary votes nationally.
"While the idea of political 'outsiders' shaking
up business-as-usual has always held
some appeal...the antiestablishment fervor
we are witnessing this year is both
stronger and more widespread
than it has been in years past."
In this light, it was not only overly optimistic to believe that a single speech from Romney could change the course of the election; it was also fundamentally misguided. That is because it did not take into account that it may have been Romney himself who sparked the growth of this insurgency four years ago. Well, perhaps not Romney the man; but Romney the symbol—of The Establishment.
Although one could trace the origins of today’s antiestablishment resentment to a much earlier point in time, the 2012 Republican primaries marked an especially pivotal moment in its development. Romney’s fight four years ago to secure the GOP’s nomination was fraught with significance that transcended his biography or his positions on specific issues—it revealed a war for control of the Republican Party. Romney and the GOP establishment won the battle in 2012. But not before the Tea Party movement, reacting to Romney’s early anointment as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, scattered the seeds of resentment, anger, and disillusionment that have now blossomed into the Trump phenomenon.
In early 2012, I was conducting fieldwork in a northeastern Tea Party group that I will call the Patriots. I had been studying the group for around two years, and was interested in how they would approach their first presidential election. So, like many of the Patriots, I immersed myself in the day-to-day emotional roller coaster of the Republican primaries.
As the runner-up in the 2008 nomination contests, Romney had been preparing for a 2012 run for four years and was expected to be the front-runner. But by 2012, the GOP was a different party than it had been in 2008. The Tea Party’s electoral successes during the 2010 mid-term elections had elevated them from protesters to players—or so they hoped. They were determined to prevent party elites from controlling the nomination process.
This was central to the Patriots’ vision of their political purpose. Beyond any specific policy issues that may have driven members to become involved in the Tea Party, the Patriots as a group were united in their concern that ordinary citizens like them did not have a voice in the decisions that shaped their lives. Linda, the Patriots’ founder and leader, cited the debate over ObamaCare as the moment when she realized her voice did not matter, even within her own party. For her and for many of the Patriots, this bill was not only bad policy; it was also concrete proof that their elected officials were willing to legislate against the will of the people.
She felt she had to stand up and do something to make her voice heard, or the entire system of representative government could be in jeopardy. Most members of the Patriots recounted similar tales of awakening from decades of complacency and, armed with little or no political experience, setting out to become more active and informed citizens who could hold government accountable to ordinary people like them. Some were small business owners concerned about overregulation; some were religious conservatives concerned that God was being shoved out of public life; and some were libertarian-leaning independents concerned about the erosion of individual liberty. But despite their differences, they all sought to become the kinds of citizens who could keep the government in check.
They had been a “silent majority,” but not for long; they were about to become “we the people,” and they would demand to be heard. They were fed up with “politics as usual,” and blamed elites in both the Republican and Democratic parties for failing to represent the American people. That said, because most of the Patriots identified as conservatives, their most pressing goal was to ensure that the party that claimed to represent conservative values – the Republican Party – could no longer ignore their voices.
The 2010 mid-term elections had been their first test, and they had emerged victorious. Around the country, Tea Party-backed candidates had challenged sitting Republicans and Democrats alike. In the districts where the Patriots had mobilized, antiestablishment candidates were soon headed to Washington and their state capital.
In 2012, they sought to build on their successes in 2010.
Among other things, this meant preventing Romney’s
nomination from being a foregone conclusion. But this
would be a challenge: not only do party elites have myriad
informal channels of influence over this outcome; the
Republican National Committee exerts a great deal of
official control over the nominating process. In contrast,
despite common misperceptions that the Koch Brothers
control the Tea Party movement from on high, it is in
reality a relatively decentralized network of national
organizations and grassroots groups operated with only limited coordination. And by 2012, the grassroots was significantly less active than they had been in the run up to the 2010 elections, prompting observers to ask whether the Tea Party had run its course.
In this context, national Tea Party organizations took the lead, staging candidate forums and straw polls and co-sponsoring a televised debate. These events forced the Republican candidates to publicly address “Tea Party” issues, and lent an aura of viability to the campaigns of several candidates who were not establishment favorites—including “Tea Party darling” Rep. Michele Bachmann; businessman and talk show host Herman Cain; former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich; libertarian favorite Rep. Ron Paul; and Christian conservative favorite former Senator Rick Santorum.
Linda, the Patriots’ leader, personally supported Gingrich, and reported to me in February 2012 that Gingrich was also the favorite of her core group members (her “next circle out” supported Paul.) But when she polled the entire group, there was no clear winner. This made it difficult for the Patriots to determine how to best move forward. At the time, Linda reluctantly described the group’s emotional state to me as “scattered.” “Nobody has a clear person to get behind, because everybody is so fractured … as far as the candidates. It’s kind of hard to have those kinds of meetings, you know, [where we can tell people], ‘We need you here, we need you there,’ kind of thing.”
