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.  

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On Savage Minds, Kerim Friedman has posted a contribution to the reading of Foucault's "Society Must be Defended" that is going on around the world as a protest against Donald J. Trump's inauguration as US President. I found myself responding to him as follows.


Kerim, as I read what you have written here, I find myself nodding, Yes, Yes, Yes. Why, then, at the end do I feel disappointed.

I offer two thoughts for your consideration. First, as new way of talking about racism you offer Foucault’s “biopolitics” and “population.” Each, I assume, has some specific meaning in Foucault’s usage but this is not spelled out. “Biopolitics” seems to imply a connection between biology and politics, but what that connection is remains obscure. Are we talking, as Foucault himself sometimes did, about politics embedded in bodily posture and habit in a way that seems natural? Or something else? To the uninitiated, this connection remains unclear.

“Population” is a different problem. “Population” is a common word. We talk freely about the population of Taiwan or Staten Island or a population of butterflies. It works well as a neutral description of individuals inhabiting a certain geographical or social space who might be persuaded to regard themselves as a tribe or nation united by blood, soil, language, or religion, for example. But the mechanisms by which they are supposed to be persuaded remain unarticulated; I think, by way of contrast, of Benedict Anderson’s description of the use of print media to create the imaginary communities we now call nations.

Leaving these terms as unexamined abstractions results in an argument whose overall shape resembles that of the Enlightenment, then Marxist, view of religion as a tool of state power used to compel obedience or an opiate of the people used to secure their passive acquiescence in whatever the rulers demand. What is omitted is the fact to which Geertz points us in “Religion as a Cultural System,” borrowing from Santayana, the proposition that people no more practice a universal Religion than we speak a universal Language. From this perspective, I am forced to ask if there is a universal Racism or a host of particular racisms in need of anthropological analysis. Then, I find myself wondering what it implies for anthropology that the anthropologists’ protest in this, the second decade of the twenty-first century, requires reading a French philosopher who died, perhaps an omen, in 1984.

January 21, 2017 


    What theme might a full-bore cultural analysis cum cultural critique pursue?  Or, if the “culture” concept is shaky (Adieu! – I  suggested an alternative a while back) where do we begin an anthropological semiotic of the Trump phenomenon? 

    If we listen to what Trump has said and done up to now (Carrier AC, Ford, GM) the bedrock of his message, which he has repeated as a mantra, is “jobs, jobs, jobs,” claiming that he is “the greatest job-producer God ever created.” 

    How are we to situate this basically economic claim within a cultural analytic framework?  Here we would hope to expand on Paul Stoller’s analysis of Trump as an example of the power of “celebrity culture.”  And on Max Forte’s and Michael Scroggins’ suggestion that the Trump thing is a fume wafting through social life, a folkloric-mythic phenomenon.  The question stirs the ashes of countless arguments opposing economic or materialist factors to “symbolic” or idealist constructions.  I’m coming to think that this is a – bite my tongue! – ontological question.  What is the underlying reality of American society?  An anthropological semiotic inquiry here should not conclude, regardless of where it begins, by retaining the either-or formulation.  The idea I want to develop, maybe in an early draft of “Orange Hair and Ontology: Reelity and Reality in Donald Trump’s America,” is that work – jobs – is linked to an aesthetic impulse, both operating on a nascent human mind from the beginning.  Here I would join an unlikely pair:

Trump:  jobs, jobs, jobs

Nietzsche: aesthetics as the foundation of human thought. 

Happily, someone has anticipated this idea, and, best of all, in the form of a cartoon reproduced on OAC Facebook by Robin Oberg: 


Thought for the day, Inauguration+1.  

This article pushes to re-think questions and answers

The idea I want to develop, maybe in an early draft of “Orange Hair and Ontology: Reelity and Reality in Donald Trump’s America,” is that work – jobs – is linked to an aesthetic impulse, both operating on a nascent human mind from the beginning.

An interesting project. That said, the relationship between doing a "job" and aesthetically pleasing "work" is problematic.

Consider, for example, the history of the American labor movement, in which the AFL-CIO began as two separate organizations, one for skilled workers who saw themselves as practitioners of crafts requiring specialized expertise, the other for unskilled workers who were treated by industry as interchangeable parts in mining or assembly line processes.

I think of my father, who graduated from the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock apprentice school as a master machinist, who took pride in the shipyard's product. I was, as a child, repeatedly taken to ship christening ceremonies [] and was properly impressed as bottles of champagne were broken over the bows and ships slid out of the dry dock into the water.

One form my dad's pride took was distinguishing himself from workers on assembly lines who spent their days doing the same repetitive tasks over and over again. His life, moreover, was not confined to the work he did at the shipyard. An ardent horticulturist he was also very proud of our "place," surrounded by the bamboo he introduced to York County, VA, and filled with gardens and nut and fruit trees. He was also active in founding two churches to which he contributed both money and labor. "The Lord's work" was another important part of his life.

As a partner in a small translation company, I myself do variety of"work" for our clients. Some is dull but profitable. Some is difficult, relatively low paying, but aesthetically satisfying, especially when our words appear in museum exhibition catalogs alongside exquisitely printed photographs of works of art. Our individual "jobs" have, over the years, piled up to form a substantial body of work in which my partner and I take pride. In any case, as a partner and owner of a small business, I have a very different relation to my work than I had while working as an employee of a large company.

