The Trump “Style” and Its Appeal

September 13, 2016

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A number of political commentators are starting to suggest that Hillary Clinton could win the upcoming political debates on substance, but lose them on style. No one seems to doubt that Clinton is far more knowledgeable on policy issues and has more detailed policy positions. The latest issue of The Week reports that “Donald Trump’s campaign has seven policy proposals listed on his website, totaling 9,000 words. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has 65 policy fact sheets, with detailed proposals totaling 112,735 words.” Clinton and her running mate, Tim Kaine, have also just released a book describing their proposals, Stronger Together: A Blueprint for America’s Future. Nevertheless, although most commentators regard Donald Trump’s ideas as more simplistic, ill-informed and even dangerous, they have to admit that he continues to appeal to a large portion of the electorate. One explanation is that people just like his style, and style trumps substance in U.S. elections.

What is it about this style that is so appealing? A few adjectives come to mind: loud, combative, self-aggrandizing, politically incorrect, and autocratic.

When I say “loud,” I mean more than the volume of Trump’s voice. He has a way of drowning out other voices in the room by seizing the media spotlight for himself. He provides a steady stream of colorful remarks to resonate in the media echo chamber. He commands attention and attracts a following.

Americans love physical and verbal combat, at least as a spectator sport, and Trump’s combative style appeals to those who feel he is fighting for them. He rallies supporters by portraying America as an embattled nation, threatened primarily by foreigners, immigrants and terrorists. His enemies list also includes anyone who criticizes him or sees the world differently, such as political liberals and most journalists.

Trump is probably the most blatantly self-aggrandizing candidate we’ve ever seen. He claims to have the answer for everything, whether it is inner-city poverty or terrorism. On domestic policy, he knows more than the policy experts who’ve worked on the problems for years, and on military policy he “knows more than the generals.” He rarely reveals his policy plans, of course, but trust him, he has them and they are amazing. This oversize confidence appeals to those who would rather put their faith in a strong father-figure rather than deal with the complexities of the issues.

Trump also boasts of his “political incorrectness.” This rather odd term is a product of the debates over racism and sexism since the 1960s. I think it is a respectable way of saying that one is resisting calls from women and minorities to change attitudes and behavior. For example, women have argued that if they are to be equals in workplaces, universities, the military and other spheres of achievement, they cannot be subjected to unwanted sexual attention. This can be confusing to men, who need to develop the sensitivity to discern when sexual advances are welcome and when they are not. Some men just don’t get it, and claim not to know what all the fuss is about. And some disparage the whole attempt to discourage sexist or racist behavior as an exercise in “political correctness,” a needless infringement on their freedom of thought, speech and action. Boasting about one’s political incorrectness is a way of standing up for the privilege to say and do what one pleases, whether it is offensive to others or not. The fact that Donald Trump rushed to defend Roger Ailes when he was accused of sexual harassment, even before the facts were in, and then brought him into his campaign as an informal adviser after he was fired by Fox News, is an indication of what Trump’s political incorrectness can mean. It is a code word for white male resistance to the new assertiveness of women and minorities.

Does that mean that Trump and his followers are sexists and racists? Obviously that is a very contentious and contested notion. They can easily protest: “We’re not racists; we just want to stop Mexicans and other foreigners from taking our jobs. We just want to stop potential terrorists from entering the country. We just support “law and order” and the right of police to defend themselves against dangerous suspects.” Trump’s critics can point out the racial subtext lying just beneath the surface of these positions. “Law and order,” a favorite phrase of racists from Adolf Hitler to George Wallace, can mean defending the white-supremacist social order by keeping minorities in their place. And what is the racial subtext of the “birther” movement previously led by Donald Trump? He no longer talks about it publicly himself. But a recent poll found that 59% of voters who approve of Trump believe that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore not qualified to be president. Isn’t the real message that Obama cannot be a legitimate American leader because of the color of his skin?