This was complicated by the fact that, as a rule, the Patriots did not endorse candidates. This was a point of pride for them, a reflection of their belief that every individual has a right to choose for themselves and a corresponding responsibility to do the research necessary to choose wisely. But practically, this could make the task of working together to get candidates elected more difficult. In 2010, they had overcome this obstacle because their options had been much clearer—they had united loosely around a handful of candidates who, despite their varying views, were all challenging the establishment. In 2012, multiple presidential candidates vied to be the antiestablishment candidate.
It seemed that all the Patriots could agree on was that they did not want Romney. But they did not merely dislike Romney because he was too centrist (although he was, in their view—as Linda once explained to me, “Romney is Obama.”) They also resisted him because, in Linda’s words, he had been “previously anointed” by the establishment. She elaborated:
"It’s not even that they don’t like Romney. I don’t think I would say that. I think that they just don’t like being told what they’re supposed to do. It just amplifies their belief that the system is bought and purchased, and you just have to not have an opinion, keep your head down, and go on with your life."
When Romney finally secured the nomination, the Patriots’ sense of betrayal by the Republican Party was compounded by a growing sense within the group that the Tea Party itself had been coopted by Republican elites. This perception was only heightened when Romney announced Rep. Paul Ryan as his pick for Vice President, and national Tea Party leaders responded with a surprising degree of enthusiasm.
The Patriots were not as easily convinced. In their view, Romney never truly represented the Tea Party, and he never represented the will of the people. He represented the will of the party establishment. As Linda explained to me, however, it was like “The Tea Party had decided that we have to vote Republican.” This was not how the Patriots worked. While most of them tended to vote for Republicans, they chafed against partisan labels. More, they chafed against partisan control. In Linda’s words, “I vote person. I don’t care what you are.”
Alienated from the Republican Party and ambivalent about the Tea Party, the Patriots watched the rest of the 2012 election mostly from the sidelines. Some individuals begrudgingly supported Romney as the lesser of two evils; others focused on congressional, state and local campaigns. But they never again mobilized as they did in 2010. And in early 2013, Linda announced she was leaving the group.
Few local Tea Party groups continue to meet regularly, stage rallies, or organize to support candidates. But the individuals who once comprised these groups have not stopped feeling like they have no voice in the political process—if anything, the disenchantment generated by their defeat in 2012 has only festered over the past four years. Meanwhile, the antiestablishment sentiment to which they gave voice appears to have spread far beyond the confines of their fractured movement.
And this broader coalition of the voiceless has become Trump’s base. Like the Patriots, Trump supporters appear to be animated primarily by the feeling that they have no voice or power in the current elite-driven political environment. According to an analysis conducted by the RAND Corporation, the feeling that “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” is by far the most significant predictor of support for Trump. Republican primary voters are 86.5 percent more likely to support Trump relative to other Republican candidates if they hold this view. Feeling voiceless is a stronger predictor of Trump support than nearly every other measure, including race, educational attainment, household income, attitudes toward Muslims and attitudes toward illegal immigrants.
"Like the Patriots, Trump supporters appear to
be animated primarily by the feeling that
they have no voice or power in the
current elite-driven political environment."
Which is not to say that specific policy issues are not also important to Trump supporters. In fact, his voters share many of the same concerns as Tea Partiers—about illegal immigration, Islam, and “reverse discrimination,” for example. This was part of Trump’s original appeal to the Tea Party. As Tea Party Patriots President Jenny Beth Martin recounted in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC):
"DONALD TRUMP took a look at the political environment when he decided to run for President, and said to himself, “Self, that Tea Party is the thing for me!” So he took on one of the biggest issues that drives the Tea Party today, and did his best to make it his own. Since then, we’ve heard him say over and over again, “I love the Tea Party!”"
But as much as his talk of building a “Great Wall” between the US and Mexico has appealed to many Tea Partiers for whom illegal immigration is a major concern, it has been Trump’s willingness to take on establishment favorites from “low energy” Jeb! to “Little Marco” that has earned him the broader base of support he now enjoys, which transcends the Tea Party.
Indeed, it is striking that in addition to appealing to Tea Partiers, Trump is also attracting voters with relatively liberal positions on economic issues. According to RAND, Trump is beating Cruz among Republican primary voters who support tax increases on the wealthy, support labor unions, and support increasing the minimum wage. Despite sharing Tea Partiers’ feeling of voicelessness and the antiestablishment sentiment to which this has given rise, these liberal-leaning Trump supporters clearly do not share other aspects of the Tea Party’s conservative program.
Trump calls this creating a new coalition; those who wish to topple Trump call this an uncontrollable herd, and no one has figured out how to corral it. While it should by now be evident that Trump’s supporters are unlikely to listen to an establishment Republican like Romney; the question is whether they will listen to a similar line of critique from the party’s right flank.
