Revisiting The Anthropology of Trump: Ethnography and the Power of Culture

11/10/2016 09:22 am ET

Two days ago the election of Donald J Trump as our 45th President shocked millions of Americans. How could a man so seemingly ignorant of foreign affairs or, for that matter, the workings of government, become the most powerful person in the world? How could so many scholars, pundits, and big data number crunchers fail to detect Mr. Trump's groundswell of enthusiastic support-- especially in rural America? How could all those millions of Trump supporters take seriously his fact-free assertions about crime, climate change, the economic power of tax cuts or effectiveness of torture?

The deceptively simple response to these questions is culture, which, among other things, shapes our interpretation of reality.

In May of this year, I published a Huffington Post blog, "The Anthropology of Trump: Myth, Illusion and Celebrity Culture." In that piece, I tried to demonstrate how Mr. Trump had brilliantly manipulated the fundamentals of celebrity culture--glitz, illusion and fantasy--to create a kind of alternative reality in which shallow perception is more appreciated than profound insight. In the mythic culture of celebrity, as President-elect Trump understands so well, lies become truth and conspiracies become convincing evidence that our system is "rigged." In the glitzy world of celebrity culture, as I wrote in May, "you don't really need to know much about the politics or the world or the US Constitution. In the mythical context of celebrity culture, if you have the right attitude and a high degree of self-confidence, as does Mr. Trump, you can solve any problem."

If you have not experienced this alternative universe of meaning, how can you understand the powerful allure of Donald J. Trump?

In celebrity culture the contest between a star and a technocrat is no contest at all.

And yet in the 2016 election cycle scholars, pundits, campaign professionals and big data number crunchers overlooked these fundamentally powerful cultural issues. Blinded by their own cultural assumptions, the media and the political establishment overlooked the power of culture to shape an election. How many of them understood the social and psychological dynamics of the disaffected Trump voter? How many of them could understand their social frustrations, their lack of hope, or their embrace of a fictive reality?

We live is trying times that require anthropological impute to combat the coming onslaught of Trumpism--the loss of health insurance, increasing deficits, the inevitability of climate disasters, racial and religious intolerance, and the re-institution of torture. Anthropological insights can help us to change the narrative of Trumpism and reconfigure the American political landscape into one that values social justice and human dignity. Participating in protests may make us feel good, but if you don't have a culturally attuned and politically convincing narrative, there's little chance for real social and political change

In this time of social and political malaise here are some moves we can employ to gradually make things better:

1. The Power of Ethnography. Ethnographers spend a good amount of time with the people whose lives they attempt to describe. In so doing they develop relationships with their subjects. Over time those relationships produce bonds of trust, fostering mutual respect and a deep comprehension of the other's culturally contoured view of the world. An ethnographer of a community that voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump would have known--unlike the pundits, political operatives and most scholars--that there was broad, deep and enthusiastic support for Mr. Trump's view of the world. They would have known that Mr. Trump had understood profoundly the social and economic pain of his supporters. They would have also realized how he had used the dynamics of celebrity culture the shape that pain into a powerful political narrative. In this age of social media and celebrity culture old thinking no longer works. Ethnographic thinking, by contrast, enables us to understand social and political dynamics and use them to precipitate meaningful social change.

2. The Power of Thick Description. The late Clifford Geertz, one of the great anthropologists of the 20th Century, coined the term "thick description." In thick description ethnographers observe an event--a ritual, an election, or a pattern of voting--and attempt to describe the sinuous patterns of the event's economic, social, political and cultural significance. Thick description embraces complexity.. In the world of analytics, where practitioners reduce human behavior to abstract and distanced mathematical specificity, thick description provides the kind of social and cultural context that big data usually overlooks.

3. The Power of Cultural Critique. Using thickly described ethnography, we can engage in savvy, sustained and powerful cultural critique, one of the social scientist's primary obligations. In cultural critique we use ethnographically contoured essays, films, and blogs to bring into relief the hidden, taken-for-granted dimensions of our social systems-- dimensions that reinforce racial, ethnic, class and gender inequities. In the end, cultural critique is a powerful way to underscore the accountability of anyone, including, of course, Mr. Trump. We can use it to configure a counter-narrative to Trumpism, a counter-narrative that can limit its forthcoming damage to our society and eventually bring about a more perfect union.

Now is the time for ethnographers to step up to the plate and communicate our powerful insights to our students and to the public. Now is the time to craft a powerful counter-narrative that will ensure a viable future for our children and grandchildren.