WPTPN: Trump and The End of Taken-For-Grantedness: When the Exception Becomes the Rule

13 December 2016, 0900 EST

This World Politics in a Time of Populist Nationalism (WPTPN) guest post is written by Antje Wiener, Professor of Political Science and Global Governance at the University of Hamburg, visiting fellow at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law at Cambridge University (September – December 2016), and 2015-2017 holder of the “Opus Magnum Fellowship” funded by the Volkswagon Foundation. She is founding editor of the Cambridge University Press journal Global Constitutionalism: Democracy, Human Rights and the Rule of Law and her book Contestation and Constitution in Global Governance is scheduled for publication by Cambridge in 2018. An earlier version of this paper was presented at Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge Nov 25, 2016: https://www.hughes.cam.ac.uk/news-events/.

When struggling to come to terms with the result on the morning after the US 2016 elections, some tried to make sense of what they saw by describing the results as a “Black Swan Event”. On Jan 28 2016 Politico published an article titled “Trump the Black Swan Candidate” which noted that “(i)mmune to the standard laws of politics, Trump has continued to rise in the polls, replacing the manageable disorder of a presidential politics with his chaos.” On Nov 12 2016 Politico dubbed Trump “The Black Swan President”. Accordingly Trump “became the closest thing to a black swan event we’ve ever seen in American politics: Statistically unlikely, rationalized only in hindsight—and carrying an impact that could be off the known charts.”

Typically, such an event indicates something out of the ordinary, quite sensational, which we try to explain with reference to the exception of the rule. The reference to a black swan event conjures the eventual return to normalcy following disruption. Does this mean that despite the Trump election, all else remains ‘normal’? Can – and should – we therefore move on and wait for the exceptional event to pass and politics to return back to ‘normal’?

I suggest that a return to the normalcy of politics prior to the elections is not likely. Quite the contrary is the case. I argue that we should instead theorise president-elect Donald Trump’s rise to the forefront of not only US American but also world politics as a “critical juncture” in politics. Unlike the exceptionalism of a black swan event, whose effects are temporary, a critical juncture indicates significant and lasting change (Capoccia and Keleman 2007).

This blog post develops this argument with reference to International Relations (IR) Theory on narratives. Three types of narratives help making sense of what has happened and understand the ensuing process of meaning-making which was triggered and has since been driven by wide-ranging discursive engagement with the event. Several narratives have been at play, if not always visible to the public. And, notably, at issue is the risk of enhancing the Trump phenomenon and its effect through bandwagoning, i.e. engaging the narrative even further through the use of social/media.

To counter Trump’s momentum, it is vital to understand the source of his campaign’s success. I illustrate this in four steps: first, by presenting the black swan metaphor; second, by turning to the concept of narrative; third, by reconstructing the distinct types of narratives that are at play as indicators for comprehending the election; and fourth, by showing why the events should be understood as a critical juncture and how to counter this momentum.

The Black Swan Metaphor

While the Popperian concept of a black swan is known to academics as a concept to falsify assumptions that are not falsifiable by induction, the popular definition describes a Black Swan event as “unexpected, unprecedented, cataclysmic events that overturn established ways of thinking”. It is characterized by three details: the unexpected “outlier” event, which is unusual in its “extreme impact”, and which leads to the “post-fact explanatory effort” (Taleb 2007 Ch. 1). Trump’s unexpected nomination by the Republican Party, and his unexpected election by the American people (if not the majority of the popular vote, the majority of the pledged electoral votes), would seemingly fit this description.

In contradistinction to the media, I suggest considering the Trump election as one in series of events that point to a likely critical juncture in world politics. While the Black Swan conjures an exception to the rule with the expectation that routine will return soon after the event, a critical juncture means that nothing will be quite like it was before, the beginning of enduring institutional change. Effectively, this suggests that what was considered as ‘normal’ and was therefore “taken for granted” yesterday may not be valid tomorrow.

