Late in the morning of November 7, I was walking with a cart full of groceries in my Brooklyn neighborhood. I passed a boy looking intently at his phone, his eyes widening over his mask. Then horns from passing cars began to honk. The street erupted in cheers, hoots and whistles. A woman down the block pressed her hands together in a gesture of thanksgiving. The election had been called. The underfunded, inefficient, fragmented election apparatus, riddled in many states by voting requirements intended to suppress the votes of Black, brown, Native American and poor people, had functioned. Even Fox News, Rupert Murdoch’s propaganda organ for Trump, had declared Biden president elect. That evening, Joe Biden said: “Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end.”
More than joy, I felt relief, immeasurable relief. The republic, frail and flawed as it is, had survived the threat of authoritarian rule. And yet, during a swiftly worsening pandemic in a country where many people are sick, grieving, hungry, facing evictions from their homes, and have lost jobs that may never return, 71 million Americans voted for a would-be dictator who had no policy agenda for a second term. He offered only himself, a swaggering, mean, openly racist, woman-hating showman, who has survived countless corruption scandals, impeachment and Covid-19. The massive rebuke of Trumpism predicted by the pollsters never arrived. The president has not conceded. He is blocking the transition. Republicans in Washington, terrified of Trump’s voters, are pretending their leader did not lose. I have not let go of my dread.
Powerful women, especially powerful women of color, have been frequent targets of the president’s hate speech. But why are epithets and fantasy narratives so effective?
After the 2016 election, I published a position paper in the Nordic Journal of Feminism and Gender Research, “Not Just Economics: White Populism and its Emotional Demons.” I argued that Trump’s white voters were not driven primarily by financial distress caused by globalization, but by cultural backlash. Countless academic papers since have reinforced the same insight. The authors of a paper from the Brookings Institute, write, “In summary, the political science literature points to identarian sentiments around race, nation and cultural change as being more important than economic anxiety in determining Trump’s success.” Populism pits “the good people” against “bad elites,” a binary that permits little ambiguity.
Populism has a long history in the US and comes in both right-wing and left-wing versions. In right-wing versions, “the people” is a nativist concept. In my country that means white. Donald Trump’s political success was launched by the “birtherism” – his lie that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Although Trump retracted the claim, a majority of Republicans continued to believe it. Kamala Harris, the daughter of a Jamaican-born father and Indian-born mother, who first saw the light of day in Oakland, California, has been subject to the same racist nonsense. In typically hyperbolic fashion, Trump called her “a monster.” Powerful women, especially powerful women of color, have been frequent targets of the president’s hate speech. But why are epithets and fantasy narratives so effective?
Donald Trump is a demagogue of identity politics. He embodies a white, masculine, Christian identity, which is perceived by his followers to be under threat. “I am your wall between the American dream and chaos,” he told devotees gathered in my home state, Minnesota. The wall has been his guiding metaphor from the beginning: walling “us” in, keeping “them” out, locking “her” up. The promised “big beautiful wall” to ward off “rapists” and “animals” on the 2,000-mile border with Mexico is more fantasy than reality – 400 miles of wall and attendant ecological damage built with money diverted from the Defense Department. Political rhetoric creates walls and worlds that don’t exist. Trump’s evocation of “American carnage” in his inaugural address and his reference to Baltimore’s mostly Black 7th Congressional District as a “disgusting, rat- and rodent-infested mess” are pure fictions, but they are shocking and memorable. “Let the grim era of demonization begin to end,” expresses a sentiment I share, but the emotional kick it brings is wan in comparison to Trump’s endless expressions of disgust.
Trump mines an old strain of American anti-intellectualism, the idea that “elites” are looking down on you and making you feel inadequate and ashamed
During elections, politics is mostly words, and words matter. They shape perception because they answer deep emotional needs in listeners. Trump performs the feelings of those who love him. He is at once fellow victim and anointed savior. His short, repetitive, hyperbolic phrases resonate with his followers as emotionally true. Whether the wall is built or not is less important than how he made them feel when they chanted, “Build the wall!” Trump mines an old strain of American anti-intellectualism, the idea that “elites” are looking down on you and making you feel inadequate and ashamed. In the small town in Minnesota where I grew up, this was a common theme among working people in the town and rural people outside it. City people, bankers (often code for Jew) and intellectuals of all kinds were suspect. Although he grew up poor on a farm, my father became a professor. Resentment of the highly educated was strong in my town.
Joseph McCarthy, with his imaginary Communists during the Red Scare, George Wallace, who fed racist fantasies to his white fans, Nixon, Reagan, and many others have played the anti-elitist tune. It is nothing new, but we have never seen the politics of shame dominate American culture as it does now. Shame is a powerful social emotion. Trump, a rich boy from Queens, never penetrated Manhattan’s moneyed, cultured elite. They dismissed him as a vulgar social climber. When I was a poor graduate student in the early 1980s in New York City, I remember that the people I knew, most of them also poor and struggling, regarded the real estate developer as an uncouth buffoon. It is not an accident that Donald Trump has become the vehicle that turns shame into pride for millions of my fellow citizens. “These eggheads that I watch on television… I have a nicer plane than they do, they’re not elite.” It is a grave error to underestimate the force of collective feelings of shame, resentment, and rage, feelings that are spreading around the globe and sending liberal democracies into crisis.
