Donald Trump’s candidacy seems to demand an explanation. Various outlets have offered their own interpretations which range from appeals to Roland Barthes to graphs illustrating public opposition to everything political. Others have recalled their past history with a younger Donald. And quite a few people resort to blaming the idealized Trump voter: racist, uneducated, and angry about their imagined hitherto political silence.
Despite the obvious relevance of anti-elitism, so few pundits (whether Journalists, Democrats, or anti-Trump Republicans) publicly reflect on their own assumptions or take seriously the claim that “elite” might describe their political voice with an interpretive pregnancy befitting a political reasoning often denied to Trump supporters.
Derrida writes that “one always inhabits, and all the more when one does not suspect it.” Taking my cue from a name considered among the elitist of the most elite, I do not consider Donald Trump in need of explanation; rather, what needs explaining is why we as spectators are so sadistically enthralled by someone who would otherwise be another reactionary demagogue among others (after all, Trump as we have made him is not the same as Trump 2012 or Trump 2000).
In an oversimplified yet arcane summary, Derrida’s Of Grammatology is the deconstruction of linguistic structuralism. Rather than accept that meaning occurs from within or without, that our words have meaning because they refer to the thoughts in our head or that the Bible is Revelation because it is referred to by a Source of Authority Above, Derrida insists that all of these are independent “signs” existing only as “signs.” We as everyday individuals assume that meaning exists directionally; we have already “assigned” the metaphysics of meaning to the operations of our daily life. Derrida wants to move beyond (maybe more accurately, beside?) this kind of metaphysics. For my purposes, I’m only interested in a much smaller implication of Grammatology: that we as thinkers cannot assign our same terms without reflection as they might exist without our social networks to the language of other actors, even if they might publicly vocalize or write with the same terminology.
Seeking an explanation to Donald Trump already assumes that Donald Trump needs an explanation. But who needs Donald Trump explained? His supporters, obviously, need no explanation; he is a candidate that for various reasons appeals to their politics and sensibility. Donald Trump “needs” explained to those Trump supporters refer to as “beltway insiders” or “ivory tower elites.” Who are these insiders/elites and why do they need an explanation for Trump now that they did not need before? On the surface, the obvious answer is that Trump has secured the Republican nomination for 2016 where he had little hope of accomplishing the same task in 2012. But I’m interested in the less-obvious: why the Trump phenomenon is such a unique political spectacle to those who “need” explanations. We create Donald Trump when we seek an explanation for Donald Trump.
Donald Trump seemingly needs explaining for the aura that surrounds him: his racism, his xenophobia, his aggression, and the reactionary political hope he represents. The “insiders” (myself included) want to know why these qualities are popular in this election and in this candidate. Appeals to graphs and the common wisdom of political science reduce the complexity of Trump voters to racial antagonism, a failed economy, misplaced hopes on the revival of American manufacturing, opposition to immigration, and the belief that aggressive self-determination will “solve” the many problems that prevent America from “being great.” But certain other assumptions must be true for this explanation to hold: that Trump voters are less-reasoned than others, that their worlds are more simple, or (and?) that they subscribe to nostalgic values that no longer hold a place in the contemporary, global United States. (Which isn’t to deny the reality of their racism, xenophobia, and other prejudices; rather, I deny that these are central to their choosing Trump over other alternatives).
These “interpretations” of Trump voters — the “other” to we among the “elite” — is why I find Derridian thinking so applicable to the political moment. Perhaps many of these responses are true for the overall “event” of Trump’s candidacy, but they do not explain the morbid fascination we have with “explaining” Trump. Moreover, I think that this same need to “explain” Trump is a major benefactor to Trump’s popularity. Maybe the same, stereotyped Middle America/Silent Majority is not only capable of more complex thinking than what we credit to them, but is engaged in a kind of politics that we are blind to in our rush to attribute to them a political reasoning that we ourselves understand.
