Pro-Trump Identity Politics

Photo by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann | CC BY 2.0

With Donald Trump in the White House, absurdities erupt on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.  The world feels out of joint — as if the editorial staff of The Onion had kicked God out of Heaven and taken over daily administration of the world.

Familiar expectations are shot.  Americans are fine with robber barons who morph into philanthropists in old age; this didn’t happen very often, but we do tell their stories to our children.  And although it also happens rarely, we are not surprised when heirs of great fortunes from socially prominent families go into “public service” out of a sense of noblesse oblige.

But in what universe would anyone expect someone with Trump’s résumé and pedigree to become the tribune of coal miners and other “forgotten men”?

The short answer is: not in ours or in any other.

Nevertheless, polls tell us that more than a third of the voting public thinks otherwise.  They voted for Trump and they are sticking with him for the time being — because, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they think he is on their side.

Among them are plenty of forgotten men and women from families that used to vote Democratic as if by reflex.  Some were or still are active union people; some used to be or still are coal miners.

That’s how good a conman the Donald is.

Still, it is hard to make sense of people who fiercely support someone whose goals are so transparently opposed to both their material and expressive interests and whose rank incompetence is downright embarrassing.  As he himself might tweet – how sad!  how pathetic!

And then there is Russia, Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” and the great bugbear of the Free World from the October Revolution on – except, of course, during World War II, when they helped us out by smashing the Nazi war machine.

Wasn’t Communism supposed to be the reason for all those Cold War animosities that seemed so antiquated just a few month ago – before the Clintons and then the entire Democratic Party, sore losers all, and their media flacks took up the cause of preparing the groundwork for World War III?

These days, Communists are about as rare in the Kremlin as at Comcast, owner of MSNBC, or Time Warner (soon to be taken over by ATT), owner of CNN.  Nevertheless, Rachel Maddow and others like her didn’t have to skip a beat when the call came to rev up a new red scare – one suitable for time when the reds have gone missing.

Could it be that, for the champions of our seemingly impregnable capitalist system, Communism never really was the issue at all; that the point was and still is, to quash anything that stands in the way of American world domination?

However that may be, in the world before Trump, it was Democrats, not Republicans, who were “soft on Communism” (or whatever).   Yet now, except for enfeebled old timers like John McCain and his sidekick, Lindsey Graham, Republicans actually seem OK with Russia, while Democrats beat every war drum that comes their way.  What gives with that?

And, for that matter, since when are Democrats more besotted than Republicans with “intelligence community” miscreants like James Clapper and John Brennan, and with the FBI and the other pillars of our national security state?

Trumpland isn’t just hell for Muslims, Hispanics, women, and other vulnerable populations; it is hell for anyone trying to make sense of what is going on.  It is a topsy-turvy world, a world turned upside down, a world where absurdity reigns.

It is possible, of course, to concoct explanations for at least some of the weirdness Trump arouses.  However, the explanations are seldom satisfactory; and, even when they are, they hardly dispel the impression that what is going on can’t really be happening.

Understanding the Trump phenomenon has always been a challenge, but people whom Trump never snookered have been having an especially hard time of late, trying to understand why so many Trump supporters are still standing by their man — in view of his repeatedly demonstrated incompetence and the increasingly obvious fact that he is not and never has been on their side.

But that phenomenon is more or less comprehensible.

After all, we already knew that when forced to choose between beliefs supported by evidence and uninformed intuitions, many, maybe most, Trump supporters opt for the latter.

We also know that some of them really do hold “deplorable” beliefs that a Trump in the White House effectively validates.  They depend on him for that, and so they stand by him.  We also know that some of them are just plain stupid.

They are also, like the Tea Partiers who preceded them, stunningly, even sublimely, obdurate.  Combine that with the all-too-human reluctance of people everywhere to admit that they have been conned – and voilà.

Some Trump voters surely did believe, in all sincerity, that a Trump presidency would improve their lot materially.  Because salesmanship is one thing Trump is good at, some still do.

