This World Politics in a Time of Populist Nationalism (WPTPN) guest post is written by Simon Frankel Pratt, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto. His research is on institutional politics, international norms, and the US’s security apparatus. For further information, see his website or find him on Twitter (@simon_the_pratt)
Unlike other contributions to this essay series, mine will be somewhat more informal in tone. I am going to share some concepts (and neologisms) that I find helpful for making sense of ‘Trumpism’—by which I mean Trump, his rogues’ gallery (or carnival), and the broader coalition of right-wing movements that support him. Specifically, I am going to try to sell you on the following points:
- That Trumpism is best understood as an insurgency—as a sort of ‘cold civil war’;
- That Trumpism is largely motivated by ‘way of life’ anxiety;
- That Trump’s policies are often not attempts at institutional retooling but are ‘potency performances’—self-affirming displays of provocation, revenge, and dominance;
- That the response of scholars should be to seek ‘polity relevance’.
Before I go about explaining and defending these claims, let me begin by presenting the value-position and perspective I occupy, since this will provide context to what I’m saying, and maybe excuse any gross errors of mine in the process. I’m Canadian, a lifetime city-dweller, Jewish, gay, and my politics are leftism and liberalism coexisting in affectionate tension like the protagonists of a buddy-cop comedy. So I’m a stakeholder in whatever mischief or calamity Trump(ism) wreaks in the international order, and I fear the pogroms that would—and will—occur should that order collapse
Yes, you read all that right. It’s an aside, but dread and pragmatism are both built into my cultural memory in significant ways, at least since that one Passover when I was eight or nine and discovered Art Spiegelman’s Maus on Zaidi’s bookshelf. How many swastikas did German Jews see before the Shoah? And how many are we seeing now? So pardon my fears.
I imagine the claim that Trumpism is an insurgency is the one raising the most eyebrows right now. The word ‘insurgency’ usually brings to mind hordes of armed anti-regime fighters, acts of terrorism, fractured political communities, and the sort of broad, routinised political violence characteristic of a hot civil war. Granted, the US does feature a host of anti-regime militants, acts of terrorism, and very clearly is a polity divided, but it isn’t, you know, Algeria or Afghanistan.
Yet the idea of insurgency—of a cold civil war, in this case—is bigger than just the armed model, and describes any relationship between a regime and a set of challengers who seek to topple that regime by rising up against it. From all I see and hear of Trump’s staunch supporters, this is a fair way of talking about them. They are not doing politics as usual. They are not playing within institutionalised rules. They do not see urban(e) liberals as fellow citizens (of the US or the ‘West’ more broadly) with whom they disagree, but as members of a completely different political community. Forgive the tired Schmittian language, but we’re on the other side of their friend-enemy distinction. And in their enmity, they seek to dominate us, marginalise us, and ultimately banish us from their world.
To be sure, this doesn’t describe all Trump voters or more cautious Trump supporters. Many of them act out of familiar, if parochial frustrations and petty prejudices, and are amenable to persuasion, to dialogue, to appeals from their fellow Americans, and ultimately to having their minds changed.
But there are many Trump supporters who are not interested in dialogue. They love their leader, rise up for him and with him, and aggressively mobilise for him—in some cases for the first time in their lives. They crave and celebrate POWER. Their movement isn’t that of the vote (although this is the mechanism of their institutional victories), but of transgressive contention—of insurrection against a governmental arrangement they see as thoroughly corrupt and repressive. Here we might reach for literature on radicalisation, to understand increasing commitment to a worldview and platform for action defined by pervasive, existential struggle and by moral binaries. But in short, I don’t think there is much to talk about with these people; there is only combat.
This brings me to the term potency performance. There’s a story about Mussolini I once heard, which I suspect is apocryphal but somehow still apt here. Il Duce is giving an interview on his movement. ‘What is the goal of your movement?’ ‘To attain power.’ ‘Yes, but to what end?’ ‘Power.’ I think most major Trumpist political acts are what happens once ultra-nationalist, hyper-aestheticised populist movements achieve their goal. A potency performance is a pageant of power rather than its employment as a means to ends. Pulling out of the TPP, banning citizens from a select range of countries, building a wall along the Mexican border, or, as now appears to be the case, boosting military spending by 10%—these will not make the US wealthier, safer, or even all that more free of Muslims or immigrants. They are not rational policymaking. But they do inflict misery on objects of scorn and sources of political challenge. They threaten hated foreigners and enrage hated liberals, establishing the Trump tribe as the one on top. Trumpist policies are the programmatic equivalent of : displays of masculine dominance by those whose small extremities have been mocked by the world for too long. Even tiny hands can yank around others, see?
Why do potency performances have such appeal? Why are all these US citizens mobilising for Trump instead of just grumbling about dark people, kikes, and faggots over the dinner table or at the pub? We know from scholarship on social movements that mobilisation begets itself—that successful mass action creates momentum, causing activist networks to snowball and turning protest neophytes into veterans. But why now? After all, we also know that the economic woes of Trump supporters are largely overstated. It can’t just be racism and bigotry, because these are long-standing features of life in the Trump Bastions.
I think it’s way-of-life anxiety… reaching the level of moral panic. For example, I don’t think upset over the decline of manufacturing is about the loss of jobs, but about the loss of ‘virtuous’ work, and of a family and town structure organised around this honest, productive, work-with-your-hands society. I think this is their vision of the good, of the US that was and that should be. And us liberals, we took their jobs and gave them to foreigners and robots. We took their kids and made them gay or at least tolerant of this perversion. We let transvestites (or whatever) into their bathrooms, and made a black man Boss of the Country—is he mocking us with that big white-on-black smile?
