Invitation to a Discussion: Anthropologists on the Trump Election

Invitation to a Discussion:  What Do American Anthropologists Say about Trump’s Election, and What Does Trump’s Election Say about American Anthropology?   

    In an OAC Forum begun last month, The polls got it wrong, again... The end of 'social science'? Time to stop predicting and start listening... Huon Wardle suggests that the colossal failures of pollsters aka quantitative analysts to predict Trump’s win and the Brexit result and of economists to foresee the financial crisis of 2008 spell the end of social science – at least of its unquestioned authority.  Huon argues that social thinkers should instead follow Malinowski’s classic precept of attending closely to what people do rather than what they say, particularly the guarded and offhand responses they may give to pollsters who bother them on the phone or waylay them at polling places. 

     Huon here champions anthropology’s singular contribution to social thought: the method and theory of ethnography.  Equipped with that tool, ethnographers are expected to function as trained observers and analysts, often among people very different from themselves and for relatively brief periods of one or two years, observers and analysts who then produce substantive, reliable accounts of the world’s societies.  What, then, should we expect of those ethnographers when the subject is a major phenomenon in a society most of them have known, if not from birth, at least for years and years?  Specifically, what should we have expected American anthropologists’ reaction to have been to the events of late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning, November 8 and 9?  Like everyone else, they had been inundated by polls and pundits who gave Hillary an 80% chance of winning right into election night.  And like everyone else, they had witnessed the incredible spectacles of Trump’s mass rallies, where hundreds of thousands of supporters across the country, proudly wearing their red Trump baseball caps, stood in line for hours to take part.  But unlike everyone else, one would hope, they had weighed those disparate sources of information with their own personal experience of living and working in the U. S., weighted them all together in applying their unique ethnographic insight into their own society.  But that’s not what happened. 

    Here let me speak personally, as an anthropologist who has done all those things.  On balance going into election night, I felt the immense enthusiasm and numbers of Trump supporters outweighed what the pollsters were saying, particularly in view of the dismal record of earlier polls done during the presidential primary elections.  At the same time, the electoral hurdles Trump would have to overcome in turning all those “blue states” red – Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin – looked almost insurmountable.  Before the first vote was cast, Hillary could count on all the West Coast states and most of the East Coast states voting for her.  She only needed a handful of  additional electoral votes to clinch the victory.  At even money, I would not have bet on either candidate; given odds I would have wagered a modest amount on Hillary.  As election night turned into election morning the results were dramatic, with swing state after swing state going to Trump.  Not since the hanging chads of the Florida election in 2000 (Bush Jr. vs. Gore) had a presidential contest been so gripping.  From my perspective, Trump’s win was rather unexpected, but not an overwhelming surprise.  After all, there were those seas of red baseball caps surging across the entire country. 

    That was not, however, the reaction of American anthropology as a whole.   Prominent figures of our major institutions and publications – Cultural Anthropology, the American Anthropological Association, Savage Minds – spoke with one voice:  the election result was stunning, incomprehensible, a paralyzing blow to our sensibility and way of life.  A complete and total surprise.  A contributor to Savage Minds, Uzma Z. Rizvi narrates her sense of emotional paralysis as the election result became clear: 


The day after Leonard Cohen died.

November 12, 2016 Uzma Z. Rizvi

Suddenly the night has grown colder.

The god of love preparing to depart.*


The chill of the 2016 US elections is still in my bones. Glued to any and all forms of media, I watched what Van Jones and Judith Butler have called, “whitelash” unfold in graphs, charts, and all forms of measurable outcomes. I watched as the states of my country turned red one by one. This was not the first time I had seen this, but there was something unique about this time. This time, it was not just me and people who looked like me, who felt precarious, but rather I watched as the whitelash was aimed at and betrayed the white Left/Center Left. I watched and felt the hush over the newscasters in the newsroom as they realized the precarity of the first amendment, particularly of free speech and thus, their very existence.

Without intending to, I consumed/embodied that hush. I could not respond or say anything about the election. My inbox was flooded with messages of coping, my social media was a manifest of betrayal, blame, violence, fear, and ultimately action. I was still silent. 


    Rizvi was struck dumb.  Here we must confront a serious problem in the doing of American anthropology.  Any American, anthropologist or not, is fully entitled to feelings of outrage, disgust, fear at the result of November 8.  They may believe – and as time passes they may be proven right – that  Trump’s success is a harbinger of doom: markets will collapse (well, apparently not), civil liberties will erode to nothing, racism and religious intolerance will flourish, the long dark night of fascism will descend on American shores.  Those are legitimate concerns.  But anyone who professes a special insight into the workings of society, that is, any social thinker, is not entitled to the feelings Uzma Z. Rizvi pours out in her post, feelings of surprise, shock, betrayal to the point of being rendered helpless and mute.  Why not?  Because we should have seen it coming!  Or, at the least, the strong possibility of it coming.  American anthropologists, supposedly familiar with the workings of their own society, should not have been so grievously mistaken that they lapsed into emotional paralysis when things turned out differently from what they expected.  The election was a near thing; an objective assessment, as I’ve argued, would have seen the vote breaking either way.  It now appears that the charge Huon levelled at pollsters in his Forum applies to the very ethnographers he extolled.  As a body we were taken so unaware that we reacted as though an unforeseeable disaster had dealt a mortal blow to the way, the truth, and the light. 

