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.
Sociology often positions itself as empirical, in opposition to an ideological view dedicated to manipulating facts and data points. Gretchen Peterson moves her critical sociology into the critique of ideology as such, emphasizing how both Candidate and President Trump have presented information in such a way as to “desensitize” Americans from the structural racisms and inequalities shaping the USA. In the end, however, it’s less compelling to view ideology as overwhelming; it’s just as important to figure how publics can be less easily manipulated. Sociology can help. – Michael Kennedy, professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University.
The sociology of Donald J. Trump is of much greater complexity than the “simple minded” image argued by adversaries. Trump as an orator has been described as “childlike” and aggressively unqualified; however his McCarthy-ist rhetoric unravels Americans. To avoid public dissent, Trump exists in an imagined reality of self-importance, arrogance and delusion. In this “Trumpian” universe, the world is only as complex as he allows. Trump brazenly refuses to acknowledge the complexities of human life and interaction, assumes omniscience, and is dangerously arrogant in the face of ignorance.
The dangers of Trump ideology and imagined omniscience cannot be understated—the Thomas Theorem accurately posits, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” Bloviating, barely political speeches reduce the complexities of human life to Trump’s own minimal acknowledgement—“great,” “tremendous,” “bad” and “stupid”—and distract the public from the structural problems interwoven in American and global society. Donald Trump is comprehensively and collectively desensitizing America through his oblivious and fear-mongering rhetoric.
Diversity, Distraction and Desensitization
In campaign strategy, Trump attempted a narrative of racial and socioeconomic diversity, and was lauded by supporters as being “inclusive” and “aware,” despite inadequately representing many of America’s minority groups. In reducing complex urban environments—the “inner cities”—to sound bites such as these, “It’s carnage [Chicago]. You know, in my speech I got tremendous—from certain people the word carnage. It is carnage. It’s horrible carnage,” Trump deceives supporters of the lived realities of people within these urban centers. False representations of “outsiders” create rampant xenophobia, blatantly unaware of the global context of race, religion and nationality, leading to the stratification and marginalization of immigrant and refugee minority groups.
The danger of Donald J. Trump to the American people is an unacknowledged desensitization of society, creating a nation in which structural inequality, inherent racism, sexism and ableism, as well as unconstitutional xenophobic policy will have the ability to become generalized and normative in the continued structuring of American politics and society.
Diversity in every aspect of American life is under fire in the wake of the inauguration of Donald J. Trump. The historic two terms of the first Black President of the United States is being followed by white nationalism, headed by a man equal parts arrogant and ignorant of diversity issues in America. However, Trump’s campaign strategy relied on the advertisement of every example of “diversity” relevant to the American voter.
The education demographics of the predominantly white Trump supporters, and the claimed “diversity” of participants in Trump rhetoric and ideology desensitized many Americans to structural inequality. The foundation of American society, acknowledged or not, resides on these systems of structural inequality.
In recent years, Black liberation movements have come to the forefront of the American sociopolitical field, most notably with the formation of Black Lives Matter in July of 2013. In the wake of former President Barack Obama’s eight years in office as the first Black President of the United States, racial diversity amongst voters was of prime interest during the 2016 election campaigns. Trump’s campaign featured participants such as Ben Carson, an ex-neurosurgeon awkwardly awarded the Housing and Urban Development slot in Trump’s new cabinet. Proposals put forth by the Trump campaign, like the “National Diversity Coalition for Trump,” were both strategic and desperate attempts to make a white nationalist candidate appeal to minority groups. While the campaign’s appeal to diversity failed—Trump received roughly 8% of the Black vote and 30% of the Latinx vote—the inclusion of figures like Ben Carson satisfied the minimal desire for racial equality and diversity in lesser-educated America, and distracted from Trump’s incredible lack thereof.
Trump ironically excelled amongst those on the lower rungs of the education and economic hierarchy within the White majority. Trump polled higher in the 50 least educated counties in America, and fell to Clinton significantly in the most diverse counties. Trump supporters latched onto the notion of “diversity” amidst the Trump campaign through the socioeconomic diversity of significantly white populations. The support from lower class, lesser-educated Americans, living under drastically different circumstances than Trump, offered the false perception of a diverse voting population. Much of America was deceptively quelled on notions of diversity and inclusion through Trump’s continuous reiteration of inclusion, diversity, and acceptance. The strategic inclusion by the Trump campaign of select Latinx, Black and minority support distracted from the structural inequalities on which Trump’s rhetoric relied.