As a practical matter, calling people sexist or racist is usually counterproductive. I believe that the most prejudiced people have defense mechanisms that allow them to deny their own prejudices. The most we can hope for is to get them to question certain positions by calling attention to their prejudicial implications. For example, if you believe, as many of my students have liked to think, that the playing field is already level and blacks have been given every opportunity, then you may conclude that only laziness or stupidity can account for their higher rates of poverty. Some may be willing to question their assumptions, but only if they are questioned respectfully and not just insulted. Besides, Trump and his supporters have gotten very good at answering such accusations by attacking their attackers. “Call us racists? That’s what you Democrats always do, play the race card when you don’t want to discuss ideas.” (That’s almost an exact quote from a Trump surrogate.) So Trump and his supporters claim the moral high ground while accusing Clinton of being the real bigot, prejudiced against the white working class. Her calling his more extreme supporters “deplorable” only plays into that narrative.

Trump’s political incorrectness walks a fine line, flirting enough with sexism and racism to attract a core following of angry white men, but trying not to be so obvious that moderate Republicans are too shocked to vote for him. So he makes a show of reaching out to African Americans, but in a way that demonstrates little racial understanding or even curiosity. By describing black communities as nothing but cesspools of poverty and crime, he insults the group he claims to want to help. (The black poverty rate is higher than the white rate, but most African Americans are not in poverty.)

Donald Trump’s autocratic tendencies have been on display in his admiration of Vladimir Putin. He may be right that Putin is more popular with Russians than Obama is with Americans, although Obama’s approval rating is much higher than Trump’s. Russians, of course, have a long history of autocratic leadership. Putin has sustained his support by projecting military power abroad (especially by taking Crimea and supporting the Assad dictatorship in Syria), by rigidly controlling the media, and apparently by having some of his opponents eliminated. For now, he is maintaining his popularity despite the downturn in the Russian economy. Trump is impressed with Putin’s strength, without considering whether it is the type of strength appropriate for a more democratic leader. Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov says, “Vladimir Putin is a strong leader in the same way that arsenic is a strong drink.” The New York Times described Putin as “a seductive figure for Western politicians and electors, who often pine for decisive action and a more secure world, free from the uncertainties created by immigration, insecurity and economic globalization.”

Personal style or social movement?

I have characterized the Trump style as loud, combative, self-aggrandizing, politically incorrect and autocratic. Others will no doubt want to add their own adjectives, some less polite than mine. But is that really what the Trump phenomenon is about, or is it a lot more than that?

Some media observers have started to use the term “Trumpism” to distinguish the Donald’s brand of politics from mainstream conservatism. Without denying the need to make such a distinction, I’m not sure that’s the best thing to call it. That may give the impression that the Trump phenomenon is nothing but a personal style of politics that will fade from the scene if Trump loses. Although we may never see another Donald Trump, we have seen this kind of belligerent politics before. It is the kind of political stance that appeals to people who feel that somebody is taking something away from them, and they see no alternative but to fight to take it back. It is what we see when social change threatens to leave people behind. They become susceptible to the appeal of some tough-talking strong man who promises to restore them to their former position. That’s the real message of “make America great again.”

In theory, a changing economy has the potential to create as well as destroy, to create new jobs and new skills to replace those that are in decline. How exactly to do that in today’s globalizing, automating economy is a problem that has many experts scratching their heads. People can be forgiven for wanting to hold onto what they have or get back what they have lost. They want to hear that we can bring the coal mining jobs back, not that they are gone forever. We could be having a national conversation about how government could help facilitate postindustrial development. Instead, Trump has us fixated on walling ourselves off from the rest of the world.

People in other countries have their own reasons for supporting reactionary politics. Millions of ordinary Muslims have gotten little or no benefit from the limited modernization of their countries and the development of their oil resources. Angry Muslims who blame America (the largest oil consumer) for their problems are not so different from the anti-Muslim Americans who want to “bomb the hell out of them.” Neither group sees a positive way forward toward peace and prosperity in the world as a whole or the Middle East in particular. Both sides just cling to their traditions, dream of restoring lost greatness, and wish that the other side would disappear.

