James F. Pontuso
Trump has been successful with his base because he has given voice to those who feel like victims for being patriots.
Although President Donald Trump’s approval ratings have dipped among the general public, it astonishes many seasoned political commentators that he remains overwhelmingly popular among the voters who put him in office. His base seems to ignore his missteps, confrontational tweets, contradictory messages, legislative failures, and strained relationship with the truth. Most pundits claim that Trump supporters come from the disgruntled working class, displaced by globalization and fearful of losing their jobs to immigrants. However, it turns out that many of the places that Trump carried in the 2016 had recovered from the recession and still are doing quite well. Unemployment is down, wages are up, and opportunities for advancement, if not readily available, are accessible. There seems to be more at play in the steadfastness of Trump voters than economics.
Trump’s supporters invariably have shown a deep devotion to old-fashioned American values; they see themselves as true patriots. Trump captured the mood of his followers by promising to “make America great again.” The slogan raises the question – what is American greatness? The aristocratic visitor to America, Alexis de Tocqueville, may offer some insight. His excursion to the United States during the Andrew Jackson administration led him to believe that Americans had transformed what aristocrats considered mean-spirited endeavors into heroic undertakings. “To pursue his fortune,” Tocqueville explained, an American “fearlessly braves the arrows of the Indians and the disease of the wilderness.” Tocqueville observed that “he boldly follows every path to fortune that is open to him; he is equally prepared to turn into a sailor, pioneer, artisan, or cultivator, facing the labors or dangers of these various ways of life. . . There is something wonderful in his resourcefulness and a sort of heroism in his greed.” As if they are preparing for “the day of battle,” Americans struggle to achieve personal success and fight “against natural obstacles.” Tocqueville saw grandeur in American materialism for it sought to conquer, not other human beings, but nature.
We learn from Tocqueville that Americans exhibit a boisterous patriotism based on self-interest. They can feel good about the country at the same time they take care of themselves. Of course, some situations demand the old-fashioned sort of civic virtue and there always have been people who answered the call of duty. Americans combine the concepts of duty and self-interest by holding up freedom as the guiding principle of the nation. Some people sacrifice for freedom so that all can pursue their interests.
Various calls for social justice placed blame for America’s ills on the privilege that whites and men enjoyed.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s severely tested the narrative of American greatness. Many white Americans grasped for the first time the ugliness of segregation and repression. Of course, the movement was not entirely triumphant in bringing about racial equality, but it was successful in one way. It damaged the storyline that America was “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” African-Americans had long been prohibited from pursuing their interests by law in the South and by tradition in the North. There was little bravery in oppressing a vulnerable minority.
Other groups emulated the civil rights movement. Women, Native Americans, gays, Hispanics denigrated America’s past. They claimed that the United States was not the land of opportunity, but a country where the downtrodden were mistreated.
These various calls for social justice placed blame for America’s ills on the privilege that whites and men enjoyed. Instead of celebrating the hard work of average people, the new analysis honored the victim of injustice. For example, only one player’s number has been retired throughout major league baseball. Jackie Robinson was a superb athlete, but he is remembered more for his dignified battle against intolerance than his achievements as a player.
Groups that had been marginalized by the wider society demanded, and in some cases were given, restitutive justice. Victimization became a kind of power or at least a voice opposed to the greater society.
Identity politics was sustained by two of the most influential intellectual trends of the last half century: postmodern theory and deconstruction.
Academics joined the assault on the traditional description of American greatness by encouraging identity politics. Black and Gender Studies Departments became as legitimate as Newton and Shakespeare. The new areas of study maintained that the country was never open to all, gave little opportunity to marginalized groups, and oppressed the tired, poor, and the huddled masses, instead of accepting them.
