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 students on an aspect of Trumpism. Read the introduction: Culture, power, and social change in the time of Trump.
“Cal Barash-David leads our series of papers on the Sociology of Trump with this account of his narrative power and its limits. Cal compares four three word phrases — “lock her up”, “drain the swamp”, “build the wall” and “repeal and replace” — to clarify the conditions under which Trump can escape responsibility. And when he might be trapped in his own narrative.” – Michael Kennedy, professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University
Turn on the T.V., pick up a newspaper, or open your computer and you will see a war waged on fact. Accusations of fake news and skirting of fact-based questions abound. The election of Donald Trump to the office of the President is a situation ripe for sociological interpretation, and now, months into his presidency, many Americans are still searching for answers.
How was a man who ran a campaign based on falsehoods and dishonesty able to rise to the country’s highest office? When does the trajectory of his public persona and communicative strategies fall from its apex over the steady existence of truth and crash down into the unambiguous reality of fact?
Without professing to provide a comprehensive interpretation of Trump’s rise to power, I will offer an explanation of how Trump’s rise and fall from power (a process I argue is ongoing) are due to the same aspect of Trump’s persona and governing strategy. That is, to attempt to autonomously build a personal narrative that allows him to make promises, evade failure, and disregard the realities of governance. It worked on the campaign trail when he was able to create a self-narrative independently, but how will it work in the oval office?
Building a Base with Narratives of Self-Image
The conditions under which Trump was able to build support during the election were complex. Instrumental in his rise was his ability to autonomously craft a narrative that painted himself as a straight shooter to the extent where he was seen as a savvy business man, and even a religious symbol. In so doing, he was also able to mobilize whiteness. He did so all while remaining evasive, and difficult to pin down – valuing narratives, pithy catch phrases and self-image over policy, fact, and truth. Trump was able to utilize his charisma in order to produce and maintain authority and legitimacy.  As Peterson reminds us, in analyzing Trump we must abandon the normal manner in which we view politicians. Rather, we need to view him as celebrity; a man who builds a narrative and self-image, no matter how antithetical it may be to the nature of reality.
Trump’s tweets, victory rallies, and protocol-breaking meetings aren’t power plays or genius chess moves aimed at sly misdirection. They’re attempts, some more conscious than others, to reinforce his image as the embodiment of the American dream — reaffirming his role as a potent, authentic outsider even as his actual politics threaten to unravel.
Trump as a Straight-Shooting Business Man
Most apparent in Trump’s persona is his peculiar and polarizing idiolect. While his opponents hear his speeches as incoherent, rambling, babble, his supporters hear a “straight shooter.” I posit that Trump is perhaps seen as a straight shooter not because he is straightforward, but rather because he does not prescribe to Goffman’s idea of front and backstage. Where he is untruthful, irrational, and rude in public, he is also perhaps equally lewd and dishonest in the private sphere. Trump’s aptitude in reaching his base with completely false statements, or statements devoid of any substance whatsoever, is crucial in the formation of image.
His idiolect, as well as his constant declarations about making deals, also support the identity Trump has crafted of himself as a successful, self-starting business man. However, Trump’s business acumen has been under deserved scrutiny, as he has declared for bankruptcy six times. Additionally, far from being a self-starter, Trump said that he started off with a “small loan of a million dollars” from his father, a man with a net worth of hundreds of millions of dollars. Also, one million dollars in 1968 (when he received the “small loan”) is equal to $6.8 million in today’s dollar. Trump’s willingness and ability to independently craft a narrative that is often diametrically opposed to fact was crucial in the success of his campaign and the solidification of his base.
Trump as a Racist Religious Symbol
Facts matter even less when you’re a religious symbol. Hochschild’s identification of Trump as a symbol of the rapture in southern America allows him even more lenience in his evasion of truth. Additionally, Trump was able to tap into the “deep story” of southern Tea Party members. He utilized their prejudices and struggles to show himself as someone who will work for them and has their best interest at heart.
One of the ways in which he was able to do so was by mobilizing whiteness using both the political system, and thinly veiled racist language to appeal to the prejudices of his base.
Trump has been fairly consistent in the use of the definite article “the” when referring to African-Americans. His propensity to refer to African-American people as “the blacks” while referring to white people as “whites” subtly plays to the prejudices of his base by othering African-Americans, and even separating them from his potential constituency. His appeals to “the blacks” seem like a concession, as if he is willing to help them out as an afterthought only after he meets the needs of his more important base – white people.
In addition, As Kennedy addresses in “Recurrent and resurgent whiteness in the time of Trump”, Trump also utilized the inherent institutional racism of the political process to rise to power. “Whiteness as power” Kennedy writes, “is not just evident in the extreme; it is embedded in the political system. Look, for example at how the electoral college enhanced white power despite the majority of the electorate voting against Trump.”
Trump’s subtle creation of an “us vs. them” narrative, as well as the inherent racism of the electoral process, helped his rise to power. But Trump would never admit it; all of this was in the context of Trump’s statement that he is “The least racist person you have ever met.”
