THE WORLD OF TRUMP PEOPLE (Written Before the Presidential Elections) [Winner ot the Treccani Web Prize]Dec/07/2016
Some people say that Donald Trump, both as a personality and as regards his political positions, is nothing really new with respect to his European counterparts – Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, the AfD party in Germany, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, in addition to Matteo Salvini of the Lega Nord and Beppe Grillo of the Movimento 5 Stelle in Italy, etc. It is not by chance that many people make him out to be a copy or imitator of Silvio Berlusconi, placing Italy politically ahead of the pack. But in fact, Trump, like the others listed above, is making an American contribution towards breaking an historical bloc which has resisted since universal suffrage began: the conservative bloc.
It is a bloc that is not immediately comprehensible. In fact, it is hard to grasp what a poor, devout pensioner has in common with a Scorsese-type "Wolf of Wall Street", or an eminent prelate of the Church with a rich corrupt whore-monger, or someone chronically unemployed with a millionaire entrepreneur, etc. What force brings them all together to vote for the same right-wing party? Some scholars have tried to give answers to this question, but we will not examine them here. But if one thing is clear, it is that this bloc does indeed exist.
For decades people have been repeating that a mature, healthy and presentable democracy is based on turnover: Leftist governments alternating with Rightist governments in a process that goes on forever—a monotonous alternation between “six of one and half a dozen of the other”. In recent years, however, this rigid scheme has been dismantled by those who are generally referred to as "populists". When I ask someone what they really mean by “populism”, I get some rather contradictory and confused answers. So I shall do away with the term “populist” altogether and instead speak of "pissed -off Identitarians" ("pissed off", and not "angry", to use their own language), because anger is such an integral aspect of the identity of Identitarians. Some people say that the classic left versus right opposition is being replaced or overlaid by another opposition: globalization versus identitarianism. In fact, it is identitarianism that is undermining the conservative bloc (but the Left is not taking advantage of this, because even a large portion of its electorate now votes for the Identitarians, as we shall see).
In effect, both the Left and the so-called moderate Right that we might define as “respectable” (Sarkozy, Cameron, Merkel, Rajoy, Bush senior and junior, etc.) all have something in common, an open attitude: pro-European, and tending to support the common market. The classic Right, no less than the Left, is strongly opposed to any kind of identitary isolationism. The Marxist Left attacks the universal market, but only in order to replace it with an equally cosmopolitan vision, and it is not by chance that it exalts immigration as the free movement not of capital but of human beings. On the one hand, "workers of the world unite", on the other, "capital of the world circulate". The conservative right may imbellish itself with nationalist rhetoric and slogans, but to the extent that it is free market oriented, it cannot in fact be truly nationalist. In fact, the wolves of Wall Street are all for NAFTA and the TTIP, and the City of London was all for the UK staying in Europe. For this reason, the Identitarians – even when right-wing, such as the French Front National, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, or Donald Trump – are opposed both to the Left and to the "respectable” Right.
It is thus not surprising that the Bush clan supported Hillary Clinton. The Republican Party tried to replace Trump with a series of "decent" candidates, all of whom he utterly defeated. The Bushes represent the Republican Party apparatus that detests Trump.
Who are Trump’s supporters? Experts say that they are characterized by four distinctive traits:
- They do not have a university education and, on average, their level of education falls below the national average;
- They believe that they have no say in politics, and that their voices are not being heard;
- They want to create an internal war against "outsiders", i.e. immigrants, as well as against certain ethnic and religious minorities, particularly Hispanic and Islamic;
- They live in regions where there are strong and persistent feelings of racial resentment, such as in the Southeastern United States, especially regarding African Americans.
In fact, all the demographic information that I have seen points to the fact that support for Trump is typical of middle-aged (usually around 50-year-old), white, and generally poor people with low levels of education. Apart from the WASP electorate, what used to be the typical left-wing American electorate now tends to support Trump. Those who vote for Trump are not so very different from the British who voted for Brexit in this referendum. Even in this case, these anti-European voters tended to be older, less educated, poorer and living in smaller towns and in the countryside.
