Make sure to set aside time for The Nation’s current cover story, a reflection by Alexis de Tocqueville’s translator, Arthur Goldhammer, on what the French analyst of Jacksonian America would have made of the 2016 campaign. Goldhammer’s analysis has a fittingly Tocquevillian subtlety—especially in its careful reading of how right-wing populism plays out in a democracy marked by increasing class divisions.
Goldhammer notes that though the young Tocqueville—the author of Democracy in America—had made much of the difference between France’s sharp break of 1789 and the gradualism of the American experience, he eventually came to believe (and to argue in later writing) that “glacially slow changes can, over time, reshape the social landscape as thoroughly as the more rapid upheavals for which we normally reserve the word ‘revolution.’” Goldhammer elaborates:
I think he would have been comfortable applying that term to the last half-century of American history, during which a series of major upheavals has led to a greater equality of conditions. For most of American history, the ‘average Joe’ was a white heterosexual male, and with that status came the privilege associated with averageness in a democratic social state. Yet despite stiff and continuing resistance, previously disadvantaged groups—African Americans, women, gays and lesbians, immigrants of non-European origin—have successfully asserted their right to be defined by their sameness vis-à-vis other citizens rather than by their difference; they have become semblables, or ‘fellow human beings,’ to use Tocqueville’s hard-to-translate French term. Formerly discriminated against as ‘minorities,’ they have joined the majority—not in the electoral sense, but in the more psychologically fraught realm of social representation.
…Proceeding slowly if not always tranquilly, the overlapping egalitarian revolutions that shaped the careers of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have nevertheless occasioned ‘deep turmoil,’ as Tocqueville recognized would be the case whenever equality expanded and hierarchy receded. The public prominence suddenly enjoyed by a few exceptional figures from groups long denied rights and equality has shifted the perception of the average. This is an essential change, because in a society built on putative equality, the average is the key criterion according to which individuals build an identity and protect it from threats, real or perceived. People do not quickly forget the advantages they once enjoyed gratis. It is not just that the average Joe must now compete with Jill and Jamal; it is rather that Jill and Jamal are not average at all. They cannot be, because the groups they represent, while ‘more equal’ than before, still face prejudice and social disadvantages. (The president is a black man, but presently not a single black woman runs a Fortune 500 corporation.) Hence, as representative figures of the new average, Jill and Jamal are necessarily, if paradoxically, exceptional—winners in the competitive struggle by which the nation has over the same extended revolutionary period come to select its elites.
This analysis carefully threads a middle position between two simplistic views of America in the age of Trump. The first view is that Trumpism is simply a reactionary convulsion against an open, multicultural society that is already a fait accompli in cities and among the young, and which needs nothing more than time to complete its transformation of the old America that Trump and his followers represent. The second view holds that Trump’s appeal proves that very little has changed in American life, and that we massively underestimated the durability of the old racial and sexual hierarchies, assuming they had been weakened, shamed out of open public expression, and reduced to euphemism or quiet remarks in private spaces. Instead, we find that open misogyny and casual racism never really went away.
Of course, each of these interpretations captures part of the truth, but neither captures the whole. Goldhammer’s analysis helps to show why. The opening of elite positions to new groups of Americans lends high visibility to an important but limited form of diversity. As he writes, it “has shifted the perception of the average,” and has changed the “criterion according to which individuals build an identity and protect it from threats, real or perceived.” This shift in perception of the average is mistakenly interpreted as a real shift in the average. This helps explain what is otherwise a distinctly odd set of beliefs—like the idea that the election of a black President signaled the end of racism, or that President Obama is personally responsible for an increase in racial tensions, or that white people are the primary victims of discrimination today. Each of these stems from the misperception that the (exceptional) ascension of one African-American leader is evidence that African Americans have generally achieved social equality.
From that perspective, the current rise of protest politics among African Americans is almost incomprehensible—and anger-inducing, when combined with another perception that is more rooted in reality: Opportunities for upward social mobility really are vanishing. This invites a deeply resentful politics and a Trumpian blame game played along those shifting, racially loaded lines of perception. Trump’s natural instinct for that game helps explain why he has become a hero of white, working-class identity politics without actually sharing in that identity himself. Trump may be a billionaire, but when he identifies threats and attacks enemies, they are not people who pose a risk to his status or wealth. Trump himself has nothing to fear from undocumented workers or outsourced manufacturing. So he can simultaneously appear to his critics as a bully and to his supporters as a champion of the downtrodden.
In other words, Trumpism didn’t emerge simply from Trump alone: His is a dangerous, toxic politics made possible by tectonic social changes that long preceded the candidate himself. But Trump has an uncanny ability to locate the new pressure points created by those changes, and to exploit them to maximum advantage. Thankfully, he is not the sum total of what American politics can be. But if we take a wide view of that totality, it becomes easier to make sense of his place in it.