This is just it: we liberal progressives have been winning. Our accomplishments have mounted and with every one of them, hard won but then dearly celebrated, we’ve pushed them back. Oh, if only we could deliver the coup de grace and finish the job! But like anyone with their back to the wall, they’re now fighting like tigers. They seem to be gaining back ground, too, which is a good inspiration for them to press the attack.
I have no advice for how we scholars should engage in activism. I’m not an experienced protestor or political organiser. But as a scholar, I can at least propose that right now, in this crisis, we suspend the search for policy relevance and instead seek polity relevance—to offer creative perspectives, critical analyses of dominant narratives (theirs and ours), and to orient our work and our voice around the needs of our (liberal) political community, and not just those of bureaucracy and statecraft. As if clergy, we should help our ‘flock’ articulate their values and aspirations, reflect on their trajectories, and recognise threats and allies, not just through facts but narration and critique as well. This is how we support mobilisation and defence of our embattled liberalism, which for all its warts is what keeps people like me from being killed twice over.
Oh yeah, also we should get our asses out of our chairs, our feet on the street, our voice on the phone to our representatives in government, and our arms linked with those of our friends. It’s time to fight.
 This being a concept from a 2015 blog post and which I have yet failed to publish anywhere peer reviewed, though it did at least get a nod from Patrick Thaddeus Jackson (2017).
 Mackinlay (2009) does a good job of showing how common understandings of insurgency largely describe Maoism and its descendants—conflating an historically particular set of strategies with insurgency in general. Yet as a number of social movement theorists have shown, insurgency can describe a broader mobilisation against the institutional order of things, where contentious or transgressive political action undermines one regime and installs a radically new one in its place (McAdam, Tarrow, Tilly 2001).
 Yes, that is the ghost of Heidegger laughing at us. Will we ever be free of Nazis?
Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus. 2017. “Insecurity Redux: The Perennial Problem of the ‘Point of IR.’” In What’s the Point of International Relations, edited by Synne L Dyvik, Jan Selby, and Rorden Wilkinson. Oxon and New York: Routledge.
Mackinlay, John. 2009. The Insurgent Archipelago: From Mao to Bin Laden. New York: Columbia University Press.
McAdam, Doug, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly. 2001. Dynamics of Contention. Social Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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.
n.b. Sorry for length of this comment.
I agree with some of this post. However I dissent from aspects of the discussion of “way-of-life anxiety” and economic anxiety.
Specifically I’m doubtful about this sentence:
The decline in manufacturing employment — which is the main feature of the ‘decline of manufacturing’ in the U.S. — has, in some or many communities, reduced the number of well-paying jobs that generally required no formal education beyond high school. Towns with a major industrial employer that has either closed or reduced its staff find their tax bases eroding, their social fabric fraying, their poverty rates and drug usage rates increasing, their Main Streets decaying, life expectancy rates declining, etc. These are quite well-documented facts (and I use that word deliberately, even if I haven’t quite absorbed all the nuances of PTJ’s post on the word). So the upset is not about the loss of any jobs, but about the loss of relatively well-paying jobs that did not require formal post-secondary education and that sustained the kind of consumer and tax bases that allowed certain towns or small cities to be ‘good’ places to live. That many of these lost jobs (though not all) involved some kind of manual or hands-on labor is true but is not I think the main point, at least not for many people.
With the partial exception of one year spent living in a small town a long time ago, I can’t claim much first-hand acquaintance with this phenomenon, but I think it’s real. What has been lost in these cases may be thought of by some as “virtuous” work, but the more salient point is that in the places in question a high school graduate likely could go to work in a (unionized) factory and earn a wage that was enough to support a family in some roughly ‘middle-class’ way. As the number of these jobs has declined starting in the late 70s or early 80s if not earlier and continuing in subsequent decades, that route to a middle-class existence has become less and less available. This is all the more the case because the U.S., despite occasional references in politicians’ speeches to the importance of apprenticeships and vocational training, does not have a lot of well-developed practical or practice-oriented school-to-job pathways of the sort that are much more common in some European countries. Combine this with the well-known effects of economic change (technological displacement, off-shoring, industrial consolidation) and you have the makings of a social crisis. Scholars and policy analysts can argue endlessly about whether the “economic woes of Trump supporters” were “largely overstated,” but imo it’s hard to explain the electoral appeal of Trump’s economic rhetoric as wholly a result of “way-of-life anxiety” or “moral panic” (or xenophobia/racism, though that was a definite factor). There are real social and economic forces at work here. Not to say “way-of-life anxiety” as you are using the phrase doesn’t exist, but I think it’s a mistake to lump everything under that rubric as the post seems to.
Even a conservative like J.D. Vance, who mostly adopts a culture-of-poverty tack re the problems of Appalachia and the Rust Belt, cannot avoid acknowledging the impact on the Midwestern town where he grew up of the main industrial employer’s no longer playing the role there that it once did:
That passage conflicts or is in tension with the book’s main (and highly debatable if not wrong) message — i.e. that structural explanations are less important than ‘culture-of-poverty’-style “explanations” — but Vance had enough intellectual honesty, and the point was sufficiently obvious, that he had to mention it even if he doesn’t dwell on it. An account of another Midwestern town that dwells much more on the point is B. Alexander’s Glass House.