So are the most die-hard fans of Trump just so many ignorant rednecks? Well, certainly not all of Trump's steadfast voters are provincial hicks, although I have the feeling that they are perhaps the most representative. Some research (by the University of Chicago and the University of Minnesota) has shown that Trump supporters have what is defined in American social psychology as an "authoritarian personality". This is no more true than for supporters of the other Republican candidates, but Trump's followers also have a particularly strong nationalistic identity, as well as a strong distrust of experts, intellectuals and anyone who is perceived as a member of an elite.
In short, Trump is leading the revolt of the uncultured and mostly poor masses who detest the glamor and glitter of those who they feel now dominate the world: the privileged politicians, intellectuals and brilliant people that Hillary Clinton seems to embody. Their hatred for Clinton consists not only, or chiefly, of hatred for a person so much as hatred for what she represents. It is hatred for a brilliant woman who does not stoop to using crude and coarse slogans. Clinton embodies the kind of globalized culture that all the “rednecks” of the Western world detest, because they do not want to belong to the world that these elites are gradually creating, a little bit at a time.
The complaint of Trump voters that their voices were not heard or heeded is particularly interesting In fact, none of us, apart from the most powerful politicians and the greatest opinion leaders, really has a say in matters. But each of us can find a spokesman. We read the words of our favorite politicians and journalists with enthusiasm, and these important figures make us feel less alone because they say more or less what we are thinking. Why did the aforementioned masses have to wait for such an unlikely character as Trump to finally find their spokesman? The reason, I believe, is that these masses believe in something that is generally unacceptable and politically delinquent, and it was therefore difficult for them to find anyone who dared to echo these ideas so openly. The Trumpists are defying political correctness. And by “political correctness,” I mean all of the fundamental democratic values of the Western world.
For example, both in America and in Italy I encounter people who tell me that the correct political solution to problems of Islamic fundamentalism and conflicts in the Middle East would be to exterminate all Arabs: men, women and children. They do not say this as a dark joke or as a casual throwaway remark, but as an entirely feasible political undertaking. Thus, you often find out that your neighbor, the nice friendly person who greets you with a smile when you leave the house, harbors neo-Nazi opinions and maybe supports genocide or racial discrimination. But what politician, in America or elsewhere, could dare to support such extreme ideas? Of course some, without explicitly promoting such murderous or repugnant ideas, give them a wink of approval. Indeed, one of the great political arts is that of nodding discreetly.
For example, the Movimento Sociale was an Italian fascist party, although its leaders could not say so clearly, because the Fascist Party had been prohibited by Italian law following the Second World War. They had to make "moderate" speeches, but they “nodded” towards their activists and voters. Their militant supporters even extended their right arms in a Nazi-style Roman salute and shouted "Viva il Duce", while they themselves did nothing. They just smiled and discreetly nodded.
This is still the case today. The leaders of the Lega Nord (“Northern League”), for example, cannot clearly state, "we will abolish freedom of worship for Muslims and drive them all out of Italy", because we now live in an ethical and philosophical context in which this is not acceptable; but they declare and do things that their fans can interpret as: "You are right, Islam should be banned. Although I cannot openly say so." For example various political parties are against the principle of “civil union” between gays. These parties have the support of people who, while talking with their “buddies” at the bar or the pub, use expressions such as: "faggots should be castrated" or "bull dykes are deviants whose ovaries should be removed", and the like. While politicians opposed to gay civil unions cannot use such language publicly, they can make it understood that they share the same opinions.
People rarely vote for a program, but rather for people "who resemble me and think like me". Thus, Trump’s supporters don’t feel they are being heard because they are expressing something that the prevailing Western culture (to which I too belong) cannot accept. Many of Trump's famous “gaffes” seem to have been deliberately intended to win over these "politically incorrect" masses. Let us consider the misogynistic aspects of his statements. Trump is well aware that the female electorate is now predominantly Democratic. In the 2012 presidential election, 55% of all women who voted chose Obama, compared to only 45% who voted for the Republican nominee Romney, and these ratios were almost exactly reversed for the male electorate. Chasing the favor of women would thus be almost useless for Trump: it was better to opt to “give a voice” to the male electorate, spiced up with plenty of sexist remarks and crude jokes.
In recent decades there have been some important changes in our customs and our mentality, such as the emancipation of women, the push towards absolute equality between the sexes, the acceptance and legal recognition of homosexuality, and an ever-increasing sensitivity towards "green" issues with regard to our food and the environment. These epoch-making transformations were initiated by the cultural elite, who have gradually – through the mass media, cinema, novels, music, etc. – ended up convincing the masses. But they have not convinced everyone.