This is currently being put to the test, as Tea Party elites like Tea Party Patriots President Jenny Beth Martin join the anti-Trump fray. In her speech at CPAC only a day after Romney’s speech, Martin forcefully detailed how far Trump falls short as a true conservative:
"I know DONALD TRUMP says he loves the Tea Party, but THAT’S not what it TAKES to be Tea Party.
If you want to be Tea Party, you have to love our COUNTRY and you have to love our CONSTITUTION."
She then asked the audience a question: “Have you EVER heard DONALD TRUMP talk about the CONSTITUTION?” Her answer: “I haven’t. And I’ve got serious questions about his fidelity to the document all Tea Partiers REVERE.”
Still, it is not clear that Martin’s membership fully agrees with her analysis. Although Tea Party Patriots members voted to officially endorse Cruz (and Martin is now framing him as the one true carrier of the movement’s values), Cruz’s selection was not a fait accompli. In the fourth and final round of voting, Cruz faced off against none other than… Donald Trump. Large numbers of the Tea Party Patriots’ members were evidently persuaded that Trump did represent their values.
In light of this, and given what we know about Tea Partiers’ propensity to resist authority (both within their movement and without), it is hard to imagine they will ever fall in line behind a single candidate. Moreover, the fact that the Tea Party Patriots chose to endorse a candidate at all may render them suspect in the eyes of the grassroots (recall that the local Tea Party group I studied refused on principle to endorse candidates.) This is a movement that was built on the premise that people do not like being told what to do—by anyone. The challenge for groups like the Tea Party Patriots will thus be persuading voters that Trump doesn’t really represent conservative values, without themselves being branded as instruments of political control.
In their efforts to prevent Romney’s “anointment” as his party’s nominee in 2012, Tea Partiers gave voice to widespread concerns about the elite driven nature of American politics. Their efforts (and their failure) laid the groundwork for the Trump phenomenon. But it appears they created a monster they can no longer control. And no, that monster is not Trump—it is the antiestablishment sentiment that has now reached broad swaths of the populace, including those who do not necessarily share their conservative values. And this sentiment, untethered from the movement that had previously been able to channel its expression, has now taken on a life of its own.
Ruth Braunstein is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. She is currently completing a book based on a comparative ethnographic study of progressive faith-based community organizing and Tea Party activism, entitled Prophets and Patriots: Faith in Democracy Across the Political Divide; and an edited volume exploring the role of religion in progressive politics, entitled Religion and Progressive Activism: Understanding Faith and Politics in America.
Mitt Romney and the Tea Party helped make Donald Trump… Can they unmake him?
by Alexander Barder
Since the Iowa caucus on February 1, 2016, what seemed initially to be the prank candidacy of the reality TV star Donald Trump has morphed into a much more somber affair. Against common wisdom, Trump appears to be set to win the GOP nomination. The Republican Party establishment appears to be in a full crisis of legitimacy, trying by any means of halting his ascendency. Many among the GOP elites hope that a split convention would halt Trump’s reach of the nomination. That remains to be seen.
How Trump catapulted above the candidates is in part due to his demagogic and racial attacks: his references to Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists at the very beginning of his campaign; his desire to ban all Muslims from coming into the US including Muslim-Americans; the initial refusal to condemn the Klu Klux Klan and his feigned ignorance of white supremacy. Furthermore, his campaign events have become theatrical displays of violent confrontations between his supports and peaceful protestors with Trump encouraging it. Dana Milbank recently wrote in the Washington Post that Trump’s campaign rally’s “flirt” with fascism, comparing him either with Mussolini or that the present condition is more or less analogous with the election of Adolf Hitler to the chancellery in 1933. Broadly speaking, there’s an increasing chorus of pundits that see Trump a fascist charlatan that appeals to certain group of Americans and potentially represents a fundamental danger to American democracy.
However, labeling Trump as a neo-fascist is problematic if we understand fascism as a rejection of democratic institutions and practices. Arguing as to whether Trump is a fascist or not is not what is at stake here. The real question is why is his buffoonery mixed with a much more lethal cocktail of racial/bigoted discourse has come to resonate with such a large (white) segment of the public. What is the danger that this poses for the public realm, for the institutions of the American republic and for certain groups targeted by Trumps discourse?
"Arguing as to whether Trump is a fascist or not is not
what is at stake here. The real question is why is his
buffoonery mixed with a much more lethal cocktail
of racial/bigoted discourse has come to resonate with
such a large (white) segment of the public."
What I want to show is that Trump is a sort of attractor that actualizes an increasingly widespread Western right-wing populism. This populism largely rests on an anti-immigration platform, displays a virulent anti-Muslim discourse wrapped in the name of security, questions many of the assumptions of a global liberal political-economy and exhibits a general ressentiment for a bygone era of white privilege against an evolving multicultural and multiracial world. As I said, this isn’t exactly fascism in its anti-democratic institutionalization; but what is interesting here is precisely how Trump’s discourse and candidacy escapes the particular constellation of domestic political institutions meant to assert control the political processes. Where this nascent right-wing populism becomes truly dangerous, in my view, is when it increasingly becomes fused to an evolving national security apparatus that sprung up over the past fifteen years or so with the Global War on Terror. The story of Trump’s tapping into the dark desires of a certain strata of the American public has to be understood in a larger context of the imperial rewiring of the American domestic space. Were a sort of neo-fascism to emerge in the US it would be in this fusion of desire for authoritarianism and the already constituted institutions of the American nationals security state.
