The Nightmare Begins

Adam Shatz · Trump World

Donald Trump’s quasi-apocalyptic victory marks the end of American exceptionalism: a certain idea of America, as a model of democracy and freedom, is dead. Trump didn’t kill it; he declared it dead with a campaign that was as surreal as it was reactionary. ‘It’s a nightmare,’ a French friend wrote to me in an email. ‘It’s worse than a nightmare,’ I replied. ‘It’s reality.’

But how to explain this reality? How did Trump – the least qualified candidate in American history, a narcissistic, desensitised bully who could not put together a complete sentence, much less an argument – seduce the American electorate? Some see his victory as a misdirected working-class rebellion, staged by resentful middle-class whites who were effectively proletarianised by neoliberal policies promoted by both of America's major political parties. Others see it as a racist, xenophobic uprising, led by a vanguard of white nationalists who have rallied around Trump as their figurehead.

Both explanations have a kernel of truth. Trump is inconceivable without the 2008 financial crisis, and Obama's reliance on Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers and the other 'Harvard boys' reinforced the impression that American liberalism was an elite ideology, and globalisation a luxury that working people could no longer afford. Popular resentment against elites has increasingly been deflected towards vulnerable minorities, especially immigrants and undocumented workers supposedly coddled by liberals.

But neither explanation captures the profoundly nostalgic dimensions of Trump's appeal, or his animal magnetism among his supporters. Looking at Trump, American liberals see a barroom lout, a pig who boasts about grabbing women 'by the pussy' and threatens to jail his opponent. But Trump taps into an ideological fantasy among voters who would like to return to a world in which borders counted for something, white men were the ‘natural leaders’, and women and minorities knew their place. A black man in the White House, for them, was an intolerable insult. That he was the son of a Kenyan with a Muslim name, raised in Indonesia, only rubbed salt in the wound.

More than any other campaign in recent American history, this was a story of winners and losers. No one suffered more from the 2008 financial collapse than black Americans, and during Obama's time in office black people saw little improvement in their fortunes; his defence of black interests rested mainly on his rhetorically admirable but, as it turned out, quixotic attempt to set a new moral tone in American life, and to bring together Americans of different races. Yet a strange, phantasmagorical story emerged and spread, even before Trump's candidacy, that poor whites were the true losers of globalisation.

Liberal journalists went out to the heartland, much as they had once wandered through the ghetto, and found that the white poor had succumbed to the same ills that affected poor people of colour (drugs, violence, broken families, joblessness). Yet their suffering was not acknowledged, much less glamorised as a rebellious sub-culture: not only were whites being reduced to the conditions of black people (the horror!), they could not even count on white liberal solidarity. Betrayed by 'the system', viewed with contempt by elites in New York and Washington who considered them incapable of adapting to the new economy, the white wretched of the earth attached themselves to Trump as if he were Moses leading them out of Egypt. This story, which J.D. Vance popularised in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, isn’t wholly untrue, but it isn’t the whole story either.

According to the polls, Trump’s most devoted supporters aren’t the very poor but the lower middle class – the class traditionally most attracted by fascism. However much they have suffered since the recession, they aren’t ‘victimised’ as the very poor are, or as black people are in the most deprived parts of our cities, where the police behave like an occupying force. Since (and before) the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, hundreds of unarmed black men have been killed by the police.

If America were another country, with a less toxic racial history, poor whites might have joined forces with blacks in protest against police violence, and the system of mass incarceration that Michelle Alexander has called a 'new Jim Crow'. But movements like Black Lives Matter have proved anathema to them. For Trump voters, BLM is an almost existential menace, because it calls into question the sanctity of the forces of law and order. It is hardly surprising that one of Trump's most vocal supporters is Rudolph Giuliani – no 'hillbilly' but a New Yorker born and bred. The former mayor of New York and spokesman for Police Lives Matter is hated by African Americans, who remember the Giuliani era as a time of widespread violence and harassment at the hands of the police. Giuliani is likely to be our next attorney general.

Restoring law and order is a theme that the Republicans have harped on since Nixon’s ‘Southern strategy’, but in Trump’s hands it has taken on a new psychological force. Listening to his ravings, his admirers feel less weak, especially when he attacks the people they like least – Muslims, Mexicans, refugees – as if it were a boxing match, or more precisely a Western, the foundational genre for the reactionary imagination in the United States.

The freedom of speech which black campaigners have exercised to insist on their right not to be executed without trial is a source of unbelievable rage for Trump’s supporters, who claim that their suffering isn’t recognised (indeed, is suppressed) by the media, and that, because of political correctness, they have been effectively muzzled. Listening to Trump they are filled with jubilation because he isn’t silent, as they were – according to their worldview – before this election. Liberals see a lout without qualities; his supporters see a patriot without inhibitions, who not only makes no secret of his racist, islamophobic, sexist and violent convictions, but appears proud of them. Liberal intellectuals expressed their shock that a man of such belligerence and vulgarity could find favour with the electorate, but Trump’s admirers love him not despite his belligerence and vulgarity but because of those attributes, which they recognise in themselves. This is the source of his irresistible charisma for his voters.

Obama, with his academic, lofty airs, embodies absolute evil for them: a black man, probably African, profoundly cosmopolitan, with a gift for oratory, who rules with the support of a neoliberal elite, many of whom are Jews. Obama is the pure expression – though not ‘pure’ in the racial sense, which only makes it worse – of the ‘Eastern seaboard elite’, a group increasingly composed of immigrants' children whose citizenship is now being called into question. A product of Harvard, he is part of ‘the system’, which has fallen into the hands of suspect foreigners: Obama’s elevation is a sign, for Trump’s followers, of the disappearance of their country, the ‘real’ America where people have Christian names.

Trump doesn’t really represent a challenge to the American system. He isn’t a billionaire version of Eugene Debs. But his campaign took us into the logic of fascism, and it’s no accident that there are strong echoes of the 1930s now: economic crisis; a social class that, having lost its status and privileges, is keen to find scapegoats; violence, both physical and verbal, directed against movements of the left led by people of colour; a systematic ambiguity regarding his intentions, for example when he said that he would leave us ‘in suspense’ as to whether he would accept the election result if Clinton won. Trump’s acceptance speech was typically banal and superficial, but touched on the central themes of the nostalgic fascist imagination: praise for the family and for strength; promises of reconquering the global economy and restoring at last a lost hegemony.

