Will Trump Cure the Great (White) Depression?

Trump speaking in Des Moines, Iowa. Max Golberg/Iowa State Daily via Flickr.

Donald Trump speaking in Des Moines, Iowa. Max Golberg/Iowa State Daily via Flickr.

In a recent offering, “Trump Voters Are Feeling It,” New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall comments sagely on a raft of social science research on the white working- and middle-class voters who embraced Donald J. Trump as the leader who would cure America’s deep malaise—or a least their own. For the moment, according to Edsall, these former sufferers of what might be called the Great White Depression (documented by scholars like Princeton’s Nobel economist Angus Deaton, with depressing data about high rates of depression, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse) are feeling “elated”:

In a survey conducted by Pew after the election, 96 percent of those who cast votes for Trump said they were hopeful; 74 percent said they were “proud.” They were almost unanimous in their expectation that Trump will have a successful first term.

This is in itself may hardly seem surprising, and of course it is possible that these enthusiasts will feel let down if the greatness Trump promises does not improve their lives. Nevertheless, Edsall notes, evidence suggests that “just by giving voice to those in the white working class who are distrustful, alienated, and isolated from contemporary culture, Trump will provide temporary relief from the stress that these voters experience.” And if past is prologue, this relief alone may have surprisingly positive effects on their mental and physical health, and indeed on their overall morale. A study based on a survey that oversampled Hispanics and blacks after Obama’s election in 2008 found that “among African Americans, the likelihood of reporting excellent health nearly doubled, from 7 to 13 percent, and for Hispanics it nearly quadrupled, from 6 to 22 percent, although the Hispanic sample was small and less reliable.” Continue reading

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After the Know-Nothings

Pro-Trump chalk messages at Virginia Commonwealth University. Eli Christman via Flickr.

Pro-Trump chalk messages at Virginia Commonwealth University. Eli Christman via Flickr.

I.

In the 1850s, the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party swept New England. They won local offices and gained the statehouse and almost every seat in Massachusetts’s legislature in 1854. They showed strong in Pennsylvania and New York. Many observers thought that the Know-Nothings would win the presidency—and in 1856 they even ran a candidate, former president Millard Fillmore.

And then, they disappeared. Some went back to the Jacksonian Democrats, but many aligned with the new Republican Party which offered a vision of hope and rejected the hateful messages proffered by the Know-Nothings. By 1860, the Republicans would win the presidency with a positive message. The Republicans transformed voters’ rage, hatred, and anger into an optimistic vision for the American future. And it is from their experience that I, too, have hope.

In a previous essay, written as then-candidate Donald Trump was gaining popularity, I argued that we have much to learn from the Know-Nothings. At a time when native-born white Protestants were nervous about their future and thought the political system unresponsive, Know-Nothings channeled those widespread anxieties into hostility toward Catholic immigrants. Know-Nothings in various states barred teaching foreign languages, prohibited state courts from naturalizing aliens, and attempted to limit immigrant voting through literacy tests and longer waiting periods for citizenship. Worst of all, violence broke out between Know-Nothings and their opponents. Continue reading

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An Academic Haven Under Fire

George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University. Camera Obscura via Flickr.

George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University. Camera Obscura via Flickr.

Growing up in Rio de Janeiro, I was (to my parents’ despair) an undecided teenager. I wanted to be a writer. I loved physics and cosmology.  I wanted to get involved in several forms of activism. But  when it came to college, I had to make a decision. So I decided to study journalism, hoping it would help me develop skills for writing and activism. During my first semester, however, I took a mandatory philosophy course. I had never studied philosophy before, and it changed everything. In philosophy I could pursue all of my interests: literature, science, activism, art. So I transferred to a philosophy program at a different university, the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-RJ).

The philosophy program, however, did not allow me to work with literature. So after graduation, I pursued a master’s degree in literature. Now I could write about any topic related to literature and art—but was forbidden by my advisor to speak or write about science. My job, he said, was to pick an author and write about his work, keeping my own ideas out of the way. So I wrote a small book on Jorge Luis Borges, got my degree, and told myself I would never do graduate work in literature again. Instead, I pursued another master’s—this time at Tufts University, in philosophy, hoping things might be different in America. But there, too, the general atmosphere discouraged students from pursuing their own ideas.

