Justin Desmangles: I’d like to jump right into it with what I feel is very relevant, emerging from this extraordinary book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. It helps to contextualize some of what we have seen come out of this election cycle. Indeed, a lot of the most bilious and egregious rhetoric that was coming from now president-elect Trump, was in fact not unknown in American politics. What Donald Trump brought to the so-called national conversation was by no means coming out of a vacuum. Perhaps we could start there. There were a lot of caricatures, if you will, that he employed as explanation for what he intended to do policy-wise. Is this a good place to start?
Nancy Isenberg: Yes. I think one of the things we have to remember about American democracy is that we have a long history in which political candidates and their opponents use incredibly viscous, nasty, racist, classist, sexist language. And we act shocked when we hear it today, but I think … that this is important, because this is part of the reason that many of the people that supported Donald Trump did so. They basically said they liked him because they felt he spoke with a kind of raw honesty, that he used unscripted speech. That even his outright rudeness to them was better than what they saw as the status quo that they identified with the well-measured idiom of the politician.
They were basically viewing the politician as making promises, not really listening to the public and their concerns. And the fact that, as we all know, they were particularly resentful of what they saw as the liberal elite dynasty that they connected with both President Obama and Hilary Clinton.
JD: I’d like to step back to a word that you just used, “unscripted.” Indeed, throughout the primaries and on through the general election, that was a term that was continually applied towards Trump and his sort of carny-barker, almost vaudevillian style. But in fact, it was a very tightly scripted routine. Perhaps the idea among the Washington Press Corps that he was unscripted, off-the-cuff, was the fact that they had become so inured to their own cynicism that they didn’t realize they were getting played.
NI: Everyone took note of the fact that he was a practiced entertainer, that he came out of Reality TV—which we know is not about reality, but offers a different kind of scripted performance. But you’re exactly right. I think part of the problem is that we have a long tradition [of this].….I often compared Trump’s performance to politicians like James Vardaman, who was extremely popular candidate in Mississippi, he won the governorship, he was sent to the Senate. Essentially, he believed “Democracy should be as ugly as the people are.”
He very much tapped into the racial tensions between poor blacks and poor whites. This fear that the undeserving are getting hand-outs, or benefits, or perks and privileges that they don’t deserve. I think this is what we have to realize about democracy. Democracy does rely on tapping into people’s worse fears and deepest-held and disturbing emotions. It never has been about the rational discourse of the Founding Fathers. That’s not really how democracy works.
I think that Trump’s language, the idea of “let’s make America great again,” was echoing Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority. There are numerous parallels.
The other thing that Trump did, which Republicans often do, was he made his speech simple. He’d repeat the same words, the same declarations over and over again. And the fact that he was admired because he was seen as an outsider, not a traditional politician. And believe it or not, that same script was used to get Andrew Jackson elected in the Antebellum period.
JD: That’s fascinating. I’d like to explore that point you’re making about Jackson. But before returning to it, I’d like to stay focused a bit more on this use of language and the points that you’re making about democracy. There is sort a strange inverse relationship with president-elect Trump. Basically, it’s this. Aside from the electorate, many of the financiers who put their powers of capital behind the Trump candidacy are decisively un-democratic in character. I’m thinking about people like Sheldon Adelson, or the numerous foundations which stream from the Mellon-Scaife and Koch brothers fortunes. So much of this material so finely, so assiduously detailed by Jane Mayer in her more recent book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. In other words, un-democratic institutions supporting or exploiting democracy in order to get “their guy” into the presidency. Could you share with us your thoughts about that contradiction, or is it a contradiction at all?
NI: I think one of the things we know is that we have so much more money in politics today than was ever the case. During the Founders, the early republic essentially, congressmen (when they first asked for a raise it was in 1816) were being paid very small amounts of money. [A raise] was seen as dangerous. This was the basic premise. That large amounts of money in politics undermine the virtue as well as the disinterestedness of politicians.
We have moved far away from that. We have moved in this direction unfortunately—and this is unfortunate because it has come from the Supreme Court—in terms of ruling that money is free speech. And in fact, as I always tell my students, the freest speech in this country is commercial speech. So money has always been connected to this distorted way of understanding the First Amendment, by connecting it to free speech.
I think a lot of the people that channeled money towards Trump (and we even know a lot of people who supported him) ended up backing him because they were going to go Republican anyway. There was no way they could really cross the line and vote for a Democrat and even if they found things distasteful about Trump, they were not going to support Hilary Clinton. That is part of the dangerous side of partisan politics, how much money, how these powerful fund-raising agencies are able to conceal the amount of money they’re raising.
That contradiction is inherent in Trump himself. He is part of that wealthy elite. He’s the one who lives in a gold-encrusted penthouse on one of the highest priced blocks in New York City. But that also engaged his supporters. They liked that fact. They saw him as sort of stepping down from his penthouse to comingle with the masses. And that’s where we get back to speech again. Because even though they knew his background—information came out that he mistreated his own employees and workers—still, they were in love with his attempt to tap into that idea. That idea of, as I quote in my book (as one Australian observed in 1949), that Americans have a taste for a “democracy of manners” which is not a real democracy.