How does this work, however, given that normalcy is a stage that has taken time to come into being through social interaction in social groups or communities? According to sociologists the result is social recognition that establishes a perception of normative appropriateness (March and Olson 1989). Under such circumstances the validation of norms become ‘habitual’ and due to the perceived normalcy norms stand uncontested. A norm represents the existence of an unwritten rule, also known as a social fact (Ruggie 1998). Surely, then an established custom cannot change or be changed within a day? Assuming that this should be possible, poses a puzzle for IR Theorists. I suggest that this change was in fact possible because of a context in which two narratives co-existed. Notably, this narrative background has gone largely unnoticed. The following first recalls the concept of narrative and then explains the Trump win by illustrating which narratives have been at work.

The Concept of Narrative

In a nutshell, “narratives are frameworks that allow humans to connect apparently unconnected phenomena around some causal transformation.”[1] Importantly, “the effect of narratives depends on the actor, goals, strategies of legitimation, as well as on the broader societal environment. The latter is perceived as narratively constructed and therefore allowing for certain stories to resonate more or less with a given society.”[2] Narratives work in two ways: they connect experience through “sense making” and they constitute normalcy through “meaning making”. Narrative theory distinguishes among different types including “first-order” and “second-order” narratives.

According to Giddens, the impact of second-order narratives follows insights from double hermeneutics.[3] The putative definition of the socially constructed quality of narratives means that “agents are narratively constituted through their individual stories about oneself, yet also through stories that are narrated about agents by others in society.”[4] These emphasize the need to critically enquire patterns of scientific re-production of social reality and the significance of academic knowledge production due to the role of “sociologists as narrators” (Maines 1993). Three practices are at work: (1) human beings as story-telling agents try to make sense of their own everyday lives; (2) academics and intellectuals generate second-order narratives that are constitutive for long-lasting ideational and institutional frames; and (3) a plurality of narrative processes are constructed in political and societal contexts as first-order narratives.[5] While they may occur at the same time, sometimes overlapping, sometimes opposing each other, these types of practices may or may not be consciously interrelated. To make them visible becomes a major value-added and potential game-changer for politics.

Which Narratives Are At Play and How Do They Work? 

Notably, with regard to the Trump election two first-order narratives were at play: one was about the “forgotten white working class” and was constructed through both the Trump campaign and the Sanders campaign; the other was about sustainable “liberal community” based on the belief (constructed by the Clinton campaign) that liberal values eventually trump all else. Importantly, this was supported by a second-order narrative, which had been constructed by academia and intellectuals and therefore turned into a meta-narrative. The interplay between these larger narratives formed the background structure against which individual narratives have been developed bringing personal background experience to bear. Thus, the larger normative societal structure and the socio-cultural everyday stories have become intersected. For, “story-telling agents do not develop narratives in a social vacuum, but are always already constrained by other agents and structures in a web of plural narratives” (Gadinger et al. 2014; Krebs 2015).

Three narratives have been at play, representing a situation where two sets of background experience (Outsider vs. Liberal) clash, yet, only one of them overlaps with the narrative that individuals construct about themselves (Outsider). The general over-arching theme of these two sets of background experience is distinguishable as the “Angry Outsider” vs. the “Pragmatic Liberal” narrative, respectively. Notably, both the Angry Outsider and the Pragmatic Liberal narrative carry weight beyond the borders of the United States of America. In detail, the narratives’ respective theme and focus can be summarised thus:

  • Angry Outsider Narrative: People voted for Trump because he promised ‘change’. Trump was able to tab into the first-order narrative that matched those ‘angry white male’ voters. Sanders equally tabbed into the ‘angry outsider’ narrative when addressing young voters who had felt left out by the ‘pragmatic liberal’ narrative of the Clinton campaign. While coming from almost opposite political positions on the political spectrum, effectively, both Trump and Sanders came out as contesting the leadership of the ‘elites’ in government, or with prior links to governing elites (such as Clinton). The ‘angry outsider’ narrative was clearly opposed to the ‘pragmatic liberal’ narrative.
  • Pragmatic Liberal Narrative: This narrative is based on core constitutional values of Western democracies developed through progressive liberal politics over time. It has been constituted through an ongoing process and is reflected in institutions. Its core values and fundamental norms have been taken for granted. In the US domestic context the liberal pragmatic narrative has been considered to reflect the ‘normal’ way of life by middle class voters. It is shared by the relatively well-to-do middle class income groups among both the Democrats and Republican voters in the US, and – importantly – also by the middle classes elsewhere beyond the US.
  • Liberal Community Narrative: In the global environment a liberal community organised by multilateral treaties around the United Nations (UN), academics regularly speak of the OECD community or the liberal community of states and so on. A defining element of this narrative rests on the assumption that fundamental liberal norms (i.e. democracy, human rights and the rule of law) are implemented by international law and by and large followed by member states (Koh 1997). Over the past decades, these norms have become taken for granted. An increasing number of critical warnings from IR theory, legal anthropology, post-colonial studies and others have been largely under-appreciated. “Contested multilateralism” calls for a return to a global politics that puts sovereignty first demonstrate contending reactions to the liberal community narrative.

Notably, the latter is composed by a second-order and a meta-narrative. Together they constitute the background against which the Trump win can amount to a critical juncture. Over the past decades the liberal community narrative and the first order narrative have merged into a long lasting meta-narrative centering on a Kantian rather than a Hobbesian vision of a community of states. The long-time centre of this community has been the US as the leading liberal power. Member states lacking in compliance or otherwise deviating from the liberal standard are considered “rogue states”, and those who have not achieved a stable political government are defined as “failed states”. By contrast, the new first-order narrative has been constituted through the discourse of politicians that emphasises preference for a politics that puts “sovereignty first”. Notably, many UN member states were not politically organised according to the modern institutions that had established the authority of European nation-states, nor had they been founded on the same principles. Accordingly, the cultural heritage of the “Global North” and “Global South” does not share that liberal community narrative. If often rightly disputed, the latter remain the “others”, and have been called the Global “Rest” in opposition to the Global “West”. As postcolonial studies have repeatedly noted, the question of whose norms count remains to be redefined (Dussel 2003; Acharya 2004).

The development reveals that two narratives are at play: first the liberal community narrative (as a first-order and a second-order narrative), and second the “sovereignty first” counter-narrative (as a first-order narrative). In effect the conjunction of the first and second order narrative has formed a liberal community “master narrative” (“liberal elites”) that now stands increasingly opposed by “angry outsiders”.

Table 1: Narratives

  Narrative Type Agency Narrative 1 Narrative 2
1 First Order Public & Media Pragmatic Liberals Angry Outsiders
2 Second Order Academics & Intellectuals Liberal Community
3 Meta-Narrative 1 + 2 Liberal Values


Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” fits seamlessly into the latter narrative. Notably: Even though his own life-style does not reflect a lack of financial means, it does reflect that of a “rogue” and an “outsider”. Many of the “working poor” and/or the “angry outsiders” were able to relate to that based on their own individual experience (individual narrative). Effectively, Trump’s campaign jelled with both the individual narrative and the angry outsider narrative (fabricated by himself and Sanders) that was set up against the liberal master narrative the Hillary campaign and the middle classes. Discursively speaking, therefore, Trump’s victory did not come as a surprise.