For Robert Paxton, in his classic work The Anatomy of Fascism, fascism is “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues goals of internal cleansing and external expansion” (218). Paxton’s definition doesn’t really fit with the observations of Trumps campaign. Though Trump articulates a discourse of American decline, certainly of humiliation and victimhood relative to a variety of others, the rest of Paxton’s definition emphasizes a radical institutional break: we don’t see a ‘mass-based party of committed nationalists’ and we certainly do not see a collaboration between Trump and the GOP’s elite, quite the contrary. So while Trump’s campaign discourse certainly involves demagoguery, racism and a message incessant national humiliation after 8 years of the Obama administration it certainly doesn’t approach the historical context of 1920s Italy or 1930s Germany.
To be sure, the applicability of Paxton’s
definition of fascism is circumscribed to an
understanding of how institutional arrangements
come under crisis and result in changes in the
state apparatus. Moreover, it appears to assume
that fascists and fascism represents a sort of
irrational political ideology given the ‘obsessive’
concern with ‘decline, humiliation or victimhood’.
A missing aspect of Paxton’s discussion is precisely
how a certain desire for fascism comes to be
constituted at the level of the self beyond simply assuming ideology mystification.
In other words, how is it a mass of people clamor for the very thing that ends up suppressing them? I think it’s here that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have something interesting to say about our contemporary Trumpean moment. To do so, Deleuze and Guattari essentially create a completely different political ontology that focuses on how something like desire is constituted not on the basis of lack – as claim in much of psychoanalysis – but as a productive ‘desire-machines’ that constitutes a social milieu. Self and desire are mutually imbricated and cannot be posited a priori; materially they create the conditions through which a multiplicity of connections for novel forms of rules (i.e. codes) and habits to emerge that actually are meant to repress the untamed flow of desire. In other words, such forms of encoding encapsulate the desire for rigidity, conformity and repression of the self and its relations to others. In both Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari emphasize at length that in order to understand fascism one has to understand the micropolitics of its instantiations. Micropolitics isn’t contrasted with macropolitics in terms of scale: micropolitics refers to the manner of flows between desiring-machines. Rather than assuming rigid (political) identities, Deleuze and Guattari give us a way of thinking of how molecular flows can crystalize into the very identities that we tend to take for granted as stable (i.e. the molar).
What does this have to do with fascism? Microfascism then represents those instances when the desire for rules or codes imposes itself in relations with others. Such microfascist instances, as they write in A Thousand Plateaus, find themselves in:
"Rural fascism and city or neighborhood fascism, youth fascism and war veteran's fascism, fascism of the Left and fascism of the Right, fascism of the couple, family, school, and office: every fascism is defined by a micro-black hole that stands on its own and communicates with the others, before resonating in a great, generalized central black hole" (214).
A great example of this notion of microfascism and the manner in which a variety of different microfascisms circulate in a local setting is depicted in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Set in pre-World War One Germany, Haneke’s film reveals moments of gratuitous violence by the villages’ children, the puritanical religious authorities imposing strict moral codes, forms of humiliation between adults and children – the latter who would eventually grow up to become (potentially) supporters of Nazism. Haneke’s film is a window into the oppressive and claustrophobic reactions of authority and hierarchy but also in what ultimately escapes them. What escapes, the cruelty of the violence by various children returns (we suspect) in the shape of a reception of National Socialism decades later.
Trump’s racialized discourse activates this latent microfascism in a large segment of the American public that increasingly sees its position as economically precarious, that sees the demographics of the nation changing, and that perceives its own position as being increasing marginalized. All of which feeds into a variety of desires for radical forms of change – changes that explicitly meant to escape the ‘establishment’ of the GOP institutions, for example. The molecular forms of microfascism that we all possess – we all desire productively in different ways – do not necessarily resonate together to form the molar political structures of totalitarianism. But under certain conditions the variety of microfascism may crystalize in such a way as to create the very possibilities of something like the Nazi or Stalinist state. What I’d like to suggest is that while Trump is able to touch some forms of microfascisms in the American public and give it voice, its fundamental danger is not so much with Trump himself but with how such desires might increasingly fuse themselves to an increasingly militarized national security state apparatus. Much like the way Haneke’s film implies, this may take decades to unfold.