As Tuesday night wore on, it was increasingly clear that Clinton should never have been the Democratic candidate: she was identified with a neoliberal project from which middle America has suffered since Nafta, and which the inhabitants of the heartland consider almost a plot against their interests. Never mind the emails, or the less than savoury dealings of the Clinton Foundation: Clinton's Goldman Sachs speeches were enough to convince most whites that whatever her promises on the campaign trial, a Clinton presidency spelled more deindustrialisation and an invasion of foreign workers. Bernie Sanders knew how to talk to this section of the electorate, and Clinton finally recognised that she needed him, adopting his language of economic justice as her own, with somewhat limited results. She tried to distance herself from the neoliberal orthodoxy to which she had adhered with her husband, admitting that Nafta had 'not lived up to its promises'.

She went against her past also by allying herself with Black Lives Matter, which had strongly criticised her for her inflammatory references to African American criminals as ‘super predators’ and her support for Bill Clinton’s Crime Bill, which severely exacerbated the crisis of mass incarceration (one black man in three serves time in prison). Her changes in position attracted some voters, but they also contributed to the impression, already widespread, that she was opportunistic and untrustworthy. Men are allowed to flipflop – they want to win, it’s their right (and no one has been more inconsistent than Trump) – but Americans are much less forgiving when the candidate is a woman. She becomes ‘unscrupulous’ or, if she is too close to black movements, for example, she is denounced as ‘soft’, incapable of asserting herself and holding them in check.

Would Sanders have been able to defeat Trump? We’ll never know, but the thesis isn’t very convincing. A Jew in his seventies who calls himself a socialist, he never had a chance in the face of opposition from the Democratic National Committee, which did everything it could to ensure he wouldn’t be the nominee. After Clinton's defeat, intellectuals on the left are claiming that Sanders would have done better against Trump because of his message of economic justice, and his ability to talk to white working-class voters without disdain. But Trump’s voters – one of whom chanted 'Jew-SA' at a recent rally – might well have seen him as a Jew and therefore a foreigner from the ‘birther’ point of view, and certainly as a defender of ‘losers’ and minorities.

Although class resentment is one of the ties that bind the inhabitants of Trump world, the greatest injustice for Trump’s followers isn’t that society is deeply divided along class lines (a fact hidden by the dominant but increasingly fragile ideology of the ‘middle class’) but that power is sliding out of their hands, a weakness evidenced by their demographic decline. What they want from their strong man isn’t to transform society, but to recover their position of natural dominance in the order of things, not only economically but also politically (the White House had not only been confiscated by a black family, the ultimate disgrace, but was being contested by a woman) and symbolically (restoring a white, monocultural image after the multicultural break of the Obama years).

In choosing Trump as their saviour, they have chosen a man who talks like a loser – and is therefore familiar and reassuring – but is also a winner, without pity for the victims unless they are the whites who have been deprived of their historic role to ‘make America great again.’ He has no ideas, but neither do they, because they cannot imagine themselves as part of a common political project with people of colour, who will eventually compose the American majority, a future they dread. Trump has given them hope, for now, but it is an illusion: a dream of virility, the fantasy of absolute power. For them, it was a night of joy and vindication. For us, it is the unimaginable beginning of a nightmarish reality.

A version of this piece in French appeared in Mediapart.


  • 10 November 2016 at 4:54pm
    Emmryss says:
    It does all come down to race, doesn't it? Their "position of natural dominance" was always an illusion, maintained by keeping someone, anyone, but always people of colour, under them. With the bottom falling out of that structure of dominance, it really must feel as if the bottom has fallen out of their world and they are in freefall, a really uncomfortable feeling that most of us would do anything to reverse.

    • 12 November 2016 at 12:12am
      saorlab says: @ Emmryss
      'It does all come down to race, doesn’t it?' How true and it is a cultural Darwian or Hobbesian viewpoint - Andrew O'Sullivan commented last week on Trumps way of seeing things as a zero sum game.

      I wonder if this a particular old (and I mean puritan) white American way of viewing the world.

    • 18 November 2016 at 4:40am
      Alices Restaurant says: @ saorlab
      Not sure your "white American way of viewing the world" also includes Sicilians post-1910, but if it does, you miss the point: Who is Zeno and how many tacos to the moon?

    • 24 January 2017 at 7:50am
      BlakMark says: @ Alices Restaurant
      Can you explain your last two (presumably rhetorixcal in intention) questions, please? I'm aware of Zeno and his paradoxes etc. But I'm missing your point.

  • 10 November 2016 at 6:14pm
    suetonius says:
    Interesting, and much more thoughtful than the pablum we've been getting elsewhere. I would disagree about Bernie though. While he probably wouldn't have picked up many Trump voters (although I do think he would have picked up some) he would have had millions more millennials vote, all for him. I think he would have won easily. My son, 18, voted for Stein, but many of his friends just didn't vote at all - if Bernie was running they would have.

    • 10 November 2016 at 6:28pm
      sol_adelman says: @ suetonius
      Agreed. And those journalists and scholars who criss-crossed the country in the past few months actually interviewing Trump supporters all emphasize that economic concerns were preeminent. Not racial grievances. Theres no way Trump could have depicted Sanders as a self-serving embodiment of a corrupt establishment. Clinton was likely the only opponent Trump could have prevailed against.

    • 11 November 2016 at 12:55pm
      David Timoney says: @ suetonius
      The tale of the tape is that Trump got the usual Republican vote to turn out (60m), while Clinton failed to do the same for the Democrats (down from 66m to 60m). Unless a lot of Dems are secret anti-semites, or genuinely consider Bernie a Bolshevik, it seems reasonable to conclude that Sanders would have won in a head-to-head.

  • 10 November 2016 at 7:30pm
    whisperit says:
    Much the best analysis I have read to date. What deepens the tragedy is that Trump's policies will result in further divisions between communities in a context of sharply accelerated economic, foreign policy and environmental crises. In these conditions, with the coalition around the Obama-Clinton "elite" disposed of, it is hard to see where a new progressive alliance could form.