    But why?  Why did American anthropology as a whole get it wrong?  I suggest this is an absolutely vital question that opens onto the contrapuntal questions I pose in the Forum title.  First, we need to know in some detail what American anthropologists have to say about Trump’s election.  There has to be more there, I hope, than the emotional outpourings of writers such as Rizvi.  A phenomenon involving more than 120 million Americans was played out over a year and a half.  We are, I think, duty bound to try to understand what they were thinking, at least the 60+ million who voted for Trump, what was going on in their lives, what vision of American society, past, present, and future they embraced.  Cultural anthropologists are supposed to do cultural analysis, that is, to go as deep as possible into the interconnected concepts, beliefs, and actions that together comprise a social group.  Anything less, I submit, is a form of professional irresponsibility and, yes, cowardice.  However ugly and dangerous we find a person, an event, a movement, we must be capable of looking it full in the face.  Second, the phenomenon of Trump cannot be approached as an already constituted object, sui generis, that simply awaits our analytic attention.  Rather, this major event in our history should be treated as an instrument or lens with which to interrogate its host society and the anthropological program which, like it or not, is part and parcel of its host society,, its style or culture of inquiry.  What does the event of the election teach us about the always precarious activity of doing anthropology?  As the second question asks:  What does Trump’s election say about American anthropology? 

    I submit that it is urgent to pursue both questions at this juncture in our political life and in the (d)evolution of the discipline of anthropology.  Fortunately, that effort is already underway.  Paul Stoller, perhaps American cultural anthropology’s pre-eminent public intellectual, has produced a set of perceptive articles in Huffington Post.  See in particular his “Revisiting the Anthropology of Trump: Ethnography and the Power of Culture.” 


Also, it is remarkable that while American anthropologists were oblivious to the possibility that Trump might win, the Canadian anthropologist Maximilian Forte flat-out predicted it, and as early as January 2016, in his delightfully provocative website, Zero Anthropology.

In May 2016 Forte followed through with his prediction in a brilliant article in Zero Anthropology, “Why Donald J. Trump Will be the Next President of the United States.” 

Did the crews at Savage Minds and Cultural Anthropology not happen to see these before they reacted with utter surprise and horror at the election news? 

    My hope here is that these and forthcoming studies will encourage a thorough examination of what we might call, following Forte, Anthropology and Trump.  I invite all OACers and those soon to join to participate in this discussion.  However imperfectly I have rendered the issue before us, I am convinced it is of crucial importance for advancing the intellectual endeavor of anthropology as a foundational constituent of contemporary social thought.  Please note, also, that while the topic is American anthropology, thinkers from anywhere in the world are invited to contribute.  Thanks for considering my invitation.  

Views: 1352

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion


Trump and Anthropology:  Diverse Approaches / Perspectives


    Why / how did Trump win?  And what does his unexpected win say about the doing of anthropology?  These are the critical questions Max Forte poses in his amazingly prescient blog of last May, “Why Donald. J. Trump Will Be the Next President of the United States,” and in what is now a classic of the e-anthro world, “Trump and Anthropology,” both at his Zero Anthropology website.

As we address this double-edged problem, I thought I’d outline – and the word is definitely “outline;” nothing systematic here – three general approaches or perspectives that are out there in the worlds of print and e-print, TV media pundits, anthropology blogs.  These are not mutually exclusive; in fact, I think perceptive analysts weave together all three in tackling the linked problems.  Just to provide a gloss, the approaches are:  Identity politics; Income inequality and poverty in America; Cultural themes, stereotypes, myth, folklore. 


Identity Politics 

    In the early morning hours of November 9, Van Jones, a regular political commentator on CNN and an advocate for Afro-American causes, called the looming Trump victory a result of “whitelash.”  The word caught on and was repeated in large venues.  Trump won, Van Jones, maintained, because he tapped into the racial hatred of white males, particularly lower-class males.  Trump’s own remarks often did nothing to contradict that assessment.  After all, here was a guy who opened his campaign in the golden palace of Trump Tower by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers, though “some of them, I suppose, are good people.”  That alarming statement was thought to have scuttled his campaign before it began.  But, as we know, that didn’t happen.  It cost him sales of his signature ties at Macy’s and a legal dust-up with Univision, and that was the extent of it.  The Trump train just rolled on from there, constantly picking up speed.  Then, along the way to proclaiming a ban on all Muslims entering the US, he savaged Megyn Kelly by referring to her “bleeding from her . . . whatever.”  Could he have dug his hole any deeper?  And although I don’t recall his making any comparably vicious attacks on gays, that community got the message “big league” when Trump began to talk about his Supreme Court choices.     

    When Trump appeared on the electoral stage, the phenomenon of “identity politics” was already well-established and rapidly growing in importance.  The Black Lives Matter movement, which came together following the George Zimmerman – Trayvon Martin incident in 2013, grabbed front-page / prime-time coverage the following year with the Ferguson, Missouri shooting and riots.  On a parallel track, university faculty and administrators across the country were becoming increasingly attentive to the demands of minority and interest groups of students, who perceived much in their environment as a threat to their physical, emotional, and intellectual well-being.  They have demanded, and in many cases been granted, “safe spaces” to insulate them from a bigoted society and “trigger warnings” to speakers and texts which might insinuate those threats into their daily lives.  These are deeply held convictions; their significance for our present discussion of Trump and Anthropology should be articulated by spokespersons from at least a couple of interest groups. 

