The Donald and His Discontents​

Celebrity Candidate

”We” live in Trumpy times, indeed. Caricature by DonkeyHotey (CC BY-SA 2.0)


A quick note at the top: Donald Trump’s candidacy is obviously happening in the present. This essay on Thus, History! is not so much concerned with past events as it is with “historical thinking” in the sense that Jim Grossman recently explained it.


Twitter is seldom a fount of timeless wisdom, but in February it provided a nugget. Concise, as all tweets are, it was also incisive, which few tweets are.

”Most of America’s problems come down to who you regard as ‘we’” wrote Merlin Mann; podcaster, productivity geek and all around internet impresario. (Or in his own words ”Indie Writer, Speaker, and Broadcaster”). If you just want the TL;DR, stop here. You would miss a few choice morsels from the kids’ table that is this year’s election cycle, though.


Most of America’s problems, anywhere, anytime, seem to come down to this formula. It has not by far been the only thing fought over, and certainly was not the only issue ever of pressing importance. The occasional war or Cold War, for example, figured prominently as well. But even then, ”we” was a matter of record. It was ”we” who fought a ”them”, be they black-legend Spaniards, German huns or an Evil Empire. This is not just true of America, but it is true of America. It is true of Donald Trump.

There is so much writing on Trump and the world that created him that it seems unnecessary to produce even more. I will produce more. I have a very good reason: hardly anyone talks specifically about the importance of ”we.”

”We”
”We” is what makes a nation. ”We” is what makes any community. It is necessary to distinguish us from them in order to get us to believe, say and do things. ”We” is what created Donald Trump, and ”we” is how and why so many oppose him viscerally. It is easy to oppose Donald Trump, especially from a left-liberal perspective, but the explanations offered usually fall short. Yes, Barack Obama has a point when he says that racist backlash against him and against his ”socialist” policies created Trump. But it wouldn’t have been sufficient. It needed a context in which to grow. If you want to understand that context, at the American Enterprise Institute (a place not particularly known as a leftist stronghold), Norm Ornstein has a most compelling narrative to offer.1

Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich. In Oil, None the Less!
The short version is: blame Newt Gingrich. Or, the values and campaign strategy that he best represents. Following in the footsteps of the sorcerer’s apprentice, Gingrich, in order to win elections, called forth spirits he ultimately could no longer control. Considering that Trump is reportedly considering Gingrich as his running mate, it appears the strategy has perhaps not worked out all that well for the Republican Party in the long run, but it continues to work out for Newt Gingrich. Trump is tapping into a base of Republicans who may have gone along with Gingrich’s spirit pals, but may never have liked them very much, and who by now definitely have had enough. As George Packer writes in the New Yorker:

”[T]he ideology that has gripped their Party since the late nineteen-seventies—anti-government, pro-business, nominally pious—has little appeal for millions of ordinary Republicans. The base of the Party, the middle-aged white working class, has suffered at least as much as any demographic group because of globalization, low-wage immigrant labor, and free trade.”

And as they suffer (bear in mind that this is not suffering in absolute terms of who has it worst in contemporary America, but suffering in the sense of a relative decline of their position within it), they lash out and demand to be heard. A media culture in which news and entertainment have become all but inseparable, and in which the path between reality TV and politics has become well trodden, has ”made the candidacy of a celebrity proto-fascist with no impulse control not just possible but in some ways inevitable” Packer finds.2

Who Are We, Huntingon Book Cover
Who Are We?

Trump is successful with his constituency because he speaks at the intersection of all things ”we” for a large number of non-minority Americans. The ”Trump we” connects to the ”we” that Samuel Huntington used in the 1990s. ”Who are we?”3 he asked. Huntington’s battleground of ”we” was an ”American Creed” which came from England and that English influence made the US the US and not, say, Brazil. Huntington was afraid that a twofer of Hispanic immigration, in his view fundamentally different from all previous waves of immigration, and the fall of the Soviet Union which took away the common enemy that ”we” had relied on to strengthen American identity, would ”bifurcate” the United States and essentially create a second Quebec — a region different in language and culture from the rest of a country – in the American Southwest. Trump, on his vision quest to ”Make America Great Again” (which immediately raises the question what ”great” means, how ”great” is measured, and when exactly the time was when America was great that Trump wants to go back to) is playing on national identity and pride, and on a ”we” that rings true to a considerable number of Americans.

”We” is a presumed unity, but who is part of it and what these partakers of ”we” are supposed to look and think like is changeable. This ”we” that provides the constant, never-thought-about background noise to much journalism (and by extension, any discourse, really) in places like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post or Fox News is typically an ill-defined thing, but it’s defined nonetheless. The ”Times we,” for example, considers itself universal, but it’s pretty much a ”we” of the upper middle class, liberal in outlook but still conservative at heart, mostly white, male, and educated – in short, the whole intersectional enchilada in reverse. Any publication has a voice, of course, but once you have picked your go-to source of news, that voice fades into the background. If you’re a Times person, the ”Times we” will be your guide to make sense of the world. If your preferred news source is Fox News, talk radio, or political satire of the brand popularized by Jon Stewart in previous election seasons, then you’ll go along with that ”we.” (I somewhat clumsily called this process of joining a ”we” club and then remaining enthralled by it ”reparticularization” of the news in the internet age back in 2008.)