    • 11 November 2016 at 10:51am
      RobotBoy says: @ whisperit
      But 'the coalition around the Obama-Clinton "elite"' was an obstacle to a progressive, populist challenge, made all too clear by its defeat of Sanders. Obama's soaring rhetoric was hardly backed by action, as he revealed himself to be the most temperate of 'gradualists'. In foreign policy, he basically conducted things according to typical State Department consensus - from supporting the Saudis in their military adventures, to the usual mild criticism of Israeli excesses on one hand while signing the latest arms deal with the other. Obama did next to nothing to punish or restrict Wall Street after 2008 and avoided bold initiatives regarding the crises in policing, poverty, etc.
      One hope is that this rebuke to the DNC along with the inevitable Trump screw ups will allow a real left populist to galvanize the various Democratic coalitions and win back some of those voters who weren't going to support a machine politician under any circumstances.

    • 12 November 2016 at 2:36pm
      suetonius says: @ RobotBoy
      Ted Rall has a column on this. His take is that we actually might see an anti Trump left develop. And I think the potential is there. A large chunk of US voters are open to the left, even if they don't know it. Bernie got a lot of very enthusiastic votes. He isn't a real socialist of course, but his supporters thought of him as one, At least half of Democratic voters are ripe for a real movement, though it can't happen inside the Democratic party. Which makes things interesting. I somehow think it's related to Corbyn, though in England it could happen inside the Labor party, since the Labor party was at one time an actual workers party of some sort.

    • 12 November 2016 at 2:37pm
      whisperit says: @ RobotBoy
      I shed no tears at the demise of the Clinton bloc, and it is nice to hope that a 'real left populist' opposition will emerge in its wake. But is that realistic?

      Trumpism will give us economic uncertainty, foreign policy jeopardy, inter- and intra- community competition. I don't see these as conditions conducive to the formation of a self-confident, popular left movement.

      Far more likely then, is that one rightist, populist demagogue will prepare the way for others.

    • 12 November 2016 at 2:56pm
      suetonius says: @ whisperit
      Could be, could be both. We shall see. People have to prepare for a real fight, is the thing. And it won't be polite.

  • 10 November 2016 at 7:54pm
    Eric Auerbach says:
    "Never mind the emails, or the less than savoury dealings of the Clinton Library..."

    Do you mean the Clinton Foundation?

  • 10 November 2016 at 10:01pm
    Toby_angel says:
    The most astute and cogent dissection of Trump's appeal. Similar to Farage in the UK, each figure embodies an idealised version of the deepest and most nostalgic cultural fantasies of their respective countries. Farage apes the dress, phrases and cultural attitudes of what he imagines an 18th Century benign aristocrat would, and the UK media found this iconography so seductive and, well, iconic, that he was frequently photographed in a pub, sipping beer, regardless of the newspaper's ideological affiliation: there just seemed something so natural about the photo, right? Trump, the ostensible self-made man, obviously symbolises the dream of the immigrant's grandson made good. Each actor is manifestly ill-cast in their roles: what I fear is the moment when the groundlings realise that the show they thought they paid for, isn't what they are watching, and they start to rip the whole theatre apart.....

  • 11 November 2016 at 3:12am
    bcromart says:
    I didn't find this very helpful, not that I have a better take. As I see it economics and race are the two major factors in this; Shatz dismisses both and then embarks on a hyperbolic discussion of racist nostalgia. I'm not sure why the distinction matters. I really could be wrong, as the demographics are tricky, but I doubt that the perception of Obama as "absolute evil" was a factor in the swing. Shatz's qualification in portraying the "almost existential threat" perceived in the Black Lives Matter movement suggests that he knows he's reaching. As a suitably appalled Clinton voter, it now seems glaringly obvious to me that she lost because on one hand, she was not credible on economic inequality and couldn't assure voters that she would stand up to Wall Street. On the other, Trump's racism and misogyny did not matter as much as they should have. Do these things admit of degrees? How can liberals take account of this going forward?

  • 11 November 2016 at 7:55am
    unigenitus says:
    This is probably useful for debunking at least parts of the above:

  • 11 November 2016 at 8:18am
    MarkOP says:
    The US has been trading on the idea of American exceptionalism for years, despite the reality of it being pretty much dead since the end of the second world war. It is simply a rhetorical fig leaf to cover acts of blatant self interest and cold war manoeuvring such as Vietnam, the Shah of Iran, Pinochet, Iraq etc.

  • 11 November 2016 at 9:50am
    IPFreely says:
    Well at least he can't invade Iraq, which is a way of saying that Bush jun. was a complete disaster and that Trump will be different but he can't be worse than Bush in terms of foreign policy, or can he? It is worth going back to Obama's first victory and looking at his opponent. Obama got a lot of votes because young Americans were enthusiastic about a candidate who campaigned on an optimistic programme and his team knew how to use the media. The Republican candidate was a millionaire just like Trump claims to be, who openly stated that there were 47% of the population who would never vote for him - the people who decided that Trump was their man three days ago.
    Now that the shock is wearing off I am beginning to hope for some vigorous actions by European leaders who can make it clear to Trump that no, he can't invade Iran, that using carpet bombing on Iraq would be a war crime and palling up with Putin will be like putting a piranha in the fish tank.
    He won't sign TTIP either, which can't be bad.

  • 11 November 2016 at 10:21am
    Joe Morison says:
    We know how the nightmare has begun, but how will it end? What I find even more frightening than the thought of a Trump presidency is where all his supporters are going to go when he disappoints them, as he surely must.

    The deplorables have finally got one of their own into the White House, I can't see them just giving up when they realize that it has done nothing to improve their lot.

    • 12 November 2016 at 10:21pm
      Peter John Robertson says: @ Joe Morison
      True. As Michael Bloomberg said at the DNC, "I know a con when I see one."

  • 11 November 2016 at 10:25am
    David Sharp says:
    The LRB notes that "A version of this piece in French appeared in Mediapart.", but inexplicably fails to give the address of that version. For those able to read French, it's at
    The title translates as "The vote for Trump: the revenge of white males".