Writing as someone with personal connections to various Trump supporters, and as a white, male, “Middle American” who might otherwise be voting for Trump had my undergraduate and graduate education not transformed me in the way that it has, I recognize that Trump is a performative candidate waging a politics of resentment. This resentment is not against a certain group or set of values, but against politics as we understand it. Take, for example, immigration. Trump supporters are deeply anti-immigrant, but are they as viciously anti-immigrant outside of emotional political rallies and the safety of internet anonymity? One supporter once informed me that he understands why, given NAFTA, so many Latin Americans reasonably decide to cross the border illegally. He nonetheless opposes amnesty and wants a militarized border because, in his mind, the United States as limited resources and preference should be shown to citizens first as a matter of pragmatism. Such conservative reasoning is less emotionally hostile than what is often depicted in media accounts of the “Trump supporter.” But this same reasoning is shared by nearly all of the former Republican candidates. Why would he choose to support Trump over Fiorina, Santorum, or Cruz? Because he is motivated more by the breakdown of political capital embodied by Trump’s success. His hostility is not channeled toward migrants and minorities but toward conventional politics and its flaws. “Make America Great Again” is not merely a slogan but a reach toward the possibility of fundamentally remaking American politics without insider/outsider dichotomies. He finds Trump appealing for his chaotic potential which is why he’s willing to knowingly overlook Trump’s failed business success, possible closet liberalism, and assaults on Republican patriotism.
Such political reasoning cannot be reduced to populist outbursts against the “elite,” because this common sense phrase carries with it the assumptions of the social networks it originates within. Donald Trump is not Andrew Jackson. These are not merely Rust Belt poor rising up against the suits-and-ties of D.C. politicians. Trump supporters are not voting based on their identifying with the candidate, but with the catastrophe he represents. They want to break a broken political system. That Trump promotes xenophobia in simple terms is an appealing, but secondary, social fact; it’s the difference between their support for Trump and their support for the socialism of Bernie Sanders, but insufficient to explain their support from Trump over Cruz and other reactionaries.
The emotional economy of Trump’s politics is ultimately why Donald Trump “needs” explaining to us among the (liberal) elite. Understanding the preference for his candidacy over others is less important than the need for us to comprehend why so many voters would willingly damn our political system. We recognize something unique about Donald Trump but attribute this uniqueness to “signs” we understand. We assume shared political meanings and vocabularies between us and the Trump vote which necessarily leads to our dismissing the reasonable appeal of Trump’s absurdity. We have yet to stop and consider that maybe our need to “explain” the failures of the Trump voter might be symptomatic of the processes creating that gap that lead Trump supporters to consider Trump so strongly in the first instance.
When we seek to “explain” Donald Trump we presuppose our answers by assuming that Trump supporters exist within two-party, left/right reasoning. By imagining the Trump supporter to be even derivative of hatred toward “elites” is still to interpret them according to the “anchors” of conventional political science wisdom. Our inscribing their difference in terms we comprehend — racism, xenophobia, populism — only further ellides the very problems underlying why this historical moment plays out the way that it does. These terms are bound to certain assumptions and meanings that do not necessarily hold for their context. Are they xenophobic? They very much seem to subscribe to anti-immigrant policies and their rallies have publicly descended into racial antagonism. To that end they are xenophobic. But when we claim that they “are xenophobic,” do we mean that as an analysis of why these events are occurring as they are, or do we mean something more? I think the latter. Describing or imagining Trump supporters as racist, xenophobic, or unintelligent is meant to produce we non-Trump supporters broadly and Hillary Clinton supporters specifically as not/less racist, not/less xenophobic, and intelligent. These terms not only deny the deep, complex racism underlying the Clinton campaign but also reduce the complexity of the political reasoning of Trump’s supporters to such an extent that we miss the possibilities that more accurately describe our historical moment.
Trump supporters are reasonable, complex political thinkers. Like all people, they reason within their lived locations and the accumulation of their lived experiences. The difference between “them” and “us” is that “we” among the elites have a cultivated sense for what politics should be: voting, compromise, and parliamentary decency. We do not like to consider the possibilities that maybe this kind of politics is fundamentally bad. Trump supporters are not victim to our college-educated political sensibilities. They truly have not only an outsider’s perspective on American politics as we know it, but experience its flaws in ways we (and here, by “we” I mean the middle/upper class white elites) never can. All politics is distant corruption with no impact on their lives; there is no change, only horizontal mobility between different kinds of hopelessness. They are not voting to move the country forward toward conservative ends but voting to altogether rethink what “to vote” means. Our assumptions that traditional politics can result in effective change, that we can slowly and through compromise achieve a better political moment, might very well be the flaws assumptions that affirm Donald Trump’s run.
If the left wants to productively respond to the Trump moment, we are obligated to reflect on the places we “inhabit” without suspecting and how these places have created the political tensions that make Trump reasonable. That our center-left party has rallied around a candidate representing the worst of these tensions will likely only prolong the Trump effect. Perhaps instead of seeking endless explanations for Trump we might begin to take seriously the claim that we are “elites.”