    At the same time, this identity politics business, like everything else, is complicated.  Academics and minority students generally air their views in rather strident terms, leaving little room for debate.  However, I would urge such a debate.  I do so if for no other reason than that “identity politics” can be practiced by the other side as well, that is, the side of the extremely well-established power elite.  Perhaps no better example of this is Hillary Clinton’s speech of Friday, September 9 at a fund-raising event held at the glittering Cipriani Wall Street restaurant and hosted by Barbara Streisand.  At the event, held in support of the LGBT community, several thousand people ponied up thousands of dollars each for a plate of rubber chicken and . . . much, much more: the proximity, the connection to power and, just possibly, the influence power could bring to their own concerns. 

You know . . . you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.  Right?  They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.  And unfortunately there are people like that.  And he has lifted them up.  He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now have 11 million.  He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric.

 There are people like that.  It would be hard to find a more bare-knuckled statement of what is essentially racism: privileging one’s own group by denouncing the inherent deficiencies of other groups.  Yet more alarming than Hillary’s remark was its reception by the audience.  There, in the heart of Manhattan and Wall Street, the bastion of white privilege if ever there was one, in that palatial setting the response that rose up and filled the grand room was a smug, derisive laughter. 

    On OAC Facebook the anthropologist Robin Oberg has made perhaps the most succinct and powerful argument regarding the intellectual validity of “identity politics discourse, where the value of research is not based on its contents but by the identity of the author.”  (December 16).  My grave concern here is that identity politics, to me the weakest perspective for understanding the Trump phenomenon, has such currency among social-cultural anthropologists – as evidenced by the emotional paralysis induced in so many by Trump’s win in the face of their unquestioned embrace of the rightness of their own views.  But . . . I am willing to be proven wrong.  After all, that’s what this discussion is for – a thorough, rough-and-tumble examination of how the Momentous Event occurred. 


Income Inequality and Poverty in America

    As the “rust belt” states one by one went for Trump on election night, it became clear that Hillary’s campaign call, “Stronger Together” did not resonate with people who had lost or were close to losing their jobs, even when amplified by the obscene one billion dollars from her SuperPac donors.  Income inequality, the economic oppression afflicting tens of millions of Americans, appears to have had a major role in deciding the election.  If the suffering of fellow Americans was so obviously real, the daunting question becomes why American anthropologists discounted it in favor of boogeymen conjured up by identity politics. 

    Two prominent voices have been raised in support of the “Income Inequality” perspective, one by the anthropologist Sara Kendzior.  This is not to pigeonhole Kendzior’s sophisticated understanding of Trump’s appeal; she draws on her knowledge of New York City tabloid journalism (in which Trump is a staple subject) and digital media as well as her personal familiarity with the Midwest and its economic woes.   

I’ve lived in the Midwest for well over a decade and it is true that the economy did not recover here, that people are suffering disproportionately when compared to elite coastal cities, that there is widespread corruption, and that there is tremendous frustration and disillusionment with political parties. Trump was right about that, even though his solutions are extremely wrong. I wrote many essays as well as a book, “The View From Flyover Country”, about the hardship this part of the US has endured over the past eight years. When I leave St Louis to go to a place like New York or DC, I feel like I’m leaving District 12 for the Capital. I don’t think people necessarily get how wide the gulf has become between places like St. Louis and places like New York, which decades ago were a lot more alike.

An unaired interview on Trump, authoritarianism and kleptocracy

Posted on December 5, 2015


Katniss Everdeen goes up against Hillary in the Arena – there’s an image to conjure with. 

    A second public intellectual who broadcast his prediction that Trump would win is Michael Moore.  And here the mystery of American anthropologists’ cluelessness deepens, begins to look like willful blindness.  For Moore is hardly a shrinking violet, and he doesn’t secret his ideas away in the pages of the American Ethnologist or on some obscure anthropology website.  He lets you know what he thinks in terms and places as flagrant and public as his persona.  And those ideas put income inequality and American poverty at the center of things.   

“Whether Trump means [what he says] or not is kind of irrelevant because he’s saying the things to people who are hurting,” he explained. “It’s why every beaten down, worthless, forgotten working stiff who used to be part of what was called the middle class loves Trump.”

Trump represents the “human Molotov cocktail that they’ve been waiting for,” he continued. “The human hand grenade that they can legally throw into the system that stole their lives from them.”

“They’ve lost their jobs, although they’ve been foreclosed on by the bank, next came the divorce, the kids are gone, the car has been repo’ed. They haven’t had a real vacation in years. They’re stuck with the shitty Obamacare Bronze Plan, and they can’t even get a fucking Percocet.”

Moore argued that those people still have one thing, “and it doesn’t cost them a cent, and is guaranteed to them by the American Constitution: the right to vote.”

“On November 8, the dispossessed will walk into that voting booth… and put a big fucking X right next to the name of the man who has threatened to upend and overturn the very system that has ruined their lives. Donald J. Trump,” he explained. “They see that the elites who ruined their lives hate Trump, corporate America hates Trump, Wall Street hates Trump, the career politicians hate Trump, the media hates Trump.”

“The enemy of my enemy is who I’m voting for… Trump’s election is going to be the biggest fuck you ever recorded in human history, and it will feel good.”