While many critical, well-educated liberals remained profoundly aware of Trump’s inappropriate foreign and economic policy proposals—namely the Muslim travel ban, Mexico border wall and tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy—many individuals were distracted and essentially desensitized from previously prominent displays of structural racism in America. The Flint water crisis, Ferguson and Black Lives Matter were lost behind Pussy hats, the Women’s March and Dakota Access Pipeline protests. These forms of resistance became popularized, bordering on “trendy,” disregarding the structural battles at play within each conflict of opinion. The ways in which Trump incites opposition and public dissent threaten to shadow minority groups and desensitize America from perpetuated forms of inherent structural inequality. Predominantly White groups take on the cause of minority rights, challenging policies such as the Muslim Ban, and falsely assume that by opposing Trump oppression, they remove themselves from the structures of racial stratification permeating social interaction. Through distracting rhetoric and blatantly unconstitutional policies and proposals, Trump has begun desensitizing American society from structural racism and inequality penetrating social interaction and creating structures of discrimination and disparity.
In his ascent to power, Donald Trump’s greatest asset has been tactics of diversion and distraction. Blatantly false and contradictory statements distract the public from Trump’s actions. A primary example of distraction tactics is Trump’s discourse on Chicago. Trump claims that Chicago, and all inner cities, are “war-torn” wastelands, in dire need of aid and improvement. Trump’s false claims about Chicago anger his opponents, while successfully distracting from the serious dangers the Trump administration poses to large American cities like Chicago. In appointing Ben Carson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a man committed to drastically cutting federal funding to affordable housing programs, the Trump administration will effectively gut urban environments, limiting residence to only the wealthiest Americans.
Carnage and Lived Realities in US Cities
Trump succeeds in distracting the voting population from these dangers through sound bites such as those given to ABC’s David Muir—reducing life in Chicago to “horrible carnage.” While America was focused on degrading Trump for being unaware of crime statistics and bashing Chicago, the Trump administration had plans to cut federal funding for housing in urban developments, thus gutting public housing programs in major U.S. cities. This tactic, of picking Chicago as a target, was incredibly effective on Trump’s part.
While Chicago is only the eighth most violent U.S. city—cities like St. Louis, Baltimore and Detroit all having much higher crime rates—the data on Chicago is trending upward in recent years. However, as statistics show, crime rates were significantly higher in the 1990s. This fact was conveniently and strategically overlooked by the Trump campaign. When supporters looked at the last decade of crime rates in Chicago, the data supported Trump’s claims. This strategic skewing of data persuaded Trump supporters to believe that due to the recently increasing crime rates, urban centers like Chicago reflected the projected chaos. Trump gained support and distracted from the cabinet plans to cut federal funding and diminish public housing programs. In this manner, Trump’s rhetoric on inner cities deceives and distracts Americans from the detrimental plans the administration will soon apply to these major urban hubs. The realities of these populated cities are shadowed by Trump’s tweeted claims—“If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible “carnage” going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!” While the statistics Trump tweeted are true, the data was collected in mid-January, 2017. Thus, the “up 24% from 2016” claim Trump makes is based on one twelfth of the data for the year—data that is still incomplete. However, once supporters heard verification of the “facts,” the following conversation regarding statistics and data collection was subsequently lost behind new outbursts by Trump.
The skewed perception of urban environments promoted by Donald Trump differs greatly from the lived realities of many American cities, and dangerously misinforms individuals. Trump’s campaign and governing tactics distract the populace from threats with a smokescreen of uninformed outbursts and misdirection. Trump generalizes and erases the complex nature of the urban environment, and is able to appoint underqualified people like Ben Carson to his cabinet, to manage incredibly convoluted situations. Trump’s rhetoric regarding urban environments dangerously generalizes carefully constructed and governed spaces, and threatens to treat them as much less complex environments—“war-torn” areas that must be gutted of all undesirable people, including criminals, the lower class and immigrants.