Today’s global problems call for imagination, creativity and innovation. People need empowerment, to be sure, but they need constructive forms of power like the power of knowledge, organization, and cooperative uses of economic resources. The alternative is a pessimistic, reactionary politics where society is viewed as a zero-sum game and power is used to settle who wins and who loses. That’s where the Trump style fits right in. Don’t create anything new; just take back what seems rightfully yours. Take back manufacturing jobs by erecting trade barriers to foreign goods, but somehow make the rest of the world accept our exports. Take back jobs that have gone to immigrants by kicking them out and building a wall to keep them out. Keep the Middle Eastern oil flowing, and take over foreign oil fields if necessary to keep them out of enemy hands.

Who better to carry out such policies than a loud, combative, self-aggrandizing, politically incorrect autocrat? Donald Trump is that kind of guy, but he is not the only one. If one such leader fails, another will probably emerge, until more people see a better way forward. Reactionary populism is on the ascendancy in many countries, including countries like Germany and Austria that ought to know better. We have seen this before, during the Great Depression and World War II. It is bigger than any one man, and we should not underestimate the danger.

Hillbilly Elegy (part 3)

September 7, 2016

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Subcultures as adaptations

J. D. Vance has vividly described the “hillbilly” culture into which he was born, but which he outgrew. He has also offered a critique of that culture, showing how its attitudes and behavioral norms can become obstacles to personal health, happiness and achievement.

As with much of the writing in the “culture of poverty” tradition, the critique can exaggerate how much the poor are responsible for their own way of life and all its problems. I fear that Vance is falling into this trap when he says that “these problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” But the cultures of “hillbillies” or inner-city blacks or Latino farmworkers are not self-contained worlds independent of the larger social environment. They are American subcultures that have always been shaped by the institutions of the dominant culture.

One does not have to be a strict social determinist to argue that subcultures adapt to the institutional realities of the surrounding society. People do create their own culture, often in surprisingly innovative ways. But they cannot do it in a social vacuum. People interact all the time with institutions like work organizations, schools, churches and governments, which provide both challenges and opportunities.  The lack of agency Vance complains about–the feeling that one lacks control over one’s life–arises especially because the poor and uneducated are in such a weak position in relation to such institutions. The poor don’t just need new attitudes and behaviors; they need empowerment.

At one point in his childhood, Vance was called upon to testify in court against his own mother, who had physically attacked him. That was when he noticed that “the social workers and the judge and the lawyer all had TV accents. None of us did. The people who ran the courthouse were different from us. The people subjected to it were not.” On that occasion, Vance lied in order to protect his mother and keep those strange-talking outsiders from hurting his family. Vance describes his people as preferring their own form of justice. “My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of something— defending a sister’s honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes. The Blanton men, like the tomboy Blanton sister whom I called Mamaw, were enforcers of hillbilly justice, and to me, that was the very best kind.” He does not analyze this further, but an informal, homemade system of justice is a predictable adaptation for people who see the official justice system as not serving their class of people very well.

When Vance is exploring the psychology of work, he says, “When groups perceive that it’s in their interest to work hard and achieve things, members of that group outperform other similarly situated individuals. It’s obvious why: If you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard; if you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all?” I would add the sociological point that such beliefs are shaped over time by social experience. When opportunities are opening up, as they were in the heyday of manufacturing expansion, people become more optimistic. But when opportunities are shrinking, families with few generations of success to remember are easily discouraged.  Subcultures do change, but they change slowly, and mostly in response to changing conditions. Vance mentions that the emigrants from coal country who found manufacturing jobs “had largely caught up to the native population in terms of income and poverty level” within two generations. But the postwar economic progress was not sustained long enough to eradicate the culture of poverty. Generations of restricted opportunity had created it, and generations of expanded opportunity were required to repair it.

Women’s agency

Another example of how American social institutions help account for subcultural adaptations involves women and sexuality. One of the best examples of the lack of agency Vance deplores is unplanned teenage pregnancies. They figure prominently in his story, since his mother became pregnant at 18 and his grandmother at 14. If sociologists have learned anything about gender in the past half-century of intensive study, it is that the institutions of patriarchal society are largely responsible for limiting women’s agency in general, and women’s control over their own bodies specifically. A lot of early pregnancies and shaky marriages are what you get when the dominant culture glamorizes sexuality and portrays women primarily as sex objects; when schools fail to provide sex education or limit it to preaching abstinence; when churches teach that sex is too shameful to discuss and contraception is sinful; when the local economy provides few career opportunities for women, so they see no life for themselves except as mothers; when good jobs for men are also in short supply, so they express their masculinity by obtaining and controlling women, sometimes by force, but not so much by supporting their families. This is also a vicious circle, since early motherhood can offer an escape from the troubled homes created by the previous generation of young mothers.

