Election 2016

Donald Trump Is Leading a 'Cult of Toxic White Masculinity' That May Destroy Our Institutions and Endanger Our Safety

Chauncey DeVega believes Trump's base has fallen hard for an abusive tyrant.

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons / DonkeyHotey

For every lie he tells, every promise he breaks, every newly submitted exhibit in the case proving his corruption, Donald Trump’s base only adores him more. Trump is historically the most unpopular president in modern American history, but polls suggest he may also be among its most fervently supported. If there’s anything Trump’s campaign and presidency have proved, it’s that 35 percent of voters in this country will back him passionately, no matter what he does.

Chauncey DeVega, politics writer for Salon, is a keen observer of Trump and his supporters. DeVega argues that Trump is less a political figure than the leader of a cult of toxic masculinity, a nearly religious movement deeply infused with the racism, misogyny and nativism that has long been part of this country’s national character. DeVega believes the advancement of Trumpism will have disastrous and far-reaching consequences that will last for years beyond this presidency.

AlterNet executive editor Don Hazen and senior writer/associate editor Kali Holloway spoke to DeVega about Trump, the media’s obsession with his base, and what we can do to push back against the administration's agenda.

Kali Holloway: You wrote a really interesting piece recently in which you suggest that Donald Trump’s base is in what you suggest is a 'one-way love affair' with him.

Chauncey DeVega: There's some really interesting research about Donald Trump and emotion, and I share some of it in that article. Donald Trump's supporters are in love with him. In political science, we're very good at talking about resources and materials, but we're very bad at thinking about emotions and symbolic politics.

The pundit class is even worse at it. They didn't understand Trump. I was one of the first people on national TV and radio to predict he would win, and people made fun of me, because they don't understand this sort of libidinal attraction his followers have for him.

When he's talking about grabbing women's pussies, when he's bragging about killing people and shooting people in the street, we can't ignore that he comes from a very violent family. His father was arrested at a Klan rally. His grandfather [reportedly ran a brothel] in the Old West. Historians and genealogists have researched the family and found that Trump’s grandfather opened a “gentlemen's club” pool hall, which is the vernacular for being a pimp.

Trump supporters voted for him because he's their hero, and for a lot of white men, and white women, they saw something in him to idolize. He was a fantasy fulfillment, and toxic white masculinity is part of that.

KH: We can’t talk about the Trump presidency without discussing race, racism, misogyny and toxic masculinity. The term 'toxic white masculinity' is a more specific, intersectional way of linking those concepts together. Can you talk a little about what the term means, and what role it has played in horrific moments from Dylann Roof to Charlottesville?

CD: Think about America as a society structured around racial patriarchy. It's men over women, but it's also white folks over everyone who's non-white. And it's white men over white women and everybody else. That's a very important point because it also allows us to understand how white women are also implicated in these systems of white supremacy. In terms of thinking about the toxic element, we're talking about domination, we're talking about control, we're talking about violence, we're talking about gun culture. In America, that's not just limited to our white brothers, but we have to talk specifically about how that type of violence, that type of privilege, that sense of superiority and entitlement— and you're spot on when you cite Dylann Roof, Elliot Rogers, Charlottesville—how it all intersects. And gun culture is such an important part of that.

I wrote a piece about Charlottesville that asked an obvious question: What if those right-wing thugs had been black? What if they were brown, what if they were Muslim? How does privilege play out in terms of the police response? And I said, quite frankly, it would've been a bloodbath. The way the media covered it would have been totally different, the narrative framing would have been totally different. Hell, the police wouldn't have stood down.

You also have to talk about rape culture when you talk about toxic white masculinity, and the war waged by Republicans, and others, on women's reproductive freedoms. That's about male dominance and control over women's bodies. Women cannot be free until they control their own reproductive rights.

In Charlottesville we saw a few other really interesting things. At the [neo-Nazi website] Daily Stormer and elsewhere, they were literally telling people that if you go out there and riot and show up with your guns, there are going to be all these women who want to have sex with you. It’s violence and sex and patriarchy. Toxic white masculinity is nothing new. It goes back to the founding of the country. But in Charlottesville, you saw it with the guns, you saw it with the violence, you saw it with these appeals to sex and sexuality and domination.