Empire At Home
The neo-imperial turn in American foreign policy since 2001 with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003 has left significant traces upon the domestic sphere. In one sense, Afghanistan and Iraq became crucial laboratories for all types of institutional and technological experimentation. Faced with significant insurgencies, the military and a variety of public-private partnerships have cooperated to develop new technologies to give the American authorities a crucial edge in forms of social control. The advanced use of surveillance methods such as wireless fingerprinting, capturing biometric data of a wide swath of people, the persistent use of drones, automatic license plate readers, etc have all been adapted for America’s imperial missions. These technologies are also being commercialized for the American policing market while subsidized under Department of Homeland Security and Defense programs. Increasingly, law enforcement officials see criminality in similar terms as an insurgency; similar counterinsurgency methods may be used as a crime suppression tool. In an article entitled “Urban Combat The Petraeus Way: General’s Eight-Point Strategy for Crime Counterinsurgency Applied to US Streets,” Donald J. Mihalek writes: “it is easy to think of criminals as an ‘insurgency’”. The CBS news program 60 minutes highlighted the case of Springfield Massachusetts where the local police department created a program called Counter Criminal Continuum (C cubed) which adapts counterinsurgency techniques for crime suppression. Moreover, Edward Snowden’s revelations demonstrate the lengths to which the American policing state infiltrates the public through forms of mass surveillance.
In other words, over the past 15 years or we’ve seen a radical expansion of the American security state not only because of the threat of terrorism but especially because of American neo-imperial adventures in the Middle East. In fact, historically the growth of the American national security state was contingent upon external engagements. Alfred McCoy’s Policing America’s Empire shows how influential the American campaign in the Philippines in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War was in terms of the development of domestic federal institutions. The Cold War was also and important reason for the expansion of the security state and the growing militarization of domestic policing. However, I think the past 15 years marks a watershed in the capacity of the state to police, observe, control and repress a public with exceptional quasi-military means. We can recall the events of Ferguson Missouri to get a sense of the possibility of contemporary policing power: Many of the images of the police show officers clad in Kevlar vests, helmets, and camouflage, armed with pistols, shotguns, automatic rifles, and tear gas. Police snipers were ubiquitous on buildings and trucks. In fact, Tom Nolan, a 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department and criminal justice professor at SUNY wrote at the time, “Many communities now look upon police as an occupying army, their streets more reminiscent of Baghdad or Kabul than a city in America. This besieged mentality created by the militarization of police has driven a pernicious wedge into the significant gains made under community- and problem-oriented policing initiatives dating from the late 1980s.”
The long-term effects of these neo-imperial reverberations remain to be seen. But one can certainly speculate on the potential convergence between a constituted state security apparatus whose reach increasingly takes on Orwellian proportions and a resonating microfascistic desire a la Trump’s supporters. We can imagine scenarios of severe economic and political crisis or of waves of terrorist attacks that could provide the catalysts for the crystallization of microfascism as it takes over the state apparatus. I certainly believe that Trump will not become president of the United States. I believe that Trump as a political candidate will fail. What I am more concerned about is how Trump opened the door to much darker political desires: desires that can dramatically intensify modalities of repression.
Alexander Barder is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Florida International University. His current book, Empire Within: International Hierarchy and its Imperial Laboratories of Governance (Routledge, 2015) explores the various ways in which imperial spaces proved to be significant laboratories of political, social and economic innovations that affected the development of the modern Western state and society.
Donald Trump, Microfascism and the National Security State
A scene from Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon
by Cedric de Leon
Our present crisis: Donald Trump meets Antonio Gramsci
The climax of the Sound of Music takes place at the Austrian Folk Festival, when the Von Trapp Family Singers perform “Edelweiss” and “So Long, Farewell” to bide time and escape the clutches of the Nazi SS, who have come to escort Georg Von Trapp to his new post in the naval forces of the Third Reich. As I watched a revival of the original Broadway production at the Providence Performing Arts Center this past March, I had two related thoughts.
First, I speculated about the timing of the revival.
My fantasy was that the producers were staging a
commentary on our current politics. As the backdrop
of the folk festival scene, the stage designers unfurled
a line of stage-height Nazi flags from the rafters. I
must admit it came as a shock to see four swastikas
in living color – I realized then that I had never before
seen even one such flag in real life. I wondered if the
stage designers were inviting the audience to
contemplate a Donald Trump presidency.
Second, it occurred to me that Georg Von Trapp, for all his ardent Austrian nationalism, was too late to stop his country’s annexation. The play, like the movie, ends with the family climbing into the Alps to escape the regime, for it seemed that was the only thing left to do by that point.
The Contours of Crisis
The mainstream media has explored Donald Trump’s neo-fascism ad nauseam, but the Sound of Music invites a more interesting analysis, one that places Mr. Trump’s star turn in context. My objective in this piece is to frame the American political terrain in Gramscian terms, as a crisis of hegemony. For Gramsci, the defining feature of a crisis of hegemony is failed articulation; that is, a moment in which no one political actor has the mass consent to rule. I would add to this a dynamic not unanticipated by Gramsci, namely, the advantage of surprise, which may lend to its beneficiaries a mystique of unstoppability.
