Monday, July 25, 2016

Lida E. Maxwell — Donald Trump's Campaign of Feeling

Lida MaxwellTrinity College 

In the promotional video that the RNC aired about Donald Trump on the last night of their convention, Rudy Giuliani said that, as president, Donald Trump would “make us feel like what we should feel like: that we are exceptionally lucky to live in this country.” Giuliani’s gloss on Trump was revealing. Trump’s campaign is – as many have noted – a campaign of fear. Trump stokes fear of “radical Islam” and “illegals” and solicits a desire for the safety and security offered by a strongman (him). But his campaign is also one that solicits and relies on a more general politics of sentimentality: his audience’s feeling that feelings are powerful. That is, his campaign fuels the (self-help-ish) idea that feeling good about something makes it good – that feeling like America is great will make America great. 
This was evident in his speech at the Republican National Convention. Trump’s speech (and campaign) had almost zero policy prescriptions (besides building a wall), but he nonetheless suggested that the very day that he gets into office, everyone will be safer. It is difficult to make sense of this claim unless you put it in the context of Trump’s campaign manager’s interview with Jake Tapper earlier that evening. Tapper had seen a draft of Trump’s speech, wherein Trump claims that we need a “law and order” approach in a moment when violent crime is on the rise. Tapper confronted Paul Manafort with data that shows that violent crime has been going down for decades. Manafort responded by saying that he didn’t know the statistics, but that people don’t feel safe. The problem Manafort and Trump are addressing, in other words, is a problem not of actual crime, but of a feeling of insecurity. And if the problem is a feeling of insecurity, then having a feeling of security – when Donald Trump is president – is solution enough. 
This politics of feeling is – in many ways – nothing new. As Lauren Berlant argues in her essay, “The Subject of True Feeling,” sentimentality has long pervaded American politics. In particular, Berlant suggests that minority and subaltern groups have often challenged dominant groups in America, and sought redress for their injuries, in the register of feeling and sentimentality: “[s]entimentality has long been the means by which mass subaltern pain is advanced, in the dominant public sphere, as the true core of national collectivity” (53). Berlant (sympathetically) criticizes the attempt to use sentimentality and pain to create legal change and national unity, arguing that the focus on the pain of individuals blinds us to the structural injustices that produce that pain. Berlant also argues that the discourse of sentimentality creates a “sense that changes in feeling, even on a mass scale, amount to substantial social change” (54). In other words, Berlant is suggesting that casting our political claims in terms of our feelings of pain and trauma creates a culture where feeling better seems to mean that things are better.
I am not trying to suggest that minority groups’ claims of pain and injury have paved the way for Trump’s alienated whites’ politics of feeling – Berlant places minority discourses of suffering in the context of a broader American sentimentalized politics. Rather, I want to suggest something a little different: that Trump and his core supporters (alienated male whites), like other conservatives before them, are coopting progressive politics. If many important demands for justice and freedom – for LGBT, immigrant, and other minority rights – have had to proceed in part through a display of suffering, feeling, and pain that aims to elicit the sympathy of the dominant class, then Trump’s campaign is about proclaiming that the feelings of that dominant class should be a (no, the) matter of common concern – hence the strange slogan for the last night of the RNC, “Make America One Again.” What this approach leaves out, of course, is that the bad feelings of the dominant class are not produced through structural injustices aimed at white, male Americans, but have rather emerged as a belligerent response to policies aimed at redressing the structural injustices that have long been done (and continue to be done) to women, people of color, immigrants, and queers (among others). 
One way to respond to Trump’s campaign of feeling is by unmasking Trump’s claims about national (in)security, and the alien threats that supposedly menace us, as lies – lies that wrongly encourage hatred toward minority groups, and which distract us from the real problems this country has to deal with. This is largely the approach taken by the Clinton campaign and, while many Democrats certainly agree with this approach, it doesn’t seem to be diminishing Trump’s luster with his core constituency. And there is a reason for this. The whole point of Trump’s campaign is that facts don’t matter – feelings matter. Throwing facts in the face of feelings is, in this election cycle, pretty pointless unless you are addressing an audience who is already convinced that facts matter.
An alternative approach to responding to Trump’s campaign of feelings would be not to try to unmask it, but instead to offer an alternative politics of feeling – one that diagnoses, as the product of diverse forms of structural injustice, the bad feelings of insecurity (economic, political, social) that plague many Americans (white men and others), takes them seriously, and addresses them with material solutions. This is, to a large degree, what Bernie Sanders’ campaign did. In his Michigan debate with Hillary Clinton, Sanders was asked whether unions protect bad teachers. Instead of addressing this small issue, Sanders put that issue in the context of the bigger crisis of public education. He said:

“What our campaign is about, is asking people to think big not small. And when we think big and we talk about education, we’ve got to ask ourselves a simple question – how is it, starting at college that hundreds of thousands of bright young people are today, unable to go to college because they can’t afford it? How is it that maybe your kid – and when I was growing up, we didn’t have any money – were not even dreaming of going to college because they knew it was another world. So starting with the top, now I know some people think it’s a radical idea, I don’t. I believe that every public college and university in this country should be tuition free.”

What Sanders does here is offer a savvy diagnosis of why we are even asking questions about unions protecting “bad teachers,” and encouraging a shift in how we think about “solutions.” Specifically, he is suggesting that concern about whether unions protect “bad teachers” is rooted in a broader, material insecurity: about whether our children are receiving, and able to pursue, the education they deserve – an education that, in turn, will allow them to achieve an equal place at the social and political table. That problem is a big problem that demands, Sanders is arguing, a large scale shift in our political imagination – a shift that allows us to see a good, full education not as the privilege of a few, but as a basic right for everyone in a democratic country.

In this moment and others, Sanders’ campaign acknowledged how bad many people in this country feel – how their lives feel insecure and pointless, and how (in contrast to previous generations) it feels like the future might get worse and not better. Sanders did not treat those feelings (as Trump does) as truths in themselves. Instead, he explained them as the product of concrete human decisions, policies, and laws – decisions, policies, and laws that could be otherwise. In turn, he offered his audience a radical political imaginary – a vision of what government and law could be and do if we just, simply, changed it. 

Sanders, of course, is no longer in the picture – and I don’t bring up his campaign simply to wax nostalgic. Rather, I bring it up to suggest that Hillary should take a page from his book: to move away from only trying to unmask Trump’s sentimentalism, and toward also offering an alternative sentimental politics akin to Sanders’. While offering large-scale political dreams is not Hillary’s strong suit – she excels at pragmatic compromise (which is also an important political virtue) – she has shown a remarkable capacity to shift and change during her political career. And if Sanders’ campaign got us to imagine that our politics could be otherwise, could we not imagine that Hillary could be otherwise, too? What if we saw, during the remainder of this campaign, a Hillary who returned to the way she viewed politics when she was at Wellesley College, where she said in her commencement speech that, “for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible”? What if we saw a Hillary who didn’t try to turn us away from the realm of feeling, but diagnosed feeling, and offered a concrete vision of what equality and freedom would look like right now? Such a vision might solicit and create feelings of a different register than the one on which Trump is working: feelings not of alternating fear and greatness, but of possibility, freedom, and solidarity – feelings, in other words, that might embolden political action and participation on behalf of freedom and equality, rather than encourage deference to a huckster. 


1 comment:

  1. Clinton might also articulate an alternative environmental politics. Instead of a sole emphasis on the deleterious consequences of inaction, let's also emphasize the improvements n quality of life that can emerge from a politics of inclusive good and houjrs reduction. In addition, lets have morepircures of the role that minority communities have played in exposing and limiting destructive contaminants and technologies.