Don Hazen: What are the next steps in the evolution toward whatever kind of fascism is in the cards here? My confidence shrinks virtually every week when I think of the institutions we thought were going to protect us, or people rising up, or even good sense prevailing. It doesn't really matter what the Washington Post or New York Times or Rachel Maddow say. So what's the trajectory that you see coming over the next year or two? What's your crystal ball look like?

CD: Donald Trump is using a hallucinogenic type of ideology. A lot of the pundit classes, as you've noted at AlterNet, are deeply invested in his election. The corporate news media has given him $5 billion in free advertising because he's good for business. They get up there and bemoan him, but they're deeply invested in him being president.

In terms of thinking about the hallucinogenic ideology that is contemporary conservatism, in the 1960s [historian] Richard Hofstadter was writing about this conservatism, and warning us about its anti-intellectualism, these fantastical beliefs, a type of conservatism that's almost like a religion and a cult. Donald Trump is a cult leader.

They recently had a panel on CNN—and the sample size is so small, but I have no reason to doubt it—those folks literally said no matter what he does they'll support him. These are Republicans. We have to be careful of the media narrative separating Republicans from Trump voters. No, Trump won every category of white voters. He's a Republican. They own him. He's the leader of their party and his policies are the logical extension of everything that they wanted to do, which is why they keep protecting him.

He's also a fascist based on the criteria for fascism: wanting a one-party state, subverting democratic norms, hostility to the media, nationalism and masculinity, violence, militarism, chronic lying—which disorients the public—assaults on the truth. The only thing he hasn't done yet is mass ethnic violence and encouraging it and that's coming. We saw that in Charlottesville. We saw that with his open embrace of white supremacists and white nationalists. I think you're right on when you ask, where's the huge protest? I think people are tired, they're exhausted, they're still in shock.

Naomi Klein wrote about the shock doctrine and we also have to start talking about how the shock doctrine was applied internally to this country by gangster capitalists and Trump. Steve Bannon is going to be even more powerful. He's a white supremacist who runs Breitbart, and now he's back at Breitbart. There's some new research about how the right-wing news media, online especially, were able to mobilize propaganda and disinformation. They're much more effective at disseminating their narratives than Democrats, liberals or progressives. I think we're going to see more street violence like Charlottesville. We recently had a Timothy McVeigh-style attack that was disrupted. There have been these white right-wing domestic terrorist cells that have been broken up. Trump has defunded the Department of Justice investigating them because they're white and they're right-wing.

I think that we’re going to see a further erosion of our institutions, and our government becoming even more broken. The law really is the only thing trying to protect us and the law—lawyers and the courts—they have no enforcement power. I think things are going to get very, very, very, very, very dire very quickly, and I don't know what the resistance looks like in this country. I think the American people are so drunk on consumerism, and unfortunately too many of our white brothers and sisters are drunk on white supremacy, white privilege and white identity politics. As long as they think he's beating up the brown people, or the Muslims, which is what fascists do, they'll go along with it. This country is in deep trouble.

KH: When you were talking about his followers being in love with him, it made me think about how incredibly good Trump is at exploiting white self-victimization. Part of the Republican mantra at this point is that white Christians are the true underdogs, and Trump is very good at playing that up. It's not actually a new thing; this has historical roots. Even during slavery there was this idea that white people were always under the potential threat of "dangerous negroes." Can youa  talk little about that historically, and how Donald Trump is exploiting it now in a modern context?

CD: I'm writing a book that’s going to have a chapter on white victimology. Donald Trump is a professional white victimologist. Now, intelligent people, people who have a grasp of empirical reality, understand this is a joke. He's rich, he's white and he's a man—who the hell is he a victim of?

But again, as you're spot on in thinking about, this is a narrative you hear repeatedly from white Americans, en masse, and among Republicans and conservatives in general. Let’s look back at the Civil War. During Reconstruction, there was this narrative common in both the North and the South, propagated by the white press, that the white folks were under threat of negro domination. You saw that repeatedly. You can look at some of the narratives that Andrew Johnson and others used to talk about the Freedmen's Bureau and free black people as being lazy, entitled, dependent on the government, not really free because they shouldn't have special rights. That sounds a hell of a lot like we hear right now. That's post 1960s right-wing discourse about civil rights and colorblind racism and dog-whistle politics.

