Trump, National Myths, and the Rise of Populism


It happened.

What was to me incredibly obvious a few months ago, that Donald Trump would be elected the 45th President of the United States, was a complete shock to most of the country and the world. Polls got it wrong. Experts got it wrong. GOP insiders got it wrong. American University’s Allan Lichtman got it right, but he seems to be about the only one.

Why were we so sure that Trump would lose?

How, in the wake of so many populist movements across the world, so many uprisings from the disenfranchised, so many new and growing platforms for the people who have felt their identities slipping away — whose pain and anger with the systems in place swelled until it was the only newsworthy story — could we dare to pretend for one moment that the United States would be immune to the power of a populist revolt? Our “exceptionalism” is not invulnerable to those who put truth to power, even when their truth is one we think we can cast aside as uninformed or irrational.

Frustration with the economy and leadership in a post-economic crisis world has manifested itself in various ways across the world. The so-called Arab Spring, which engulfed the Middle East and North Africa in 2010, resulted in revolutions of various types. Populist parties have won elections in Hungary, France, Greece, the Czech Republic, and Poland, among others. Jeremy Corbyn, a fringe radical in the UK Labour Party, rode a wave of voter discontent to take his party’s leadership. In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s government has turned to a nationalist foreign policy to distract a restive Russian middle class that has seen its quality of life decline. Britain voted to leave the European Union, arguing that the EU was restricting fair trade policies, strangling the UK’s choices on immigration, and threatening the British way of life.

The international uprisings founded on discontent, the increasingly momentous populist movements, and the newly-empowered, vocal, and active American right-wing community should have made us stop and seriously question the polls that told us we were safe from a Trump Presidency.

The ascent of Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election, anticipated by no one just a year earlier, is driven by a deep dissatisfaction with the “Washington establishment.” All of the recent developments across the world have a common thread—their supporters seek to revise the status quo at the expense of established political, economic, and cultural institutions. Trump’s appeal is no exception.

What makes a Trump supporter?

First, we must ask what makes an anti-establishment voter, since before people support Trump’s specific policies (or lack thereof, frankly) on immigration, healthcare, etc., they support the idea of Trump. The ideology driving an anti-establishment, populist voter is that a new leader who represents the people can dismantle the systems and institutions currently in place, which the voter believes have made their quality of life worse. Those who support anti-establishmentarianism want an honest candidate, unchained from the corrupt circle of elites.

Trump’s populism is a form of voter backlash against long-term social changes that threaten to dismantle the country, culture, and society that they know. In other words, many Trump supporters live in fear that the America that they know is slipping through their fingers, and that the cultural values that they define as “American” are shifting, causing them to feel apprehensive of the future and overwhelmed with uncertainty of their place and role in the country. The fear of being marginalized and left behind causes what Jennifer Mitzen calls ontological insecurity. This refers to a person’s sense of “being” in the world; an ontologically insecure person does not have a stable sense of self and place. This threat against one’s identity creates a difficulty to act and maintain a steady self-conception. In contrast, the ontologically secure person has an unquestioned sense of self and is confident of his or her place in the world in relation to other people.

While all anti-establishment movements are based on grievances and all seek to revise traditional political and social institutions, they disagree on what those grievances and institutions are, causing a split in anti-establishment movements. Bernie Sanders was an anti-establishment candidate, but could not be more unlike Trump in his political beliefs. Sanders supporters absolutely fit the mold of disenfranchised, angry voter that I just outlined in regard to Trump supporters: they wanted to dismantle the institutions (i.e. Wall Street, NAFTA) and systems (i.e. structural racism, sexism, patriarchy) in place that make the quality of life worse, and wanted an honest candidate who was “above” the politics of the political world. We can see, then, that Sanders and Trump supporters initially agree ideologically, yet they place blame on extremely different institutions and systems. Why would people who, fundamentally, share so many of the same complaints about the status quo back leaders with two very different versions of a better future?

I contend that the answer lies in one’s national Origin Story.

If we accept Role Theory, which states that people’s perceptions of their place in society shape their actions and their expectations for the actions of others, then we can start to move toward an understanding of the Sanders/Trump split in modern American populist movements. The national role is one subset of Role Theory. Individuals use their interpretations of national role to set expectations for their in-group and out-groups. In other words, people rely on their answer to the questions “who are we?” and “what is our mission?” to develop preferences over political outcomes. In this sense, national role can co-constitute a set of very specific policy preferences for a voter.

If one’s view of the national role shapes one’s policy preferences, we should be able to see distinct correlations between certain policy preferences and certain perceptions of the national role. It’s easy to put an empirical measure on policy preferences; support for a particular political party or candidate is perhaps the most obvious. But the idea of national identity is very nebulous, so measuring a person’s perceptions of the national role is difficult. Besides just asking, “what do we do?” there are alternate ways to observe an individual’s view of national role. This is where the national origin story comes in.

The origin story of America essentially answers when and why America became the America it is today. The story will change from person to person, and is dependent on a person’s view of the country, of himself, and how he constructs his own identity. Thus, the origin story fits the national role. Where you come from defines who you are and what you do. So, if people have different ideas about what we do, it should trace back to different Origin Stories. I posit that the national origin story is a salient marker of identity that can be used to distinguish between varying conceptions of nation and national role.

Divergent interpretations of the national role (measured through one’s origin story of America) are responsible for the split between anti-establishment movements based on pocketbook grievances and those focused on nationalistic and xenophobic grievances. If I have constructed my identity based on a nation that begins to undergo radical social change, my identity will be shaken. If I believe America to be a white, Christian, English-speaking, conservative country, an influx of immigrants, the enactment of liberal social policies, or the advancement of women, LGBTQ, or non-Christian peoples will shake my perception of my country. For people who base their own sense of self on their interpretation of the country, changes like these can cause ontological insecurity.