“Michael Moore:  Here’s Why Trump Will Win the Election””

The Daily Caller, October 25, 2016

    Anthropologists prepared to do dispassionate analysis now need to ask: “After that rude message has been delivered and Trump has assumed office, what will unfold in the rust belt states, how will the lives of those downtrodden be affected when/if the jobs return?  What will American society-culture be? 


Cultural Themes, Stereotypes, Myth, Folklore 

    Amidst the angst of identity politics and the hard-grits economic concerns which loomed large throughout the campaign, one aspect of Trump nevertheless asserted itself: he is a star, a celebrity, a larger than life figure who has been in the public eye for decades.  His fourteen years as host of The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice have put an indelible stamp on the campaign and American politics generally.  For tens of millions of Americans not fully committed to identity politics or economic reality, the election came to seem what in important respects it was: a reality show.  One by one the candidates faced off against Trump, and one by one they were defeated, fired, returned to their provincial lives.  Now, as Trump constitutes his cabinet, the Apprentice format dominates: the aspiring Secretaries take that long ride up in the golden elevator of the Tower, have their audience, and return tight-lipped to the waiting throng of reporters.  Only He will choose, and in his own time.  The audience waits, the tension growing, to know who is hired or fired.  American culture is suffused with reality television; it has become our staple entertainment.  With Trump the reality show has come face-to-face with national politics, and we see who won. 

    Probably the most articulate statement of this “cultural perspective” comes, fittingly, from American anthropology’s most prominent public intellectual, Paul Stoller.  He puts “celebrity culture” at the nexus of the Trump phenomenon.  Myth, folklore, drama – all those suprastructural aspects of social life discounted by just-the-facts-ma’am objective social scientists – comprise a reelity that appropriates “reality.” 

What’s going on in America?

Can we explain this strange and troubling turn of political events?

There are a variety [of] political explanations. Pundits have discussed any number of reasons for the success of Mr. Trump — repercussions of income inequality, a sense of hopelessness, the celebration of ignorance and the denigration of science, the perception that the political system, in the words of Senator Bernie Sanders, is “rigged,” the public reappearance of bigotry in the name of “Making America Great Again.”

As an anthropologist, I see the rise of Trump from a cultural vantage. He is the embodiment of celebrity culture — a world filled with glitz, fantasy and illusion. It is culture in which shallow perception is more valuable than deep insight. If you watch Donald Trump perform his shtick, you hear pretty much the same thing. Mr. Trump comes on stage, recites his poll numbers, insults his opponents, invites famous supporters to the stage to sing his praises, and then talks, without giving concrete factual examples, about how bad things are and how he’s the man to make things better.

Each event is a tightly controlled theatrical production that is designed to reinforce the myth of Mr. Trump’s fearless strength, his invincibility and his inevitability — a real strong man. When he moves to the debate format, which is a bit less controlled, he continues to talk about our broken system and how everyone is incompetent — including his opponents who are low energy, little people of no consequence. At no point does his talk focus upon a program for action, the complexities of policy or the intractability of social, political and economic problems at home and abroad. As he stated last night at his victory event, which was staged to look like a presidential press conference, the solutions to our problems are simple because he knows how to negotiate, he knows how to bring jobs back to America, he knows how to deal with China, he knows how to get the wealthy Gulf States to contribute their fair share to the Syrian migrant crisis. No one is going to mess with him — or us.

In his paired down tell it like it is language, Mr. Trump is convincingly entertaining. He is not yet the president, but is trying to play one on television. Although he seems ignorant of the social, political and cultural complexities of world, not to forget the U.S. constitution, it doesn’t matter, for he is operating in a fantasy world in which facts don’t matter, in which “competent” people — actors all — can quickly solve difficult problems. In the fantasy world of television problems are easy to solve. On television or on social media, it’s easy to build a wall across the US-Mexico border and get Mexico to pay for it. In the vicarious mythic worlds of television, Facebook and Twitter, it’s easy for Mr. Trump, who has disparaged Muslims, women, gays, the physically challenged and Hispanics, to claim — with conviction — that he will win their support. In this mythic world, it is easy for Mr. Trump, who insults his opponents — even opponents of his own party — to say that he will be a unifying force.

In the real world Mr. Trump’s willful ignorance, his undignified behavior and his Islamophobia is both senseless and dangerous. In the mythic culture of celebrity, as Mr. Trump seems to well understand, black becomes white and lies become truth. It is a world in which there is no space for critical reflection or for intellectual nuance. Mr. Trump brilliantly understands the culture of celebrity as a world of illusion in which he can carefully develop his mythic image. In this world he is the strong man, the “truth-teller,” the man who will unite a divided nation. 

Paul Stoller, “The Anthropology of Trump: Myth, Illusion and Celebrity Culture”

The Huffington Post,  March 3, 2016 


Michael Scroggins, writing in Huon’s Forum on polls and polling, makes a related, and refreshing argument that what people actually do – all those people turning out for Trump rallies in their red baseball caps – does not represent some awful social deficiency (which we enlightened anthropologists can correct), but manifests the reality of American society-culture. 

