Editor’s note: This post is part of a summer-long series, The Sociology of Trump. Every Friday RI Future will feature an essay written by a Brown University sociology student on an aspect of Trumpism. Read the introduction: Culture, power, and social change in the time of Trump.
We need to read Trump, Travis Williams argues in this May 2017 piece, not as a politician with policies but as a kind of religious leader with parables. We can then see that Trump truthfulness resides beyond facts. Secretary Clinton’s policies may have been more empirically grounded, but they could not inspire a public alienated by technocracy too complex for actually existing democratic deliberation. Politicians, and I would add sociologists, need to help us reconstitute a public discourse grounded in democratic empowerment rather than in fantastic allusion. And then, you may ask, where does Kanye stand? – Michael Kennedy, professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University.
To be clear, I am not saying that Kanye West will run as a successful independent in 2020. However, I think we should discuss why that does not seem as absurd now as it did before the Trump election. The game of politics has changed, and it has been changing for a long time. The first televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon showed us that policy is not everything for the American electorate. Indeed, in this confusing time of Trump, we must understand the sway of stories and the power of personality. Anyone challenging Trump with statistics and bullet points is going to inevitably fail. It might just take a rapper with a god complex to challenge a businessman with a religious following.
A Hell of A Problem
National politics is a garbled mess. Our three layer, three branch, federalist system contains a lot of moving parts. Different committees, officials, and laws come into play anytime something happens. It’s hard to follow, and it is always getting harder. Population grows and more people have different problems. Agencies are created, and the layers of bureaucracy pile on thicker. Not surprisingly, people often don’t really understand what’s going on on their own.
This is where the media is supposed to step in for the government. Americans without the time, education, or resources to research the intricacies of policy have traditionally relied on print news. Journalists present complicated topics in a more digestible format, which enables informed and effective democratic participation. This journalistic responsibility is the reason we have freedom of press guaranteed in the First Amendment: a strong press is absolutely essential for democracy. Sadly, while the world is getting more complicated, our news is getting more diluted. News media must compete with hundreds of television channels and the vast time suck that is the internet. If a headline does not draw in consumers, it does not help them stay open. In addition, more Americans are getting their news from social media. The result is a flurry of articles from competing sources with mismatched information and varying validity and depth. Indeed, the media has failed to rescue us from the complex behemoth that is statecraft.
The political elite original thought to tame the complexity of democracy and maintain power by restricting voting to white landowning protestant males who could handle the confusion. Thankfully for our democracy, voting has significantly expanded. However, groups like Puerto Ricans, felons, and persons without ID’s still can’t vote. Voting may have expanded, but we still have a legacy of exclusion that follows us. Policy talk is in highly technical language and it happens out of public hands. Parties expect working class voters to fall into line as grist for the mill. This has resulted in a highly disillusioned public. Civic engagement in America is very weak, even more so among people with low income. I want to be clear here, I am not condemning these folks. In my personal experience, more privileged groups are often severely critical of “the masses” for not really understanding politics or the world. I think it is important to keep in mind that we are the products of our environment. Those who do not understand politics reflect a failure of those who do, and it is the responsibility of the state to destroy barriers in the name of democracy.
The Divine Demagogue
Donald Trump has made incredible use of this muddled political climate. I can not say if it was by chance or careful planning, but Trump’s campaign played counter to all the challenges I have just mentioned, and then goes even farther. He became an ideological powerhouse that energized people with an almost religious fervor. While these are not the only factors to consider for the Trump election, we would do well to understand them, and how they interact.
Donald Trump managed to stay in the news for almost his entire campaign. Through a myriad of controversies (“and some [illegal immigrants], I assume, are good people” “[I could] shoot people and I wouldn’t lose voters”), he stayed relevant in an incredibly cluttered system. While a voter might forget any number of policies or politicians amidst the regular whirl of politics, no one was forgetting about Trump. He permeated every sort of media. Even a disgruntled citizen who did not “really follow politics” heard about him. And when they did, a lot of those disgruntled people liked what they heard.
Looking at how Trump talks is almost as important as looking at what he says. His speeches and his tweets use short simple language. He stops mid sentence, he uses connecting words, he goes on tangents. He famously refused to use a teleprompter when he started his campaign, and later destroyed one during a speech. All of this makes him come off as conversational. Where Mr. Obama gives eloquent speeches that read like poetry, Trump just talks. He is not precise, he is not well organized, but his speech is relatable. People who felt excluded from politics suddenly saw a figure speaking to them, instead of around them. Trump expressed his plans in ways that did not require much time or education to understand. If nothing else, “Build a wall” and “Make America Great Again” are accessible politics.