  • 11 November 2016 at 10:42am
    frmurphy98 says:
    Unconvincing. There's no evidence here that Mr Shatz has done any research on Trump voters, beyond seeing coverage of some rallies on TV. A quote from even one Trump supporter saying Obama embodies absolute evil or that BLM is an existential menace would have helped.

    • 11 November 2016 at 12:43pm
      cwritesstuff says: @ frmurphy98
      Would it really? I've seen both quotes (and worse to be honest). I didn't need to see them again to take the point.

  • 11 November 2016 at 11:17am
    viscapoum says:
    "After Clinton’s defeat, intellectuals on the left are claiming that Sanders would have done better against Trump because of his message of economic justice, and his ability to talk to white working-class voters without disdain. But Trump’s voters – one of whom chanted ‘Jew-SA’ at a recent rally – might well have seen him as a Jew and therefore a foreigner from the ‘birther’ point of view, and certainly as a defender of ‘losers’ and minorities."

    Sanders obviously wouldn't have won any of the hardcore racists supporting Trump, but he wouldn't have needed to. All the Democrats needed to win was to peel off a relatively small number of Trump voters in the Rust Belt. It's a nonsense to argue that all of those were racists and anti-Semites, in particular given that Obama did much better amongst them than Clinton. Sanders with his long-standing anti NAFTA stance and so on would have easily done much better in these areas specifically than Clinton. He also would have done better across the board; he consistently enormously outpolled Clinton vs Trump, and he is nationally a popular figure while Clinton has been unpopular for decades.

    • 11 November 2016 at 1:06pm
      Dominic Rice says: @ viscapoum
      Spot on, viscapoum.

    • 15 November 2016 at 8:15pm
      Remonstrater says: @ viscapoum
      I agree: viscapoum is absolutely right. Adam Shatz, as usual, is obsessed with ideology, and uninterested in researching the facts (tedious journalistic work). One of the other readers was thoughtful enough to provide this link to the Washington Post, which shows the following: "Of the nearly 700 counties that twice sent Obama to the White House, a stunning one-third flipped to support Trump.Trump also won 194 of the 207 counties (!) that voted for Obama either in 2008 or 2012."
      If the voters in these counties were racists, as Shatz's commentary implies, then why on earth would the majority of them have voted for a black President, in many cases twice in succession? Other commentators, unlike Shatz, have done their empirical homework, have actually talked to Trump supporters across the country, and concluded that, ulimately, this election was not about race, but about class and economics. I find this commentary by Prof. R.W. Johnson far more convincing than Shatz's rave:

  • 11 November 2016 at 12:05pm
    hag says:
    You write that "Trump has given them hope, for now, but it is an illusion: a dream of virility, the fantasy of absolute power."
    This will remain an illusion unless the rules of American democracy are replaced with those of fascism.
    I suspect that the reason so many of us are disturbed by Trump's victory is that the next logical dream, the sequel, 'Trump Two', is inexorably a dream of Blut und Boden. A lot can happen in four years, but the next US election may be the one that determines what kind of century this will turn out to be.

  • 11 November 2016 at 12:53pm
    Graucho says:
    The nightmare in Europe is going to be an emboldened Putin.

    • 11 November 2016 at 1:03pm
      Dominic Rice says: @ Graucho
      Yes, Putin's coming to get us. Nightmarish stuff eh?

    • 11 November 2016 at 3:19pm
      IPFreely says: @ Dominic Rice
      Depends on your location. If you live in Poland, say, or Lithuania, or on the eastern fringe of Ukraine you might well be afraid that Putin with a Trump in his hand will try to extend his control back towards the old Soviet empire border. My not be creepy to you but in Luhansk it looks very creepy indeed, if creepy is the right word.

    • 11 November 2016 at 5:03pm
      piffin says: @ IPFreely
      Don't be silly. What possible justification could putin provide for seizing Poland or the baltics that would avert ww3? (Even accepting there is any intention in Russia to seize them. Which there isn't, so far as I am aware).

    • 11 November 2016 at 6:04pm
      Graucho says: @ piffin
      The man who puts polonium in his enemies' tea, bombs schools and aid convoys, is surrounded by more dead bodies of investigative journalists and political opponents than the average mafia boss needs justification ? Who's being silly ? What will avert WW3 is Trump sitting on his hands as he has indicated he might. Anyway Putin won't sieze the Baltic states, he'll just stir up the large minority Russian populations living there.

    • 15 November 2016 at 6:40pm
      Tanvyeboyo says: @ Graucho
      I don't care for Putin but he is so convenient as a scare figure for the NATO warmongers. What would an acceptable Putin look like? Like Sisi in Egypt or the exemplary Saudi leaders? How do we like our dictoators?
      But we now have our own Putinesque figure with Donald in the White House. Why not a new Ribbentrop Molotov deal of some sort if both are so, so bad? I don't think they care much about their own patches. For Putin that includes Crimea and a foothold on the Mediterranean at Tartus. Trump will stick closer to home in his first term....
      I expect him to stir things up on the Rio Grande. Some Pancho Villa drug goon will shoot up a town in Texas and it will be 'hot pursuit' with the US Marine Corps landing in Acapulco and Cancun to save American tourists' lives. That'll play well on 24/7 TV and the net.
      Recently, Federical Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, called a meeting of EU foreign ministers to discuss the challenge of Trump's election. UK stayed away, no surprise, they would only have showed up to take notes for Trump and Farage would relay them. But why did the other Secuirity Council member and WMD-holder France stay away? What is going on?
      Old Chinese saying: 'May we live in uninteresting times'. Forget that for a while and leave off Putin. We have enough on our plate with Brexit and Trump and not a clue what to do with the post-2008 economy.

    • 18 November 2016 at 2:54pm
      stockwelljonny says: @ piffin
      its not a case of seizing the Baltics or Poland, rather about control, subversion of established systems. In the absence of push back Putin will undoubtedly be enboldened to continue and increase his current subversion of baltic democracies already underway, funding of opposition/ far right parties etc, as is well documented.

    • 18 November 2016 at 6:23pm
      IPFreely says: @ stockwelljonny
      Exactly. And Trump is walking with eyes wide shut into the parlour.