All of the great cultural revolutions throughout history started with the mostly well-educated elites.Over time, these revolutions had an effect on the common people, who sometimes resisted change for centuries. When Christianity in the Roman Empire was legalized under the Emperor Constantine, only about 10% of the inhabitants of the empire were Christians, and this minority was distrusted and rarely tolerated by the pagan majority. It took centuries for the masses to become Christianized, especially in rural areas. I could provide many similar examples to show how ideas elaborated by the elite are established and asserted only after many years of struggle and resistance. Demagogues often give a voice to this resistance, which is precisely what Trump has decided to do. The walls that the demagogues now want to build in various parts of the world, to stop the "invading hordes" of immigrants, are a metaphor for the way the masses are hoping to keep the progress of history outside their own “territories”. They think of their country and their way of life as being a fortress against the fierce onslaught of time.
Thus, behind the attack on the political establishment as a whole there lurks a far more profound attack: the rejection of the intellectual as such. It is the whole intellectual class – and some politicians are also intellectuals – that the Identitarian detests: those that have imposed upon everyone, Identitarians included, an emancipation of women "that has turned them all into whores", an attitude of respect for "fags” who instead should be derided and pilloried, and an upper-class "snobbish" attitude of reverence regarding nature (in Carlo Verdone's Italian film, Gallo Cedrone, the protagonist, who is a candidate for mayor of Rome, proposes concreting up the Tiber River in order to build a highway. Perfect trumpist.).
The marginality of Identitarian voters is not only economic and geographic, but is also what I would describe as philosophical: they feel that their society is becoming increasingly permeated by principles that do not belong to them. Globalization requires an increasing level of education of the population; but this is precisely what they lack. They feel that we are moving towards a situation in which schooling and education will be more and more important, in which university graduates will essentially rule the world, and in which basic ethical principles will be determined by the educated elite. We are thus witnessing a disruption in the classic distribution of votes in the Western world, which had lasted for over a century, where the poorest classes had tended to vote for the Left, and the more privileged classes for the Right. The Marxist framework for interpreting how people vote has thus collapsed.
So what has led the more disadvantaged classes to opt for a “pissed-off” kind of identitarianism? In short: the wealth of the proletariat is no longer their offspring, but their social identity, that is, the neighborhood or village where they live, the dialect they speak, their friends, neighbors and colleagues with whom they live and work every day. Culture, instead, is by nature globalizing, and with its international vocation, de-localizing. The proletarian feels cut off from this international dimension, and feels uneasy with proletarian internationalism (or international socialism), which can involve speaking a foreign language (and even though the international language is now English, the American proletarian or Identitarian is often perceived as not speaking English “properly” or "correctly"). It is as if pissed-off Identitarians all over the Western world had said: "It's true, I'm ignorant, and I live in a closed-off and mediocre world. But I'm proud of it."
One might object that now, the uncultured all over the world have also been thoroughly globalized. They eat at a McDonald's, they buy cheap goods made in China, they watch the lowest common denominator Hollywood movies, and they consume mostly American forms of mass culture. There is certainly a kind of plebeian globalization, which does not contradict or clash with nationalism and localism. The cultured and educated are also globalized, but at a level that I would describe as patrician.
Trump addresses some of the classic themes that are dear to the American right: tax cuts, and the upholding of the Second Amendment, which gives everyone the right to bear arms. To us Europeans, the right of everyone to bear arms seems absurd because we do not really understand America. The fact is that the United States, unlike most European countries that were established on a more or less homogeneous ethnic or cultural basis, began as a colony consisting of immigrants and pioneers. After many hours spent chatting with my friend Vernon in Arizona, I finally understood the background behind this idea. Vernon was present at Pearl Harbor where his ship was sunk, and he fought in the Pacific for the duration of that war. He was never wealthy, and he was always a conservative Republican. He once told me: "It's essential for every American to bear arms. If the Germans or the Japanese were to come here to dictate to us, every American would shoot back". One might smile condescendingly at such an idea, but it is still very prominent and widespread in America and can be summed up as: the people in arms are a free people. Even Lenin stated that the Soviets had to be armed, and that "the law is the proletariat in arms". Lenin thought that only the proletariat needed to be armed, but for the American right, everyone should be. It is the image of a Republic that is free because each individual is free, that is to say, armed. Defense by the state is not enough. In the end, every American conservative is at heart an anarchist, who feels limited and constricted by the protection of the state. And so, while in Europe the idea of anarchism is associated with far left-wing politics, in America it is usually associated with the far right (minarchy).