Trump has utilized thinly veiled racist rhetoric to appeal to a white voter base, while still maintaining a narrative of color blindness.
Repeat After Me
Perhaps no presidential candidate was ever more prolific or effective when it came to crafting pithy catchphrases which their supporters can latch, repeat, and tweet. Trump’s campaign will in part be remembered for four, three-word catchphrases: “lock her up,” “drain the swamp,” “repeal and replace,” and “build the wall.”
It seems that the brevity of these statements would yield more scrutiny when Trump is unsuccessful in achieving them. If he says “lock her up,” and then does not prosecute Hillary Clinton, then he has failed. If he says “drain the swamp,” and then keeps business ties and career politicians in the White House, then he has failed. If he says “repeal and replace,” and he is unable to repeal the affordable care act, then he has failed. And if he says “build the wall,” and no wall is built on the southern border of the United States, then he has failed.
It may seem that failure is a fact that cannot be dismissed, avoided, or dodged. But truth and fact have never tied Trump down before, so why should they now? Trump’s ability to evade failure by relying on autonomously crafted narrative has been successful, but only to a point.
Lock Her Up
Throughout the campaign, Trump and his supporters decried Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server while she was the Secretary of State during the first term of Obama’s presidency. Trump and his supporters latched onto this fact not only as a punishable offense, but also as a reflection of her poor judgment and character. Trump rallied the passion and sexism of his base to attack Clinton for this lapse in judgment.
But after his election, Trump’s changed his tone. When “lock her up” chants began at a “thank you” rally in Michigan, Trump said to the crowd “that plays great before the election – now we don’t care right?”
Trump so masterfully manipulated his base into believing he had an earnest desire to prosecute Clinton, that the supporters themselves began to expect that of him. However, Trump explicitly stated that his call for incarceration was something that “plays great”; it was simply a narrative that Trump was able to create without attaching any tangible action to his words. Therefore, Trump’s inability to “lock her up” was not a failure, but rather a narrative that he was able to utilize to help push himself into the presidency.
Additionally, the irony became palpable when, shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration, a report showed that Trump’s White House senior staff have private email accounts of their own. However, this hypocritical offense didn’t fit into Trump’s lock her up narrative, so it was largely ignored.
Drain the Swamp
During the campaign, Trump also utilized the phrase “drain the swamp” to outline the candidate’s professed goals to remove big business from politics, and position Trump as a political outsider who will reform Washington D.C. so that it will work for the American people.
Once again, there is an immediate conflict in Trump’s words. “At its bottom, drain the swamp is a metaphor: if you drain the swamp, you eliminate the mosquitoes (or snakes and alligators, in other iterations) that breed disease. But, ironically, the original disease the expression referred to was the very thing Trump has built his campaign on: big business.”
The psychology of a Trump supporter is often difficult to analyze. Seemingly incontrovertible conflicts are ignored due to blind and uncritical faith to Trump. For this reason, Trump can claim that he is anti-big business, and in the next breath speak of his success in the private sector as a businessman.
Again, the post-election actions of President Trump have been inconsistent with the narrative he crafted on the campaign trail. Trump’s election created a climate ripe for a lobbying boom, one that would put money right where Trump said he would drain it:
Trump’s election is likely to feed the swamp monsters. For an industry premised on dealmaking, the return of one-party rule in Washington offers the welcome end—at least temporarily—to political gridlock. That means major policy changes are in the works, which promise to fundamentally alter billion-dollar industries. And precisely because so few people or companies had anticipated a Trump White House, there is all the more need for trusted guides to help navigate these murky waters.
Additionally, Trump has made no efforts to eliminate big business from his administration. He penned Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil, as Secretary of State.
At times, it seems the effort to pin Trump down on his hypocrisy and false promises is hopeless. He freely creates narratives to garner support and power, and then evades scrutiny when he reverses position or fails. However, Trump’s ability to independently create narrative diminishes when tangible action must be taken from the oval office. I will examine this in two case studies, one current and one future. First, Trump’s inability to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act was a failure that Trump was unable to dodge in the early months of his presidency. Second, Trump’s effort at meeting a seemingly unattainable promise – that he will build a wall and make Mexico pay for it – seems doomed to fail.
Repeal and Replace? Not So Fast
Trump has shown that he can create stories and narrative independently and skirt the consequences when they fail. But when faced with the process of legislation that requires cooperation and compromise – and sometimes even an effort to reach across the aisle – Trump showed incompetence.
During the campaign, Trump claimed that he would work quickly to repeal and replace Obamacare. But a lack of support and votes led House republicans to pull the proposed replacement, the AHCA (The American Healthcare Act), from the floor.
In an ironic turn, the failure of the AHCA was “more a matter of poor salesmanship than poor policy” despite Donald Trump’s perceived competence as a businessman and deal maker.