P.S.The etymology of "job" is described by the Online Etymology Dictionary as follows,

job (n.) Look up job at
"piece of work; something to be done," 1620s, from phrase jobbe of worke (1550s) "task, piece of work" (contrasted with continuous labor), a word of uncertain origin. Perhaps a variant of gobbe "mass, lump" (c. 1400; see gob) via sense of "a cart-load." Specific sense of "work done for pay" first recorded 1650s.

job. (1) A low mean lucrative busy affair. (2) Petty, piddling work; a piece of chance work. [Johnson's Dictionary]

Meaning "paid position of employment" is from 1858. Printers' slang sense "piece of work of a miscellaneous class" (posters, handbills, etc.) is from 1795, hence job-type (notably large or ornamental or of exceptional form), job-shop, etc. Job lot (1832) is from an obsolete sense of "cartload, lump," which might be a separate formation from gob.

The very broad general sense of "occurrence, business, state of things" is colloquial from c. 1700. In modern slang or colloquial use, "an example," especially a good one (of the thing indicated), 1927, "a term of wide application" [OED]. Thieves' slang sense of "theft, robbery, a planned crime" is from 1722. Slang meaning "specimen, thing, person" is from 1927. On the job "hard at work" is from 1882. Job security attested by 1932 (job insecurity by 1936); job description by 1920; job-sharing by 1972. Job-hunter is from 1928. The phrase job of work still appears as late as Trollope (1873).

job (v.) Look up job at
1660s, "to buy and sell as a broker" (intransitive), from job (n.). Meaning "deal in public stocks on one's own account" is from 1721. Meaning "to cheat, betray" is from 1903; earlier "pervert pubic service to private advantage" (1732). Related: Jobbed; jobbing.



    Exactly.  Job does not equal Work.  But therein lies a dialectic underlying American society – and the Trump phenomenon. 

    A common use of “job” describes a dull, repetitive, poorly paid activity.  Whereas “work” often refers to a vocation, an activity that in part independently produces results that are valuable for themselves.  It is telling that Trump promises “jobs, jobs, jobs” and, as I suggested in an earlier post, that entails bosses, bosses, bosses.  I’m not sure that bangers in south-central L. A. are breathlessly waiting for factories to locate there.  They’re into something else.  But there’s an ambiguity in the job/work pair that cuts both ways.  “Work” used as a noun is usually very positive: a painter’s work, a writer’s work.  There’s a Nietzschean aesthetic about those.  However “work” can carry the same semantic freight as “job,” as in “I have to go to work now.”  Not a happy prospect.  On the flip side, at least one group of professionals refer to what they do as “The Job”:  Los Angeles policemen and women.  This according to that superb ethnographer of America, Joseph Wambaugh (I hope his work, notably Lines and Shadows, about a very timely subject, illegal immigration,  made it to the short list for that Jan 20 ReadIn.  Or maybe not.).  This example is further complicated by a favorite saying of a highly respected old sergeant at the Hollywood Hills division station:  “Doing good police work is the most fun you’ll have in life.”  For those cops, being on The Job involves doing rewarding “work.” 

    I suspect that Job vs. Work is an ambiguity at the heart of American society.  An excellent source here is Studs Terkel’s Working, which consists of long interviews with people about what they do to make a living. 

    Anyway, it’s late and I’ve got to do some binge viewing of one of my favorite cop shows.   

Lee, are you aware of a book by Dorinne Kondo, Crafting Selves: Power, Gender and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace []? It is fascinating because it goes beyond the binary of job versus work to explore three very different perspectives on work found in a single site, a Japanese confectionary factory.

The first was the carefully articulated ideology promoted by the moral rearmament camp to which the employer sent his workers. The program included lots of outdoor exercise, which the employees liked, and a lot of preaching about the debt that workers owe to their employers and the duty to be constantly cheerful and hardworking, which, the employer himself acknowledged, did not make a great impression on the workers.

The second was that of a master craftsman, whose expertise in the art of Japanese confectionary was acquired in a picaresque journey from an impoverished boyhood in Japan's rural northeast through stints at several different shops where he added to his repertoire before, finally, winding up in charge of the Japanese confectionary division at the factory Kondo studied. His life was, as I have said, a picaresque tale but it formed a coherent narrative that made his work deeply meaningful to him.

The third was that of women part-time workers whose factory jobs were only a way to supplement their household budgets. Their employment was transient, their careers fragmented as they moved from job to job. Their work was only marginal to biographies focused on household, family, and children.

Fascinating stuff for anyone who conceives of ethnography as collecting the tales through which, in one way or another, humans make sense of their lives.

Cecilia Montero Mórtola said:


I dont think so...many things we had thought that would been unavailable and then....It is true that is a country with a lot of centuries closed on itself ...with some specif features , in spite of that they are not out of the earth .

It is unavailable because certain YouTube channels are restricted to other parts of the world, not because of anything here in Japan itself.

Cecilia Montero Mórtola said:

I dont think so...many things we had thought that would been unavailable and then....It is true that is a country with a lot of centuries closed on itself ...with some specif features , in spite of that they are not out of the earth . is very complex that place more than Benedict said and what I studied a long time ago about all the shogunatos etc. etc. 

but times changes...

just a moment I ve received this,  

with the japanesse emigration could be arrive as well this and youtobe, couldn´t be?

What is blocking my watching the YouTube is intellectual property law and the wishes of the supplier of certain content that it not be made available in Japan, very likely because they hope to sell a subscription to Japanese viewers and don't want the material distributed for free.

Back in the 1980s, when I was working in advertising, I learned about the reverse sort of arrangement. Prominent US celebrities would agree to appear in Japanese TV commercials, but only on condition that they not be shown outside Japan. There was a great fear that doing the silly things they were asked to do in Japanese commercials would damage the celebrities' reputations as artists if the commercials were shown in the US or Europe. There was no such fear in Japan, where artists pitching products is a long-standing tradition, and Kabuki actors who appear in Edo-period Ukiyo-e prints frequently are seen holding clearly branded goods. Product placement has a long history here.

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