And what this meant was voters accepted huge disparities in wealth while expecting their leaders to “cultivate the appearance of being no different from the rest of us.” And that [concept], democracy of manners, is even older....The British first used that to describe American politics in the 1840s. So this is the problem. We’ve always had this inherent contradiction. It’s when the politicians go to Iowa and eat corndogs and wear plaid shirts. I mean, what is that about? But that’s what it is. It’s this pretending to be one of the people at least during the election season. And if you bridge that and you’re able to gain enough support because people begin to trust you, they think you are trying to talk to them. They think you are looking like them or behaving like them. That, unfortunately, is the kind of democracy that we have had for a long time. Not just in this past election.
JD: And layered in there, something you alluded to, theoreticians like Frantz Fanon have written about extensively, is the oppressed person identifying strangely with the source of the violence that is being done unto them. Economically, socially, politically, and otherwise. Identifying with the oppressor.
I want to focus in on this idea that you brought in. That has to do with what Trump did, tapping into that emotion of resentment. It seems that within the arc of his party, the Republican party, after Lee Atwater, that it really did become the party of resentment. And that resentment has articulated itself in the most violent terms and actions vis-à-vis racism.
The white nationalists, here within the United States, their passions are fanned to a high flame. This too, while being historic, has also lead to a pattern of the electorate voting against its own interests, which you talk about quite a bit in your book. Can you share some of your thoughts about that? Is this what we saw here, a mass voting against its own interests because of resentment, because of racism, or am I oversimplifying that?
NI: That language of resentment is really important. Again, this is something that James Vardaman used. Orval Faubus used it in the Little Rock controversy. Often it has been a southern strategy, because by pitting poor whites against poor blacks, that means [they are] not going to pay attention to the really powerful ruling elite. It means [they] redirect [their] anger elsewhere.
I think what Trump tapped into, and I think this is why people refer to it as a populist rhetoric, … is that particularly whites and rural whites imagine themselves as being disinherited. And part of that comes out of their anger, their anger that is directed towards social-liberal elites. That’s why all of Trump’s rhetoric is going after the politically correct. Which is not new. Other Republicans have done the same thing. The politically correct liberal elites they see as patrons for groups that are getting ahead of them. And this can be African-Americans, it can be immigrants. Its groups that they believe aren’t playing by the rules of the game.
And the rules of the game that they want is to take it back to the days of the old conservative ideology that you work hard to get ahead. You don’t get patronage or welfare from the Federal government, you make it on your own. And I think that resentment is tied to race and class and we can say even has a gender dynamic. All the hostility that was projected on to Hillary Clinton [shows that] there is also a very anti-feminist backlash that was exploited quite effectively in Trump’s rhetoric as well. And again, women that we would describe as being in the professional middle classes have seen their conditions improve over the last twenty years through education. Whereas this group, and we always have to be careful because Trump supporters were not just working class, many of the poor don’t even vote in this country. Many of the people supporting him are wealthy or would be in the upper middle class, but they don’t identify with the liberal professional classes. They don’t identify with the liberal message that they see coming out of Hollywood or the liberalism that they associate with certain journalists. The way Trump is always going after the New York Times.
JD: Nancy, I want to emphasize a point that you made earlier and pivot to a point you just made about what has engendered that resentment. This idea of playing by the rules and getting ahead through hard work. You said earlier that something you often say to your students is that the freest speech, at least here in the United States, is commercial speech. Now this resentment has been fed into a great deal by commercial speech. I interpret that as being advertising speech. The language of advertising. Thinking about the famous “Morning in America” television ad for the Ronald Reagan first-term election. The fact that the image, the commercially massaged and conditioned image of America's past, when it was once “great” as they say, is actually a product of advertising to a great degree. Is that fair to say?
NI: Yes. This is one of the big issues in my book. Americans don’t like to talk about class, they often want to imagine that we are an exceptional nation, that we broke free from the old-world class systems. That suddenly we became the land of opportunity. And yes, I think that commercial advertisers, as well as political advertisers, often want to claim that there is some pure great America in our past.
It is a tendency in American politicians to always look backwards when they want to find the perfect utopian place. People invoke the Founders, some people invoke Abraham Lincoln, some people love Teddy Roosevelt, or FDR. So there is kind of a limited number of symbols that we often look to when claiming, “this was our greatest era, our greatest historic period.”
But that is because advertising is about simplifying our knowledge of history. It exploits the fact that most Americans don’t know that much about their history. But it also works because Americans would like to imagine that American does embody all these ideals.
And when we see them in the abstract, we support them. We claim we love liberty. We claim we love equality. But I also point out to my students the reasons why the Equal Rights Amendment failed. The fact is they would do surveys, and when they would read the Equal Rights Amendment, most Americans supported that. They said, that makes sense. But when you actually talked about changing the conditions between men and women, then people felt uncomfortable. They didn’t want things to change.
I think that is another thing that reflects Trump’s supporters. We know that a lot of women supported him and that’s because journalists mistakenly think that women vote in a block. Women, as we know, are divided by class and race. They do not act and think alike.
But then on top of that is this problem. The way in which Americans love abstractions. Love the ideology, the rhetoric of the “greatest nation,” but then when you force them to deal with the reality and facts, that [goes against] the mythology that they have been brought up with—or. as you say, goes against commercial advertising, or bad text books. Essentially they come away with, “I’d rather think about the myth. I’d rather think about the perfect country that I know existed at some point in history.”