A lot of people think Donald Trump is a throwback to an earlier time in American history. He’s seen as a nativist who wants to go back to the days of pre-multicultural America, to a time before identity politics and political correctness. But this interpretation misses something very important about the Trump phenomenon.
The Donald is very much a child of contemporary American culture, including its multicultural offshoot, identity politics. Although he rejects the leftist ideology of multiculturalism, especially the hypersensitivity of political correctness, he is operating well within its value system. He actually represents a new hybrid version of it—a mirror image, if you will, of the very culture he claims to despise.
Trump is a champion of identity politics, which in case we should forget, was invented by the left. He advances without apology or qualification the interests and values of his supporters. As a group, they possess the identity of people put-upon by their opponents. It may not be correct to say they are all one ethnic group, although many are indeed white; but it is true that Trump’s “tribe,” regardless of its demography, identifies with him as one of their own because of his unique political style. Like members of the politically correct left, Trump and his supporters see themselves as immune from criticism not because of the strength of their arguments, but because of the distinctive characteristics of “who they are.” They are defined by their grievances. Although their identity politics exists on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the left, they do make a claim to victimhood, the same as “black lives matter” activists do to assert their immunity from criticism.
Opinion polls show that Trump’s supporters are by no means the most conservative; indeed, they even include some self-described moderates. What unites them is not ideology but feelings of marginalization, which pertain not only to their political views but to the fact that many of Trump’s backers are not faring well economically. Financially stressed and ostracized by the ruling liberal class, they are behaving more like an alienated class of Marxist imagination than as social agents of stability and tradition. They are indeed thinking like revolutionaries, only now their ire is aimed at their progressive masters and the institutions they control.
Authenticity or Narcissism? Facts or Narrative?
Trump also is a purveyor of the extreme narcissism of what used to be called the “me generation.” First arising in the 1970s, the mainstreaming of infantile self-centeredness has today morphed into the childish antics of political correctness on college campuses. There is precious little that cannot be justified in our culture today by referring to feelings.
This attitude has been called the culture of authenticity, and there can be no doubt that Trump is a master of it. Why? People love him precisely because he’s “unfiltered” and doesn’t “lie,” which has become another word for using carefully constructed words and phrases. In this worldview, anything well-considered is thought to be false. The only “truth” is whatever emotion happens to erupt from the unconstrained Id, that source of instinctive impulses residing in the unconscious. Once the intellectual property of Sigmund Freud and other champions of sexual liberation, the “let it all hang out” authenticity of Trump is now as commonplace as an Oprah Winfrey show.
And then there is multiculturalism’s favorite shibboleth—the infamous “metanarrative.” Invented by a host of obscure philosophers of postmodernism, most of whom saw themselves as leftists, this idea is most familiar as the ideological justification for made-up rape stories and accusing white cops of crimes they did not commit. Its calling card is that a larger idea—the narrative—is somehow truer than actual facts.
Trump is guilty of this deceit in spades. He can make all sorts of erroneous statements knowing full well that his supporters will come to his defense no matter how inaccurate his assertions may be. Who cares, they insist, that he exaggerates the number of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey on September 11, 2001? What matters is the underlying “truth” that all Muslims supposedly hate Americans. But lest we think this is only a right-wing phenomenon, remember this: the embrace of the narrative-is-truth paradigm by Trump is no different from the one used by “black lives matter” activists who to this day, despite all the facts to the contrary, believe Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was guilty of murder. This metanarrative line of reasoning was invented and popularized by the postmodern left, not by conservatives.
So, too, is Trump’s near obsession with being treated fairly. While obviously a cynically motivated tactic to maintain advantage over his rivals, it also is something he knows will resonate with people. A demand for fairness is a dominant feature of America’s popular culture. It is often an emotional stand-in for the doctrine of absolute equality—the belief that all people deserve absolutely the same outcomes no matter what they themselves put into any activity. But whatever its origin, this is not what conservatives believe. They embrace equality of opportunity. Fairness is a private virtue, not a political concept or public value. Once again Trump borrows from the dominant progressive culture to boost the fortunes of his campaign.
For decades, political scientists have been talking about the “paranoid style” of politics. They usually applied this term to right-wing radicals such as Joseph McCarthy, and that is certainly being done now by Trump’s liberal critics. But they should remember that leftist purveyors of identity politics are no less paranoid than McCarthy was. Just think of the conspiracy-mongering of Al Sharpton or the paranoia of some gay-rights activists who believe every Christian wants them indicted on sodomy laws.
Neither purely leftist nor right-wing, Trump is a hybrid of both in terms of his political style. He invokes atavistic notions of a pre-multicultural, ethnically pure America; but when it comes to weaving conspiracies, he’s no different from President Obama, who believes the National Rifle Association is behind the high murder rates in America. Obama and the multicultural left have, in fact, given the whole country an excuse—a cultural permission slip—to be paranoid. Since liberals seem to believe it is acceptable to indulge in conspiracy theories when it suits their cause, they should not be surprised that Trump’s fans are doing the same thing.
Trump has blown the cover off this deceptive game. He’s showing that old-fashioned right-wing paranoia, which had been contained for decades by the decorum and restraint of both mainstream liberalism and conservatism, is back. Because of the increasing radicalization of multiculturalism over the past few decades, Trump’s supporters no longer feel they have to restrain themselves. In their minds they are just doing to others what has been done to them.
Think of it as the mutually binding tyranny of the double standard. Trump’s supporters see Obama’s frequent accusations that law-abiding gun owners are complicit in murder and terrorism as being no less morally reprehensible than Trump’s implication that all Muslims are terrorists. They look at how the left gets angry when conservatives question gay marriage but wonder why they should be expected to be any less outraged over attacks on their religious freedoms. Targets of unfair assaults for decades, they have completely lost trust not only in the media but in the evenhandedness of the political culture. That is why they feel entitled to elevate the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” mindset to the center of their political thinking—a mindset that in their eyes has long been a dominant feature of the left.
Trump is Not a Conservative
There is one last reason why it is misleading to view Trump in purely atavistic terms: he is not a conservative. He was in fact once openly liberal, and his embrace of conservative positions today is decidedly opportunistic. His proposals run the gamut from the far left (he’s open to a single-payer healthcare system) to right-wing nativism, all of which makes him a populist, not a conservative. Populism is nearly always an ideological grab bag of ideas from the right and the left, and it’s no different with Donald Trump. Populism is not conservative. It lacks the respect that conservatives have for decorum, individual responsibility, limited constitutional government, and organic change. A descendant of Edmund Burke and John Locke—or Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp for that matter—Trump is not.
Trump is perfectly in sync with the prevailing popular culture. He’s a reality TV star thoroughly in tune with the passions and dynamics of mass publicity and social media. He’s also a mirror image of the dominant culture of identity politics. He accepts its ethos of bitter-end tribalism. He revels in the radical expressionism invented and perfected by the postmodern left. And he has learned that no statement, no matter how radical or unsupported by the facts, can hurt him, provided his supporters believe it captures the higher narrative in which they believe.
Welcome to a whole new image of Donald Trump, the man perfectly at home in the postmodern culture of America.
Kim R. Holmes is the author of Rebound: Getting America Back to Great (Rowman and Littlefield). His new book, The Closing of the Liberal Mind, will be published in April 2016 by Encounter Books.