Failed articulation. A faithful Gramscian analysis of our present crisis would explain the rise of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in terms of the American two-party system’s failure to address the social dislocations of neoliberalism. On this account, Trump and Sanders articulate novel electoral coalitions in a context where the major parties merely talk around the issue, at best promising to blunt only the cruelest excesses of global capitalism instead of inaugurating a more just social contract (de Leon, Desai, and Tugal 2015). It should come as no surprise, then, that the most energized grassroots constituents adhere to competing strains of economic populism: both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump vilify disastrous trade deals and the concomitant outsourcing of American jobs overseas, with Trump recuperating the old nativist saw of job-hungry Mexicans.
The Advantage of Surprise. This much of Gramsci’s vision is useful as far as it goes, but I would like to read into his concept another important feature, brought to mind by the Von Trapp Family’s surprise at the Austrian Anschluss. In the scene just prior to the folk festival, the captain and his new bride, Maria, return from their honeymoon, scandalized to find the flag of the Third Reich flying over the threshold to their home. Crises of hegemony are surprising, because they entail reactive or nonlinear sequences, in which an unforeseen event or contingency touches off a series of relatively minor reactions and counterreactions that yield a major outcome (see for example Abbott 2005; Biggs 2005; Ermakoff 2008, 2015; Mahoney 2000; Pierson 2000).
Our Present Crisis
Our own crisis of hegemony began in 2008 with the conjuncture of the Great Recession and Barack Obama’s unanticipated victory over Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination and his subsequent elevation to the presidency. The 2008 Obama campaign reforged the New Deal coalition of white suburban middle class voters, organized labor, and racial minorities by building consent for a Keynesian reset in domestic economic policy. The latter was a centerpiece of the 2008 Obama campaign. For example, in El Dorado, Kansas, his grandparents’ ancestral home, Senator Obama said, “I am standing here today…because my grandfather got the chance to go to school on the GI Bill, buy a house through the Federal Housing Authority [sic], and move his family west” (de Leon 2011: 91).
Mr. Obama sounded a similar note in Indiana,
where he became the first Democrat since
Lyndon B. Johnson to carry that state’s electoral
votes. There he compared his own plans to
remake the middle class to President Eisenhower’s
embrace of New Deal deficit spending programs:
“Now, back in the 1950s, Americans were put to
work building the Interstate Highway system
and that helped expand the middle class in
this country. We need to show the same kind
of leadership today” (ibid.). The American
electorate thus had good reason to expect
a second liberal golden age. Indeed, Time
magazine’s post-election cover featured Mr.
Obama’s likeness photo-shopped onto a famous
image of a smiling FDR with his trademark fedora and
cigarette filter. The cover story by Peter Beinart was titled,
“The New New Deal” (Beinart 2008).
But instead of a New Deal, Americans got a bank bailout that dwarfed the administration’s proposed public works projects – the kinder, gentler neoliberalism of the erstwhile Clinton administration, which famously worked to take the sting out of post-Fordism but not to resuscitate Fordism itself. This was followed by the disillusionment of progressives and the emergence of the Occupy Movement, whose slogan, the 99 percent, put class inequality back on the table where once class had been a dirty word. The other side of the political spectrum witnessed the rise of a racist anti-Obama rebellion of Birthers and Tea Party activists (supported in part by right-wing political and economic elites like Donald Trump) that gave voice to the far right fringe of civil society and eventuated in the Republican takeover of Congress in 2010. Institutional politics was thus convulsed, with no one institutional actor having the mass consent of the people.
Three Routes through Crisis
Gramsci argued that there were three routes out of such crises: 1) the reabsorption of renegade constituencies by the political establishment; 2) the passage of all renegade groups under a new banner; and 3) Caesarism, the rise of a single charismatic figure not unlike Gramsci’s own nemesis, Benito Mussolini (Gramsci 2000: 218-219).
All three elements are present now, with no one clear pathway out of the crisis. Perhaps the least likely victor at the time of this writing is Bernie Sanders, who is attempting what he himself calls a “political revolution” to bring the aforementioned disarticulated progressives under the banner of Democratic Socialism. What we have in Donald Trump is a Caesar, who now leads the disarticulated fractions of the racist anti-Obama rebellion. Hillary Clinton stands the best chance of all establishment candidates to win the presidency and thereby reabsorb disaffected groups into the Democratic Party.
"What we have in Donald Trump is a
Caesar, who now leads the
disarticulated fractions of
the racist anti-Obama rebellion."
The Likely Path of Reabsorption
The Von Trapp Family fled across the Alps and eventually to the United States rather than die or consent to Nazi rule. This is not what lies ahead for us. The likely path out of our present crisis is a Clinton presidency and the reabsorption of renegade factions into the Democratic establishment. Bernie Sanders, though more to my political tastes, faces a steeper path owing both to the rigging of the primary system and the Clinton machine’s longtime cadres in minority civil society organizations like Black churches. Donald Trump has no discernible path to the presidency. If Mr. Trump is the Republican nominee, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders will carry punishing majorities among women, African Americans, Latinos, and Asians, and win the Democrats’ customary 40 percent of white men. In the unlikely event that no one wins a majority of Electoral College votes and the House of Representatives chooses the next president, it is doubtful that the establishmentarian Speaker, Paul Ryan, would rally his caucus behind Donald Trump.