The University of London neuroscientist, Manos Tsakiris, refers to the phenomenon as “visceral politics.” In an essay on these feelings in Aeon, he writes, “visceral in the sense that emotional experience arises from how our physiological organs – from our guts to our lungs to our hearts and hormonal systems – respond to an ever-changing world. They’re also political, in that our feelings affect and are affected by political decisions and behavior.” And, I would add, by political language. Every human being has at one time or another felt at a loss when it comes to articulating her feelings. Words give feelings meaning and make sense of a complex and sometimes illegible world. The right-wing narratives that are circulating now – the election was a fraud, the television networks, the Democrats, and the scientists who warn about the pandemic are in league with “the deep state” – both explicate bad feeling and incite more of it. These stories serve emotion, and, when reinforced by others in the group or trusted media sources, they allow believers to dispense with any rational consideration of other possible answers.
What is striking about Republican politics under Trump is that there is no vision of a future, an imaginary place, to be sure, but one essential to collective political life. However utopian or hypocritical, ideas of a better future, of harmony and happiness ahead, have been used to promote a variety of ideological visions. In Trumpism, there is only the past. “Make America Great Again” is a belligerently reactionary message: Take us back to a time when white men held all the political power in the US. In light of this wish, the Black woman who ran and won the Vice Presidency is a monster, the thing that explodes the cherished categories white and male. The negative feelings that dominate Trump’s rallies, fury, vengeance, cruel humor and defensive pride, are only intelligible when they are understood as a theatrical performance of white masculinity. Any hint of tenderness, sympathy, any evocation of a rosier future, such as the first President Bush’s “kinder, gentler nation” are read as signs of femininity, weakness and effete intellectualism. The unapologetic message that popped up repeatedly at Trump rallies was: “FUCK YOUR FEELINGS.”
The coalition that elected Biden and Harris is multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-gender, urban, suburban, and drew voters from across classes. This majority depended above all on a deeply felt common cause. The Trump menace was so great, it allowed progressives, moderates and some disgruntled Republicans to cast their ballots for the Biden/Harris ticket. These voters were just as passionate in opposing Trump as his voters were in supporting him. Feeling runs high on both sides, but there are important differences. Those who voted Democratic do hope for and imagine a future of greater justice, equality, and democracy. How to realize that future remains controversial but calling it forth changes the emotional climate among those who believe in it. The millions who took to the streets after George Floyd’s murder to say loudly “Black Lives Matter,” including more white people than ever before in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, were not just angry. They were hopeful.
When gut rage is translated into obstinate fantasies of fraud and conspiracy, how do we put out the fire? How do you debate a man who doesn’t let you speak?
Since August, I have been working for Writers Against Trump, founded by a small group of writers, including my husband, Paul Auster, my singer-songwriter daughter, Sophie Auster, and myself. Our chief concern was not Trump voters, but progressives who, unhappy with the moderate Democratic ticket, might be tempted to stay home. We hoped to combat the cynicism and indifference among people we thought we could persuade to act otherwise.
With few exceptions, writers are marginal creatures in US society. Actors and celebrities of various kinds have far more influence in the culture. Not one of us was deluded about our relative power, and yet language is the fundamental medium of persuasion. We writers spend our lives with words, laboring to articulate what is not easily expressible, eschewing clichés and platitudes for phrases that might sing, might even allow a reorientation or a new perspective in the reader. We wrote and posted statements, some of which were filmed. Our numbers grew to nearly 2,000. It is impossible to know what effect we had, but along the way, I witnessed the fierce dedication of progressive activists with specific demands for policy change, many of them young, people passionately devoted to an inclusive, not exclusive, democracy.
There have been countless news stories that bemoan division and polarization in the US, as if “the two sides” are equally deluded, as if “a balanced view” can be achieved between those who maintain the Earth is flat and those who say it is round. The unresolved crisis in this country is epistemic. It turns on knowledge, how we know what we know. If many millions refuse to believe the election was fair, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, how does one begin a dialogue with them? When gut rage is translated into obstinate fantasies of fraud and conspiracy, how do we put out the fire? How do you debate a man who doesn’t let you speak? The “ethics of discourse,” to borrow from Jürgen Habermas, begin with mutual respect and consensus about the rules of the game. The election is over, but visceral populist politics are not. We Americans have long been proud of our peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next. I hope for such a transition in January. It would be foolish, however, not to acknowledge that the American experiment is under severe duress, and its future remains undecided.