By the time I’d left the PUC-RJ, I had over ten notebooks filled with thoughts about the interrelation between science and literature. By the time I left Tufts, I had lost all desire to pursue an academic career. I found a part-time job at a telemarketing company and decided to do my writing and research on my own time. Around this time, however, a friend told me about the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins. The next year, I arrived in Baltimore for my first semester. Continue reading

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The Election Everyone Lost

Locked ballot box used in Carson, North Dakota on October 30, 1940.  U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr.

Locked ballot box used in Carson, North Dakota on October 30, 1940. U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr.

One of the truisms of American politics is that there are winners and losers. For Americans, this binary world of win-or-lose is second nature: It is embedded in our two-party system and ritualized in the structures of our political rhetoric, the spectacle of our public debates, and the signage on our private property.

The reason that it is a truism is that it is mostly true. Every two years, millions of us find ourselves in one of two positions. Some, victorious, cheer in ballrooms as their candidates claim victory and return home invigorated by the fresh hope of democratic change. Others, defeated, gather in similar ballrooms across town to witness the concession of their defeat, and then return home resolved to realize their hopes in days to come.

It is now evident to most of the world that this democratic ritual of triumph and defeat has once again taken place—though in an admittedly dramatic fashion—in the 2016 presidential election. Donald J. Trump won the presidency of the United States, while Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic Party she represents, lost. But what seems less evident to many of us is the very real sense in which this election represents a departure from the conventions of win-or-lose that have become so familiar: That it is, in fact, an election that everyone lost. Continue reading

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Where Now, America?

Immigrants leaving for New York from Ellis Island. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Immigrants leaving for New York from Ellis Island. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I grew up in suburban San Francisco, on a court with families of different ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds. Our family was from India. We knew that our court had much diversity. Some on the court were Catholic. Others were of Japanese heritage. Many of our own family friends were from Pakistan and India.

But every morning, we kids gathered on different driveways to carpool together to our local public school. On New Year’s and Fourth of July, the neighbors would come together to celebrate. I remember running over to neighbors’ houses excitedly on Christmas mornings to share my new toys with my friends. One neighbor with a swimming pool would hang out a flag on the front lamp post to let us know that we could all come over and jump in the water.

Those common rituals and values sustained our diversity. It made it possible for each of our families to be different because we shared so much that was also the same. We were all American, not in some abstract way. Nor were we American because anybody can be American according to some abstract principle. We were American because we did American things together as Americans. And yet we were all so different. Those differences were not threatening, and were even celebrated, because we had so much that we shared with each other too. Continue reading

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A Political Revolution

Donald Trump announces his victory in the 2016 presidential election. Screencap via ABC News.

Donald Trump announces his victory in the 2016 presidential election. Screencap via ABC News.

What happened yesterday? We just witnessed a revolution. I say that not in a metaphorical sense to mean a great political event, a turning point, or a momentous occasion. I mean it literally: Yesterday, just under a majority of the American electorate pulled off a political revolution through the electoral process, a new political regime, a new era in American history, and, necessarily, the end of the old regime. It was, without question, the most extraordinary day in modern American political history, far surpassing the election of the first black president eight years ago. And it means we live in a different nation today than we did yesterday.

Every political revolution brings new political regimes, new epistemologies, and new mythologies. Each, of course, is “new” only in qualified sense, as nothing in human culture is wholly and fully new. But, relative or not, the point of political revolutions is to establish a new form of rule, new forms of knowing, and new stories and belief systems.

In a single stunning electoral swoop yesterday, Donald Trump destroyed both the old Republican Party and the old Democratic Party. In the void he created a new Republican Party, the form of which we can only see as through a glass darkly, but which will be a powerful force in American politics for the foreseeable future. The Democratic Party, seemingly the only functioning political party in American politics but forty-eight hours ago, is now a badly wounded opposition party, one that will be as lacking in a compass as was the old Republican Party. And what Trump has done to the American political parties is soon to be done to the American federal government. It is hard to know what will result. Political revolutions are precarious, uncertain, and inherently risky and dangerous. Most fail. Most fail badly. It is impossible to know if the Trump-led revolution will last or crash, but there is no going back. The old has gone, the new has come.