If, however, Hillary Clinton does become the next president, it will be her responsibility to satisfy the unrequited desire to reverse the race to the bottom that her husband’s neoliberal administration facilitated. That is of course unlikely, in which case our present crisis will probably deepen just as it did in the aftermath of Mr. Obama’s election in 2008. Still, I would submit that this is a somewhat contingent process. If she is as attuned to the people as she says she is, then she will know that, like Franklin Roosevelt before her, she is watching a political revolution cresting, and not necessarily a progressive one at that. Unless she is prepared to radically rethink the status quo, then instead of leading the wave, she will be the next one inundated.
For the political articulation school, I’m Cedric de Leon.
Cedric de Leon is Associate Professor of Sociology at Providence College. He is the author of The Origins of Right to Work (Cornell University Press 2015) and Party & Society (Polity 2014) and co-editor of Building Blocs (Stanford University Press 2015). Before becoming an academic, Cedric was by turns an organizer, a local union president, and a rank-and-file activist in the U.S. labor movement.
Abbott, Andrew (2005) “Process and temporality in sociology: The idea of outcome in U.S. sociology,” in George Steinmetz (ed.) The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences: Positivism and Its Epistemological Others. Durham and London: Duke University Press: 393-426.
Beinart, Peter (2008) “The New New Deal.” Time (Nov. 24). Accessed March 24, 2016 <>
Biggs, Michael (2005) “Strikes as Sequences of Interaction: The American Strike Wave of 1886.” Social Science History 26 (3): 583-617.
de Leon, Cedric (2011) “The More Things Change: A Gramscian Genealogy of Barack Obama’s ‘Post-Racial’ Politics, 1932-2008.” Political Power and Social Theory 22: 75-104.
de Leon, Cedric, Manali Desai, and Cihan Tugal (2015) Building Blocs: How Parties Organize Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Ermakoff, Ivan (2008) Ruling Oneself Out: A Theory of Collective Abdications. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Ermakoff, Ivan (2015) “The Structure of Contingency.” American Journal of Sociology121 (1): 64-125.
Gramsci, Antonio (2000) The Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings, 1916-1935. New York: New York University Press.
Mahoney, James (2000) “Path Dependence in Historical Sociology.” Theory and Society 29 (4): 507-548.
Pierson, Paul (2000) “Not Just What, but When: Timing and Sequence in Political Processes.” Studies in American Political Development 14 (1): 72-92.
Those Pro-Slavery Trump Supporters aren't what you think. They're worse.
by Andrew J. Perrin
The Trump phenomenon is at once surprising and easily comprehensible. It’s surprising because the institutional design of American politics is supposed to keep culturally marginal candidates from prime time. Most pundits and commentators assumed (as did I) in mid-2015 that Trump would be only a sideshow to a fairly conventional Republican primary season. His electoral success is unprecedented among paranoid populists in the modern era. But it’s comprehensible because Trump is a familiar figure in American culture: the populist railing against the cultural and intellectual elites, using wealth as a marker of authenticity. Trump as trope is the embodiment of Richard Hofstadter’s analysis of the paranoid, anti-intellectual style in American politics.
Trump as Symbol
I want to begin by focusing on one particular piece of the Trump story that reveals some of the cultural and representational dynamics he has raised. In a February 23 New York Times Upshot column, the eminent political scientist Lynn Vavreck used polling data from YouGov and Public Policy Polling to show that Trump supporters were much more likely than other Republicans to endorse attitudes most people find outlandish. These included bans on Muslims as well as gays and lesbians entering the United States; opposition to the 1950s desegregation of the US military and even to the 19th century abolition of slavery. And among the (thankfully) few respondents who believed that whites are a superior race, significantly more supported Trump than his rivals for the Republican nomination.
Vavreck interpreted these data as reflecting the genuine views on these topics among Trump supporters: “he has tapped into a set of deeply rooted racial attitudes,” she writes. “He isn’t persuading voters to hold these beliefs. The beliefs were there — and have been for some time.”
Afterward, the fact-checking website snopes.com rated that interpretation a “mixture” of true and false, noting the small sample sizes in each of the groups and the possibility that respondents were opposed to executive orders in general more than the Emancipation Proclamation in particular.
The news isn’t as bad as Vavreck implies. It’s worse. I don’t think the problem is the relative truth of the data themselves; I think it’s about how we understand what respondents are thinking about when they respond to polls (particularly electronically-administered polls like these). It is more appropriate to consider these answers as affective samples from respondents’ cultural dispositions, not accurate reflections of their pre-existing views on the specific questions.
