by Varun Gauri
Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.
“The line of ‘Make America great again,’ the phrase, that was mine, I came up with it about a year ago, and I kept using it, and everybody’s using it, they are all loving it. I don’t know, I guess I should copyright it, maybe I have copyrighted it.”
The style and rhetoric of the Trump era appears to be historically unique, the result of the narrow and unexpected electoral victory of a man who honed his skills performing as a reality TV idiot savant. But I believe that the rhetorical style of Trumpism — nonsense, incoherence, giving truth the middle finger— will outlast Trump.
When people say that Trumpism will outlive Trump, they usually refer to the political economy. Typically, they mean that trade shocks and the integration of China into the World Trade Organization caused unemployment and anger in the American heartland that has not yet been adequately addressed, that rising levels of immigration and the coming emergence of America as a majority-minority nation evoke nostalgia and a politics of resentment, or that the political alliance between plutocrats and populists has proven durable. All that may be true. But I think that it is not only the structural forces that are likely to endure, but also the trappings of Trumpism, what we think of as its ephemera — the circus atmosphere, the sensation that up is down, the experience of having fallen through the looking glass.
To understand the appeal of rhetorical Trumpism, first consider a few stylized facts. First, as Ezra Klein has argued, Trump’s poll numbers are amazingly stable. Despite the loss of more than 180,000 Americans to Covid-19, an unemployment rate over 8%, and rising racial tensions, Trump’s approval rating hardly moved, from 41% in late to 2019 to 42% today. His support is only loosely tied to facts on the ground. In retrospect, Trump exhibited a preternatural understanding of his followers when he said that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose one voter.
Second, nor is Trump’s appeal about his policy goals. It’s not as as if the administration has set out a series of appealing policy initiatives, only to be frustrated by checks and balances or federalism. There are barely any policy goals to speak of. Almost nothing to address the major challenges such as climate change, domestic income and wealth inequality, racial justice, and the rise of China as a global power. Apart from appointing conservative Supreme Court Justices skeptical of abortion rights, there are hardly any policies even on the agenda that carried Trump in 2016, including comprehensive immigration reform, the opioid crisis, and urban violence. Instead, what we see is theater for xenophobes — a feckless wall at the southern border, smatterings of federal law enforcement that sometimes show up at largely peaceful demonstrations in cities.
Third, Republican partisans appear to support an idealized version of the man. Despite Trump’s notorious cable TV watching habits and frequent golf trips, 66% of Republicans believe him to be a “harder worker” than any president in history. Despite the barrage of lies and millions in federal tax dollars directed to his own business interests, 72% believe him to be “honest and trustworthy.” Despite not appearing to know how World War 1 ended or who Frederick Douglass was, and advocating bleach and other quack cures for covid, 77% believe he understands “complex issues.”
It’s as if support for Trump is the coat of arms for his coalition. Republican partisans support each other supporting Trump, whatever they think of Trump himself. They recognize each other and constitute a group through their Trump support. They support the idea of Trump. He’s the flag around which they rally.
How does this work? Larry Bartel’s recent survey of Republican partisans is revealing. It finds that anti-democratic attitudes among Republicans (e.g., using force to save a traditional way of life) are strongly correlated with ethnic antagonism; they are much more weakly correlated with political cynicism, partisanship, cultural conservatism, and even affection for Trump himself. In other words, support for the norm busting of Trumpism is less about the man himself and more about the ethnic advancement, and the identity, of the group supportive of norm busting.
Like support for a military coup, the rhetorical style of Trumpism, whose salient aspects are a flaunting disregard for facts and truth, even the exhilaration of incoherence, is a form of norm busting. It is an attack on standard forms of discourse. It is also an implicit attack on the function of key institutions, including the scientific establishment (which identifies facts), the media (which filters facts), and the political parties (which translate facts into policies).
The pleasures of this kind of norm busting, provocative incoherence, are the pleasures of trolling. Incoherent provocation leads supporters of traditional norms to become indignant, and squander energy trying to make sense of contradictory and truth-free statements. It’s delicious to see defenders of key institutions (like me) get their knickers in a twist. It’s fun, a minor form of sadism, to “own the libs.”
Why do proponents of provocative incoherence also tend to be the foot soldiers of ethnic antagonism? I believe the answer lies in the difference between the Democratic and Republican coalitions. Democrats are relatively diverse, consisting of Blacks, Hispanics, college-educated Whites, White women, Asians, and Jews, among others. Given its diversity, the Democratic coalition needs language — principles, arguments, narratives — to help the constitutive groups understand each other and their objectives. There are references to external, historical markers — the New Deal, Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, the language of multiculturalism.
By contrast, the Republican coalition is more homogenous, consisting mostly of White Christians. Because Republicans recognize each other more easily, the coordinating focal points of the coalition can be looser, more symbolic. They don’t need as much semantic content.
The rhetorical style of Trumpism shows that the coordinating focal points for the Republican coalition can even be devoid of semantic content. Trumpian Republicans recognize each other, and constitute themselves as a group, when they troll the outsiders by flaunting incoherence. Those actions are also a power play — the demonstration that coordination is laughably easy; coherence and language and messaging are superfluous.
It has long been understood that there is a psychic payoff to coordination without discourse; the use of symbolic rituals, as Durkheim described, can create collective effervescence and a sense of group belonging. But what is happening here is not only coordination without discourse but coordination against discourse. Republican partisans are demonstrating that power does not arise from discussion; it arises merely from will and mutual recognition. Political power is that easy for us, the trolls seems to say. We know ourselves, even without words. Try matching that, you gibbering, Tower of Babel multitudes.
The Republican coalition has long struggled to overcome elements of incoherence in its ideology, though perhaps no more than the average large-scale political coalition — the support for small government sits uneasily with a massive military as well as with the religious regulation of private life. But what we are witnessing now is qualitatively different. Although there may be continuities with the history of anti-scientific positions in the party, current events have the quality of a self-conscious political discovery. That is why I believe the exhilaration of incoherence will remain significant in Republican discourse.
Trumpism has shown that a largely homogenous group in the United States can coordinate, and recognize itself as a political actor, by flaunting incoherence. Trump’s successor may or may not be performer, a reality TV personality more interested in showmanship than policy. But because this approach is relatively inexpensive (a leader doesn’t need to invest in learning policy or persuading people about their positions), democratic (anyone can troll), and pleasurable for supporters, the next Republican leader will be tempted to use the rhetorical style of Trumpism, or face challengers who do. Flaunting incoherence is fun, fast, and cheap, and its mechanism intuitive — it’s the white identity, stupid.