In August, I put these theories to the test. After running statistical (regression and comparative) analyses on 500 survey responses, with 240 of these coming from Trump and Sanders supporters, I have come to the conclusion that origin story is a better predictor of political tendencies than previously understood. This means that how a person views America’s origin (when did America become America?) can shed light on whom he or she will vote for. Thus, the origin story can be seen as a predictor of voter behavior.

The survey collected respondents’ demographics, their first choice for President in 2016, xenophobic indicator questions, and gave three origin stories and asked them to rate how warmly they felt toward the stories on a scale from 0-100. The stories, as they appeared on the survey, are written below.

 

“America came into its true character after defeating the Germans and the Japanese in the second Great War. During this time, each U.S. state and territory unified to contribute to the war effort, leading to American agricultural and industrial supremacy. Our victory after WWII established international respect and honor for American citizens, our government, and our military, proved our unity as a nation, and showcased the power and importance of the United States of America.”

“America came into its true character during the Civil Rights Movement. In 1965, African-Americans and their allies worked through multiple channels to compel the American government to recognize that all Americans, regardless of the color of their skin, deserve equal protection under the law.”

“America came into its true character when the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. The pilgrims and other early American settlers were people who were fleeing the horrors of the old world, where individuals could not be free. In the New World, these young Americans created a nation based on liberty and freedom.”

 

Each of the three stories presented a distinct character of American identity and told a brief story of when America came into its “true character.” The story themes are based on David Bell Mislan’s previous work on identity formation, which recognized them as significant categories. The first story reflected an American origin based on power, unity, military might, international prestige, and importance. I call this story the Exceptional Story. The second story, the Legal Story, emphasized equality, opportunity, hard work, and equal protection under the law. The third story, the Enlightened Story, underscored an America that was founded on liberty, freedom, and progress away from the European “old world.”

While I originally thought that Trump supporters would overwhelmingly choose the Exceptional Story, the table below reveals the results that, upon reflection, make a lot of sense.

 

dalgo-graph-1

 

Trump supporters did not have a clear winner when asked to choose from three American Origin Stories; all three were almost equally chosen, and twice as many Trump supporters ranked a combination of stories equally as compared to Sanders supporters, as can be seen in the graph below.

dalgo-2

This tells us that there is not one conception of American origin that Trump supporters follow. There is no guiding story that enlightens the average Trump supporter about who we are, what we do, and what our mission is, as Americans. This tells us a few things about Trump’s win: first, that his vague and vacillating policies were probably more of a strong suit than we thought. By refusing to take firm stances and stick with them, and instead opting to allude to ideas or simply promise to “Make America Great Again,” Trump took advantage of the ontologically insecure voter and allowed him to employ whatever conception of the national role he liked.

Sanders, in contrast, very clearly symbolized one particular national role ideology, causing him to gain a cult-like following from those who shared his same view of the country’s national role. The second take-away from this data is that Trump’s supporters possess a wide-range of origin stories and are often unsure of their own opinion of the national role. This means that for a Trump supporter, one conception of national identity might be more or less salient depending national or global current events, or how he or she is feeling about their own personal life during any given time. Sanders supporters proved confident in their Legal Origin Story of America, while Trump supporters did not all align in their beliefs and often chose more than one origin story. This could mean that Trump supporters are more easily convinced of new national roles or are more easily manipulated through messaging or false news, since they do not have a sturdy and steadfast perception of identity through which to view the world.

Trump tapped into the wave of international unrest of the establishment and of the “other,” a combination that fed perfectly into a disenfranchised, ontologically insecure voter. There is a correlation between one’s conceptions of the national role and the ability to be swayed by xenophobic ideologies. If a voter possesses ontological security, he is less likely to be convinced that groups, individuals, or ways of life outside of his own social network are an existential threat to his own safety, wellbeing, or way of life. Sanders supporters are nestled in this camp, since the Legal Story of American Origin emphasizes equality and community under the law. They feel that America did not really become America until all of its citizens were equal under the law. Thus, a Trumpian view of immigration does not fit their national narrative, because immigrants are fundamental to the understanding of America under the Legal Story framework. If a voter does not posses ontological security, he is more easily convinced that others are to blame for his own discontent.

So, it happened. In January, Donald Trump will be inaugurated. Shock, fear, anger – many Americans have felt it all since November 8th. What we need to remember, though, is that Trump supporters should not be cast aside as idiotic, uneducated, or almost anything else that prominent media outlets have called them. Yes, their political preferences might be racist, xenophobic, sexist, etc., and this should not be dismissed. But these preferences are based on deep seeded conceptions of national and personal identity, national role, and American origin. This, unfortunately, means that until we can teach “who we are” and “what we do” in a way that allows all Americans to feel ontologically secure in a globalizing world, we’re likely to see Trump-like nationalism live on well into the future.

 

 

This article presents a new angle from a full research paper completed September 2016 on xenophobia and anti-establishmentarianism, which was co-authored by Emily Dalgo and Dr. David Bell Mislan and funded by the AU Summer Scholars Research Fellowship.

 


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About Emily Dalgo

Emily Dalgo is a senior in the School of International Service pursuing a BA in international studies with a focus in justice, ethics, and human rights and a minor in philosophy. Dalgo was a 2016 AU Summer Scholars and Artists Fellow, where she conducted independent research on xenophobia in the 2016 presidential election. She is the 2016-17 Executive Editor of the World Mind.