When I traveled to Arizona and Colorado, I was struck by the fact that there are usually no bars on the windows, and that people often leave their doors unlocked. Anyone could enter these houses uninvited. When I asked a lady who lived alone in her house if she was afraid of being robbed, she simply reached under her armchair and pulled out a gun she kept there. At that precise moment, I thought that the supporters of easy access to firearms might have a point, and that in those states, this kind of deterrence against crime really seemed to work. But, after some time, I came to realize that the secret hope of those who support the Second Amendment is that sooner or later, they will get the opportunity to use these weapons. Leaving a door unlocked could almost be like bait for some poor starving wretch, and the law says that I can shoot and kill anyone if he or she enters my house uninvited. I might say that I am simply arming myself for the prevention of crime, but I am really creating the necessary conditions for using my gun to deadly effect. A liberal sensibly puts bars on his windows and locks the door, while a conservative leaves them wide open.
Trump is not much loved by the religious conservatives, who were betting on Ted Cruz as their candidate of choice. The religious conservatives in America have two main priorities: they are “pro-life” (i.e. against legalized abortion), and they are pro-Israel, and Trump does not give much reassurance to them on either of these points. It seems evident that he does not really care that much about religion. Trump – like Farage, Orbán, Salvini, Le Pen, etc. – does not have reactions that are based on faith. It will therefore be decisive how many people in the Bible Belt won't vote for him.
It is true that the pissed-off Identitarians say that they are also defenders of religion, but ultimately, they are not truly religious. The Christian religion is now ecumenical, cosmopolitan and interracial, none of which they are. Le Pen, Salvini or Trump feel that they are stronger than Pope Francis because they express opinions that are shared by many Catholics who would like to throw refugees back into the sea rather than letting them land on our coasts, unlike the Pope, who would like us to welcome them with open arms. The point is that for the Identitarians, being a Christian does not imply a deep belief in articles of faith, or respect for the hierarchies of the church. Instead, being a Christian is like eating characteristic dishes, drinking the local DOC wine, speaking the dialect or slang of one's own region, or singing folk songs while wearing a traditional costume. They profess to be Catholic or Protestant because that is what their parents and grandparents were, but the true content or deeper message of the Catholic or Protestant faith is utterly absent from their lives. What matters is just belonging, not living according to certain moral principles.
The most relevant political fact in recent years, in most Western countries, is that the Left – whether moderate or radical – has gradually been losing what had been its typical electorate for over a century: the workers and the more disadvantaged social classes. These voters are increasingly becoming pissed-off Identitarians. Whenever I have pointed this out, my left-wing friends usually repeat the same old explanation. According to them, the poor and the marginalized vote for identitarian parties because they are disappointed by the policies of the recent left-wing governments in Europe and America. In short, Italian workers are supposedly voting for the Movimento 5 Stelle or the Northern League because they would be disappointed by left-wing Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, French workers are supposedly voting for Le Pen because they are disappointed by Hollande, American workers are supposedly voting for Trump because they are disappointed by Obama, and so on. But this argument does not stand up. In some countries – in Spain with Podemos and in Greece with Syriza – the left-wing opposition has been quite successful, but Spain and Greece are rather isolated cases, while in almost all other countries, the sense of disillusionment with the left-wing parties in government has led to votes for identitarian or extreme right-wing parties. For example, all of the polls show that in Italy Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà (the opposition Party of the Left), has not reaped any of the benefits of the waning popularity of Renzi's Partito Democratico. In America, there was the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, but it seems that most of his supporters were not exactly what one might call proletarian. The truth is that the traditional electorate of the Left – the poor, the less educated and the less cosmopolitan – will vote for Trump, not for Clinton, and certainly not for Sanders. This is the fundamental point that the classic Left, which considers itself as eternal and graven in stone, should now take heed of.