Blaming families for their own problems is easy. No one denies that what girls and boys learn at home can shape their gender roles for a lifetime and affect whether they express their own sexuality responsibly. Parents are primary carriers of culture, to be sure, but they cannot be expected to transform their received culture singlehandedly. Expecting families to change the culture without supportive changes in other social institutions is not realistic.

The politics of pessimism

Vance concludes his book by saying, “I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.” I imagine that few people will disagree with his call for more personal responsibility. I do note, however, that this is essentially the Ronald Reagan philosophy of government, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for yourselves.” Vance does not see much for government to do about the plight of the struggling working class, since “the fault lies almost entirely with factors outside the government’s control.”

In truth, neither of the major political parties has been offering much hope to the white working class lately. Hillary Clinton does not seem to be connecting with them very well at all. Donald Trump is speaking to them directly, but appealing to their prejudices and false hopes. He encourages them to blame their problems on foreigners and immigrants, reject climate change as a hoax, and hope for a return of coal mining jobs.

But I think something is lost if citizens of a democracy become too pessimistic about their own government. Vance doesn’t want people to blame government for their problems, but he doesn’t want them to look to government for solutions either. In that respect, he can be accused of reinforcing the alienation from mainstream institutions that is a familiar trait of “hillbilly” culture. By focusing on agency as a psychological characteristic, he overlooks the value of the social agency that arises when citizens cooperate together in a common political cause.

One thing that government is going to have to do is increase support for higher education, so that students can go to college without accumulating massive debt. States have been cutting spending on education at the same time that the educational requirements of good jobs have been rising. (Vance should appreciate that need, since his own success story depended on a state-supported university and generous financial aid from a private law school.) Another thing for government to do is to promote industries that have realistic hopes of creating good jobs. The solar industry already employs a lot more people than the coal industry. Ironically, Hillary Clinton is the one calling for these things (when she can be heard over the clamor for her emails), but she is getting her least support from working-class whites who might benefit from them.

Assuming the Trump candidacy fails, as I hope it does, I would like to see the white working class join other disadvantaged groups in a progressive coalition for realistic socioeconomic change. If that seems improbable, we should remember that that’s what they did during the Roosevelt era.



A Living Wage (Glickman)

February 9, 2015

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Lawrence B. Glickman. A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.

This week, I turn to an older book than I usually discuss because I want to provide some background on the current debate over just wages. The struggle for higher wages goes back a long way, of course. Labor leaders started talking about the “living wage” in the 1870s, and the concept was widely discussed during the Progressive Era. The country’s first minimum wage law was passed in Massachusetts in 1912.

Lawrence Glickman links the concept of the living wage to the great economic transformation of the United States, involving both the ascendancy of industrial wage labor and the acceptance of mass consumption as an economic counterpart of industrial production. Both of these developments forced Americans to confront the question of the adequacy of wages.

“Wage slavery”

Before the Civil War, the very idea of wage labor was a contested notion. Children worked for wages, and so did young adults unless and until they acquired enough property to have their own trade, shop or farm. But the ideal American was generally thought to be an independent producer of some kind. Even as wage labor was becoming more common by the mid-1800s, “nineteenth-century workers deemed it acceptable only as a temporary step on the way to self-employment.”

The popular concepts of liberty and self-government were commonly applied to individuals as well as the nation as a whole, and they included the idea of being in control of one’s own labor. Selling one’s labor to an employer meant losing one’s liberty and being reduced to a mere commodity. “Some workers considered wage slavery more dehumanizing than chattel slavery because employers, unlike slaveholders, did not have to provide even basic subsistence.”

