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.
The Sociology of Trump in this series, as in most of sociology, is about explanation. Contributors have sought to explain his, and his supporters, orientations toward religion, race, class and gender. We have also accounted for his success in winning the election. But to do so, we must orient our work on various levels, from the most proximate and contingent (e.g. Comey’s actions) to deeper causes. Some point to the abiding power of racism in America, manifest in the debates about whether the racist roots of the Electoral College reproduce racism in the 21 st century. Too few address the dynamics of technology itself, whether in enabling the spread of fake news or in the loss of jobs occasioned by automation. Eric Mischell helps to make up for that, and not only moves us through these levels of explanation accounting for the rise of Trump, but also invites us to figure the formation of moralities in this political transformation. – Michael Kennedy, professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University
“Reason has always existed, but not always in a reasonable form.” – Karl Marx
This is a time of rationalization. The U.S. election of 2016 marked an epoch of unmatched media fixation, pundit commentary, and feverishness on social media. And despite this influx, few predicted Donald Trump’s meteoric ascent. Every twist was retroactively rationalized, every turn narrativized by incessant cable news outlets. In this essay I hope to shirk piecemeal rationalizations in favor of a more comprehensive sociology. The national discourse has, in general, been polluted by seductive oversimplifications for the vastly multifaceted Trump phenomenon. My sociology of Trump is framed by three central questions that, if systematically expounded, are intended to rationalize Trump’s election and presidency. The first question is broad, a point of departure and the touchstone of my inquiry: What unique qualities and conditions of Donald Trump allowed for his election and, dually, what unique qualities of American society in 2016 allowed for the election of Trump?
The unique qualities of Donald Trump serve as my first entry point to rationalization. Trump exists in the public sphere on at least two planes. First is Trump the individual, a celebrity who boasts a unique brand of charisma and has existed in the public eye for decades. Second is Trump the symbol, a larger-than-life figure. Arlie Hochschild presents Trump as the harbinger of a ‘secular Rapture’, fulfilling an evangelical eschatology . Winning the vote of 81per cent of white evangelicals, Trump “shares with the religious right a kind of Christian identity politics, a sense that the symbols of Christianity, if not its virtues, deserve cultural precedence.” . Trump has been lionized by white evangelicals, anointed as a Christianizing force in government.
The first question also entails the qualities of American society surrounding this period. To deconstruct this question – one that is perhaps so complex as to yield to inertness – I will try to contextualize American society under three contemporary, formative events, which I identify as proximal causes for Trumpism. Beginning around the 9/11 terror attacks, defense against terrorism, the Iraq War, and, more recently, the Islamic State have existed in the foreground of U.S. political discussion. Terrorism, alongside illegal immigration, incited a media-promulgated culture of fear that, in turn, bred a strain of nativism in the United States – one that Trump expanded and mobilized. The second event is the financial crisis of 2007-2008 which not only publicly discredited political elites, but continues to stagnate wages to this day . Research has demonstrated a strong historical correlation between economic recessions and the flourishment of antiestablishment sentimentalities – an effect that perhaps recurred with Trump’s right-wing surge . The final event is the presidency of Barack Obama, beginning in 2009. Being the first person of color in the White House and spearheading progressive campaigns, a resurgence of conservatism and whiteness may have been provoked as a sort of recoil . To reiterate, I see Trump’s persona and the consequences of the aforementioned three formative events as proximal causes. In the remainder of this essay, I hope to rationalize the social response to these elements by identifying underlying causes.
My second question requires a sociologist to delve deeper into the social order that established the conditions for Trump: What identities exist in American society during the Trump era, how are they regarded, and how do these judgments exist within a structure that arbitrates power and spurs inequality? What effect does Trump have on this structure?
The demographics of Trump’s constituency are revelatory. The Pew Research Center reports that “college graduates backed Clinton by a 9-point margin (52%-43%), while those without a college degree backed Trump 52%-44%. This is by far the widest gap in support among college graduates and non-college graduates in exit polls dating back to 1980.” . In fact, education, more than income or other common indicators, was an accurate predictor of voting affiliation in the 2016 election . Pew also reports, “democrats…were more likely to have lost ground in manufacturing-dependent areas.” The article continues, “although many middle-class areas voted for Barack Obama in 2008, they overwhelmingly favored Donald Trump in 2016, a shift that was a key to his victory.
Meanwhile, Democrats had more success retaining a loose ‘coalition’ of lower-income and upper-income communities.” . Finally, Clinton won the popular vote despite winning only 489 counties – compared to Trump’s 2,623. Clearly, Clinton seized densely-populated metropolitan areas while Trump dominated sparsely-populated, geographically-isolated regions . Much of the post-election media coverage focused on the narrative of a ‘left behind’ white working-class, that this demographic turned after being effectively disengaged . The election data seem to suggest that undereducated, middle-income and working-class whites catalyzed Trump’s win by jumping party lines since the 2012 election. Trump’s appeal may not have been uniform in this demographic, but I think, in general, Trump channeled fear. Likely Trump’s racist, sexist, and xenophobic rhetoric of othering allowed him to vilify and provoke fear and hate in already downtrodden people. Indeed, these fears point to a societal cancer, but I assert that this demographic, due to scarce education, growing multiculturalism, stagnant wages, and dissolving manufacturing jobs, felt threatened. Undeniably, the inequities faced by historically underrepresented races and ethnicities are deeper and more malignant than any supposed white suppression. However, it is ignorant, in my view, to not classify undereducated and geographically-isolated people as underrepresented, or to disregard geographical, income, and educational discrimination in American society.