  • 11 November 2016 at 5:27pm
    Joan Scott says:
    Adam Shatz has offered the best analysis I have so far read of the Trump phenomenon. I found his understanding of Trump’s “animal magnetism,” the dreams of restored “virility,” and his supporters’ craving for the sanctity of law and order to be especially compelling. That Trump came to embody a fantasy of absolute power is undeniable. How and why that worked so well and what it suggests for an oppositional politics are the questions his piece leaves open.

    Shatz’s comments on the reasons for Clinton’s failure do not provide good enough answers. It wasn’t only what she stood for (the depth of her associations with Wall Street, a certain elitist cosmopolitanism) or her flip flopping on issues of economic and racial justice, but—I would argue—the very appeal she made to logic and reason that led to her defeat. She offered factual corrections to his lies, practical policies to address concrete issues—but nothing in her words or her manner called forth the kind of libidinal energy he did. To be sure, millions voted for her—indeed she won the popular vote—but her words and her demeanor offered little comfort to the angry, white, lower middle class men and women, as well as so many of the others including many urban as well as rural voters, who opted for Trump. And, of course, the fact that she was a woman limited the scope of the appeal she could offer. Even had she not been the kind of wonky personality she is, a woman candidate with “animal magnetism” could never have been seen as an avatar of absolute power. While Trump’s excesses (all those women, even his daughter; all that gold; the repeated insults to immigrants, Blacks, Latinos; all that ego;) demonstrated his potency (his phallic force), any such excess on a woman’s part would only confirm her unsuitability for public office. Indeed, even without excess of that kind, Clinton elicited virulent misogynist reactions.

    Trump’s performance of over-sized masculinity (despite the small size of his hands) made him seem to many capable of restoring a lost or threatened order. His very transgressions (bankruptcy, tax evasion, infidelity, profiteering) ironically confirmed his ability to impose and enforce the law. He was the all-powerful father Freud theorized about in Totem and Taboo—the one who can make the law without having to follow it. Trump’s appeal to both men and women rested on his promise to impose a lost or threatened orderof racial and gender hierarchies. The appeal was made not rationally or programmatically, but libidinally—it was the erotic call and response that won the day.

    What kind of political response is possible in the face of this power? How does democracy—historically the alternative to absolutism—make an equally potent, but different libidinal appeal? Does the promise of emancipation (an end to the primal father’s monopoly) have the same erotic charge today that socialists (e.g. Marcuse) and second-wave feminists thought it did—did it ever, does it still? What about redemption as a communal experience in the way Martin Luther King offered it?

    Any political movement of opposition will need to contend with these questions and come up with answers to them; for those answers the psychic charge of politics needs to be a serious consideration. If we abandon that terrain to the Trumps of this world, the danger of fascism, already on the horizon, will become ever more real.

    • 12 November 2016 at 11:36am
      M.G. Zimeta says: @ Joan Scott
      I thought this was a really interesting analysis, on par with Adam Shatz's excellent piece: thank-you.

    • 12 November 2016 at 2:47pm
      whisperit says: @ Joan Scott
      A little Freudian for my taste, but the point is well made. Humanity is far less of a creature of reason than it likes to pretend. We make post hoc rationalisations for what are essentially emotional decisions.

      Our response to trump has to be based on providing people with the *experience* of collective endeavor and mutual support - something that speaks to the pro-social side of our nature.

    • 14 November 2016 at 6:11pm
      mkglazek says: @ Joan Scott
      Dazzling. Have copied, pasted, sent this to family members. Are you Joan Scott, the historian?

    • 15 November 2016 at 8:29am
      Joe Morison says: @ Joan Scott
      Democracy has a potent libidinal appeal when people don’t have it, because its rationality is an intoxicating repudiation of the brutal irrationality of the system those people are living under. But I can’t see its possibility when people have already long had the vote because by then they are bored with it.

      I think our only hope is to wait until the irrationality of the new politics fails, as it will as surely as irrationality in medicine or car design does, and then point out why. Maybe then, rationality itself can start to have a potent libidinal appeal.

    • 15 November 2016 at 6:54pm
      Tanvyeboyo says: @ Joan Scott
      Paul Theroux drove around the 'Deep South' not long ago talking to future Trump voters or victims.
      Nobody knew he was a writer. People called him Mr Thorax. Nobody seemed to read books, barely knew they existed. They have more guns, and gun-shows, than books down there.
      How do we get Joan Scott's wisdom to these people or do we just have to continue to write them off as has happened since 1865? We can't mention Adam's family name or they switch to silent sulk. And we can't mention gender studies. They don't know what it's about but they sure wouldn't like it. We're back to Nativist ante-bellum days. What next a Civil War and they're all gunned up?

    • 4 January 2017 at 2:19am
      JWA says: @ Joan Scott
      I'm somewhat late to the party here - but a small addendum as this comment reminded me that one of Trump's prominent cheerleaders, creepy Breitbartian Milo Yiannopolis, refers to Trump as his 'Big Daddy'. It's hard to know how to counter ideologues who seek to make a virtue out of their acknowledged self-abasement.

  • 11 November 2016 at 5:53pm
    kadinsky says:
    If it's true that Jamie Dimon is to be Trump's treasury secretary, then the only nightmare will be the continuation of the one America's disinherited have been living for a generation.

  • 11 November 2016 at 9:55pm
    tony lynch says:
    Mr Shatz is an acute moral icon possessed of all the wisdom and benevolence in the world (for those just like him).

  • 12 November 2016 at 1:56am
    Peter John Robertson says:
    US Election 2016 deserves to qualify as an appendix in a reprint of Charles Mackay's 1841 classic, "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds."

  • 12 November 2016 at 7:20am
    FoolCount says:
    "... Clinton should never have been the Democratic candidate: she was identified with a neoliberal project from which middle America has suffered since Nafta, and which the inhabitants of the heartland consider almost a plot against their interests".

