Saturday, March 19, 2016

Lone Wolves, Together: On Trump's Curious Farrago

Like many people, I've found myself referring to "Trump supporters" in the last several weeks as a conceptually coherent, identifiable category of voters/citizens and, correspondingly, referring to the things "they" do as the actions of that collective. And every single time, I feel the words slipping, grinding, and catching, as if the very transmission system of my thought were breaking down.

What we know of the tens of thousands who are attending Trump's campaign rallies, not to mention the millions who have already made their way to the polls to cast a primary vote for him, is a lot less than we think we do. In the left-leaning echo-chamber that is my world, people speak of Trump supporters as a homogenous mass of white (read: racist), conservative (read: hawkish and angry), provincial (read: xenophobic), working class (read: poorly educated) men (read: sexist).  But that is a reductive, cartoonish rendering of what is, in reality, a far more disparate and sundry group of citizens. As Trump himself noted after his landslide win in the Nevada caucuses, "We won the evangelicals.  We won with young. We won with old. We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated." (He loves the poorly educated!) And that wasn't even close to an exhaustive list of the sorts of people for whom his rhetoric, his personality, if not also his platform resonate deeply. Even those for whom Trump's trumpeting has no meaningful resonance, there are other draws. A recent study by Mercury Analytics research firm found that nearly 20% of Democrats would switch parties and vote for Trump if he ran against Secretary Clinton in the general election.

"Trump supporters" is not a conceptually coherent category. It's a farrago.

As violence at Trump's rallies is ratcheted up-- and as the candidate himself has shifted from glibly condoning political violence to actually inciting and defending it-- it is no wonder that some onlookers, myself included, find the normal categories of political understanding stymied.  How does something that looks very much like "collective action" arise out of such a mishmash group? How do they, so disparate, act together so effectively? The palpable and raw anger, indignation, resentment, and disillusionment that we see animating Trump's (though, not only Trump's) supporters-- which draws from a host of different wells, is sourced by not only diverse, but often mutually exclusive, concerns-- nevertheless appears to remain curiously private, individualistic, idiosyncratic.  Even as it serves to translate, over and again, political speech into fisticuffs.

To wit, it is worth considering the findings of a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center ("The Year In Hate and Extremism"), which suggests that political violence has shifted from being expressed through recognized hate groups and antigovernment "Patriot" organizations to now being expressed chiefly in cyberspace and through what they call "lone wolf" actions. There are several reasons that explain this accelerated movement of radicals out of hate groups and into anonymity or autarchy. Cyberspace allows radicals to reach a larger audience more effectively, efficiently, and with less risk. Progress made on the political Left has made it more difficult to express racist, sexist, or otherwise intolerant views publicly. Association with hate groups is a greater social liability.  More radicals fear the consequences of exposure as members of those groups.

But the most interesting phenomenon described in the SPLC report is the fact that mainstream political figures (and parties) have effectively adopted the hard-right ideas, racist resentments, conspiracy theories, and indifference to Truth used to be the bread and butter of fringe groups. From the report:
"The fact that such claims have also been adopted and promulgated by politicians can have another effect - taking the wind out of the sails of radical groups which are, in effect, co-opted. As the fortunes of the major political parties rise and fall, the situation of radical-right groups tend to change, too. When extremist ideas are held by some of those in power, the number and impact of radical-right groups tends to decrease."
Who needs dog-whistle politics when one of the leading Presidential candidates is loudly and clearly articulating views that formerly required membership in secret organizations?  Who needs to wear a hood anymore?

So lone wolves flock to Trump's rallies together en masse. Together, but still insistently, radically, passionately, furiously "lone." Each representing only him/herself, each an outsider, each unheard, each feeling personally wronged in some idiosyncratic way or another. And the violent expression of their anger and resentment is not only validated, but encouraged, at those rallies.

When one of them shoves, or throws a punch, shouts an epithet or an invective, s/he speaks and acts not for a group-- not even "America," that conceptually incoherent category-group that many of them appeal to for amplification, not identification -- but rather for him or herself alone, for his or her property alone, his or her propriety alone. What a Trump rally looks like to me, what I think it looks like to a lot of people who look on from the outside, is a fascist rally.  It sounds like a frightening, deafening America ├╝ber alles! ten thousand strong.  But the genius of Trump is that he has been able to manufacture a "we" with no membership requirements. He has found a way to say to each person present: "I hear you.  I represent you. I stand here for the radically singular you, not the all-of-you, or the like-you, or the not-them. I don't need even need you, but I hear you, I am here for you."

This from the man who is best known for naming things after himself.

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