But most of the people who voted for Trump were also “values voters” – willing, if need be, to vote against their material interests in order to strike a blow for what they care about more.

This was what drove them into the Trump camp in the first place.  As much as they abhorred Hillary Clinton, they rejected the species of neoliberalism associated with her family name even more.  They hated everything she represented. Who can blame them!

Remember too that although it feels like an eternity, Trump has not been President all that long — and that, except in highly turbulent periods, political realignments take time, especially when elections are far off.   The fact that Trump’s base is still largely intact is therefore not remarkable at all.

Thus the reluctance of diehard Trump voters to defect is understandable.  What is harder to understand is their seemingly unflinching adherence to a reactionary agenda that neither Trump nor most of the people who voted for him favor or even seem to care all that much about.

Why, for instance, would they vehemently favor Republican efforts to “repeal Obamacare” in ways that do what polling data shows they oppose: giving insurance companies freer rein to take pre-existing conditions into account, for example, or charging premiums too high for most of the people who get insurance under Obamacare to afford.  This is especially odd inasmuch as many of the people who would lose insurance coverage if Obamacare goes fall squarely within the pro-Trump demographic.

And why would they applaud Trump for pulling the United States out of the 2015 Paris accord on global warming?  Do they look forward to catastrophic events befalling themselves and others compared to which, as Trump’s evangelical supporters might say, the Ten Plagues were small potatoes.

Perhaps they don’t understand that turning America into an outcast rogue state is not a particularly good way to make “American first.”

I am being facetious, of course; even the stupid ones are smarter than that.  And, in any case, there is a better explanation at hand: that the ideology of the dunderheads Trump ran against in the primaries has become a marker for the kind of white identity politics that Trump conjured into being in order to work his con.


Trump has no ideology.  All he has is a fierce determination to enrich and glorify himself.

However, he is shrewd enough to realize that, by playing to the resentments of people whose material conditions have been stagnant or in decline for nearly half a century, and whom “liberal” Democrats ignore, he could gain the foot soldiers he needs to advance his avaricious and self-aggrandizing objectives.

This is Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” brought up to date and tailored to Trump’s particular needs.  Since the 1970s, Republicans have been actively recruiting from within what has now become the Trump demographic.  Until now, this has worked out well for them.  Currently, though, thanks to Trump, it is becoming a problem.  The party’s grandees lost control of their party in 2016 and, appearances notwithstanding, they have yet to win it back.

Hardly anyone, probably not even Trump himself, expected Hillary Clinton to lose last November.  Trump’s campaign therefore gave little thought to what he would do after Election Day.

But Hillary outdid herself in ineptitude and Trump therefore had to pull a rabbit out of his hat – as quickly as he could.

Because he had no firm policy ideas and no idea how to govern, Trump therefore had no choice but to rely on the Republican Party apparatus for help.

Had Clinton won, Trump would have been remembered as the man who brought the GOP down.  This could still happen, of course; from some future vantage-point, destroying the more retrograde of our two neoliberal parties may still rank high on the Donald’s list of accomplishments.

For the time being, though, his election has been a godsend for Republicans.   Not only did many of them ride into office on his coattails, but his victory gave their otherwise decrepit leaders a new lease on life.

On the face of it, the Trump-GOP alliance is a “deal” made in heaven (or rather, in this case, in hell).   Trump gets what he cannot do without, and Republican ideologues get a vehicle for turning their ideas into the law of the land.

Trump is plainly the least ideological of any American President in modern times, nevertheless he now owns those ideas. They follow from a more or less fixed and generally coherent way of thinking about public policy, grounded in political philosophies that converge on positions that assign a minimal role to the state, leaving the task of coordinating individuals’ behaviors to markets — systems of voluntary, bilateral exchange.

In the real world of American politics, persons of conservative temperaments, who hold genuinely conservative philosophical or religious convictions are sometimes drawn to this way of thinking.  But, in fact, there is nothing inherently “conservative” about it.

