By Published: Nov. 29, 2017

Professors of anthropology and linguistics see Trump’s rise as driven, in part, by ‘nostalgic racism’

During the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, two scholars at the University of Colorado Boulder argued that the unanticipated success of then-Republican primary candidate Donald J. Trump could be explained, in part, by his extravagant use of physical gestures and spectacle.

The researchers argue that as both candidate and president, Trump has tapped into what they call “nostalgic racism”—nostalgia for the pre-civil-rights, industrial-welfare-state America of the 1950s.

Donna M. Goldstein, professor of cultural anthropology, Kira Hall, associate professor of linguistics and anthropology, and a colleague at the University of Texas at Austin, Matthew Bruce Ingram issued this assessment before last year’s election:

“In Trump, we find a Rabelaisian character that deploys bawdy humor to entertain his audience. He provides carnivalesque moments as he pokes fun at other candidates,” they wrote in HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. Rabelais was a French Renaissance writer known for his crude humor and extravagant caricature.


Donna Goldstein

“Like Rabelais, Trump understands that crude humor has the power to bring down the princely classes—aka, the political establishment—as well as anyone who opposes him.”

A year after the election, Goldstein and Hall have edited a colloquium for the same journal and published a lead essay that explores how Trump’s implicit signals (or “semiotic displays”) and repeated violation of political norms won him not just the GOP nomination, but propelled him into the White House, and what it says about the American electorate.

Trump’s “semiotic ambiguity … enabled (him) to launch a sustained critique of ‘political correctness’ that proved more compelling than anyone on the left might have realized at the time,” they write, arguing that his implicit messages were clearly received:

We are trying to deepen the explanation of his appeal, and understand how the Democratic Party lost the working-class population it thought it had in the bag.”

“Trump’s style conveyed plenty to followers and critics alike, projecting a dream of a particular kind of America that resonated with some and terrified others.”

Mining the work of well-known writers such as Susan Sontag and Walter Benjamin, as well as current scholars who have written about the Trump phenomenon, Goldstein and Hall argue that the president has gone beyond mere entertainment to represent the backward-looking aspirations of some of his fans.

“Trump embodies revolutionary hedonism (or at the very least, a dream of what may be possible if the United States returns to a protectionist national economy),” they write. “Trump’s pussy-grabbing abusiveness was not overlooked; it was part of the dream. … His spectacle of sexual transgression, civil lawlessness, and excessive opulence is exactly what is being embraced.”


Kira Hall

“What we tried to do here is a kind of post-election deep-think piece,” says Goldstein. “We are trying to deepen the explanation of his appeal, and understand how the Democratic Party lost the working-class population it thought it had in the bag.”

The paper examines the ideas and work of correspondents and colleagues who have sought to analyze how and why Trump managed to capture the Electoral College, even while losing the popular vote by more than 2.8 million votes.

The authors extend the work of contributing scholars such as Michael Silverstein, who argues that Trump mastered “negative branding,” and Kaifa Roland, associate professor of anthropology at CU Boulder, who examines Trump’s use of “dog whistle” politics in discussions of race.

By looking to Sontag’s 1964 definition of “Camp” as “a consistently aesthetic experience of the world” that “incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality,’ irony over tragedy,” the authors note that 58 percent of all white Americans and 62 percent of white males voted for Trump and asked: “What if Trump is an example of white privileged heterosexual Camp, a repackaged version of white 1950s hypermasculinity?”

Overall, Goldstein says, “maybe the thing that white suburban liberals didn’t see was how angry white middle America seemed to be.”

Meanwhile, black (and Hispanic) voters—who did not match the prodigious turnout that helped elect Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012—may have recognized that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was burdened by her own racial baggage with things as high rates of black incarceration and her husband’s rollback of welfare in the 1990s.

And with most 11th-hour polls suggesting Clinton would win in a “slam dunk,” supporters simply may not have felt the urgency to vote. Goldstein recalls attending an election-night party at which most people weren’t even watching the returns.

“There were only one or two of us sitting there watching, and somewhere around the 9 o’clock hour it was, ‘This isn’t going the way we thought,’” she says.

And those who thought Trump was just a showman who would no doubt settle into the decorum of office were in for a surprise, Goldstein says.

In the end, Hall and Goldstein argue, Trump’s theatrical, winking skill at evoking and stoking white nostalgia for a past in which racial minorities were well down the totem pole is a key factor that led to his electoral victory.

“We suggest that it is the fear of a civically engaged multiracial electorate that left the Republican Party in crisis, leading them down a troubling path of regression and reversal that now seems to threaten us all,” they conclude.