The new revolutionary epistemology was portentously performed in yesterday’s events. Going into Election Day, virtually every pollster—bolstered by sophisticated, scientifically tested models and ample empirical data—had Clinton winning the election. But as the night wore on we saw a new reality emerge, one perhaps felt as a possibility by the guardians of social scientific knowledge, but one that was still a complete surprise. “Science” is now bunk, as are the projections of the mainstream media. The alternate reality of the alt-right media is now the American reality, virtual and not. The Breitbart bubble of yesterday is now the radical basis for a new American revolutionary epistemology. We will never know the same.

Finally, the mythology. It is not new, but it has an entirely new form. It is of the Great White Savior. As such, it is redemptive in narrative structure: The Great White Savior comes to save America from doom. This is why, undoubtedly, so many white evangelicals, unschooled in the deep history of their faith and unmoored from the tempering force of tradition, found in Trump a savior they could recognize. It did not matter that he was a sexual predator, a liar by any sane old regime criterion, and demonstrated no capacity for prudential judgment. The salvation myth was and is enough to win the hearts and minds not only of the religious, but of the irreligious and irreverent millions who found in Trump the demigod they had been looking for.

The revolution is here. It is not going away. Only political revolutions can change everything foundational to a society in the flash of a few hours. We just went through one. Though so many of Trump’s supporters seemed to have voted out of a longing for things past, the irony is that Trump could bring to them only something new, radically new, a new nation.

Ned O’Gorman is Associate Professor and Conrad Humanities Scholar in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of The Iconoclastic Imagination: Image, Catastrophe, and Economy in America from the Kennedy Assassination to September 11.

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High Hopes

vanishing-center

I’m not Lloyd Bentsen and didn’t know Jack Kennedy, but I do remember the Frank Sinatra theme song for the Kennedy campaign. Its original lyrics about a little old ant and silly old ram who achieved the impossible because of their “high hopes” remind me of the idealized hopes of Barack Obama’s supporters in 2008 and Donald Trump’s this year.

Both groups march to a drumbeat of hope and change, but in very different directions. Obama’s followers believed he would end the politics of racial, class, and ideological division that they felt had characterized the Bush presidency. Obama’s soaring rhetoric promised an America that was no longer red or blue but united. By contrast, Trump promises an overhaul of the body politic. His self-styled brilliance in the arts of negotiation will supposedly fix the structures of trade, immigration, and finance that favor elites and minorities over the common person (particularly if that person is white, male, and working class).

Trump’s followers hope their man will restore America, but how do they envision the restoration? Continue reading

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Putin’s Russia: Playing the Cultural Conservative Card

Vladimir Putin and Vladimir Litvinenko at a meeting with Archpriest Vladimir Sorokin. Mikhail Klimentyev/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office.

Vladimir Putin (center) and Vladimir Litvinenko (left) at a meeting with Archpriest Vladimir Sorokin. Mikhail Klimentyev/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office.

Russia occupies an outsized space in the American imagination. When the Soviet Union was our ally in World War II, it was the subject of laudatory Hollywood films such as Song of Russia and Mission to Moscow. In the Cold War, the USSR stood as a hostile presence, symbolized as the unnerving “bear in the woods” in the 1984 Ronald Reagan campaign commercial. Hollywood followed suit, with movies like I Was a Communist for the FBI and Red Dawn reminding audiences of the ever-present Soviet threat.

After fading from the headlines in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Russia has begun to climb back into the American consciousness. Beginning with its 2008 conflict with Georgia, Russia’s interventions in former spheres of Soviet influence have drawn criticism from the United States and elsewhere in the West. By the time Russian President Vladimir Putin was authorizing an invasion of Ukraine and an intervention in Syria on behalf of dictator Bashar al-Assad, the percentage of Americans reporting an opinion of Russia that was mostly or very unfavorable had spiked from 27 percent in 2002 to 65 percent early this year.

If the realm of foreign affairs does not suffice as an indication of the grim nature of Putin’s regime, his domestic policy, in which opponents are imprisoned and killed and meaningful elections are stymied, ought to eliminate any doubt. Putin’s Russia has emerged as the quintessential illiberal democracy. It is therefore understandable that Donald Trump’s benign view of Putin and the suspected Russian involvement in the hacks of the Democratic National Committee’s emails have provoked great concern.  But those who have paid attention only to the flashy headlines about the Trump-Putin “bromance” risk overlooking another important development in the saga of Russia’s relations with the West. Continue reading

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