In terms of Trump’s victimology, we have a lot of research and survey data telling us that white Americans actually believe that white people are oppressed in America and that white people are more likely to be victims of racism than black people. I don't know what universe they live in, but again it's an intoxicant. This gets us to white privilege and the psychological, or the psychic, wages of whiteness. [W.E.B.] Du Bois was writing about this [in the early 20th century]. So you have Trump who says, I'm a victim, and his followers believe they're victims, even though white Americans are the most entitled and privileged group of folks relative to any other people in this country in terms of resources, wages [and] government support.

You know, [political writer and historian] Ira Katznelson very famously wrote about when affirmative action was white. That still exists. And of course we can talk about neo-liberalism, austerity and the culture of cruelty, because our white brothers and sisters are getting their butts kicked by this broken economy, too. But we have to be careful when you actually look at these narratives about white economic insecurity, and the white working class and Trump. There's no evidence to support it. None at all.

Most of Trump's voters were middle and upper class. The average Trump voter makes around $74,000 a year. Those voters who actually said the economy worries them the most were more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton, but Trump was somehow able to say, I'm a victim. He was able to look at his white public, using white identity politics, white racism, white supremacy, and say, You're victims, too. And then he planted this sense that other people, black and brown people, are “skipping ahead.” That's what “make America great again” means. It’s a throwback to that slogan “Free, white and 21.” They want a world where, I will be frank, mediocre white people can go and get a great job, own a home, have two cars, take two vacations a year and take care of their kids.

KH: And potentially become president.

CD: Yes, and become president. Donald Trump is a fool, he's an ignoramus, but even he can become president. He is a scion, a hero for mediocre white people.

DH: What can we do to better defend ourselves journalistically, media-wise, in terms of narratives and messages? If you were in charge of the opposition, of the resistance, and you could tell everybody what they should be doing, what would you say?

CD: Well, I would say you need corporeal politics. Being on Twitter and the Internet is not going to help you. You need to be in the street. You need to participate in consumer strikes and banking boycotts. You need to figure out where the money is going to support Trump, his businesses, the Republican party, the 1 percent in general, and vote with your pocketbook. This is about finance. I think it was a great moment when it was announced that Steve Bannon was “leaving” Trump's White House, basically to continue being a shadow advisor, and on Wall Street they were literally clapping. These people have no morals. They only care about money. So you go after the money.

I think another thing we have to be very strategic about is understanding what Trump actually did. Trump, and I've written extensively about this, is a master of branding and lifestyle marketing. That's how he made his money, that's how he won the presidency. Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are horrible storytellers. I could not tell you what she stood for. I could tell you the policy stuff, but I could tell you what Trump's slogans were, and that's why he won. So, we need to have [linguist] George Lakoff and others get with the folks that Obama used in terms of marketing – these Wall Street types, these white-shoe law firms and advertising execs – get with them and figure out messaging.

The Democratic Party’s messaging is absolutely horrible. I'll give you another example. This horrible slogan, "When they go low, we go high.” I thought that was embarrassing. You don't beat these bullies and these authoritarian thugs by being nice. Here's a slogan they should use for the next election: “Throw the Trump trash out.” How about that? I'll give advice for free. “Throw the Trump trash out”—there's the slogan.

We have to give up on this idea of converting Trump voters. You're not going to convert them. White working-class men have not voted for the Democratic Party since the civil rights movement. You ain't getting them back, so stop trying. Mobilize your base. Come up with direct, emotionally compelling narratives, and don't run away from your own truth-telling.

Another example: Charlottesville. We need Democrats to really go after the Republican Party. They talk about racism, white supremacy and Trump, who is the logical extension of the Republican Party and the Republican Party is the largest racist, white supremacist organization in the country. They should be talking about Trump’s role in Charlottesville, and the Republican Party’s role, but they don't have the courage to do it. They're afraid to tell the truth.

DH: What are the powerful stories Democrats should be telling? The antidotes to the stuff Trump is pushing?

CD: I think as Thom Hartmann has said, we need a true “We the People” democracy. Period. A democracy where working-class and middle-class folks can actually have a living wage. We need to have a serious conversation about what a good society looks like in terms of our schools, we need to talk seriously about infrastructure and being competitive internationally. We need to talk clearly and plainly about these global plutocrats who are not loyal to America or patriots. They are loyal to money.