Genuine conservatives care, above all, about achieving and maintaining order – through religious, political, and familial institutions.  These concerns are, if anything, undercut by the positions the people we call “conservatives” endorse.

Conservatism, properly understood, is of a piece with ways of thinking about politics and society that antedate the rise of capitalism and, along with it, the demise of traditional social solidarities and communal institutional arrangements.

In marked contrast, the ideology Trump finds himself promoting accords pride of place to a distinctively modern notion of individual freedom – according to which individuals, conceived apart from their relations with others, are free insofar as they are unconstrained by others from doing what they want.

In a word, this is liberalism, not conservatism.  More precisely, it is classical liberalism, the liberalism of eighteenth and nineteenth century political philosophers.

According to their way of thinking, there is almost nothing that states can rightfully do beyond protecting markets – in the first instance, from enemies within, by those who would distort the consequences of voluntary exchanges through force or fraud.

They can also rightfully defend against aggression from without when there is no satisfactory non-state way to do so.  Historically, the presumption has been that this meant defending against other states.  But non-state actors can also be aggressors.  This is why our so-called conservatives – classical liberals – can and do countenance, for example, the never-ending war on terror that Dick Cheney and George W. Bush launched a decade and a half ago.

They can and sometimes do also take a fairly non-austere view of what protecting markets involves.  Thus most “conservatives” today are fine with a state that regulates the supply of money, and even with one that accords “safety net” protections to extreme victims of market perturbations.

In the main, though, they are free market devotees who support private property and unregulated market arrangements with an almost religious fervor.  Inasmuch as their theoretical convictions depend as much on faith as on reason, it is fair to think of them as free market theologians.

The basic tenet of the theology they espouse is that individuals own all that they lawfully possess, and also their own bodies and powers.   They can then do what they want with what they own provided only that they do not use them willfully in ways that harm others.

The details get complicated, and the underlying contentions can be defended in any of a variety of ways — sometimes, for example, by appealing to inherent and inalienable individual rights or by arguing that untrammeled market relations in private property regimes result in better outcomes, in one or another well-defined sense, than any of the feasible alternatives.

In my view, the arguments these theologians advance are not at all compelling, though they can be, and often are, interesting.  They can also be arcane.  A lot is therefore lost in translation as we go, say, from John Locke or John Stuart Mill or even Friedrich von Hayek to Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan.

But apart from these and other self-selected party “intellectuals,” do Trump supporters really care?  That would seem even less likely than that they would fall for the Donald’s con.

Trump latched onto free market theology out of necessity – because he needed to rely on a handful of lackluster, but fervent, Republican leaders who were willing to support him, for lack of any less unpalatable alternative.

However, this does not explain Trump supporters’ seemingly passionate commitment to the positions Trump has taken.  In their minds, free market theology seems almost to have detached itself from its connection to Trump himself, becoming, so to speak, a freestanding cause.

I would venture that what it really is is a marker of identity. That a political philosophy that they know little and care less about would take on such a role is perhaps the most bizarre feature of the very bizarre Trump phenomenon.

If and when the GOP’s leaders come to the conclusion that they would be enough better off without Trump to bear the cost of ousting him, this form of identity politics will pose a severe hazard to all but the very few who actually stand to gain from the political economic arrangements free market theology encourages.

The reason why, in short, is that a President Pence would stand a better chance of doing what Trump talks about than Trump himself, inasmuch as Pence is genuinely, not just opportunistically, committed to the program, and because, as an “adult in the room,” a relieved and weary public would likely let him have his way.

Trump’s temperament and ignorance make him a clear and present danger.  But a hamstrung Trump, fighting off efforts to oust him, is probably less of a menace, all things considered, than the constitutionally prescribed alternative, especially now that Pence would be backed by fervent identity-driven true believers.

Efforts to oust Trump are of crucial importance, but the longer it takes for them to succeed, the better off we all will be.  It would be wonderful to see Trump and all things Trumpian fall and fall hard.  But a death by a thousand cuts that slows the process of his removal down to a crawl would be preferable by far.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).