Introduction: The Rise of Trumpism

From the Series: The Rise of Trumpism

Photo by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY SA.

The rise of Trumpism is a clarifying moment. It is important not primarily because of the candidate or his rhetoric or the social movement that propelled him to the White House. Rather, this moment is significant for what it demands of us as scholars, teachers, and citizens. In the face of fake news and cosmopolitan shock and public violence, everyone is compelled to take a stand. Like earlier confrontations with scientific racism or Vietnam-era counterinsurgency, the present poses blunt questions about difference and responsibility. Then it dares us to do something. Together.

How we respond to this challenge will define the future of our discipline. Yet many feel ill-equipped to offer an effective response. This Hot Spots series aims to help concerned scholars find their footing in these troubling times. It gathers preliminary provocations about the deferred solidarities and emboldened hate of our present in order to chart ways forward. This is a fraught task, one made even more daunting by how little of use remains within the rubble of “progressive neoliberalism,” the Clintonian strategy of spot-welding the enfranchisement of select identities onto the policy prescriptions of financial elites. This uneasy alliance is mirrored in the hubs and hubris of scholarly critique, as our institutional elitism and celebrated diversities lose sight of the splintering realities of those at the bottom. In its partisan pandering and academic vocabularies, the so-called Left lacks a rallying vision of the common world we must now work to realize.

Photo by David Bond.

This series begins with the premise that Trumpism exceeds common analyses of it. Indeed, part of what makes this moment perplexing is how it summons our most cherished critical starting points—such as class, race, or gender—only to subvert their premises and bend them to aims they were meant to protest. This series confronts such complexities head-on. It approaches the present as a dangerous play of authoritarian genealogies, corporate oligarchies, and new constellations of disregard. In such a context, concepts of class, race, and gender acquire new significance. As this series shows, they may no longer be categorical answers to politics, but questions constitutive of politics. That is, this series presumes that the contemporary must be understood anew. In outlining such understandings, the following essays confront power in our present and offer a lexicon for the progressive movement to come.

Whether as duped victims or repugnant barbarians, many postmortems place “the burden of explanation” (Ginsburg) for Donald Trump on the White Working Class. Yet this may miss the point. In fact, the White Working Class no longer exists as such. Working people today are staggeringly diverse.

Among today’s punditry, there is an “almost anthropological” obsession with the “White Working Class.” Whether as duped victims or repugnant barbarians, many postmortems place “the burden of explanation” (Ginsburg) for Donald Trump on the White Working Class. Yet this may miss the point.1 In fact, the White Working Class no longer exists as such. Working people today are staggeringly diverse. Whether grouped by education or economics, the average American worker is as likely to be a woman of color in retail as a white man in a factory. If the White Working Class is a misnomer, it is a uniquely charged one (Walley). Not only does the White Working Class perpetuate elite fantasies and “liberal blind spots” (Smith) about impoverished zones, it also allows for a whitewashing of low-income labor (di Leonardo). In Trumpism, this enables evangelical suburbanites, the brazenly affluent, and outright racists to each identify their own aggrieved social standing with the downward plight of a victimized, but still respectable class. This series argues that the White Working Class may not be a demographic at all, but a national myth created by the political apparatus it is used to explain and critique.

If this series suggests that class has become a “gerrymandered concept” (Harding), it does the same for race and other popular explanations.2 All too often, the political present is interpreted through racial types cleansed of class complications. Instead, this series confronts the ways categories of race coalesce in “interior frontiers” (Stoler), where the intimate overlays of racial formation and class anxiety repurpose colonial orders. What makes new racisms particularly difficult to disrupt is their schizoid structure (Ralph). Spaces of critique and self-congratulatory essentialisms collude with the very racial logics they lobby to upend, even while spiking hate crimes and police killings constitute de facto civil war in the streets (Taussig). In this “system of systemlessness,” as Hannah Arendt once put it, the privileged few access ideals of democracy while disenfranchisement and stigmatization are amplified for the masses (Kiel). The human fallout seemingly expands without limit. Today, rural poor whites are eligible for dehumanizing neglect that echoes the violence once reserved for racial others, as epidemics of suicide, opioid abuse, and despair attest. If disavowing racism enables it to spread (Ralph), one thing is clear: we cannot counter new racisms by reducing our humanity to assigned racial essences, whether demeaned or celebrated. The present demands new ways to combat—and take responsibility for (Moran-Thomas)—the sharpening of hate and the widening of disregard.

By exploring the gap between current realities and analyses of them, this series provides traction on inequality. The essays chart widespread concerns about how life is newly ranked and distributed, in ways that trip up the populist rhetoric of Trump (Savage). Many working folks cast their votes for Trump to protest the marginalities of lives—real and imagined—and the lack of possibility for more dignified ones (Janssen). Such votes should not be uniformly interpreted as “support” for Trump or his policies; indeed, this support appears tenuous in even the reddest parts of rural America (Prins). What runs much deeper is a sense of betrayal when talent and hard work are no longer enough to make it. While the myth of democratic progress remains strong and corporate profits skyrocket, the experience of most Americans is increasingly one of lived subtractions. The frustrations of this contradiction are expressed in hyperpolarized positions, yet the target of moral outrage—injustice—is often shared. In fact, it is entirely possible that some pro- and anti-Trumpist groups may be motivated by strikingly similar concerns. This unlit powder keg at the core of Trumpism raises another question: if valuing life and dignity is not “a zero-sum game” (Kiel), who benefits from making it seem as if it were and from managing the barricades that result?3

This series presumes that finding ways beyond polarization is an urgent imperative. To do so, it calls for more precise ethnographic attention to the critical and creative capacities of ordinary people, including those struggling to make it nearby (Fischer; Ginsburg; Harding; Moran-Thomas; Smith). This requires transgressing academic hierarchies alongside popular ones. If the critical force of our vocation flows from its anarchic exuberance, we must subvert the corrupt careerism and courtly etiquettes and exclusive prose that threaten it (Taussig). We need antiauthoritarian modes of engagement that intensify the resolute open-endedness of the present, not by reducing ourselves to warring essences but by activating revolutionary assemblies of difference (Butler). If there is a programmatic vision for our times, it is one of radical solidarity. What makes such solidarity radical is that it takes difference seriously while still hoping for shared worlds. It finds legitimate commonality through injustice and draws unifying force from the struggle against inequity. Its aim is nothing less than the breakdown and re-enchantment of the social contract. Our magic may not be up to such an unnerving task. But there is only one way to find out.


1. Is it not a caustic irony that the “working class” emerges as an explanation for politics just after it ceases to exist as an organized force in politics?

2. While we are not able to explore in the detail each post deserves, the contributors show the urgent work to be done around the selective visibility of reproductive politics (Ginsburg), evangelical fundamentalism (Harding), populism (Savage), masculinity (Smith), settler colonialism (Kiel), environmental vulnerabilities (Moran-Thomas), rural life (Janssen), and hijacked media ecologies (Prins). These equally “gerrymandered concepts”—some hypervisible and some invisible—reveal how recent attention has revised longstanding concerns. In other words, these contributions urge us to think more about the retooled applications of key concepts as we think with them.

3. To be clear, this does not imply endorsement. Rather, such questions open ways to grapple with the kernel of inequities at the core of Trumpism, while militantly calling bullshit on the rest.