trump, social solidarity, and the performance of politics: a guest post by tim gill
Tim Gill is a CIPR fellow at Tulane University. His research addresses political sociology and globalization. This guest post addresses the candidacy of Donald Trump.
In May, I taught my final course at the University of Georgia as I finished up my dissertation: a three-week long seminar on political sociology. Before the course, I was certain that Trump would be the most sought after topic of discussion by the students, regardless of what topic we broached. The Great Depression and issues of tariffs? Trump. The civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter? Trump. And, finally, how performances matter within US politics? Well, of course, Trump.
I admit. When I teach political sociology and use books and articles concerning US politics, my head tends to wander back to Venezuela, where I do most of my research. This didn’t happen though nearly as monolithically this summer. Along with the students, my thoughts also redirected themselves towards Trump, his recurrently outlandish policy positions, and bigoted comments. After each new comment, we would think this surely would be the end of the campaign. As we found out, it wasn’t. And it somehow hasn’t been, even as the absurdities have persisted.
Since the course only had a select number of sessions, I opted, for the first time, to use two books, instead of articles and short excerpts from books. These two books included Michael Mann’s most recent Sources of Social Power, and Jeffrey Alexander’s The Performance of Politics. One issue/excerpt from The Performance of Politics, in particular, has continued to hang around my brain. From his theoretical perspective, Alexander argues that presidential candidates can only win if they successfully appeal to our alleged civil code. That is, he says that politicians must present themselves as, for example, honest, open, lawful, calm, rational, impersonal, and altruistic, to name just a few of the traits that Alexander defines as civil (see p. 284 for a complete breakdown of his complete civil/anticivil binary).
Here is the passage that has stuck with me as I continue to think about Trump’s campaign:
“Democracy rests upon viability of a distinctive and independent social sphere, one defined – not by money, power, religion, intelligence, ethnicity, or family – but by broader solidarity of a more civil kind. Insofar as social solidarity is civil, political victory cannot be won by appealing to bigotry, dogma, or family ties … Only people who are deeply believed to be civil can generate trust and respect upon which democratic cooperation depends. Only these kinds of persons deserve to win electoral campaigns. Those who contend for power and are not believed to be civil deserve to lose. If they seem dishonest or irrational, domineering or deferential, then they might support institutions of an authoritarian kind. We know ahead of time that we cannot allow such persons to gain control over the state” (89, italics mine).
Lots of ideas going on here that are ripe for discussion. What myself and the students found most provocative about this passage though is Alexander’s claim that within a society that possesses social solidarity, individuals cannot win elections with appeals to bigotry. However, Trump has placed bigotry, that is, intolerance towards particular racial and ethnic groups, right at the forefront of his campaign: Mexicans, Muslims, Black Lives Matter. As I see it, there at least two possibilities we might consider based on the rise of Trump and the notion of social solidarity within the US.
First, it is worth considering whether or not we actually live in a truly civil society (or really ever did) and whether or not we truly possess an overwhelming amount of social solidarity. Of course, we don’t know whether or not Trump will win the presidential election, but we do know that he’s on the greatest stage of them all and that he surpassed all other GOP candidates during the primary season. Given this situation, perhaps we might consider whether or not we are entering a period where politicians can, in fact, overtly use bigotry to win elections, unlike what Alexander argues.
Indeed, Barry Goldwater opposed civil rights legislation, but he couched his bigoted views in a rhetoric of liberty for business owners to be allowed to choose who may or may not use their services, and, of course, a rhetoric of states’ rights. The elder Bush made a habit of using racially coded language about law, order, and criminals, an equally bigoted position, but with less overt rhetoric. This is certainly not to suggest one bigoted sort of strategy is any less bigoted than the other. However, it is to illustrate that there is indeed a qualitative difference in terms of approach between bigots short-term past and bigots present, and Trump’s approach clearly harkens back to the openly racist and xenophobic statements of individuals such as George Wallace and Strom Thurmond.
Second, we might consider whether or not the US might still contain a prominent level of social solidarity, albeit alongside some serious pockets of division and some seriously uncivil beliefs. If Trump’s campaign has accomplished anything, it has exposed the uncivil underbelly of the US for all the US and all the world to see. We should rightfully raise alarm about some of the beliefs expressed by US citizens. For instance, in 2011, the Pew Research Center found that nearly half (49%) of US respondents believed in the cultural superiority of the US, they found that the US was the only country surveyed where over half (53%) of the respondents believed that one must believe in God to be a moral person, and they found that the US was the only country surveyed where less than half (45%) of the respondents believed that the UN should be consulted before the use of military force abroad. Public opinion surveys also routinely find considerable Islamophobic beliefs and feelings throughout the US, to say nothing of persistent interpersonal and institutional racism.
Certainly, it would be wrong to characterize nearly all US citizens as cultural chauvinists that possess Islamophobic and racist sentiments. Based on what we see within public opinion polling and based on the rise of Trump despite his bigoted comments though, we get a sense of how prominent some of these sentiments are. And while I wouldn’t argue that the rise of Trump illustrates a complete breakdown of social solidarity within the US, I’m hoping that I won’t have to consider what a Trump presidency might suggest about social solidarity writ large in the US.