”We” can also be a political statement meant overtly to divide. Lyndon Johnson’s Senate career began with a statement anti-civil rights ”We of the South” speech in 1949. (Incidentally, Johnson is presidential history’s poster child for a ”we” flip-flopper. His next prominent use of ”we” was in 1965, as part of the sentence ”we shall overcome.”)

To be clear: I am not advocating for an avoidance of ”we” because it is loaded in so many ways. I use it. I use it in this article. I am advocating for more thought to be given to when, why, and how ”we” is used, and with what consequences before deploying it.

”They”
A ”we” needs a ”they.” That ”they” is a big thing in human thinking. It creeps up everywhere; politics – yes, but also business, games, anything people bother to do in groups, essentially, and some things they don’t. It’s a given in popular culture, whether you’re watching the slightly derailed X-Files revival or reading a Thomas Pynchon novel. We posits a they. A ”they” has to exist for ”we” to be powerful. And that ”they” had ideally be sinister, threatening, foreign, not trustworthy and not understandable. Understanding breeds communion. We do not want to commune with they. We want to defeat they. If we knew why they did what they do, we might lose sight of who we are and why we are against they. That can’t happen. That is the logic of ”we” and ”they,” it’s the logic of George W. Bush’s ”you are either with us or against us” claim in the run-up to the Iraq war, and it’s also the logic behind every conspiracy theory ever.

Trump’s use of ”they” can give you a bit of a headache. As a self-confessed rich person, he at the same time points out his business acumen and money-having as a plus in the ”why I’d make a great president” column, and attacks the ”one percent” of rich people who supposedly have given regular middle class people a raw deal for the past generation. He pillories the same elite that he is proud to be a part of because being part of it proves he has what it takes to be a great president, which is why you should vote for him. It’s a kind of circular logic that probably works so well because you have to spiral around it a couple of times to figure out this is an incongruence in the first place, and frankly, who has the time?

Clinton and Trump Caricatures
Neither Well-Liked. Caricature by DonkeyHotey (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Trump’s ”they” is everyone he happens to be against at the moment, and it’s contextually changeable, though it always includes some unholy coalition of Democrats, fat cats, establishment Republicans and immigrants. That this ”they” is not exactly clear cut seems to have helped Trump in his primary campaign. But the vagueness also contains potential for an unravelling of the strategy: if there is no clear enemy but Hillary Clinton, then who are ”they” and why should Trump be any better at getting back at them than anyone else? Clinton’s weak spots in the campaign are that she is establishment (with all the usual shady dealings this status either actually or purportedly brings with it), and that she is a woman in a society much more sexist than it is ready to admit. But are those two things really going to draw enough voters away from the Democrat camp to Trump? Norm Ornstein puts the chances at 80/20 against Trump, and all the likely 538 electoral math points in the same direction. That’s not to say it is impossible for Trump to get votes that would have gone to another Democratic candidate because some people just patently dislike Clinton. Both candidates’ unfavorable numbers – whatever these mean at this point in the game – are unprecedentetly high. But it’s just as likely that many solidly Republican voters will stay home on election day because they just patently dislike Trump. His ”we” might not be their ”we,” and his ”they” might shrink to Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, since a Republican presidential candidate cannot mine all that much from anti-establishment Republican feeling among Republicans when he is now their standard-bearer.

Drumpf
John Oliver, hero of all those who once watched The Daily Show and do not like the new guy, stayed out of the comic assault on Donald Trump for months. Then he jumped into the fray full-force. ”Make Donald Drumpf Again” he exclaimed in true Trump spirit in one of his signature highly researched and produced segments, ready for YouTube virality. Having found out that the Trump family name had been ”Drumpf” at some point in the 1600s, the Oliver team built a twenty-minute comedy bit that culminated in this information.