Identity politics was sustained by two of the most influential intellectual trends of the last half century. Postmodern theory attacked the cannon of Western writers, philosophers, and principles. Its counterpart Deconstruction became the most important method of interpreting literature, poetry, popular culture, and indeed all written texts. According to proponents of Deconstruction, language constructs reality. Language does more than explain what is before us; it establishes the manner in which humans understand existence. Therefore, people who speak a different language or use speech in a manner unlike than the dominant society, see the world differently. Both Postmodernism and Deconstruction claimed that logic and reason were societal artifacts and that presenting them as the truth was a form of cultural imperialism.
Postmodernists employ the tools of literary deconstruction to undermine the traditions and customs of the dominant society. They claim to show that the “truth,” as understood by the dominant culture, is merely one discourse among many and that the attempt to defend and conserve the legacy of Western rationalism is indicative, not of intellectual taste, but of the fear of losing power.
Postmodernism and multiculturalism are closely connected. According to postmodernism, the West has fostered the false notion, if such a concept is appropriate, that there is but one truth, one proper way of thinking, one metaphysics. But, linguistic analysis indicates that there is not one way to comprehend reality, but many. The principles of the West are responsible, therefore, for its imperialistic attitude towards other cultures and other modes of cognition. It has enforced its monistic vision of reality, not by the veracity of its ideas, but by the power of its arms. It has repressed and subjugated all who have resisted its logocentrism.
The postmodern response to the history of the cultural, military, and political dominance of the West (Eurocentrism) is to celebrate those people, ideas, and cultures that had been traditionally excluded from the mainstream. Multiculturalism favors the discourses of the downtrodden, the dispossessed, the victims of Eurocentric oppression. It raises “the other” to the status of an equal, even a superior, for the voices of those so long excluded must now be given their say. Indeed, the discourses of the victims of the West’s domination—women, gays, non-Western people, people of color generally—can lead all humans to a fuller awareness of the diverse character of reality.
Of course, identity politics has deeper academic roots than can be explained in an essay on Trump’s supporters, but it is important to understand how these principles were received in American society. Some in the media presented identity politics as one of the ways of looking at America. The idea that victims deserved their say moved into popular culture.
It is an irony that Donald Trump is the first deconstructionist president.
Identity politics spawned a backlash, as can be seen in the rise of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and talk radio generally. Trump went even further and turned the tables on victimization. He creatively reapplied the concept so that the real victims were “ordinary” Americans who were being accused of racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious intolerance. He implied that President Barrack Obama was at fault for making the country more polarized. Obama’s rhetoric constantly reminded people that America was not perfect and needed change. Trump tapped into the feeling of many Americans that they were being blamed for the ills of the nation. They knew that there were problems in the country, but when they looked into their hearts, they did not accept that they were narrow-minded bigots.
Trump became the personification of victimization. He blamed elites for misunderstanding him, the media for attacking him, and his opponents for not conceding to him. He insisted that immigrants, Muslims, the press, the Clinton Machine, Obama’s Deep State, and the Washington establishment, not ordinary working people, caused the problems of the nation. When Trump declared that he would make America great again, he was giving permission for his followers to forget about the failures of the country. With him in charge, they could return to a time when most people were oblivious to America’s shortcomings.
Trump’s followers think of themselves as patriots. They want to believe that they and the country stand for something grand. When the press points out Trump’s mistakes and false statements, they chalk it up as fake news. After all, they think that the press been lying about their attitudes for years.
It is an irony that Donald Trump is the first deconstructionist president. The creators of the theory, Jacques Derrida and Paul De Man, were people of the Left. They would have been outraged by Trump’s political success. Yet Trump’s rhetoric shows that speech can create its own reality.
Tocqueville explains that American patriotism begins with a kind of self-interest, but takes on a broader justification in attachment to freedom. Trump was able to personify American patriotism by claiming that elites have ruined the American dream of success by not thinking of America first. Moreover, Trump and his followers believe that those who have pointed out America’s blunders and mistakes are not truly committed to America’s greatness. They feel insulted when their way of life is called parochial and uninformed. Trump has been successful with his base because he has given voice to those who feel like victims for being patriots.
James F. Pontuso is Charles Patterson Professor of Government & Foreign Affairs at Hampden-Sydney College.