We need to seriously take on the fractures in the American dream. Ideally this would allow you to win over some of these white, alienated, lonely—because they're very lonely people—bigoted, confused Trump voters. Because a lot of this is driven, as Hannah Arendt wrote, by loneliness and social alienation and isolation. So maybe if you had a narrative about their pocketbooks, about roads and schools, about fixing the American dream, and you told it in a compelling way, you could win people over. And maybe even, just as an added bonus, trump a little of these white identity politics. But I'm not hopeful, because the story of American history from the founding to the present has been white folks pursuing racial interests. And yet white racism hurts white people, too—especially the white poor working class. That's true of white women, too, because we need to talk about that as well. This false narrative about white women being liberal and progressive when they voted for Trump as well.

KH: So much of the reason we end up talking about the white working class is that they're the one segment of the working class that has always put race first. Instead of recognizing economic conditions and exploitation experienced by all working people, there’s the prioritization of whiteness—and white power and supremacy—above all else.

CD: Thank you.

KH: It’s exhausting, the sheer amount of time the media spends discussing the white working class and this obsession with their needs and thoughts above any other struggling class. "How are they’re feeling? What are they thinking?" I really wish the New York Times would stop putting so much energy into writing the same piece over and over.

CD: I want to comment on this very quickly, since you mentioned it: Just thinking about the white working-class narrative and why the media wants to cover it. The media is invested in white racial innocence. Think about it: who are the shot callers? Who are the folks who are the editors? Who are the producers? They represent a certain racial and class interest. They are also, for the most part, middle to upper class, if not rich. They don't want to be involved in critical inquiry and reflection about members of their own class.

I have a suggestion for a story. Why don't they go to Greenwich, Connecticut, or go to Chicago’s Gold Coast, or go to L.A. and talk to the middle-class and upper-class white people who voted for Trump instead of going out to Trumplandia looking for “toothless wonders” and hillbillies that fit a caricature. Because most of Trump's voters are middle and upper class. They were not poor or working-class people. But that's a harder story to tell. It's easy to go out there and look at Trumplandia as opposed to asking what's going on in Greenwich or Stamford.

KH: Trump won every segment of white voters except for college-educated women, and he lost them by a small margin. But his toxic masculinity and so many of his policies will be incredibly damaging for them, too. I think it's going have catastrophic consequences for them, this refusal to recognize his malignancy.

CD: The Republican Party and the right-wing media are masters of disinformation, which is another way of saying lies. They’ve trained their voters. They understand how to use the politics of white supremacy, white victimology and sexism and more generally, hostility toward the "other.” It could be gays and lesbians, it could be Muslims, but in America because of our particular history around the color line, there is always this narrative about lazy black and brown people, particularly lazy black people.

The Republican Party is very smart. They're also sadists. They've trained their public through punishment and pain. Take away resources, take away supports, threaten their health care. Immiserate their standard of living. Support globalization, give these corporations these huge tax cuts, pay these banks that destroy the economy in the trillions of dollars. They've trained them to, instead of being angry at the right people —i.e. the Republican Party, neo-liberals in general, and the gangster capitalists—go after the black and brown people.

Again, this is an old story. Republican consultants have studied history. They know that you have tens, if not hundreds of millions of white voters who are so invested in whiteness, the possessive investment of whiteness, that they won't look around and say, “Man I've got so much more in common with black and brown folks in the same damn class position I am, the only thing that's different is our skin color.” The Republicans are amazingly skilled at abusing their public and then training them to blame the wrong people.

DH: What should progressive, liberal—however you want to describe us—journalists and media be doing better?

CD: I always go back to telling the truth. I know that sounds like a cliché, but we have to tell the empirical truth, marshal the facts, marshal the data. We have to understand that dreaming and hoping are not bad things. Have a freedom dream. Let's think about the future, let's dream a little bit and see what we can do to make it happen. Let's make sure that we network with each other, let's make sure that we understand the battlefield. Let’s stay aware of how the right-wing is using the internet, how it’s spreading propaganda on Facebook and Twitter.