Critics of “wage slavery” often compared it to prostitution, blurring the distinction between the “wages of sin” and the “sin of wages.” On one level this was a powerful metaphor, comparing two activities that involved selling one’s body. But it could also be a powerful narrative, the story of how low wages drove women into the most immoral of economic transactions. The living wage could refer to either of two solutions: a female wage high enough to remove any need for prostitution, or a male wage high enough to support an entire family and so eliminate any need for a women to make money.

These two views of prostitution–as a metaphor for all wage labor or a narrative about low wages–correspond to two different views of the wage labor problem. The more radical critique was that wage labor by its very nature robs the workers of their freedom as well as of some portion of the value of their labor. The more moderate critique was that wage labor was acceptable if wages were high enough to support families. As industrialization proceeded and the US became predominantly a nation of wage-earners, the second view came to prevail. The term “wage slave” faded into the background, and the term “living wage” came to the forefront. A newer conception of liberty, the freedom to live well through consumption, superseded the older notion of freedom through independent production.

Conceptions of the living wage

In 1898, American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers defined the living wage as “sufficient to maintain an average-sized family in a manner consistent with whatever the contemporary local civilization recognizes as indispensable to physical and mental health, or as required by the rational self-respect of human beings.”

From the beginning, the living wage was a vague and controversial idea. Many economists maintained that wages were determined by impersonal economic forces in accordance with scientific laws. They regarded assertions that wages should be higher than they already were as at best irrelevant and at worst a threat to the natural order of things. Others acknowledged that wages had a moral dimension, but supported only a “fair wage” based exclusively on the value of what workers produced, not on what they needed to consume.

Even advocates of living wages had trouble agreeing on what standard of consumption to apply. Was it enough to meet the subsistence needs of the worker, or should it allow for support of a family? Was it a fixed standard based on unchanging needs, or should it expand along with the nation’s productive capacity?

Most labor leaders came to define the living wage rather broadly to include family needs and gradually rising living standards. “Fundamental to the concept of the living wage for most proponents was the belief that needs were ever expanding, that wages should grow correspondingly, and that the limitless capacity of production made continual growth possible.” Labor theorist Ira Steward developed a concept of “productive consumption” that linked rising consumption with the general well-being of society. He opposed the old producerist morality that saw frugality as a virtue and spending as a vice, regarding it as an excuse to underpay workers. While he condemned spending on certain “human follies and vices” like drinking and gambling, he regarded more “civilized” forms of spending as good for families, good for the economy, and good for society.

The idea of the living wage became closely associated with an “American standard” of consumption. As one advocate put it, “The American laborer should not be expected to live like the Irish tenant farmer or the Russian serf. His earning ought to be sufficient to enable him to live as a respectable American citizen.” By insisting on good wages, American workers could claim their fair share of rising productivity, support families, and sustain the growing economy through their buying power.

The living wage and the “American standard” became entangled with issues of race, nationality and gender. To put it simply, it was often seen as the proper wage for a white man. Such a good wage might be wasted on Chinese or African-American workers, whose lower standards were said to make them both more accepting of lower wages and unable to use more money constructively. Instead of making common cause with the most disadvantaged classes of workers, white workers tried to set themselves above and apart from them. “The ‘caucasions’, Samuel Gompers bluntly wrote in 1905, ‘are not going to let their standard of living be destroyed by negroes, Chinamen, Japs, or any others.'”

The living wage was also entangled with a patriarchal conception of family in which the man was the sole breadwinner. His wage was the one that needed to be high enough to support a spouse and children. Should a woman need to support herself, she only needed the bare minimum to survive and avoid prostitution. That meant that the modern conception of freedom and independence based on well-paid labor was primarily for male breadwinners. Only the most radical elements of the labor movement questioned women’s continued dependence on men.

Glickman summarizes, “In adjusting to the wage labor economy, organized workers used the idea of the American standard of living not only to reclaim economic and political rights that they feared they were losing in the new economy but also to exclude other groups from its benefits.”

After emerging in the labor movement of the nineteenth century, the idea of the living wage gained much broader support in the twentieth, although not without continued opposition as well. That will be the subject of my next post.