    That statement misses the point. Of course, Clinton should never beed the Democratic candidate. But only if the goal was to minimise Trump's chances of victory. However, that was not the sole goal of the American establishment. Clinton was the candidate precisely because she was identified (and in fact was an active participant) of that neoliberal project, continuation of which was actually the main objective of the political and financial elites. With Trump being perceived as a joke and with full force of American media at their disposal, Clinton certainly looked good enough to prevail over Trump, while her other attributes put her far above all other Democratic candidates in the eyes of the true rulers of the World, and certainly above Bernie Sanders, who may still be perceived by most in that milieu as even more dangerous to them than Trump.

    • 12 November 2016 at 9:01am
      David Sharp says: @ FoolCount
      Exactly. The leaders of these mainstream parties have ideological antennae which attune them to what "the true rulers of the World" really want. That is more important to them than the simple prospect of winning an election.
      What this means is that they'd actually rather lose than win with a candidate they couldn't control, running on a programme that would ultimately threaten their positions of power.
      In just the same way that the high and mighty of the UK Labour Party, and the high and mighty who support them in the media, would rather destroy their party than let it be run by Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters.
      This is the real meaning of saying that the system is "rigged". Trump managed to touch on that widespread perception, which is another of the reasons why he won.

    • 12 November 2016 at 10:56am
      FoolCount says: @ David Sharp
      Those "ideological antennae" do not even need to be so sensitive. The elites are pretty straightforward in their demands which have been quite succinctly formalised in the "Washington consensus" and in the "flat-world/end-of-history" narrative. What Trump's victory (and before that Brexit) demonstrated is that those elites were too arrogant and overestimated their own powers, as did their servile sycophants from both major parties in both US and UK. That mistake cost Clinton the presidency - twice - first time when she lost the Democratic primaries to Obama over her support for the Iraq war and now again. Ingratiating herself with the establishment and taking advantage of her husband's political machine may have seemed like a sure way to the White House 20 years ago but a lot has changed since.

    • 12 November 2016 at 2:50pm
      whisperit says: @ David Sharp
      Well put!

    • 13 November 2016 at 2:38am
      Timothy Rogers says: @ whisperit
      Well put indeed, and I can't disagree with either the tenor or the substance of the above chain of comments. However, and this is a big BUT, it would be very surprising if Trump tried to live up to any of the promises he made to counteract the establishment as described above. There are serious doubts that he will either discipline or more firmly regulate Wall Street and our major corporate high-finance institutions (he doesn't believe in "regulation" - it impedes "business efficiency") He's already put special-interest reps (lobbyists) on his transition team. While cutting corporate taxes to the extent that some US companies may repatriate now-untouchable assets back to our shores, he will not compensate for this by accelerating the tax rate schedule for the millionaire-billionaire class (for Christ's sake, he's a classic tax dodger).

      He says he will replace Obamacare with a structure that would give more power about rates & coverage to the insurance industry (absolutely untrustworthy folks). His one true anti-establishment position (opposing the axioms of the neoliberal-neoconservative consensus groups) is his reluctance to pursue any more "elective" wars, especially in the Middle East ("bombing the shit out of ISIS" may not contravene this general tendency).

      On the other hand, he's not going to deliver anything to the true believers on the culture wars front - he's a man truly indifferent to the claims of religious believers, especially when it comes to efforts to matters regarding sexuality. He has not explained where the funds for rebuilding our infrastructure - a good idea - will come from, an interesting silence given his desire to increase defense spending and lower taxes. So, is he really all that different from our professional political class members - or just as shifty, self-deluded, and tactically evasive as they are?

      Some of the above might lead to a "revolution within the revolution" when the disappointed culture warriors realize that they were the temproary useful idiots of a very slick con-man.

    • 13 November 2016 at 11:22am
      FoolCount says: @ Timothy Rogers
      No one is saying that Trump will fulfil all or any of his election promises. However, he has already accomplished one important thing - his election demonstrated that the establishment can be beat by a sufficiently gifted and determined populist. At the very least such realisation should put the fear of god into the elites which lately grew too arrogant for their own good. So that's one positive - even if Trump completely fails in every other respect.

  • 12 November 2016 at 2:55pm
    manchegauche says:
    There'll be no nightmare - just as there wasn't an Obama uptopia. It's a mistake, too, to keep holding onto the idea that race is the dominant factor in the result. The psephology doesn't bear this out.

    Trump is a buffoon and (potentially) dangerous, but since he's alienated many in his own party, his room for maneuvre will be so limited that he'll be a dead duck president by this time next year.

  • 12 November 2016 at 7:08pm
    Hidari says:
    Fair enough analysis and some parts are obviously correct. However it fails to mention that Trump is part of a global 'uprising' against neoliberal orthodoxy of which Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos, UKIP, Brexit, the True Finns, and so on, are also part. Some of these are extremely hostile to immigration but some obviously aren't: all of them, however, are motivated by nostalgia for the social democratic compact of the 1950s and 1960s.

    Another thing it doesn't mention is Clinton's aggressive warmongering. It's 'not done' to mention this in liberal circles nowadays: nonetheless we shouldn't forget that Trump was the anti-war candidate and Clinton the pro-war candidate. Did it matter? Who knows? But we are slightly less likely to have WW3 with Russia over Syria although of course the unpredictable Trump might well cause WW3 in some other way. The neoconservative sharks currently swimming around him, looking for an 'in' also do not inspire confidence, although we should not forget that most of them openly supported Clinton.

    Finally about misogyny. Be honest, liberals. Imagine Condoleeza Rice had run for President. And she just failed to win, defeated by a white male (Bernie Sanders, say). Would the Guardian be filled with opinion pieces blaming her defeat on racism and sexism? Stating that the only reason she lost was because the US was 'not ready' for a female president?

    • 12 November 2016 at 8:02pm
      whisperit says: @ Hidari
      I'd agree that some of Trump's support is a variety of ill-understood rebellion against neoliberalism, in the kind of way that David Sharp and Foolcount describe above. But I see very little evidence that Trump supporters are seeking a new social democratic compact.

      And Trump himself is no enemy of neoliberalism. He has adopted some superficially anti- positions mainly on opportunistic grounds (when he isn't forced into them by his own ignorance or moral incontinence). Consequently, the hardcore ideologues of neoliberalism will find him perfectly amenable in office.

      If a less antagonistic relationship with Putin develops, the likelihood is that Putin will see this as an opportunity to continue his expansionism a la Ukraine. I don't find that a reassuring prospect.