There is more to anthropology than ethnography, or good journalism. This was an election cycle accompanied by an enormous amount of what used to be called folklore. The writing was on the walls, and the baseball caps, at every Trump rally. It was there to see, and, dare I say, to learn from. A forward step at this point would be simply paying attention to phenomena easily written off as a product of ignorance, rather than offering (threatening?) to bring the academic journal to the rust belt.

Here Michael points us toward our real task here.  If we’re able to compare, contrast, and evaluate the several perspectives to Trump’s victory which I’ve outlined here, then we need to set about what needs doing: to dig deeper into social-cultural reality than ethnography or good journalism have accomplished.   We need an anthropology of Trump that is also an anthropology of anthropology as it has been practiced of late.  Both require a new, deep understanding of what America is all about.  

I am getting over a cold (and the cold medicine) and my thoughts are still a bit scattershot and rambling. But I will give it a go.

One way of understanding the election is to view it as an aberration.. The (hopefully) last gasp of a backwards people. To my reading, this is the way most of the American professional class, including many anthropologists, have interpreted the election. This sentiment is summed up well in Obama's constant riffing on King's "arc of history" formulation, in which history is viewed as the progressive spread of liberal values. It also underwrites, in a negative sense, Clinton's "basket of deplorables" statement, An accompanying sentiment is that history can be bent a bit quicker by educating the backwards among us. Failing history or education, demographic change will ensure the history follows the correct arc. We might call this the optimistic viewpoint on American history.

Forte’s post, and Stoller's to an extent, raise some difficult questions for that viewpoint. Take Forte’s view on the nature of racism in the United States. Whereas the optimistic viewpoint sees racism as the property of individuals, which can be changed through education or erased through demographic turnover, Forte see racism as an ongoing, and evolving, dynamic within American life. New forms of racism are constantly invented in the US. On this point Forte’s post reminds me a bit of Gunnar Myrdal's explication of the American Dilemma. Forte, though, finds the dilemma at work more widely than did Myrdal (BTW,  Hillary Clinton fits Myrdal’s description of the Southern liberal almost perfectly).  This is a pessimistic view of American history.

Forte also undermines the demographic assumption in two ways. First, by noticing that demographic change is not isomorphic with the demographics of likely voters. Second, by observing that demographics are not destiny, at least when it comes to voting. But, Forte’s most powerful point, one spread across multiple posts, is that “Trump is an American Classic.” More provocatively, he argues that Trumpism can be best understood as a scent, not a political movement. Trumpism diffuses across space.

I think he is absolutely right. And I think this is where taking folklore (which goes by the name “fake news” these days) seriously is both useful and necessary. Both Hillary Clinton and Trump are mythical figures who between them embody the promises and contradictions of their generation. There was already a tremendous amount of folklore about both candidates prior to the election. Many stories about the candidates were pithily summarized in the buttons, ball caps, and t-shirts sold at Trump rallies. Perhaps the most important piece of folklore (spread via ever AM talk station in the US) was that widespread voter fraud is a fixture of US elections. It has long been a rallying point for the right, but this election cycle saw a variation, in the form of Russian hacking, emerge on the left.

Where do these odds and ends point? For a start, away from the optimistic viewpoint of historical progress. In anthropology this was best expressed in Kroeber’s uneasiness with the fate of anthropology within the social sciences. In politics, most recently by John Gray. Second, I think the election points to a need to rethink some anthropological concepts and take phenomena like “fake news” and trucker hats seriously as cultural artifacts.

Showbiz is serious business, right? Turning to Boon's provocation about the handiness of showbiz as an analytic term might push us forward a bit. A rally is a show. Talk radio is a show. And telling tales about candidates/immigrants/ethnic groups/etc is also a show. And all these tales have a scent. And that scent shifts, slides, and straddle boundaries.

    Of the three anthropological approaches or perspectives to Trump’s win, it is probably no secret to OACers that I am most interested and intrigued by the third, in which the election is viewed in terms of cultural themes, myth, folklore.  Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are not one-dimensional politicians engaged in a high-stakes competition over foreign and domestic policy; they are mythic or folkloric figures who project powerful and persuasive images of themselves.  As Republicans fuss about voter fraud and Democrats rush to blame the Russians, the dramatic personae of the two larger-than-life figures are conveniently ignored.  Yet I think those are the very aspects that gripped Americans and in the end led them to vote as they did. 

    Maximilian Forte in “Why Donald J. Trump Will Be the Next President of the United States” set out the argument with graphic brilliance: 

When immigrants came to the US in pursuit of the “American Dream,” who would they imagine as the better embodiment of that dream?

A) The small, spiteful, neckless old lady with the cruel face and the mysterious coats that appear to be hiding large urine bags (or a colostomy bag), someone with the kindness of a prison warden and a grating cackle that is a searing assault on every image of Cinderella and Snow White? Or,

B) The gleaming skyscraper, the golden luxury suite housing the square-faced, golden-haired mountain of Grade A Beef in a $10,000 suit standing under a chandelier that looks like glinting diamonds in sparkling champagne, who is otherwise soaring through the skies in his own massive jet?

If you are answering (a), then you do not understand the United States.

    Hillary wasn’t just dull and uninspiring; to many she was downright scary – the evil witch shrieking from the podium (which earned her the nickname “Shrillary”).  And when she acquired a large jet for her campaign, one to rival Trump Force One, some aides and Secret Service agents who had been on the receiving end of her temper ignored the plane’s official “Stronger Together” name in favor of their own: “Broomstick One.”  In sharp contrast, Trump was the photogenic showman, the “blue collar billionaire” who had made it big but still had the common touch Hillary sorely lacked.  As Forte notes, he was “Grade A Beef,” “an American classic.”


