For many of us, the spectacle of Donald Trump often seems like a terrible dream: is this for real? And how did we get here? How did we go from a far-from-perfect but somewhat more hopeful age of Obama to the possibility of a Trump presidency, with his quasi-fascist, bigoted, nationalist rhetoric? I suggest that we look to the works of William Connolly and David Harvey to gain some conceptual tools to better understand the rise of Trump. First, Connolly’s critique of the nation – in both traditional and secular forms – is prescient. It helps make some sense of the resentment and fear that Trump has tapped into. Second, Harvey supplements this critique of the nation by explaining the rise of neo-conservativism as a sort of correction to neo-liberal globalization. In short, I argue that at least two major factors need to be seriously grappled with in order to understand Trump's political victories: the tensions between secularist and traditionalist accounts of the nation, and the socially destructive forces of globalization.
In Why I Am Not A Secularist, Connolly offers a postsecular critique of the idea of the nation – even in its more tolerant, secular forms. Traditional accounts of the nation see it as a kind of unifying soul of the state. That is, the nation unifies a people around a cultural center, which typically has included religion, morals, language, race, and/or ethnicity. But with the rise of secularism, such accounts of nationhood have often been “thinned out”, as Connolly puts it. For the most part, secularists have not called into question the structure of the nation, but have tried to bend it in a more tolerant direction. Liberal secularists have accomplished this by constructing “the public sphere” as a new unifying center for the nation. This center is no longer anchored by more divisive organizing principles (e.g., religion, race), but rather by more abstract principles, such as general conceptions of rights and/or authoritative modes of public reason. Thus, the secularist way is to refashion the nation with a more “neutral” public sphere as its center. This scenario requires persons to leave their contestable private faiths and convictions at home when they enter “the public sphere”, which is intended to enable greater diversity (for now, I will not go into Connolly’s alternative of a non-nationalist, de-centered, postsecular pluralism - but by all means, get his book and explore his proposals, which I find very helpful).
According to Connolly, one problem with this strategy is that the secular “thinning out” of the nation’s cultural center ends up looking weak. For those constituencies who strongly identify with older forms of national unity, this abstract version of the nation (based on reason, rights, etc.) seems to produce a lack where a more concrete national center used to be. The thin public sphere – the new unifying center constructed by secularists – then provokes certain constituencies to react negatively against this more tolerant (“weak”) style of nationhood, which now has to try to make room for others who did not fit into older styles of unity: feminists, irreligious persons, LGBTQ persons, immigrants, and so on. They then respond by trying to “renationalize” the center, filling it in with more traditional (and exclusive) sources of nationhood: religious, racial, ethnic, and/or linguistic sources of unity.
It should already be clear how Connolly’s analysis is relevant to today’s political scene. Trump's campaign slogan to “Make America Great Again” certainly taps into those disaffected, disoriented, anxiety-ridden constituencies who find too much secular influence in our time to be a source of national weakness. Such constituencies angrily protest against a liberal culture burdening them with “political correctness”; about the rising number of non-white persons who either do not speak English or have another primary language; about the loss of our nation’s “Christian values”; about the rising numbers of irreligious persons; and even about the decline of white majorities and culture. Thus, many desire to re-nationalize the cultural center towards “stronger” sources of national unity. It should therefore be no surprise that a political leader like Trump would appeal to such constituencies: he talks tough, “tells it like it is”, is proudly politically incorrect, and mocks non-white persons and other marginalized persons.
Economic factors are crucial here, and they are closely related to the cultural issues that Connolly points to. One way that Trump has appealed to certain constituencies is by saying that he is going to bring back jobs that other countries (e.g., China, Mexico, etc.) have allegedly “stolen” from Americans. Now, it is true that many American jobs have been lost due to the forces of globalization, and free trade policies in particular. But whatever policies Trump proposes to deal with such job losses, he consistently couples these incoherent proposals with degrading comments about foreign countries, their citizens, and immigrant workers (e.g., he recently claimed that the Chinese have “raped” our country by stealing American jobs). As such, Trump aims to appeal to disaffected, resentful workers primarily through bigoted rhetoric rather than through coherent policy proposals to deal with the challenging forces of globalization. In the process, he taps into the same cultural anxieties and fears that these constituencies have about secular nationhood. As Connolly writes, “Globalization…foments drives by constituencies injured by global market pressures to reinstate the image of the nation to compensate for those losses. The problem is that these compensations typically involve blaming vulnerable constituencies outside the imagined parameters of nationhood for the loss of jobs and so on, when these very effects are generated by global capital forces” (87).
To deal with this situation, Harvey argues that neo-conservativism emerged as a kind of internal correction to neo-liberalism. While neocons continue to affirm a highly deregulated, privatizing market fundamentalism, they try to contain the individualistic social chaos that it produces by imposing social order in an anti-democratic fashion. The neocon’s goal is to restore social order by appealing to some national “center”, a “higher” purpose, a “transcendent” set of absolute values. This tends to include reaffirmations of traditional morals, conservative religion (as in the case of the “moral majority”, or the Christian right), so-called “family values”, and/or race/ethnicity. Neo-conservatism therefore tends to resonate with fascist, nationalist, and/or authoritarian populist movements (which arguably apply in varying degrees to the Trump phenomenon). It tends to be antagonistic toward LGBTQ persons, feminists, environmentalists, racial minorities, etc. It takes advantage of anxious, resentful, and even paranoid constituencies who feel threatened by external forces by then pushing toward increased social control through surveillance, police, and permanent militarization to deal with a world in interminable conflict (e.g., with China, “radical Islam”, etc.). And as Harvey notes, permanent militarization is of course highly profitable for the military industrial complex. Thus, if one understands neoliberalism as an aggressive effort to restore or construct capitalist class power – and the evidence does point to this being the case – then the neocon’s anti-democratic, renationalization of societies is perfectly consistent with the primary goal of neoliberalism.
Having unfolded these political analyses, it seems clear to me that Trump does not fit neatly into the labels of "neoliberal" or "neocon", even as he resonates with them by similarly appealing to the virtues of market capitalism and to unifying cultural centers through his nationalist rhetoric. But while there are indeed multiple factors that might help to explain Trump's rise, two stand out for me: first, the tension between liberal secularist accounts of the nation and those of conservative and/or non-secularist accounts; and second, the socially destructive forces of neoliberal globalization. These two socio-cultural challenges have produced intense anxieties and tensions within certain constituencies that Trump is dangerously exploiting with his blend of neo-conservativism, quasi-fascism, and populist authoritarianism. But ultimately, it is difficult to know if Trump firmly stands for anything other than himself - not religion, not the market, perhaps not even the restoration of capitalist class power...that is, at least not in the way that many other conservative Republicans would prefer. And really, what's more dangerous: a quasi-fascist egomaniac or a textbook neocon? While the latter works to re-situate conservative religion and absolute morals as unifying centers of the nation - and thus as mechanisms of order and control - the former appropriates very similar language while placing himself into the center. Both are terrifyingly anti-democratic realities that must be resisted.