      As for misogyny - your counterfactual is so far removed from reality that it is entirely helpful. What we *do* know is that Trump ran an openly misogynist campaign, boasting of sexual assaults, and deliberately using misogynist language and imagery throughout the campaign. To dismiss this is absurd.

    • 13 November 2016 at 2:56am
      Timothy Rogers says: @ whisperit
      If you don't approve of neo-liberal trope that the US is the whole world's "indispensable (policing) country", then you have to step back on the Ukraine. The situation there fits every feature of all those post-WWII situations in which the US has gone full-stem into an overseas conflict while in a fog of historical ignorance and misunderstanding of the people and parties they are purporting to support and oppose. Ukraine is clearly within Russia's "sphere of interest" and almost, practically speaking, totally irrelevant to the US or Western Europe (except for its utility as a territory through which natural gas flows). If we don't have a consistent and reasonable justification for "defending democracy everywhere all the time" (is Ukraine a serious democracy?) then we have to let the chips fall where they may (just as Churchill and Roosevelt did in 1944-45). It's "not our dog-fight," as deplorable and benighted as the Big Dog Putin is.

    • 13 November 2016 at 11:43am
      FoolCount says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I was always puzzled by the persistent Russophobia of the West (of which the Ukrainian ans Syrian disasters are just most recent manifestations). And then it hit me - the main motivation of the capitalist elites always was and apparently still remains anti-communism - even 25 years after Soviet Union's demise. The thing they fear most is some form of socialist restoration and they reckon (with good reason, I think) that Russia remains the weakest link in that respect. So they are determined to prepare for such eventuality by weakening Russia, by shrinking her sphere of influence and by absorbing her clients/friends as much as possible. Then the West's policy of expanding NATO and EU and of containing Russia starts to make sense.

    • 13 November 2016 at 12:53pm
      David Sharp says: @ whisperit
      Michael Bosley writes that Trump "ran an openly misogynist campaign, boasting of sexual assaults, and deliberately using misogynist language and imagery throughout the campaign."
      Not to defend Trump, who is clearly an unpleasant and boorish man, but it should be noted that the boasts about sexual assaults were not part of his campaign; they were media revelations of his conduct. We can presume that Trump would probably have preferred it if they had not come out, but whether or not that is true, he would never have said such things openly and frankly during the campaign.

      A huge problem with media coverage, in this case and in general, is the way it transforms political issues from questions about policy into the judgement of personalities.
      Of course it is useful to be able to appraise what kind of a person one is electing, but if that perspective becomes an excuse to turn a political event into a reality show, democracy is fatally subverted.

    • 13 November 2016 at 2:51pm
      whisperit says: @ David Sharp
      I take your point on the particulars of the sexual assault boasts, David Sharp; Trump didn't make the most egregious of them as part of his campaign.

      However, on the stump, he "defended" himself by calling the 2005 remarks, "locker room banter" (and therefore an acceptable part of everyday life?). He also dismissed Natasha Stoynoff's allegation of sexual assault by saying, "take a look. Look at her. Look at her words. And you tell me what you think. I don't think so" (not because he wouldn't consider such a crime, but that she was simply too ugly to qualify amongst his potential victims?).

      In any case, we surely no longer need to doubt that these are matters of far more significance than a "judgement of personality".
      But just to labour the point for a moment, in the context of the welter of Trump's other grossly misogynist remarks during the campaign, they speak of a world view that directly informs his policy positions. To take a few examples - his family leave plan is for women only (because they are hardwired to be the caregivers?), his anti-abortion measures, his position on sexual harassment at work, on women in the military....

      Well, I hope I needn't go on.

    • 14 November 2016 at 2:30am
      FoolCount says: @ whisperit
      More specifically, Trump said: "It was locker room banter. I am not proud of it. I wash that I did not say that. I apologise for that."

    • 14 November 2016 at 9:55am
      XopherO says: @ FoolCount
      Indeed. The CIA has never given up the Cold War and the containment of Russia. What else could it do, given that it is ingrained in its raison d'etre? Undoubtedly the CIA has been deeply involved in every Middle East crisis, even fomenting some if not all. What is surprising is that Russia took so long to react. If the USA had a similar number of borders with potentially hostile countries as Russia, it would probably have been permanently at war (oops, it has been permanently at war!) If you place Russia in the centre of a map of the world you can see why it feels so paranoid. With roles reversed, the USA would have done exactly what Russia has done in Syria and Ukraine, probably a lot more! That doesn't make it right, but we live in a world of realpolitik. By the way, how many assassinations has the CIA been involved in? - they would not be so stupid as to use polonium would they? - they are the experts in exploding cigars.

      Whatever Trumps foreign policy , the CIA will continue its Cold War, and it is that which probably threatens our security more than any Trumpism.

    • 19 November 2016 at 2:55pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ XopherO
      A Footnote to this thread. The December issue of Harper's has an article by Andrew Cockburn that addresses the "continuation of the Cold War by any means" issue. Its title tells all: "The New Red Scare - Reviving the art of threat inflation." And it opens with a hilarious yet demoralizing quote from an old national-security intelligence hand, reflecting on things haven't really changed since the 1960s: "Welcome to the world of strategic analysis, where we program weapons that don't work to meet threats that don't exist." All at considerable expense, accompanied by rivers of rhetoric. In the specific instance of renewed cold hostilities with Russia, this particular lobby (politicians, weapons manufacturers, security contractors, and a fair number of military men) has been vocal during the last two years. Trump, with his admiration of Putin as a successful authoritarian nationalist, seems immune to this at present, and his new national security adviser, a former general, seems to share his views about the lack of a necessity to "deal with Putin" through expensive countermeasures. However, Trump may cave in on vast expenditures designed to meet "the Chinese threat" or just to "make America great again." This lobby won't go away; it has both material and ideological vested interests in the vast national-security apparatus that's grown bloated and monstrous in spite of Ike's warnings (which worried not only about a "military-industrial complex", but also a "military-academic" complex as well). We got there faster than Ike ever imagined.

  • 14 November 2016 at 11:26am
    Charbb says:
    Er...may I introduce a little reality into this passionate and predictable outburst of assumptions?