The final question, I think, will illuminate many of the results considered in the first questions, and better explain the basis for the fear that Trump so adroitly manipulated in his coalition. How has technology changed in the lead-up to this era? In what ways have these changes been portentous? The exponential expansion of technology is, in my view, the crux of understanding Trumpism. While there is undoubtedly a vast plurality of reasons that account for Trump, I believe technology and globalization are primary, as similar waves of ethnic nationalism have emerged throughout the globe: This jingoism is not a uniquely American phenomenon, and cannot be rationalized as a distinctly American effect . I believe an intrinsic and subtle technophobia, the distillation of surface fears like xenophobia, is rooted in Trumpism. Trump popularly espoused an intention to restore working-class jobs. And although Trump peddled protectionism as a cornerstone to such a restoration, a recent study at Ball State University concluded that automation contributed 85 per cent of job losses in manufacturing . And although the 13 per cent of losses that are attributable to international trade are not marginal, technology is overwhelmingly diminishing human involvement in manufacturing. A skilled machinist may rightly fear their growing irrelevance in the workforce. Furthermore, the dissolution of working-class manufacturing jobs has uprooted communities by delocalizing these jobs, which explains Trump’s capture of middle-income voters in the Rust Belt .
While I believe Trump supporters neither openly nor consciously spurn technology, I think a subtle, ingrained strain of neo-Luddism is at risk of contagion. Not only has technology perpetuated classism by disappearing manufacturing jobs, but technology has ushered unparalleled interconnectedness that, through mass market media, has pervaded daily life. This change, epitomized by the universality of the world-wide web, has resulted in immense cultural leveling. Neighbors are no longer determined by proximity or distance: we exist in a global neighborhood. The effects of terrorism and border insecurity could, hypothetically, affect any American – even if the statistics testify to its unlikeliness. Illegal immigration, terrorism, and job opportunities for working class Americans were deemed ‘very big problems’ in the highest percentages – 79%, 74%, and 63%, respectively – by Trump supporters, according to an online poll collected by the Pew Research Center . Trump repeatedly utilized fear-mongering and othering to harness these anxieties. He gave voice to a fear that, fundamentally, amounts to technophobia – that technologically-driven multiculturalism is a threat to the way of life of his coalition. This social climate can be best analogized to the Machine Age and the Second Industrial Revolution – a period marked by fears of both industrialization and immigration that inspired societal malaise and discontent.
The final contribution of technology to the Trump era is the unrivaled proliferation of misinformation. According to The Economist, “nearly half of American adults get their political news on Facebook.” . The consumption of unchecked information is rampant. Fake news, harvested by technological bots and disseminated through the internet, has blurred the line between true and false . Through the campaign season, falsehoods were wielded haphazardly, multiplying in echo-chambers and literally affronting realities. This, inevitably, bred mistrust. Intuitively, epidemic mistrust results in fractionation, the defenestration of rational debate, and polarization. Furthermore, undereducated factions are generally more susceptible to the deceptions of fake news, placing Trump’s base at particular risk – though both sides were definitely affected . Since 2000, the offline population in the U.S. has dropped from 48% to 13% . The perpetuation of falsehoods was amplified by the extensiveness of the internet’s reach, and the disproportionate effect on Trump supporters further represents fear at the hand of technology.
The three most acute issues to Trump supporters – border security, homeland security, and the revitalization working-class jobs – are either under threat or at least perceived to be under threat directly because of technological advancement. Technology has been responsible for widening inequalities between geographically-isolated and educationally-isolated people – a demographic significant to Trump’s election. I believe it’s no coincidence that this group has, since the election, been so often characterized as ‘left behind’. Finally, the manipulation of truth has been a product of technology, particularly with the explosion of internet media outlets. These effects of technology, in combination, led to the fear that Trump controlled. This fear, though eclectic in proximal root, is universally rationalized by the distal, underlying effects of rapidly expanding technology.
Apart from the above slate of questions, which are intended to illuminate history, the final component of my sociology is predictive – an exercise of the sociological imagination. Social issues debates are largely driven by ethics. To many, Donald Trump’s politics, in addition to his rhetoric and attitude, made him not just unfit to be president, but morally corrupt – a symbol of oppression. And yet others lauded him. In fact, sixty-million Americans were compelled to cast a ballot in his favor. As tempting as it is to write them off as morally ‘inferior’, I think doing so would be abandoning hope for the future – a future that we ultimately control. Complete moral and political autonomy do not exist. I do not believe in the complete, deterministic control of all reasoning faculties, but, en masse, technology precedes morality. Access to educational and communicative flows – the books we read, the people and cultures we’ve encountered – is simply a derivative of technological capability. Our ethical codes are not intrinsic, they are determined by our environments, by the technologies that shape our perceptions. Instead of condemning Trump supporters, I believe it is more constructive to interrogate why they maintain their ethics. Technological advancements elevate unevenly, and in doing so generate inequality. I would define power as the ability to arbitrate access to technology, including mechanical, educational, and ideological technologies. And although technology expands in unpredictable ways, the redistribution of technological capital will break social cycles and foster an evolution toward greater solidarity.
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