On first viewing, this was funny. Taking the opposing candidate down a notch by giving them a funny name or byname is a staple of electioneering. It survived hard cider for a reason. But on second thought, it’s also a bit lame and it fans the same fire Trump fans with his anti-immigrant rhetoric. That Oliver takes up the same line of argument as Trump himself and therefore happily connects to a long tradition of xenophobic depictions of ”not-we” foreigners in the media has gone almost, but not wholly unnoticed in the press. S.I. Rosenbaum, writing in The Washington Post, pointed out that ”‘Drumpf’ feels so satisfying to critics of the Republican front-runner partly because it sounds funny and foreign; it sounds funny BECAUSE it is foreign.” She elaborated that ”Drumpf, to an American ear, conjures up a dough-faced Bavarian Nazi on his stumpy way to murder all the Jews in his village. (At least, that’s what I think of, as a progressive Jew who opposes Trump.)”4

”Call Him Drumpf,” then, is just a variation on a theme that earlier in the same musical production of Election Season 2016 was chanted in the hit numbers ”I Will Build a Wall” and ”They’re Rapists.” Though, as a progressive German who is having a hard time rooting for anyone in this election, I would argue that a veiled derogatory comment on the German-ness of an unliked presidential candidate is not in the same league as promising to build a wall that will keep out Latino rapists. Still, the opposition to Trump does not do itself any favors by pulling out the same blunt tools the object of their discontent uses with gusto.

It is very hard for many people to understand that someone else being wrong does not automatically mean they themselves are right. This implicit (and sometimes quite explicit) dichotomy is at the heart of ”we” and ”they.” It’s at the heart of the current media battle as well. From its adversarial legal system to its two-party elections to its popular culture (Coke or Pepsi, Burger King or McDonald’s, boxers or briefs) Lady Liberty is a Manichee. Your choice is Kierkegaardian. You can be either – or. The middle ground is not just shaky. You’d get contemptuous looks for just trying to stand on it, as if a ”keep off the lawn” sign was posted there, and a small white picket fence surrounded it and some tulips were planted there that you can’t be trusted not to squash.

Even if someone, a presidential candidate say, tries to occupy that patch of lawn by trying to argue that complicated is not always bad, the accusation that invariably follows tends not to acknowledge that what they’re attempting is to occupy the middle ground. John Kerry in 2004 was accused of flip-flopping. He had committed the political no-no of having moved from one of the sanctioned sides to the other. There was not even room in the debate to acknowledge there may perhaps be a third, fourth, n-th side.

Pogo
A recent meme collected all the then-viable presidential candidates for 2016 and put them alongside Muppets. The resemblance is funny, of course. Because Muppets are inherently funny, which is not something you can say about either Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, or even Bernie Sanders. No trouble making that leap for Donald Trump, though. His whole look and demeanor seems muppettish, all bluster and ridiculousness. But make no mistake, Trump is not a Muppet. The Muppets, Elizabeth Hyde Stevens reminded her fellow Gen Xers in 2014, were all about coming together. If you’re of a certain age and you don’t like the Muppets, Stevens contended, many children of the 1970s will look at you with suspicion. The Muppet Show ”[…] had the implicit message that all kinds of weirdos and goofballs can work together in peace, give or take a few explosions. Underneath the screwball humor, The Muppet Show had a message of brotherhood.”5

The Muppets’ brand of happy anarchy was itself based on influences from head Muppeteer (not a term he liked) Jim Henson’s childhood. Foremost among them, according to Brian Jay Jones’ Henson biography, was Pogo.6

Walt Kelly & Pogo Earth Day Poster
We Have Met the Enemy. Via thisdayinquotes.com

Pogo, a cartoon oppossum and star of a long-running comic strip, frolicked with his own cast of ridiculous characters in the Okefenokee swamp. His creator Walt Kelly often used the parallel universe of oddball swamp animals to comment on political issues. Whatever the hot button topic of the day, Pogo had a take on it. As for the question of ”we,” Pogo had that figured out in 1970. ”We have met the enemy, and they is us,” his creator had him say, in reference to environmental pollution on an Earth Day poster published that year.

It’s a good thing to remind ourselves every now and then that ”we” might be our own worst enemy. No matter how we stand on Trump, the Muppets, or anything else, ”we” should be much more careful in using ”we” indiscriminately and without thinking. That is, if you wouldn’t rather wait out this election by dancing your cares away, or playing possum.


  1. Andrew Prokop, ”The Political Scientist Who Saw Trump’s Rise Coming,” interview with Norm Ornstein in: Vox.com. May 6, 2016.  
  2. George Packer, ”Head of the Class,” in: The New Yorker. May 16, 2016.
     
  3. Samuel Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. 
  4. S.I. Rosenbaum, ”John Oliver’s ‘Donald Drumpf’ Jokes Play on the Same Ugly Xenophobia Trump Does” in: The Washington Post, Mar. 3, 2016.  
  5. Elizabeth Hyde Stevens, ”Millennials Just Don’t Get It! How the Muppets Created Generation X” in: Salon.com, April 6, 2014.  
  6. Brian Jay Jones, Jim Henson. The Biography. New York: Random House, 2013. 
Torsten Kathke
Torsten Kathke is a historian specializing in the United States and Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. His book "Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854–1920" is available from Transcript publishers in Europe, and from Columbia University Press elsewhere. Torsten earned his doctorate in American Cultural History from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany in 2013. He subsequently worked at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC and at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. He is a lecturer in American Studies at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Johannes Gutenbergy University, Mainz.

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