In several polls in 2011, 2012, and 2014, my colleagues and I asked registered voters in North Carolina and Tennessee many questions designed to reveal their cultural dispositions and political ideas. We asked them how they felt about the Tea Party, and also an unusual question about their political identifications: “Which of the following groups do you like least? Nazis, gay rights activists, the Ku Klux Klan, atheists, or communists?” Looking at those two questions together is interesting:
Among those who had negative views toward the Tea Party, Nazis were by far the least-liked group (44.6% liked them least), followed by the Ku Klux Klan (31.9%). Those with no opinion about the Tea Party showed a similar pattern, though atheists and communists took some of the lead away from Nazis and the KKK. But among those who were positive toward the Tea Party, all five groups are nearly equal, with Nazis barely edging out atheists as the least liked.
This pattern is interesting, but not because it gives us direct insight into what groups people actually like more and less. It strains credulity to think that people are walking around contemplating the relative rankings of these groups, just waiting for the phone to ring so they can recite their ordered list to a pollster (or, in this case, an automated calling machine). They were asked to make a snap judgment: a short-term decision with no plausible effect. It's not reasonable, therefore, to read this as “Tea Party supporters think atheists are just as bad as Nazis and worse than the KKK!” But the systematically different patterns of those snap decisions suggest that people who are sympathetic with the Tea Party also have different quick reactions to these groups.
Similarly, it's not reasonable to think that South Carolina Republicans are walking around with fully formed beliefs about the Emancipation Proclamation. But they know the questions they're being asked are about race, or about federal power, or states' rights—all of which give them an opportunity to express what kind of citizen they consider themselves to be. Most, I suspect, know the infamous wall on the US-Mexico border will never be built, regardless of the election's outcome. But they imagine themselves the kind of people who would want such a wall – and Trump articulates and focuses that identification. Trump is a symbol around whom supporters rally, not a package of policy proposals they assess and evaluate separately.
The fact that many more Trump voters see themselves as this kind of person should worry us far more than the idea that they might not support an executive order that has long since been enshrined in the Constitution and a legal and political tradition. The uniquely American blend of populism, wealth, and bigotry that he has deployed depends on, and extends, the weakness of public debate and dialogue in the contemporary US. Media-fueled outrage, the lack of serious contestation, and ideological audience sorting have combined both to support Trump's demagoguery and to offer no adequate antidote to it.
The Weak Public Sphere and Trump's Rise
The kind of public sphere most Americans imagine is one in which people exchange views and ideas, listening to one another, responding, and considering one another's views. While people need not be calm and polite, they need to be able to understand and consider others' ideas, if only to disagree well. But for the most part, what Americans encounter instead is a public sphere that encourages outrage as the principal emotion and that discourages serious engagement across lines of disagreement.
As Sarah Sobieraj and Jeff Berry showed in their book, The Outrage Industry, hyper-partisan news outlets and commentators thrive by casting their opponents as enemies to be ridiculed or scorned. Social media tools like Facebook and Twitter exacerbate this effect by allowing people to choose specifically what kinds of material they are exposed to. Where the public sphere would thrive by forging connections between different kinds of people, the actual practice of sharing ideas proceeds mostly by confirming and magnifying pre-existing beliefs without subjecting them to challenge.
This structure—fragmentation, anger, outrage, and confirmation—has proved fertile ground for the emergence of Trump as a more significant electoral force than any similar figure for at least a century. (George Wallace is the obvious comparison case, but he never amassed nearly the amount of electoral success nationally that Trump already has.) The particular package that coalesces in Trump (defiant masculinity, anti-immigrant nativism, working-class resentment, and anti-intellectual bravado) is pulled directly from commentary on Fox News and similar outlets and very much in line with recent Republican politicians' styles. But the lack of serious contestation impoverishes the entire political spectrum. Voices and ideas that would not survive sustained critique are allowed to flourish, while others that might be attractive to many are left to wither on the vine.
"The uniquely American blend of populism, wealth, and bigotry
that he has deployed depends on, and extends,
the weakness of public debate and dialogue in the contemporary US."
The remedy for the public sphere is not more civility. Nor is it more “facts,” as partisans of every stripe assume would naturally bring opponents to their side if only those opponents would amass enough of them. Any remedy for the public sphere would need to find ways to increase access to genuine, committed disagreement—to contestation among committed citizens and groups. There is no shortcut to that point, but media outlets can play an important role by emphasizing and critiquing ideas in the public sphere. And individuals can do what we try to teach students to do in class: examine their own assumptions and ideas by testing them against those who actually disagree.
Although Trump has enjoyed far more success than I, like most observers, expected, it appears unlikely that he will actually become president. Enough voters react negatively to the image he presents. But there will probably be others like him as long as the cultural contours of the public sphere remain as they are.
Andrew J. Perrin is professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His most recent book is "American Democracy: From Tocqueville to Town Halls to Twitter" (Polity Press, 2014). He is currently investigating the ways higher education can contribute to democratic participation and the public sphere.