Trump sells a narrative with all his slogans and speeches. A narrative that resonated with rural America. Arlie Russell Hochschild writes about the Trump supporters’ deep story: the tale that tells how they see themselves. Trump is viewed as a biblical judge, a divinely justified arbiter of who is damned and who is saved. He is a blessed businessman here to rescue Americans from the evils of this world. Trump certainly can feel like a judge from a different realm, propped up by his wealth, fame, and aggressive tweets (Trump has insulted over three hundred discrete things on his twitter alone). The man lived in a golden penthouse in the sky!
Once people imbue Trump with a religious authority, he just can’t say anything wrong to them. This is especially possible because so much of Trump’s speech is vague, and lacks policy specifics. When he demands a wall, does he mean literally? When he said he would bring back “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”, what exactly is that? These are Trump’s parables. They convey ideas like anti-immigration and tough on terror, but in ways that do not entail a lot of detailed policy. This means they are much simpler to convey, and each individual can take them to mean whatever fits their own beliefs or the situation. One only needs to have faith in, not necessarily understand, Trump’s exact policy.
A god will not die to mortal wounds. That is to say, Trump will not be defeated by numbers or spreadsheets. These things don’t touch his story or his divine deep story. It is possible, though, that Trump will be his own downfall. If he somehow invalidates his story as divine judge, Americans may begin to see him as a false idol. I think where Trump is most vulnerable to this possibility is with Russia. Since World War II, Russia has been seen as ideologically antithetical to America. Throughout the Cold War, nothing could be less American than the communists. These feelings still hold sway over Americans, and if Trump’s connections with Russia are revealed to be stronger than we realized, there will be consequences. Trump would be a fallen angel, more devil than god, and a man who tried to manipulate America for its enemies.
More likely in my mind is that Trump’s position and tactics will keep him a powerful and divine figure. In that case, he will need to be defeated by someone of a similarly powerful cultural status. Mrs. Clinton failed because she gave fact filled speeches punctuated by pleas to look at her website. This did not appeal to the disgruntled Trump supporters. The opposition to Trump must be someone who people can relate with and understand- someone who inspires faith. Importantly, they must be someone who has enough wild energy and self confidence to command a divine sort of importance. Bernie Sanders called on people in very much this way. He talked frankly, used simple language, spoke with passion, and acted as if he had a mandate to change politics. Mr. Sanders did not make it out of the primaries for various reasons, but he did do better than many people expected. Unlike Trump, he had real policies to back up the ideology he was selling. Sadly, I believe the time for Mr. Sanders has passed. As the democratic party looks for a new candidate, or indeed if an independent arises, an effective contender will also draw on these methods.
There has been talk of Kanye West running in the 2020 election, though perhaps mainly on social media (#Kanye2020). A lot of it is joking, but the musician has toyed with the idea in the past. If there were ever a time where a rapper with songs like “I Am A God” could play politics, it’d be now. Mr. West is quite adept at staying controversial, and his life work is communicating effectively with the public. Perhaps most importantly, Mr. West has an absurd amount of confidence, which is necessary for attempting to run off on a story. Mr. West is not a politician, but neither was Trump. We may be entering an era where politicians no longer have the skills and traits most effective for running. Does that frighten you? It frightens me.
There is an alternate path for politics, though I don’t think it will happen soon. Trump has prevailed because large groups feel like they have been systematically excluded from political discourse. If we can structurally improve our democracy, citizens will be more prepared to engage critically with politics. I am suggesting a better civics education and media that can help people understand how laws and candidates will affect their lives. Politicians also have got to stop seeing their voters as simple consumers of ideology, and respect their ability to talk about real issues. They need to create a culture of understanding policies, and engage critically with their constituents instead of just scheming for their votes. This is how the people can defeat a god, by learning to see past him. This path is not a simple on though. It is difficult for any one element to change on it own, and changing them all seems a monstrous task. Perhaps it is also a necessary task.
What I’ve presented here is just part of of Trump’s victory story. The entire story brings in to account sexism, outside interference, primaries, an increasing sense of nationalism, the conservative backlash after a progressive time, and countless other considerations. Likewise, my prescription is not a panacea. Still, Trump’s image prevailed under these conditions, and we should seek to understand why, and what might happen next. I do not agree with Trump supporters, but I do see that there are coming from a place of exclusion. The fact that Trump prevailed means that our state has fundamentally failed to properly prepare its citizens for the burden of democracy. If we educate our population, if we create a new culture, we may begin to enter an era of high voter turnout and political engagement. If our politics continue to be a miasma of rhetoric and inaccessible policy, demagogues will continue to thrive. You should get your Kanye 2020 shirt now, they’re gonna’ sell fast.