A Critical Juncture and How to Avoid It

Given that Trump’s first-order narrative fell on fertile ground, the election result should be understood as critical juncture, rather than a back swan event. A critical juncture is defined as a “relatively short period(s) of time during which there is a substantially heightened probability that agents’ choices will affect the outcome of interest.” It is a “dual model of institutional development characterized by relatively long periods of path-dependent institutional stability and reproduction that are punctuated occasionally by brief phases of institutional flux—referred to as critical junctures—during which more dramatic change is possible” (Capoccia and Kelemen 2007: 341). The concept has been developed in the field of comparative political science, especially (new) institutionalism. It defines a break with the expected institutional path, resulting in a change of the established ways of being including principles, norms, institutions, political leadership and then, subsequently, policies. It works due to an enabling interplay between discourse (the three narratives’ highlighted above) on the one hand, and the changing leadership role in all four major US political institutions – Supreme Court, House of Representatives, Senate, and Presidency — on the other. The institution in question regarding the Trump win is the US presidency, and relatedly, the process and routine practices of running the US government.

Engaging Discursive Means: “The Pen is a Mighty Sword”[6]

The most important strategic moves to counter the possibility of institutional change are firm and assertive discursive interventions in defence of fundamental rights and the institutions of democratic governance. The current challenge lies in the answer to the query of whether the Trump win plays out as a critical juncture. Unless stopped in his ways, a critical juncture leading to lasting institutional change is imminent. As the table above indicates, the change is likely if the two empty squares become populated. At issue is whether the “angry outsider” narrative becomes a meta-narrative, and, if so, how this development might be stopped.

If we take the narrative as the background structure, a change in the process is likely to be most successful when employing the same – discursive – means. Importantly, this power of the “angry outsider” narrative thrives from multiplication and repetition, therefore quotations and retweets should be carefully considered and sparingly applied. The stronger course of action is to take positive arguments that defend the values citizens used to take for granted (believing in the liberal narrative) which have therefore been rarely addressed and actively defended.

To prevent the outsider narrative from gaining popular ground in the US and beyond, therefore, it is important to understand that considering fundamental rights as taken for granted may be the beginning of a slippery slope. And to reverse the process, the agents involved in constructing narratives – for example, public sphere agents (first order) and academia and intellectuals (second order) – are advised to work together in order to support the defence of fundamental rights on a global scale. Exemplary points for such discursive engagement have been summarised by Timothy Snyder. Input from first- and second-order narrative agency is vital – starting now.



[1] See: Todorov 1977: 44, cited in Miskimmon et al. 2013a: 5

[2] See Miskimmon et al. 2013b

[3] See: Giddens 1984; Jackson 2006; Hofius et al. 2014; Guzzini 2000; Giddens 1984

[4] Ibid.: 7

[5] Wilkens FN 7: 6-7

[6] See: James Tully on Quentin Skinner’s work (Tully 1983).




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Capoccia, G and D Kelemen. 2007. The Study of Critical Junctures: Theory, Narrative, and Counterfactuals in Historical Institutionalism. World Politics 59 (3):341-69

Dussel, E 1993. Eurocentrism and Modernity (introduction to the Frankfurt Lectures, Boundary 2, 20 (3) 65

Hofius, M, J Wilkens, H Hansen-Magnusson and S Gholiagha. 2014. Den Schleier lichten? Kritische Normenforschung, Freiheit und Gleichberechtigung im Kontext des »Arabischen Frühlings«, Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen 21 (2):85-105

Jackson, P T 2006. Making sense of making sense: Configurational analysis and the double hermeneutic. In Interpretation and method: empirical research methods and the interpretive turn, ed. D Yanow and P Schwartz-Shea. Armonk, N.Y. et al. M.E. Sharpe

Krebs, Ronald R. 2015. Narrative and the making of US national security. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miskimmon, A, B O’Loughlin and L Roselle. 2013a. Strategic narratives: Communication power and the new world order. Abingdon: Routledge

———. 2013b. Strategic narratives: communication power and the new world order. NY: Routledge

Taleb, N N. 2007. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. NY: Random House

Tully, J. 1983. The Pen Is a Mighty Sword: Quentin Skinner’s Analysis of Politics, British Journal of Political Science 13 (4) 489-509



The Duck of Minerva’s WPTPN group is still seeking guest contributions. If you are interested in writing a post and have research expertise in international relations, international political economy, foreign policy, comparative politics, or cognate fields please see this post for more information.