The AHCA faced opposition from both sides. While democrats defended Obamacare, their far right counterparts, the hyper-conservative members of the Freedom caucus, opposed the bill because it was not a total repeal of Obamacare. Trump blamed the lack of democratic support for the bill’s failure. “We couldn’t get one Democratic vote, and we were a little bit shy, very little, but it was still a little bit shy, so we pulled it,” he said. Rather than accepting the fact that he was unable to make a deal with legislators, Trump piled the blame on the Democrats.
In addition to poor deal making (neither Trump nor Paul Ryan met with a single Democrat to try to earn their vote), the bill failed simply because many legislators thought it was a horrible piece of legislation. Republican Representative Mo Brooks from Alabama said “I will vote against the American Health Care Act because it has more bad policy than any bill I have ever faced.”
While the AHCA was a clear legislative gaffe, Trump once again tried to deflect blame. Despite the fact that Trump “declared a week before Election Day that he would ask Congress to hold a ‘special session’ to ‘immediately repeal and replace Obamacare,’ which he vowed to do “very, very quickly,’” and the fact that “Repealing and replacing Obamacare was also listed as part of Trump’s 100-day plan,” Trump claimed “I never said repeal and replace it within 64 days.”  Surely, a legislative blunder of this magnitude was not in Trump’s plans.
Later, Trump said in a White House address “It’s an unbelievably complex subject, nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” which is a ridiculous statement for any elected official (or educated citizen, who understands the complexities of healthcare) to make. Still, it was Trump’s vain effort to deflect blame.
The failure of the AHCA was a sign of things to come. As Trump is finding quickly, running a country is not like running a campaign. Rather than being able to act brashly and independently make ridiculous claims and promises without consequence, Trump must now face the reality that he has to work with others to get things done.
While Trump was able to ride his charismatic authority to the presidency, his appeal is falling off for Americans. Trump’s failed promises have already made a difference in his approval rating. FiveThirtyEight’s tracker of Trump’s approval and disapproval ratings shows a steady separation of the two lines. Beginning from an already fairly low beginning approval rating of 45.5%, and a disapproval rating of 41.3% Trump has dropped down to an approval rating of 40.4% and a disapproval rating of 53.8%. It only took two weeks in office for Trump’s disapproval rating to surpass his approval rating. Trump ran a campaign based on autonomously crafted narrative, and now that he is unable to control the narrative independently, he is showing what he truly is: a charismatic and dishonest manipulator with no political experience.
Looking Forward to an Uncertain Wall
After the failure of the AHCA, Trump is in need of a victory; a victory that might come in the form of a 30-foot wall. But it is all too likely that Trump’s vision may not come to fruition. As initial bids for the design of the wall have recently rolled in, the wall is being treated more and more as a ridiculous and impossible endeavor. Some of the plans include outlandish, over-the-top defense mechanisms:
Clayton Industries, of Pittsburgh, suggests a multi-layered barrier consisting of a fence, banks of sensors, a nuclear waste trench at least 100 feet deep, a set of railroad tracks (if the nuclear waste doesn’t get you, a passing train might) and a 30-foot wall. Why build just one obstacle when you can indulge in five?
Rather than taking the President’s promise to build the wall seriously, contractors, pundits, and citizens seem to be poking fun at the suggestion of a monolithic wall. Doubts about the viability of a massive wall stretching the border are coming from inside the administration as well. The Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, John Kelly, “told a senate panel that the wall won’t be from ‘sea to shining sea.’”
The Mexican government has also scoffed at Trump’s insistence that they will pay for the wall. President Enrique Peña Nieto has made it abundantly clear that Mexico will not be funding the wall. “’Mexico does not believe in walls. I’ve said time again; Mexico will not pay for any wall,’ the Mexican president said in a video statement posted to Twitter and translated by CNN from Spanish.”
In a more frank, and perhaps humorous statement, former President of Mexico Vicente Fox Quesada tweeted out, “Sean Spicer, I’ve said this to @realDonaldTrump and now I’ll tell you: Mexico is not going to pay for that fucking wall. #FuckingWall”
Once again, Trump was able to make a promise on the campaign trail that may not be viable in practice. As Trump’s wall begins slipping through his fingers, another failure seems to be materializing before his eyes; one that he may be unable to evade.
So we now must ask what the consequences of repeated failures by our president will be. As Kennedy has written, the conditions of Trump’s election and the trajectory of his presidency have created a looming legitimation crisis. As Trump loses his ability to autonomously craft his own narrative, so too will he lose his image as a religious figure, the effectiveness of his idiolect, his charisma, and perhaps, his legitimacy as a leader. I expect his approval rating to plummet further as he continues to fail to meet his hollow promises.
Trump is on a collision course with the truth. On the campaign trail, he was able to make promises without being held accountable by a constituency. But now, as president, Trump is finding that he is unable to carry out the promises he made before.
These failures, along with other factors including cries of treason, shady practices of his administration, and a growing resistance movement, may yield collapse for our president. Where does Trump’s trajectory lead? It may lead to ineffectiveness, resignation, or impeachment.
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