We also have to do a much better job—and some folks already are doing this better than others—of understanding that the American voter is not rational. We have a lot of research on this. You can get up there and talk about policy all day long, you can talk about material self-interests, you can talk about class. We could talk about political race. I love that idea from [legal scholar] Lani Guinier about figuring out the things we have in common. We could be working together across the color line. We can be rational. Liberals and progressives, we’re children of the Enlightenment. We're critical thinkers, we believe in the scientific method.

But we’re dealing with an ideology in this country at present with modern conservatism, dating back to at least the 1960s, back to Hofstadter, who everybody should read, that is a cult, that's a religion. How do you fight people who believe in magic? So we have to make sure that we're constructing narratives that are based on the truth, based on the facts but also grappling with the reality that many in the public are irrational. So we have to appeal to emotions too, because the Republicans and conservatives and the authoritarians are, and they're great at it. They're great at telling stories and using emotion and coming up with simple stories.

DH: Google and Facebook both recently changed their algorithms to tackle fake news. But their method for sorting through this stuff is horribly flawed. So many important progressive websites, well-established news sites, are getting drowned out.

CD: That also gets to net neutrality, the other thing we've got to be talking about. They are literally going to be controlling the speed it takes to get to certain websites based either on making you pay more or the politics of those sites. They’re going to make sure right-wing websites have faster speeds and they come up higher in search algorithms. Liberals and progressives are already underfunded. Those progressive news sites are eventually going to disappear.

DH: That's pretty dark.

CD: We're Debbie Downers here but like I said, they're all about making the money. Another thing liberals and progressives need to get better at is examining the battlefield. We have to get much better at understanding the power of disinformation, white propaganda, black propaganda, understanding the techniques. Studying what the Republicans, perhaps with the assistance of Russia and other state actors, really gamed and how they hustled the system using big data.

Here's an interesting factoid. Cambridge Analytica built this huge database to profile likely Trump voters and people whose votes they would be able swing. They studied user habits on Facebook and they discovered a really interesting curiosity in terms of data. They figured out that the voters most likely, or most susceptible to Trump, watch the TV show "The Walking Dead.” The narrative fits, right? It's white folks under siege, it's about gun culture, it's about violence and threat. And these voters were afraid of immigrants and immigration from Latin and South America. So then they made sure to have targeted commercials during the times that "The Walking Dead" was on TV. Apparently, it was remarkably effective. That's the way that Democrats need to be playing.

KH: Wow. So that’s all super-depressing. At this point, I'm curious, knowing all this stuff, is there anything that makes you hopeful at all?

CD: I don't know if I'm hopeful, to be honest. I'd be lying if I said this was going to turn out well, because Trump has set a new standard. Politics is a copycat game. The analogy I use is, Trump is like a serial killer. He's Jason or Freddy. Mike Pence is like the gentlemen's serial killer, and they're going to use him as the model. Trump can leave tomorrow, he may quit out of frustration. Then you get Pence, and how is that any better?

Trump has set a model for what the Republican Party, as a right-wing, white supremacist, white identity organization is going to be doing in the immediate present and future. Then you add all the voter demobilization, the efforts to purge voter rolls. That's why I say the Republican party is a white supremacist organization. Look at their policies, look who it impacts and look what the goal is. They are desperate to maintain a white republic. Period. And they'll do anything to maintain that status quo. They will keep black and brown people from voting, they will use propaganda, they will lie, they will game the system.

Here's another important aspect of this. I wrote about it and a few others picked up on it. Health care. We know a lot that sick people don't vote. The Republican party wants the public to be sick because, in their view, it's most likely going to target people who are more likely to vote for Democrats. This is the type of deep game they're playing. So I'm not hopeful, because until you see mass resistance and some sort of transformation in the Democratic party, good luck. I'm decidedly negative on this one.

I think maybe there's a glimmer of hope that people are starting to realize this monstrous situation that we're in. Maybe there's some hope there if folks can then transcend their learned helplessness and consumerism and greed. I’m thinking about Neil Postman talking about amusing ourselves to death. If people can get off Twitter, and turn off the TV and get out there and actually do something there's hope. Maybe if more folks would join up with all the brothers and sisters who are part of the anti-fascist movement, maybe there's some hope for corporeal politics.

DH: This has been incredibly rich and informative and super analytic and incredibly smart. How did you synthesize all this stuff? It's amazing.

CD: I just sit there and think and talk. I appreciate you giving me the chance to chat.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.

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