Power’s Paranoia: The Identity Politics of Trumpism, at Home and Abroad

Power’s Paranoia: The Identity Politics of Trumpism, at Home and Abroad

David Wearing

Is rising ethnic diversity a threat to the West?’ Donald Trump certainly thinks so. In a speech in Poland in July 2017, likely penned by his then speechwriter Steve Bannon, Trump set himself up as the champion, not of human civilisation, but of Western civilisation specifically, hailing its achievements and warning of threats to it emerging from the south and east, equivalent in magnitude to Bolshevism or Nazism.

Speaking in the midst of the refugee crisis, and in a country that had refused to accept any refugees from the Middle East, Trump explicitly articulated the major preoccupations of the modern far right. “The fundamental question of our time” he asserted “is whether the West has the will to survive”. Like the Neo-Nazi chant “the Jews will not replace us” from the notorious Charlottesville march the following month, this expressed the racialised paranoia that rightful white dominance in the West was under threat from immigration. Trump’s crescendo – “the West will never, ever be broken.  Our values will prevail.  Our people will thrive.  And our civilization will triumph” – bore some resemblance to that of white supremacist Richard Spencer in a 2016 speech celebrating the new president’s election: “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”

Is rising ethnic diversity a threat to the West, as Trump and the far right believe? The proper scholarly response to such a question is to interrogate its underlying assumptions, identify the ideologies or social attitudes on which such assumptions are based, and evaluate the historical and political context in which they are expressed. To this end, one question we might usefully ask is, what is the true meaning of Trump’s slogan, “Make America great again” (MAGA)?

The most obvious meaning is in respect of Washington’s global stature. The rise of China threatens US hegemony in the world system, if not its fundamental primacy relative to other powers, while two decades of successive military failures, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya, provide another potent rebuke to the American ego. In a country where patriotism comes with a particular ideology of ‘exceptionalism’, such indignities are especially hard to swallow.

However, ‘MAGA’ also means something in the domestic sphere, when we consider precisely what kind of America – what version of it – Trump, his allies and his supporters want to restore and defend. An early indication of this was given by Trump’s promotion of the lie that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and thus ineligible to be president of the United States. This directly echoed a notable theme in the history of racist politics in the US: the question of who is ‘100% American’, the answer to that question being those of north European heritage, i.e. of superior racial stock. Trump’s view that Obama was not eligible to be president, his palpable obsession with his predecessor, was transparently not one that hinged on a constitutional technicality but rather on a sense of whose rightful place was in the White House, and whose rightful place was shining the shoes of the president or carrying his golf clubs.

This desire to restore the rightful domestic order extends to the common chant at Trump rallies of “lock her up”, directed not only at Hilary Clinton but also more recently at Christine Blasey Ford, the latter not even being accused of a crime, but simply guilty of refusing to quietly accept male violence. The real, more substantive meaning of “lock her up” – whether aimed at a woman with the temerity to run for president or merely one brave enough to name her assaulter – would seem to amount to “put her in her place”.

We underplay these important aspects when we portray the working class American as somehow the epitome of the Trump voter. Trump lost to Clinton by 12% among voters earning under $30,000 a year, and by 9% among voters earning $30,000-$49,999 a year (the median income in the US is $59,000). He lost by 80% among black voters and by 36% among Latinx voters, both groups being disproportionately working class, but won by 21% among white voters. He lost by 12% among women, won by 12% among men, and won among voters in higher income groups. He lost by 10% among those who cited the state of the economy as their main concern, and won by 32% and 18% respectively among those citing immigration and terrorism, two highly racialised dimensions of how the US relates to the rest of the world.

A Trump vote therefore correlates primarily with whiteness, maleness, relative affluence, and with nationalistic chauvinism, and it is in these characteristics that we will find a better understanding of Trumpism as a socio-political phenomenon. Although Trump lost less heavily among working class Americans than his Republican predecessors, these marginal gains were restricted to those specific (white) elements of the working class more predisposed either to interpret their economic anxieties through chauvinism and prejudice, or to weigh their chauvinism and prejudice at least as heavily as their economic interests when deciding how to vote. The swing Trump achieved among this subset of working class voters is less interesting than the fact that the bulk of the traditional (more affluent) Republican vote held up even when the candidate was a self-proclaimed sexual assaulter engaging in nakedly racist demagoguery and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

Once we understand which specific America is being referred to in ‘MAGA’, we can then identify the connection between the domestic and international dimensions of it. Abroad, the imperial state is the avatar and projection of American white male virility, with any threat or challenge to – or diminution of – that power akin to the domestic challenge to it presented by people of colour and women breaking the constraints of the traditional hierarchy. Unthinking belligerence toward China and Iran, wild demonisation of the Muslim world, egregious abuse of immigrant children, and superfluous enhancement of military might, all fit with the mood of shrill, defensive hysteria. In this context, migrants and refugees seeking the prospect of a decent life in the West are transformed into an existential threat to ‘civilisation’ itself.

Sadly, universities have not escaped the broader backlash (of which Trumpism is a part) coming from the paranoid identity politics of privilege and power. In recent years, a certain class of white, male public intellectual appears to have developed an unhealthy fixation with student politics and university teaching practices, which has now developed into a full blown and entirely contrived moral panic about ‘free speech’, ‘safe spaces’, ‘trigger warnings’, and so on. The reality, again, is that marginal challenges to a still-dominant traditional order are being met with a furious, and highly revealing overreaction.

My own field, international relations, does not begin to resemble the caricature of higher education that now manifests itself in political discourse. The theoretical landscape remains dominated by the schools of Realism, Liberalism, and more conventional forms of Social Constructivism. Overwhelmingly, scholarship identifies with Western power, treating it as axiomatically the agent of progress, security, modernity and good governance. Here, the scholar’s task is less to stand apart from power and subject it to critique and scrutiny, and more to sit at its right hand and advise on the threats and challenges out there in the world, and how best to solve these problems.

Alternative schools of thought exist in the field – postcolonialism, Marxism and more critical forms of feminism, for example – but these remain at the margins. The decolonial movement of staff and students has begun to press for the de-centering of Western power in our scholarly activity, and for the need to subject that power to a more thoroughgoing critique, but those efforts are a long, long way from achieving their aims. Looking at the intellectual landscape more broadly, the establishment response to the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford – characterised by the apparent belief that the only matter at stake was some students taking ‘offence’ at a statue – does not engender confidence in that establishment’s capacity to respond to the decolonial challenge in anything approaching a serious manner.

But serious engagement with these questions is urgently required, because the leading power centre with which the Western intellectual establishment identifies is now inhabited by a white nationalist whose climate change policy on its own may in the end prove to be the death warrant for human civilisation. The Trump presidency is not an aberration or a foreign imposition, but the extreme expression of something deeply and firmly embedded, something very familiar, in Western society. Trump’s explicitly racialised chauvinism is distinct from the subtler forms of Western self-satisfaction evident in the more liberal mainstream, but they are unmistakeably on a spectrum with each other. Both will need to be challenged – in the universities, and in our wider politics – if we are to somehow find our way out of this profoundly troubling moment.


David Wearing is a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, and author of ‘AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters To Britain’ (Polity 2018)