    Michael Scroggins takes up Fortes’ view, clearly setting out the “cultural themes” perspective on the election as a program for a deep cultural analysis of the Trump phenomenon: 

    But, Forte’s most powerful point, one spread across multiple posts, is that “Trump is an American Classic.” More provocatively, he argues that Trumpism can be best understood as a scent, not a political movement. Trumpism diffuses across space. 

    I think he is absolutely right. And I think this is where taking folklore (which goes by the name “fake news” these days) seriously is both useful and necessary. Both Hillary Clinton and Trump are mythical figures who between them embody the promises and contradictions of their generation. There was already a tremendous amount of folklore about both candidates prior to the election. Many stories about the candidates were pithily summarized in the buttons, ball caps, and t-shirts sold at Trump rallies.


    As this discussion proceeds, I hope to pursue their ideas here. 

    At this point, however, I should air my concern with what I take to be an appropriation of a genuine anthropological approach:  the widespread conflating of the program of American anthropology with identity politics.  In thinking, viewing, and reading about the Trump phenomenon, neither the anthropologist nor the everyday American can escape the refrain of identity politics:  Trump won because he is a racist who appealed to a racist America anxious, in the face of immigration and shifting demographics, to preserve its “white privilege.”  Examples are everywhere, but for present purposes consider again Uzma Z. Rizvi’s emotional outpouring in her Savage Minds piece quoted at the beginning of this discussion.  In that piece Rizvi fixes on an interpretation of the election results put forward by Van Jones, a political commentator on CNN and a staunch advocate of black rights.  She accepts without question Van Jones’ view that Trump’s win is an example of “whitelash” – the white majority asserting its will in opposition to POC (i. e., “people of color”) in a last-ditch effort to stay on top of a rapidly changing American demographic.  Really?  Van and Uzma need to do a little fact-checking. 

    Jones’ charge of “whitelash” – in itself a racist assertion, don’t you think? – sidesteps the fact that Trump’s appeal to white voters was essentially the same as Romney’s four years earlier.  And we know how that turned out.  As Pew Research reports,

White non-Hispanic voters preferred Trump over Clinton by 21 percentage points (58% to 37%), according to the exit poll conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool. Romney won whites by 20 percentage points in 2012 (59% to 39%). 

So how did Trump win; why didn’t he suffer the fate of Romney, another too-white candidate?  Here’s what Van doesn’t mention, again from Pew: 

However, although Trump fared little better among blacks and Hispanics than Romney did four years ago, Hillary Clinton did not run as strongly among these core Democratic groups as Obama did in 2012. Clinton held an 80-point advantage among blacks (88% to 8%) compared with Obama’s 87-point edge four years ago (93% to 6%). In 2008, Obama had a 91-point advantage among blacks.

 Hillary Clinton won 66% of Latino voters on Election Day, according to updated National Election Pool exit poll data, a level of Democratic support similar to 2008, when 67% of Hispanics backed Barack Obama. However, Clinton’s share of the Latino vote was lower than in 2012, when 71% of Latinos voted to re-elect Obama.

While Clinton underperformed among Latinos compared with 2012, Republican Donald Trump won 28% of the Latino vote, a similar share to 2012, when Mitt Romney won 27%, and to 2008, when John McCain won 31%, according to exit polls.


    It was these shortfalls among black and Hispanic voters, coupled with the lower voter turnout by blacks and Hispanics unenthusiastic about Hillary, that cost her the election in the critical swing states of Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.  Trump’s support among whites remained constant with that of Romney and McCain; what changed was Hillary’s lesser appeal to blacks and Hispanics.  Thus Van Jones’ “whitelash” is a racist fabrication; there was no swollen tide of white racists who propelled Trump to victory.  Rather than “whitelash” what we witnessed on election night was black and Hispanic brown-out

    The figures were enough to determine the election, but in themselves they were not nearly as dramatic as another aspect of voter demographics, that among white voters. 

Among whites, Trump won an overwhelming share of those without a college degree; and among white college graduates – a group that many identified as key for a potential Clinton victory – Trump outperformed Clinton by a narrow 4-point margin.

Trump’s margin among whites without a college degree is the largest among any candidate in exit polls since 1980. Two-thirds (67%) of non-college whites backed Trump, compared with just 28% who supported Clinton, resulting in a 39-point advantage for Trump among this group. In 2012 and 2008, non-college whites also preferred the Republican over the Democratic candidate but by less one-sided margins (61%-36% and 58%-40%, respectively).

It was, yes, that “basket of deplorables” Hillary ridiculed at her celebrity fund-raiser in Manhattan who turned out in numbers for their blue-collar billionaire. 