In fact, for this electorate consisting of pissed-off Identitarians, Vendola (radical left) and Renzi (in Italy), Hollande and Mélenchon (President of the French “Left Front” opposition coalition), Sigmar Gabriel (chairman of the German SPD) and Katja Kipping (leader of the Die Linke party), etc., are once again just “six of one and half a dozen of the other”. All the European exponents of the Left share a feature that this electorate abhors: they are basically pro-European, pro-Euro, pro-immigration and pro-globalization. This electorate does not ask for more equality – the traditional pillar of the Left, whether moderate or not – but more closure towards the outside world. But why are the marginalized classes becoming less and less sensitive towards issues of equality, at a time when inequalities are increasing everywhere? For the marginal strata of society, the enemy is not the traders of Wall Street and the 1% of the world's population who own so much of the world's wealth, but the desperate Ethiopian refugee landing in the islands of Lampedusa or Lesbos, or the poverty-stricken Mexican sneaking into Texas. This has been effectively defined as a "war among the poor", but it is a phrase that does not really explain anything.
The fact is that equality, and the Gini coefficient, etc., are seen by these classes as sophisticated and abstract mathematical ideas. The common people can certainly see that some people are poor and others are very rich, but the Identitarian does not stigmatize wealth in itself, although the Left has always done so. In fact, the poor like to dream of getting as rich as Trump and Berlusconi, who are their role models. All of their anger is focused on the kind of wealth that they consider to be illegitimate: that of politicians; and Hillary Clinton is a politician. Because, according to this “soap opera”, it is one thing to get rich by setting up a firm or a company – which is considered to be an admirable achievement – but it is quite another thing to "steal" or to embezzle public funds. The pissed-off Identitarian is not anti-capitalist, but he is anti-political-power and, as we have seen, anti-intellectual. He does not want equality, but he wants the loot to be returned, what politicians and other "fraudsters" are supposed to have pilfered. This thesis leads directly to support for despotism and fascism: the politicians are the enemy, so we must have a leader—preferably rich—who will help to rid us of “dishonest” politicians. Of course, politicians are elected by the people, and hated all the more for this very reason. So it is better for an all-knowing leader to choose who should be in power instead of the people.
These disadvantaged classes are sensitive not to abstract matters such as equality, but to poverty. The American conservatives that I speak with often say: "Everyone is always talking about how poor the blacks are. But nobody speaks about white poverty.” Like the exponents of the Left, they are calling for the poor to be assisted and supported, but they think that these poor people should be selected on an identitarian basis: white, Christian, etc.. In fact, charitable help for the poorest members of society has long been a conservative policy. The conservatives frequently criticize the Left by saying: "Why do you speak of greater equality instead of concentrating on the poorest people?" The fight against certain kinds of poverty is no less typical of the Right than of the Left. But for the pissed-off Identitarians, the poor who need to be helped are only "our kind of people".
In the end, some might console themselves thinking that Trump and the Identitarians in all their various shapes and forms are destined to be defeated by the advance of history itself. It seems clear that, for various technological and economic reasons, the planet is heading towards increasing globalization, and that the entrenched reactionary positions of the Identitarians are a backlash and a visceral recoil which leaves no room for any progress. This is true in theory. But history is never strictly linear. Historical processes often do not go forward so much as backwards (or rather history may seem to go backwards because actually it has no real direction). Were not the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries a step backwards in the context of a rationalistic world that was heading in the opposite direction, leading towards the rise of science and atheism? And was not the 1979 Iranian revolution a retrograde movement that has lasted for almost 40 years now? One should never underestimate a movement by saying "it is retrograde: it consists of history's losers" – because history is often written by those very “losers”.
 The North American Free Trade Agreement, signed by Canada, Mexico and the United States to form a trilateral trade bloc.
 The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a proposed agreement to encourage free trade between the European Union and the United States. This treaty has not yet been ratified.
 Post factum note, added on December 5, 2016. In the recent Austrian presidential election which was won by the “green” Alexander Van der Bellen, his opponent, the rightist and xenophobic Norbert Hofer, was voted strongly by the working class.
 Wendy Rahn & Eric Oliver, Trump's voters aren't authoritarians, new research says. So what are they?, The Washington Post (March 9, 2016).
 Dating back to 1791.
 The Gini coefficient, or Gini ratio, is a statistical measure of the distribution of the income of a nation's residents. It is commonly used to measure levels of economic inequality.