From my apartment one block away from the main drag here in this Kansas town, I heard drum bands, fire-truck sirens, and loud cheers. Manhattan’s annual veterans parade attracts crowds applauding and waving flags in a show of support for the nation’s military. Half an hour west sprawls Fort Riley, home of the famed First Infantry Division.
Just ten years after the fort was established in 1853, the public university where I work was founded as an agricultural college. There is a longstanding, symbiotic connection between the two public institutions, and each is vital to the local political economy. Dependent on fort and campus, the town stages the street parade as a patriotic ritual in support of the troops, in recognition of the fact that the troops support the town.
I have had dozens of combat veterans in my anthropology classes. Some served as my teaching assistants. This semester was no different, and so I turned out to honor them. A banner-carrying cavalry headed the mile-long parade. I caught glimpses of my students walking behind an infantry platoon with colorful flags. Other groups paraded by: marching bands in brightly colored uniforms, a group of old veterans sitting on a big red trailer, schoolgirls singing and boys wildly shouting, “USA, USA!”
Shell-shocked by Donald Trump’s victory, I noticed that my feelings were not shared by those around me. Intrigued by the air of collective satisfaction in the wake of a surreal political race for the White House, I switched into participant-observer mode and approached several middle-aged women, working mothers who I have long known as office secretaries downtown. Each expressed relief the election was finally over and satisfaction in having voted for Trump. Aware of accusations of so-called white-lash, one reminded me that she had “mixed-race” children and stressed that racism had played no role in her vote.
So what did play a role? All three women confided that they really distrusted Hillary Clinton. Their list of Clinton’s wrongs was short, familiar, and memorable: too many lies, too many scandals, and too much power for too long. Verdict: unworthy.
Nonetheless, I was baffled. Why did these modest, hard-working, churchgoing Kansas women confess to feeling “relieved” when Trump was declared the winner of the election? What weights or worries were in play? Why did they think that a rich businessman (a man who avoided military service, disparaged a war hero, declared bankruptcies, is mired in lawsuits, denigrated women, philandered, and fathered children with three successive wives) is worthy of the highest office in the land?
It appears that these women are politically representative of the cultural mainstream in the Great Plains, where people stress self-reliance, favor lower taxes, protest regulations, and have no use for big government. Habitually voting the Republican ticket, they are pro-business, pro-guns, and anti-abortion. Critical of Trump as a flawed individual, they like that he is an outsider and concur with his nativist rhetoric. In central and western Kansas (predominantly inhabited by rural white families), well over 80 percent voted for the billionaire. Of the state’s 105 counties, he only lost two.
How to make sense of their political choice at this critical juncture in the nation’s history? Based on subsequent interviews, these women seem typical of the now not-so-silent majority. Yet Trump was not their favorite candidate during the primaries, since they do not see him as a true conservative like his rival, Ted Cruz, the Cuban-American senator from Texas who bested Trump in eleven states. In Kansas, Cruz garnered more than double Trump’s 23 percent of the Republican primary vote.
With the help of my students, I widened my inquiry. At our large public university—an open-admission land-grant institution—hundreds of students are or have been part of the military. Many hail from ranches or farms, although these are declining in number. In addition to a few dozen Native American students, there are growing numbers of students from abroad, as well as members of recently immigrated families.
No matter their background, students typically welcome extra-credit opportunities, so I quickly drew up an assignment entitled “Digging into Anthropology.” About one hundred students interviewed three individuals about the election, identifying their respondents by age, gender, occupation, location, and ethnicity. As expected, many respondents stressed being fed up with politics as usual and said that they reluctantly supported Trump as the lesser of two evils. Judging him a “wild card,” they predicted, “It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Of nine related questions, one was of special interest: “When you hear the term Trumpism, what do you think that means?” I could find no consensus about this newly coined eponym, as it meant radically different things to different people. Evoking contrary emotions, its polysemy is a function of divisive politics. That said, the overwhelming majority, including respondents who voted for Trump, said the term had negative associations. One of his supporters guessed: “Probably something about thinking anyone that voted for Trump is a racist, bigot, blah blah blah: the shit I’m tired of hearing about.”
These interviews drove home the point that more than ever, the U.S. electorate inhabits an unstable, diversifying media environment governed by contradictory forces forming and fragmenting imagined communities. In this ecosystem of talk radio, television, and numerous online platforms, the right wages psychological warfare more effectively than the left—in part, because conservatives and reactionaries have appropriated and manipulated the narrative of nativism and its attendant traditional symbols of patriotism. This represents an arsenal of soft power, which is persuasive wherever people are confronting the disruptive forces of globalization.
In his unorthodox campaign, Donald Trump tapped into the nation’s angst and anger, harnessing soft power with a time-tested mixture of chauvinism and xenophobia, plus a shot of authoritarianism branded with his made-for-television personality. This much is clear: in mercenary pursuit of wealth, capitalist corporations provided nonstop free advertisements for Circus Trump. But how will the great showman make America great again? What if people stop believing in his tricks and promises?
Prospects are not encouraging, but I really hope my gloom is unfounded. Next fall, I’ll be on the lookout for contented citizens at the less spectacular veterans parade near my new home in coastal Maine.