Election 2016

We Can't Be Too Shocked by Trump's Rise: Overlooked Americans Seek Anti-Establishment Revenge

Why the national political landscape is changing.

Photo Credit: www.donaldjtrump.com/gallery/

A scary and fundamental realignment in American politics is underway, highlighted by Donald Trump’s bullying his way to the Republican nomination but whose roots can be found in mounting institutional failures in America leading millions to embrace a strongman who says everything can be fixed with his iron fist.    

That is the deeply disturbing and haunting takeaway from a handful of culture watchers who study social movements, societal breakdowns, mass communications and political responses in the U.S. and abroad, and are offering the best analysis yet for Americans who are scared, shaking their heads or still asking, how in the world did Trump emerge with the Republican nomination and a real chance to be the next president?

“Forces propelling Trump are neither a mystery nor an anomaly. Response must begin with understanding this,” wrote Zeynep Tufekci in her concise and insightful Tweet Story for the Trump Perplexed. A techno-sociology scholar who has studied Trump's social media messaging and followers—and many violent upheavals abroad—Tufekci very clear in describing the deeper trends that coalesced in a figure like Trump triumphing.

“They’ve been showing up in polls and academic research. Much historical precedent too,” she wrote. “People’s frustrations with upheavals of inequality, globalization and technology blending with xenphobia and racism. Old story too…”  

What Tufekci is describing and what is unfolding now is a realignment in American politics. It’s not that different from Europe’s rightwing backlash against non-natives, which also has no clear end or outcome in sight. As political scholar Norman Ornstein wrote last August in The Atlantic, Trump knew precisely what he was doing by attacking the GOP establishment, “running a pugnacious, in-your-face, I-am-not-anything-like-these-other-clowns race, with his signature position being his extreme, nativist stance on immigration.”

By now, we all know Trump’s message and how much the media ate it up. What is less understood is why his anger and antics have caught fire. It’s not just that he outfoxed mainstream media by using new communication tools like Twitter, but he did so as many longtime public institutions in America have been crumbling or become hollowed out, and have left whole slices of society with little hope or ability to prosper.

As longtime Massachusetts-based columnist Mike Barnicle wrote after his state’s March primary, in which Trump won 49.3 percent of the Republican vote, all one has to do to find Trump voters is look past well-off epicenters to interior regions “where frustration, fear, anxiety about the present, anger about the past, and apprehension about the immediate future collide with voter rage against the machine of professional politics that has left so many either behind or at the margin.” Trump “speaks to this audience,” Barnicle wrote, remarking on “carbon copies” in Ohio, western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, downstate Illinois and elsewhere, where “the future is now filled with dread instead of a dream.”

But it’s not just dread. Trump supporters have an anger and a desire to assign blame and to get even, noted Tufecki, who has been tracking their views and sentiments by studying their social media posts and attending their campaign rallies. She wrote about this in a March column for the New York Times, where she described a self-reinforcing bubble. “Many of the Trump supporters whom I’ve been following say that they no longer trust any big institutions, whether political parties or media outlets,” she said. “Instead, they share personal stories that support their common narrative, which mixes falsehoods and facts—often ignored by these powerful institutions they now loathe—with the politics of racial resentment.”

Going further, she astutely described how Trump relies on a mix of social media and speeches to refine his message and play to that audience, essentially using a powerful new media tool as the reach and importance of mainstream media is shrinking. “He uses Twitter as a kind of gut focus-group polling to pick up and amplify messages that resonate,” she wrote. “Also, while his rally speeches may seem rambling, after having watched many, I believe he uses crowd response to refine his message. He is not a bumbling celebrity; he is a politician deeply in touch with his own, polarized base.” 

Tufecki added that print and broadcast media and its pundits have vastly underestimated the power and impact of social media’s speed and reach among Trump supporters, which has propelled them to ignore the traditional attack ads and vote for him. “People naturally thrive by finding like-minded others, and I watch as Trump supporters affirm one another in their belief that white America is being sold out by secretly Muslim lawmakers, and that every unpleasant claim about Donald Trump is a fabrication by a cabal that includes the Republican leadership and mass media.”       

Like Barnicle’s post-primary piece, her recent Tweet Story for the Trump Perplexed explains why ordinary people would be driven to such ugly views and be more than willing to embrace a strongman who promises to solve everything with an iron fist. “When I came to the U.S. [for graduate school], I was amazed at the prosperity and strength of public institutions. Seen it go down every year I’ve been here,” her Tweet Story said. “This combined elite failure, institutional hollowing & big mistrust in everything with new forms of mass communication. A lot can go wrong… If we can’t offer people a path other than ‘go to an elite school, maybe become a coder, and be very lucky’ we will reap the whirlwind… If people see no path to a good future, they will vote in strongmen who promise to solve all this with an iron fist. Europe, U.S., elsewhere.”

The fact that this scenario is now unfolding in America “shows how deep the problem is,” she noted, adding, “One hopes that’s what’s happening across the world will spur strong healthy movements and shifts among the elite. History says you need both… History also says more likely outcome is elites bury their heads in the sand while destructive currents whiplash the world. Yes, it’s scary… old ways of control are crumbling. New responses not here.”

Like Ornstein and Barnicle, Tufekci believes the forces propelling Trump are no mystery and that the way to respond comes first from understanding them. That is surely correct, but it poses many questions about whether today’s political elites—starting with leaders in the Democratic Party and its 2016 candidate—appreciate what has been happening in the regions of the country where they do not hold their fundaisers. And whether they understand that the nation may be at a real tipping point, and that this time, this election, really may be different, and may require a different response.

As Tufekci notes, there’s nothing historically new or unique about a desperate populace embracing a strongman. But as her Tweet Story for the Trump Perplexed uneasily notes, the “new responses [are] not here.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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