    With that unprecedented support among non-college educated whites, why was the overall white vote essentially unchanged from 2012 to 2016?  That is a critical question, whose answer reveals the true nature of Van’s “whitelash.”  The most one-sided voting in the nation occurred, not in the rust belt supposedly teeming with angry white racists, but in the bastions of “white privilege” which identity politics takes as its boogeyman.  Consider these returns: 

Washington D. C. election results:     Clinton 91%                Trump 4% 


Manhattan election results:                 Clinton 90%                Trump 10% 


San Francisco election results:            Clinton 85%                Trump 9% 


Hillary had overwhelming support from that group or category we might describe as the Very Comfortable and Well-Connected:  the politicians and lobbyists of D. C. (that swamp Trump has vowed to drain); the bond traders and hedge fund managers of Manhattan; the cultured liberal elite of San Francisco.  Not least among these figures are the anchors and commentators of MSNBC and CNN – the Clinton News Network – of whom Van Jones is a prominent member.  To identify “whitelash” Jones only needed to hold up a mirror. 

    We should not expect much of media figures who are about as close to a public intelligentsia as our nation can muster.  We should, however, expect a great deal more from anthropologists, including Rizvi, who seem to have substituted identity politics for any genuine, dispassionate cultural analysis of our complex and  turbulent world.  

There is much I agree with in what Lee writes here. Being struck dumb is not an anthropological response to unexpected events. It is, however, a personal response from an individual, a woman and a serious scholar, who happened to express her feelings on a site that presents itself as filled with anthropological content. We can forgive that.

What I am having a hard time with is an anthropological response that (1) concentrates on folklore and (2) does so only from the perspective of Trump voters, who demographically speaking are a minority, albeit a substantial one, of US voters, and ignores the role of the peculiar institution kinown as the Electoral College, which provided the Trump campaign with the opportunity to sucker punch their opponents in a few states formerly regarded as reliably blue. While not denying the importance of the folklore that inspired Trump voters, we also need a look at the other side, exploring the imagery that produced the lowest voter turnout in twenty years and failed to inspire the younger and minority members of the Obama coalition enough to bring them out in numbers sufficient to defeat Trump.

Prior to the election, the common sense was that the electoral math gave a heavy advantage to democratic candidates because of the blue wall in the Midwest.  The constant talk on election night was about the narrowness of Trump's path through the electoral college. Yes, it is a peculiar institution and a compromise born of the 19th century, but electoral college math was thought to heavily favor Clinton, not Trump, in this election cycle.

I agree that we should expand the folklore discussion outward from Trump supporters. If we rewind back to the primaries I think it would be obvious that the candidate generating the most folklore was Bernie Sanders. Like Trump, Sanders generated a tremendous amount of memorabilia and commerce, in addition to many folktales and other fascinating odds and ends that go along with a campaign. For example, there were constant images of Sanders as a unicorn and Sanders as Obi (Bernie) Wan Kenobi. 

Clinton's campaign was driven by data and analysis and employed multiple data wizards to wrangle it all into order. Her campaign's primary strategy was to transmute female Republic voters into Democratic voters using big data, that  contemporary philosopher's stone. You can add to this the very old Hillary as witch trope (flying around the country on Broomstick One) and the more recent Podesta (her campaign manager) as satanist trope.

To Lee's point about undertaking a cultural analysis, I am interested in expanding the idea of Trumpism, or -isms more broadly, in terms of scent, or something similar. Perhaps feeling would also work. This is another way of getting to grips with the old problem, a fundamental one within anthropology, of cultural phenomena which diffuse.

From two months on, the election feels a bit like living with the effects of radioactive fallout. Geography can tell you something important about the distribution of fallout, but it cannot tell you how far the fallout might spread, what the after effects might be, or how long the half-life will last. This requires a different, but no less rigorous, logic. I am most interested here in thinking about what form cultural analysis might take today. If the surprise at the election points to anything, it is the necessity of revisiting the culture concept.


What form cultural analysis might take today is a great question. An idea I share with Michael Agar, though I came to it separately in an obscure paper in the Journal of Chinese Religion, and see pointers to in allusions to quantum physics, is that cultural analysis does not describe how social actors (people and groups) behave. Instead, its output is possibility spaces (or, to borrow James Fernandez's terminology, n-dimensional manifolds of possible meaninngs) that determine the significance of what social actors do, as seen from various perspectives. This leaves open the questions of how specific social, material, and other contextual factors affect different perspectives, critical paths, and positions taken within the space.

In the case at hand, we must deal with the fact that Trump's behavior was significant in very different ways to different sets of people, as was Clinton's also.

For all, 

I like very much M. Streep answer. I like she as well as an artist, but beyond that , it is important to see how we are, as social cientifics continue being in the circles without ending and this woman spoke.

We are in difficult, and very difficult moments in the humanity we answer to it? Writing here? The situation is changing very quickly..are we going to be paparachis of it? or are we going to use our knowlloges for the society?

A society that is giving a lot for a lot on this page as well, don´t you think..with the long messages that they write, I wonder sometimes from wher do they take the time to do it? How do this people live? What is their position?

Well, times are changing, cookers, footballers, and celebrities are became the social reference much more than the politics intitutions as it is something very we should do an anthropology of them? Or to continue playing the game of to be in the tower of nothing, complaining, doing calculations for ..what? Alwyas in the helicopter( as Ericksen mentiones one time)?

All of these speaks as well about our position in the society, the contrast with other moments, very sad.

So I hope to receive comments in order to clarify instead of doing closed circles.."life is very short, and theres no time!" Beatles..


