The Foundations of Trumpism

Dora Longo Bahia, Revoluções (calendar project), 2016 Acrylic, water-based pen and watercolor on paper (12 pieces), 23 x 30.5 cm each
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By RICHARD SENNETT*

The mantra of “unifying the country”, even if Trump loses the election, loses all meaning in the US as the base hardens and moves to the far right

Even if Donald Trump loses the election, his basis will not abandon you. All those Maga (Make America Great Again) hats, Trump-branded jackets, and gun stickers are treasured symbols for about 30% of Americans. The “real” America belongs to them; if the election goes wrong, that base will go to extreme lengths to get it back. And, in a country with more than 300 million people, 30% of them corresponds to many extremists.

In part, Trump's base is trying to figure out how to use its whiteness as a political tool, mobilizing a nostalgic sense of purity and integrity linked to skin color. The exclusion of foreigners – as when Trump called Mexican migrants “rapists” and “criminals” – and the segregation of black people within the country are justified by the same reason: both groups are treated as “impure bodies”. but only the racism it does not explain the base's sneering aggressiveness, its cruelty toward other Americans.

The basis is animated by a kind of perverse zero-sum game, which allows people to feel better about themselves by putting others down. Conversely, the recognition that others have needs and rights of their own seems to them to threaten their needs and rights. I think it's this zero-sum game that fuels grassroots hostility toward others. Ultimately, it's a game the player can't win - putting others down may not ultimately make you a stronger person - but the base has a sort of gambling addiction. She tries to feel better about herself, fails, so she keeps playing, trying to convert her anger and contempt into self-worth. The resulting frustration pushes it ever further to the extreme.

50 years ago, while we were working on our study The Hidden Injuries of Class, Jonathan Cobb, and I traced the origins of the zero-sum game to a white, working-class, Democratic stronghold in Boston. Out of necessity, many of these families came into contact with very different people during World War II, at home and abroad, who had shared a common sense of insecurity during the Great Depression.

But these shared memories faded around the 1970s. Something then seemed to be missing, both in their local communities and in their life purposes. This absence made them irritable – irritated with others; which was expressed in the conviction that the elites and the underclass, both the socially conscious programs of the Ford Foundation and the ghetto as well, were in league against decent, working Americans like themselves. This image did not allow them to feel better.

What could previously be framed as a class issue – linked to the people who were left behind during the tree of the post-war era – now it becomes a mass issue, a feeling that something is wrong with America from top to bottom. Expressed politically, this sentiment swelled the base in the last election; the voters of Trump were a mix of retirees, industrial workers, small business owners and well-to-do suburbanites, including a surprisingly large slice of middle-class blacks. Those voters are now abandoning him; even a large number of evangelicals seems to have tired.

But this defection feeds back to the scariest thing about the base. Betrayal is how its members explain why they are losing the game: They never counted on Harvard, but they did count on the military, the icon of American strength. but then there was John McCain, and after him the parade of former generals who tried to bring order to Trump's house. Just as McCain was branded a "loser," the White House's view of these soldiers was that they were not up to the task.

Likewise, doctors like Anthony Fauci put down people who consider wearing a mask a sign of weakness, or liberalism, or both. Generals and doctors are motivated by service – and service is a concept that is outside the orbit of the zero-sum game, because you give to others rather than take from them. In Trump language, service is for “suckers”.

In other countries and at other times, betrayal has fueled the fires of extremist violence. After World War I, the belief among many Germans that they had been betrayed from within legitimized Nazi reprisals against Jews and other perceived internal enemies. But in America today, the size of "real" America is shrinking as the list of traitors grows.

After an election where Trump is likely to lose, what worries me about the base is his shift towards conspiracy theorists, armed militiamen, a reborn Ku Klux Klan. The aggressiveness of these groups can be taken for granted. Majority America will have turned against the real America. And if that seems like an exaggerated prospect to you, you just have to remember that in 2016, common sense dictated that someone like Trump didn't stand a chance of getting elected.

In the 1970s, I thought that class injuries that lay hidden could be healed, at least in part, through local, face-to-face interaction with people who are different. That hope makes no sense today. I lost my empathy for the complex motivations that animate fear and reaction. Thus, the mantra of “unifying the country” loses all meaning as the base hardens and moves to the extreme right; instead, there needs to be accountability for the criminal tendencies encouraged by their leader. America is not going to heal anytime soon.

*Richard Sennett He is Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Visiting Professor of Architecture at the University of Cambridge. Author, among other books by The corrosion of character(Record).

Translation: Fernando Marineli

Originally published in the newspaper The Guardian.

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