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.
This is relevant to some of Lee's earlier points about identity politics:
If you had read in early 2016 about a National Policy Institute conference on the theme of “Identity Politics,” you might have assumed it was an innocent gathering of progressives. If you had attended, you would have been in for an unpleasant surprise. The National Policy Institute is an organization of white nationalists, overseen by neo-Nazi media darling Richard Spencer.
Spencer, who popularized the now common euphemism “alt-right,” is fond of describing his platform as “identity politics for white people.” He takes pains to correct those who refer to him as a white supremacist, insisting that he is merely a “nationalist,” or a “traditionalist,” or, better yet, an “identitarian.” He wants to bring about what he calls a “white ethno-state,” a place where the population is determined by heritability. In a knowing inversion of social justice vocabulary, he describes it as “a safe space for Europeans.”