As well


    Regarding a cultural analysis of the Trump phenomenon, here’s the thought I’d like to pursue as a basis for conducting such an analysis: 

    “Folklore,” “myth,” “stereotypes” etc. are not ancillary phenomena to a core of nitty-gritty social action and political behavior.  Rather, what I gloss as “myth” is inherent in the most ordinary aspects of people’s lives: the clothes they put on in the morning; what they eat for dinner; whom they like and don’t like; whom they vote for; and – especially important here – what they do for a living.  I think the old infra- vs. suprastructure dichotomy is insupportable, something of a relic of a mechanical age which installed the subjective / objective opposition as a pillar of society – and social control.  Now, as writers here note, new fumes are wafting through the collective anthropological cerebrum, bringing hints of complexity theory (everything is on the verge of going “Boom!”), quantum uncertainty (is it a particle, a wave, or both – correct answer: all three); and, my personal favorite, the irresolvable contradictions built into human existence (as John notes, James Fernandez’s “elemental dilemmas”). 

    An irresolvable contradiction, now opposing, now enforcing, I’ve begun to think about in part as a consequence of the election is technology vis-à-vis language.  I know, not one from my usual stable, but especially important here.  Why?  First, Trump is a maker, a doer, he builds, creates things.  Hillary is a talker, a politician who creates nothing but webs of influence-peddling words.  The rhetorical nexus of all this I find in Trump’s campaign refrain that the three most important things in the election were jobs, jobs, jobs.  He is a job creator, constantly bragging about how many people have worked for him.  As Michael Moore and Sarah Kendzior have argued (see above discussions) this was the source of Trump’s appeal in the rust belt, that “fly-over country” ignored and reviled by Hillary and the elite. 

   Jobs. Work.  Self-evident?  The natural background of daily life?  Perhaps taken as such, but for that very reason they are hugely problematic.  I see a fundamental tension at work here, in part driven by a love-hate relationship Americans have with their jobs, their work.  And, here’s the starting point for that cultural analysis:  charting the interplay of jobs and work in our thought is an inquiry into the ontology of American life.  I rarely use, and usually disdain, that big “O” word, but it fits here.  So, all this is by way of a lead-in or preview to a little project I’m mulling over, a brief essay, “Orange Hair and Ontology: Reelity and Reality in Donald Trump’s America.”  

Honestly, as anthropologist with many years, working hard and with a strong academic formation in different countries (in spite of my recent English aquisition) I prefer Mary Douglas references about "Styles of thinking" and about others authors in Anthropology of Politics - Canclini, Escobar, Ericksen, Bourdieu, Godelier how the Society is changings the ways of its institution in order to see what is not inmediatly seen. This clow of Trump, the mask of a dangerous sector, is just a result of the presence of the other power which put behind the traditional democracy institutions..we ought to study that..I celebrate the M.Streep speech because since our life is directed by the celebrities, do well, that many and many are taking a position publicly, in the midst of such difficult times as the world is ...

The power is no longer where we think it was, democracy is in transformation and great chefs, footballers and artists shape our habits, opinions as more attitudes when we choose a president or vote in a referendum than their programs discourse.

The depoliticization as a consequence of corruption and its added show are the rails of such effects that make the present so fragile for society as a whole so these sectors between accomplices and opponents are born as a source of power as well.

All these elements together with a dangerous indifference make of situations as dangerous as racism and xenophobia, as well as the use in the hands of brainless of all this, and other elements ... in a worrisome way.
It is good to know that in the midst of this uncertainty of January, and with these new forms of power, that we like or not, but that are real in this time so similar to the 50s in one year and in another to 29 a voice Leave a different footprint, creating controversy and making you think ... something that the present alienation prevents and for which it breaks up can accommodate many more controversies like these and other styles as well.

All it has to be study this trasnformations of the power, these speeches, and  THE POSITIONs, in the other way it is to be in the limbo, my we will have a lot of Trumps, with a lot of anthropologists crying in the corner but having nice hoildays and academic tourism.


I was watching Adam Curtis' BBC film Hypernormalisation the other day. It is the usual Curtis-style hotchpotch of rather portentous pastiche and ominous soundtrack, but it had one moment at the end that struck home. Talking about the reaction to Trump, Curtis says something very telling:

'The liberals were outraged by Trump, but they expressed their anger in Cyberspace so it had no effect because the algorithms meant that they only spoke to people who already agreed with them. Instead, ironically, their angry barrages of messages and tweets benefited the large corporations who ran the media platforms'. (2:24:27 Hypernormalisation)


    On a related note, it’s been said that Hillary’s was a “campaign by algorithm.”  Her billion dollar+ in campaign funding by anonymous richies funneled through her SuperPacs paid for, in addition to a barrage of hate ads on TV, a small army of demographers and number crunchers.  They produced detailed profiles of audiences which another small army of ad and speech writers used to craft her all-too-focused message(s).  Utterly unlike pre-teleprompter Trump at those massive rallies, where his free-wheeling remarks were red meat feeding not only the crowd but Trump himself.  Since Hillary’s only personality traits were unendearing to loathsome, she was stuck with the algorithms. 

   But the point of the Curtis program is dead-on: the liberals spent their time saying snotty things about Trump to each other, ignoring the rest of the country.  Meryl Streep’s attack at the Golden Globes gala was simply a reprise of Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” speech before the glitterati on the other coast.  Thanks to video, the entire nation was treated to the peals of smug, derisive laughter at those venues.  

Reply to Discussion



OAC Press



© 2020   Created by Keith Hart.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service