Sacrifice zones—abandoned, economically shattered places, with growing social and health problems—are spreading in historically white rural areas and small towns across the United States. Rural decline, rooted in economic restructuring and financialization, exacerbates racial resentment and fosters regressive authoritarian politics.
Der Spiegel, a well-thought-of magazine, ran in February 2017 a cover depicting the newly elected President Donald Trump, standing with one arm upstretched brandishing a bloody knife and the other arm raised flaunting Lady Liberty’s severed head, blood dripping from its wound. Lady Liberty is the Statute of Liberty. The cover came after Trump’s ban on immigration and refugees to the US from seven Muslim countries. Lady Liberty—at whose base is the line “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—stands for principles of compassion, welcoming, and openness, values said to those of the “American Way.” The cover was advising viewers that The Donald—confessed pussy grabber (Mathis-Lilley 2016)—was destroying those values. If Lady Liberty no longer represents the “American Way,” she should be replaced with one that does. One way of deciding what sort of a replacement to build is to examine the dispositions and actions of the Trump-o-crats, because it is they who are busy making Trump-world. So consider The Donald and some of his appointees.
“All forms of the state have democracy for their truth, and for that reason are false to the extent that they are not democracy.”
— Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
“The power of the people is always greater than that of the people in power.”
— Wael Ghonim, a Google executive at the time of Egypt’s popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak
When Hillary Clinton attempted to counter Donald Trump and his supporters’ populist attacks by explicitly branding them a “basket of deplorables, racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it,” she was hoist on her own petard. The chant “Lock Her Up” drew its enormous potency from her alleged corruption and from her being a figurehead of the ruling Washington elites who have leached the American state’s democratic egalitarian idealism. Calling Trump and his followers racist and sexist was waving a red rag to a bull. She played on a negative view of populism, an immanent antidemocratic elitism, which elicited outrage, making a mockery of her own populist appeal. The occasionally rank dominant-class prejudice that accompanies antipopulist sentiments (including those that assume it is a working-class phenomenon, when it is frequently cross-class) was egregiously apparent in a CNN pundit’s observation that Trump “was throwing red meat to the base” in his highly controversial travel bans.
In the past four weeks, Romania has witnessed some of the biggest protests in the post-communist era. Hundreds of thousands of people in cities across the country took to the streets to protest a government bill that would potentially decriminalize corruption offenses and therefore help the case of the ruling Social Democratic Party leader. Hence, at home and in the international press, the protests were framed as a struggle between the corrupt government and the people pushing for anticorruption and for the respect of the rule of law. By virtue of this collective and spontaneous reaction against a government decree, the Romanian protests were cherished as a “beacon of hope” for democracy tout court. This was quite a staggering achievement: Romania was simultaneously portrayed as one of the most corrupt countries in Europe and as a silver lining for the world. It encapsulates the massively contradictory character of the protests that, despite the catchphrases and punch lines of the media, cannot be conveniently reduced to a single narrative or to a clear-cut conflict. I will try to articulate here the complexities of these protests via a metaphor: a cake with three layers and a cherry on top. Can the Romanians have their cake and eat it too?
In the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, one US representative, John Lewis, fueled widespread media debates with a claim that he does not believe Mr. Trump to be a “legitimate” president. In a time when the many antagonizing executive orders and cabinet choices make these debates from mid-January appear like yesterday’s news, it is worth reconsidering them with a closer look at the concept of legitimacy itself.
Douglas Kellner in American Nightmare writes, “certainly [Donald] Trump is not Hitler and his followers are not technically fascists, although I believe that we can use the term authoritarian populism or neofascism to explain Trump and his supporters” (2016: 20). Kellner is not the only analyst who uses the terms fascism and populism interchangeably to describe Trumpism, nor is it the first time that populists have been branded as fascist. General Juan Perón’s contemporaries from the right and the left considered him a fascist in the 1940s.
Antonio Gramsci, condemned by Benito Mussolini to twenty years in prison, wrote his celebrated prison notebooks while sitting in a succession of fascist jails. He reflects on some of the following questions: why is Mussolini in power, while he and so many other leftists are in prison, dead, or in exile? What explained the defeat of the once powerful Italian left? How could fascist and other right-wing forces be defeated? Twenty-first century America is not mid- twentieth-century Italy, and Donald Trump is not Mussolini. Nonetheless, for those seeking to understand Trump’s electoral victory, and searching for ways that this American-produced, authoritarian populist might be effectively challenged, Gramsci’s notebooks make interesting reading.
“They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
—Barack Obama, in a speech to donors during his 2008 campaign
The above remarks, made while Obama was running for president, are eight years old. But they echo Hillary Clinton’s critique of Donald Trump’s supporters as “deplorables.” Both Obama and Clinton were criticized as elitist for their remarks, and both quickly apologized (Pilkington 2008; Seelye and Zelenyi 2008). Perhaps they are a key to the left’s shock over Trump’s victory. Trump’s supporters—“the forgotten people,” as he calls them—were not shocked. They were confident he would win, as was Trump himself. A few weeks ago at the annual American Anthropological Association (AAA) meeting in Minneapolis, I sat in an auditorium full of dejected anthropologists, listening to our colleagues assess the US elections, Trump, and Trumpism.
Marc Edelman ends his recent piece on FocaalBlog, “The forces of justice and decency will need to move from feel-good slacktivism to the streets, to face-to-face engagement, whether lobbying, community organization, or classroom dialogues.” This got me thinking. In the following manner…
In the end it was filmmaker Michael Moore who got it right. It wasn’t Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, with his sophisticated polling models, or Nobel Prize winning economist and liberal pundit Paul Krugman, who confessed on election night that “I truly thought I knew my country better than it turns out I did.”