Donald Trump promotes a jingoist sense of national identity and foreign agenda, using fear mongering tactics and an aggressively nationalistic and egotistical worldview to justify exclusion and distrust of “outsiders.” The purported representations of these “outsiders,” predominantly consisting of Muslim and Latinx populations, creates rampant xenophobia and aggressive nationalism, unaware of the global context of race, religion, and nationality. During the campaign, Trump made inflammatory claims regarding the Muslim population of the United States, insinuating a violent “Jihad” against America on behalf of Muslims worldwide:
“Without looking at the various polling data, it is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension. Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life. If I win the election for President, we are going to Make America Great Again.” –Donald J. Trump
This remark, as well as many others, exemplifies the distortion of belief Trump imposes upon the American populace. Trump begins by disregarding the polling data, claiming it “obvious” to see the hatred Muslims have for the United States. This statement draws on lingering fear and resentment from events such as 9/11 and the Iraqi and Afghan wars. By profiling Muslims as believing “only in Jihad” and having “no sense of reason or respect for human life,” Trump generalizes an entire religion, associating all Muslims with certain radical acts and groups. Trump closes the statement with the claim, “we are going to Make America Great Again,” expressly omitting the details of such actions. Trump’s campaign promise to keep “hatred” out of the U.S. manifested as the Muslim Ban, originally “temporarily” banning refugees and immigrants from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen—countries with significant Muslim populations and suspected ties to terrorism. In this characterization of nationality inherently linked to religious identity, Trump’s Immigration Ban marginalized both Muslims and citizens of the banned countries. The fear-mongering tactics of the Trump campaign and administration fuel xenophobia and present a platform of jingoist foreign policy.
While the Muslim Ban affected predominantly American overseas relations with the Middle East, with contestation over the ban arising in airports and courthouses, Trump created animosity along the United States’ southern border with Mexico. The contestation of this border and the status of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. led to the marginalization of immigrant communities and the criminalization of immigrant status. Trump rhetoric portrayed immigrants as “crime-prone,” characterizing a significant facet of American society as criminal and dangerous. As Jamie Longazel (University of Dayton) argues, the, “criminalization of Latino/a immigrants in the U.S.” is, “a subordinating myth; that is, a falsity used as part of a larger effort to misallocate material, political, and cultural resources.”
There are multiple ways in which the criminalization of immigrants contributes to racial exclusion, and the xenophobic, business-like model of the Trump administration benefits significantly from all—profiting from immigration detention; political scapegoating of racialized immigrants; degrading of racialized bodies in enforcement efforts; and literal control of exploitable populations. In criminalizing immigrant populations, Trump benefits both financially and politically, allowing false representations of outsiders to justify xenophobic and jingoistic international policies. The danger of this false representation is that, when combined with fear mongering tactics such as referencing violent drug cartel murders and the 9/11 attacks, entire complex communities are generalized by out-standing violence and criminality.
The claims made by Trump, and the policies based on those ideas, distract and deceive the American populace from the real effects of immigrant populations in the U.S. social and economic climate. Many Americans are persuaded to believe that all immigrants are violent, untrustworthy outsiders who must be walled—literally—from entering the United States. Trump rhetoric enables the generalization and subsequent marginalization of complex populations within the United States, criminalizing massive numbers of individuals based upon skewed data and fear-mongering tactics.
In the creation of the “outsider,” the Trump campaign perpetuated structural racism while avoiding being outwardly “racist.” The sociology of Donald Trump relies on a world of black and white—quite literally. Trump, along with the rest of “desirable,” nationalist America is White. All outsiders are Black—threatening and violent. Thus, overt racism was used in depicting Muslims and Latinx as outsiders. However, in the mind of Trump, when the marginalized minority is not Black, the act is not racist. The ideology of Trump relies on structural racism and inequality to subordinate minority populations in the U.S. while avoiding the classification of “structural racism.” The policies and statements promoted by Trump deceive his supporters from the structural racism present in the Trump administration and perpetuated throughout American society.
While Donald J. Trump is an undesirable, unqualified individual figure-heading the nation, the real danger lies not in Trump’s ideology itself, but rather the reception of his rhetoric in American society. The problem is not that Trump bloviates unsubstantiated claims and controversial asides; it is rather that those receiving this rhetoric are unaware of the critical examination required to understand the true dangers of Trump’s ideology.
Public Responsibility and Critical Sociology in Trump’s America
The greatest danger to America is ourselves. Americans lack the critical sociological imagination needed to dissect and understand the man behind the bully pulpit. There is a profound and disturbing lack of, “vivid awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society,” allowing Trump to succeed in concealing structural racism, over-simplifying urban environments, and generalizing foreign policy based solely upon the acts of a few. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, combined with a lack of awareness or critical examination enables Trump’s to act without recourse. The success of the Trump campaign and following administration relies upon the comprehensive lack of a critical sociological imagination within a significant population of Americans.
Trump poses a danger to American society only insofar as society poses a danger to itself. Without critical awareness of the links and interactions creating the complex societies in which we live, Trump’s xenophobic and jingoistic ideology succeeds. The next four years hold the danger of a desensitized nation, in which structural inequality, inherent racism, sexism and ableism, and unconstitutional xenophobic policy will have the ability to become generalized and normative in the structuring of American politics and society.
 Thomas Theorem
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