Many opinion pieces have tried to account for the success of Donald Trump and interpret its causes and origins, and many more are surely to come. Mining polling and other statistical data for explanations has become the chief avenue for these inquiries. Indeed, interrogating these data for understanding Trumpism has become something of a national obsession—even before the elections. These kinds of analyses seem to assume that statistical data might reveal the more fundamental impulses lying underneath the noise generated by Trumpism.
To be sure, they usually imply, we will find in the Trump camp the usual suspects that we all expect—resentful white men, that is—but something else must account for this phenomenon as well. In this vein, of complicating the simplistic race and gender narrative in the wake of the elections, we have heard for example that more than half of white women voted for Trump and a bit more than a quarter of what we call the ‘Latino’ or ‘Hispanic’ vote, did so as well, apparently. We also have heard, way too much in my opinion, about the white working class.
More than any other category, pundits have argued over whether class can provide an explanation for Trumpism. In my assessment nothing clear has emerged out of these debates and statistical data pertaining to class. At this point, the only thing I am quite sure about with regard to Trumpism and class is that it is fueled by a critical mass of white folks, and especially white men, who view themselves as not belonging to the country’s elites. This negative self-conscious class affiliation is the only one that seems to hold water.
Bogged down as we are with traditional ideas of class affinity, we fail to see that to a large degree the United States does not lend itself to any conventional class analysis any longer. Indeed, to some degree it never has—if we consider that something more akin to a caste of white men, rather than a class, has historically been at the helm of the country. Furthermore, in the US many who we would “normally” cast as middle class—according to their income, that is—regard themselves as simple and folksy, and blocs that sociologists and economists would usually brand as working class think of themselves as middle class. The only way to sidestep this confusion, I suggest, is to examine the language of Trumpism. And such an analysis, I would argue, clearly shows that Trump successfully plumbed a long tradition of white male nationalism—the tradition around which white men claiming humble origins shaped the United States in its formative period.
As a way of demonstrating the significance of taking this type of language seriously, I would like to invoke the specter that inhabits any historical analysis of Trumpism: let’s say a few words about what can be gleaned from a comparison between Trumpism and Nazism. Students of Nazism have long been torn between two approaches that attempt to account for the Third Reich: what we call the ‘intentionalist’ and the ‘functionalist’ interpretations. Intentionalists suggest that we need only listen to Hitler’s ideas to understand the agenda of the Third Reich, whereas functionalists tend to stress how all the right pieces, structure-wise, were in place to allow for Nazism to emerge and succeed.
I tend to like Ian Kershaw’s synthesis of the two methodologies in his biography, Hitler. In this comprehensive account, Kershaw suggests that whatever exactly Hitler said to generate support—and he said many things—there were two ideas that he was committed to from the outset and account for the main thrust of the Third Reich’s agenda. The first was “the Jewish question” and the second was his commitment to lebensraum (living space). Though Kershaw suggests that Hitler was in many ways a weak leader, never fully engaged in running the Reich, his two commitments were known and explain how all the pieces around him functioned as an escalating whirlwind to bring about WWII and the Holocaust. This is the dynamic Kershaw calls “working toward the Führer.”
I don’t want to unduly alarm and suggest that we have exactly the same situation on hand. I think that much is different between the Weimar Republic and today’s United States, but I do think that such an analysis highlights the significance of taking the ideas at the heart of Trump’s campaign seriously. Given the intense interest in statistical data it might be our hour as intellectual historians to stress the importance of textual analysis and ideas.
I would like, then, to suggest that we take statistical data with a grain of salt and listen to what Trump had to say to his followers. Whatever the particular circumstances that allowed him to get an edge in certain states, many of which we can never know for sure, the energetic base of his followers flocked to Trump’s banner primarily because of the messages at the core of Trump’s campaign. Assessing the mindset of some model swing voter might help the two parties understand how to lure these people into their camp sometime in the future, but it won’t help us shed light on what we might expect from a Trump presidency and what Trump’s hardcore base of supporters championed. As intellectual historians know well, at times a qualitative analysis proves far more insightful than quantitative data.
Therefore, in my next post I would like to examine the notion of “making America Great Again” and locate it in the long historical arch of white male nationalism in the United States.