    There was no"whitelash". Fewer whites voted Trump than voted Mitt Romney in the 2012 election. 58 percent compared to 59 percent. What is more, more blacks and Latinos voted Trump than voted for Romney.

    And fewer blacks and Latinos voted for Hillary than voted for Obama. The overall voter turn out was poor.

    So, no roaring angry white mobilisation for Trump as Shatz assumes. Hillary lost because she failed to enthuse her base. Even so, she won nearly two million more votes than Trump who only became the president elect because of the Electoral College.

    Americans, thankfully, vote not on race by and large, but on economic issues. American workers expect good jobs and salaries. Obama prevented economic meltdown after the 2008 crash and cut unemployment, and remains a popular president, but he failed to provide enough good jobs. So not enough people came out for Hillary.

    Please do not make this a race issue.

    • 14 November 2016 at 12:26pm
      kadinsky says: @ Charbb
      You're right. The data from the last two elections refutes this raced-based explanation of Trump's success. And with Pence, Ryan, McConnell, etc, running the show, Trump's administration is more likely to be remembered for war on the poor and the environment than for egregious repression of ethnic minorities.

  • 15 November 2016 at 8:25am
    Charbb says:
    It's easy to forget when the right has a victory that the US is a land of perpetual elections. Win today and you lose tomorrow. The supposed white supremacists who we are told voted in Trump also voted in Obama twice. Trump will overreach. He'll lose next time. Don't panic, Shatz.

    Meanwhile, Trump means Latin America swings into the Chinese camp. Cuba which recently pivoted towards the US is disillusioned with the Trump victory and is making deals with China instead. Mexico, endlessly abused by Trump, will go the same way. Trump will destroy the US influence in the world for years. Some American winner, this.

  • 15 November 2016 at 8:28am
    Charbb says:
    Remember your Kipling, Shatz. Keep your head when all about you are losing theirs. This is not the end of the world; merely the election of a pompous politician people will soon be disgusted generally with.

  • 15 November 2016 at 8:32am
    Charbb says:
    Remember the golden rule regarding bombastic politicians: they always, always overplay their hand and lose.

    • 7 January 2017 at 11:21pm
      John Cowan says: @ Charbb
      Doubtless. But the price of getting rid of them may be war or civil war, and appeals to force are always uncertain. Nothing got rid of Stalin except universal human mortality.

  • 15 November 2016 at 5:55pm
    lhazelrigg says:
    I think Charbb is correct (for what it’s worth). I appreciate the comments of Schatz, Scott, Bosley, and others (and, I must say, it is refreshing to read a thread of comments by so many people who do not engage in the typical adolescent “acting out” behaviors that one sees in so many threads of commentary). All have their own pertinent insights. But, as much as I have been shocked that such a disgusting instance of human being will be occupying the White House (disgusting to me; others must speak for themselves), I must agree with Charbb’s useful reminders. There will be remaining problems, however; and most of these will have to do with the USA’s role in international communities (as Charbb said) and with climate change (a problem for which we are already dangerously late in achieving even weak solutions). Plus one other, which several comments have raised: Charbb is right: there will be more election cycles; many, perhaps most, of the people who supported the Republican candidate in the cycle just concluded will eventually see that they have, once again, been “used” by a politician; under present circumstances it will probably continue to be very unlikely that any politician who tries to educate the public about the main “economic problems” that have been causing so much distress (e.g., that, and why, all those “lost jobs” are not coming back, and what would happen to our economy if somehow they did; etc.) could survive the next election cycle; the incoming president has four years in which to make that case, to enlist others to help make that case, to improve the education of the electorate about present and future economic developments, but very likely he will do none of that; so what do we have in store for the 2020 election cycle? Given the current condition of the electorate, and recent trends in the quality of understanding within the electorate, how can we be confident that rationality will better succeed next time? And whose rationality, which rationality, will it be? After all, relative to specific ends the ovens at Auschwitz, the firing squads and gulag camps of Stalin, the slaughter of Native Americans by immigrants, the chattel slavery imposed on tens of thousands of imported captives in the Americas—each was a rational choice of instrument to its end. A consideration of ethics and morality must be made, as Schatz, Scott, and others have said; and that consideration must be part of the improved education of the electorate. It is this last—education—that is sorely lacking.

  • 15 November 2016 at 10:23pm
    Blackorpheus7 says:
    Meanwhile official US culture is schizoid, with standard media outlets mostly overlooking Trump's racist, sexist appointees, such as Steve Bannon as chief "strategist; while at the same time rigidly enforcing "micro-aggression," as when college soccer players make "sexist" cracks about their female counterparts.

  • 18 November 2016 at 3:00pm
    stockwelljonny says:
    A basic point, and apologies for being a bit fatuous but they didn't get in leaky boats 400 years ago to be handed a dynastic, nepotistic shoe in. The idea of two Bushes and two Clinton is outrageous and gave a huge gift to Trump.

    • 7 January 2017 at 11:23pm
      John Cowan says: @ stockwelljonny
      All U.S. presidents (I don't know about Trump) except Martin van Buren have been descended from King John of England.

  • 19 November 2016 at 6:36am
    barrie smillie says:
    A most perceptive analysis of this incipient nightmare.

    Barrie Smillie

  • 21 January 2017 at 8:12am
    trumpaverse says:
    It's not an incipient nightmare anymore: it has arrived. I did much searching this sad evening to locate something online to help me deal with my angry and fearful despair. Earlier I went to my first ever protest. Its focus was on resisting the rise of racism and fascism. Later I finally watched coverage of the inauguration speech, which was as blunt and graceless as I had dared to hope it might not be. I watched speeches from Michael Moore's NYC protest last night and then clips of peaceful and violent protests today. I scanned postings about Trump and despair. Only this one articulated how this nightmare became reality. It explained the essence of the attraction to him among a few of my close friends and among many acquaintances who seem to be good people. I hate that it is possible for humans to give themselves over to the baseness of the attraction, but there it is: human weakness. It takes soul searching and intellectual effort to endure loss and failed aspiration without lashing out. Those who support the mean-spirited Trump have found that work too difficult.

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