Thursday, June 23, 2016

Trump's Rude Rhetoric

A common lament I hear is that, since Trump is such a rude, crass boor, his supporters can only be drawn to his policy positions. This is usually followed by a highly selective list of his alleged positions and the conclusion that those people must be awful in so many ways. I think this is quite wrong. Trump's main appeal is his persona. Seeing it simply as crass rude boorishness misses something important that other people see.

If you are like me you do not know in person any Trump supporters. I suggest that says more about you (and me) than about Trump. I  suggest it means there are some class determined reactions (and possibly some class prejudice) at work. In particular I think that the perception of Trump as just a rude boor is class dependent. I want to explain that here.

I will begin (naturally) with Jane Austen. If you read her novels you discover that in her time the word "condescending" was a compliment. This is because she lived in a hierarchical class society. If one person of a higher standing deigned -- and that is the right word -- to allow familiarity with a person of a lower standing that was considered kind and giving -- that was it was to condescend. In the English class system there's a lot of bowing and scraping, and tugging the forelock. A person of lower status was expected to acknowledge the higher standing of others. Tradesman use the trade entrance. And there is one kind of behaviour I will come back to: apologizing. People of lower status were expected to apologize for incommoding their betters, and would often apologize for things we would never think deserve an apology now (just watch Downton Abbey). The person of higher standing had the *right* to expect an apology, and an apology was often a sign of deference, not an acknowledgment of having done wrong. Apology, deference, and status are intertwined.

And we no longer see condescending as a good thing. It infuriates, and it invites puncturing, don't you think?

Consider what is called an "honour culture". In these each person (especially men) have honour that they must at all costs defend. This is the prime directive in an honour culture: you must accept no slight to it. This is what leads to duels.

Most honor cultures are hierarchical. And in such an action that would be seen as a slight by a peer (or an inferior) might be accepted from a superior. You can bend the knee to the king. But if a peer acts as if he were a superior, and demands a symbol of deference, that would be a an attack upon your honour. Hence, again, duels. And there's an odd thing about duels: participants often did not really seek to harm each other, and only demanded that honor be satisfied. The duel was not about redressing harm but protecting honor.

All this seems like odd anachronistic piffle to most of us; these are not things people like us do. That's our class's upbringing. Not everyone shared it.

There is in America a broad rigourously egalitarian subculture, often called Jacksonian. It is mostly lower and lower middle class. It is a culture of bar fights over an insult. It is also a culture with some complex rules about apologies. A demand for an apology can be seen as demand for deference. That must be resisted, even if an apology is warranted by a wrong done. It could be tricky to negotiate the apology, so you often have an intercessor. You've seen movies where a woman asks a man, who clearly owes an apology, to do it "for her", and he does. Or where a minister intervenes and gets both an apology and a token of respect in return. These are examples of taking the stink off, making plain the apology is not an act of submission.

And in an egalitarian culture, "condescending" is not a compliment.

So imagine now you are part of this  egalitarian honour culture and someone whom you think condescending demands of you an apology for something trivial, or without even a real harm he has suffered. Where you see the deamnd as a demand for deference. How do you react? You react "Hell, no!" And if the demand is made repeatedly, or with insults, how do you react? Hell no with an insult back. And how do you react if someone who claims to be on your side is treated that way? Hell no. Duelling is passe.

Many voters see attacks on Trump, and the demands that he apologize, as being just like this: illicit demands for deference. They see him saying "hell no!" And they like it. He is defending his honour, and by extension theirs, from what are percieved as attacks upon it by condescending poseurs.

Let's consider a notorious example, one where everyone of my class simply condemns Trump immediately: his showdown with Megyn Kelly. You can see how someone might think a woman who makes millions mostly on the basis of her looks, and who is part of the media, might be seen as pampered and superior by some. And then she demands of Donald Trump an apology *for something not done to her*. Can some voters have seen that as an illicit demand for an apology-as-deference, a tactic? She asserting the right to demand an apology, when she suffered no harm herself. And especially when they don't find much of what Trump said that unusual or outrageous in the first place? And the Kelly case is one of the worst for Trump, there are many where his behaviour is less egregious and the demands for apology as loud. The culture is awash in PC demands for apologies and symbolic penance. There's a lot of stuff that deserves a loud Hell no! and Trump is the only guy saying it. Further demands that he apologize for doing *that* just feed the cycle.

So that's my theory. People like me, products of our upbringing, have a hard time understanding why anyone could like Trump, because we only see one way of reading his behaviour.  There is another, I think millions see it that way, and that that is key to his appeal. His policies are secondary.

Jerry Coyne exemplifies what I am arguing against here. After lamenting Trump's boorishness he wonders about what can drive his (awful, awful) supporters: "one can only guess that they share his views." Well, which views? Trump has broken records in GOP primaries. Did he do it by supporting gay marriage and transgender bathrooms? By condemning the foreign policy of the last Republican president? His long-standing support for public health care or his support of funding Planned Parenthood? This is the way to a Republican's heart? Politics is rarely about policy; I don't see that it must be here.


  1. So people support Trump because he is rude and ignorant, not for his policies. What does that say about his supporters ?

  2. That their perception of what counts as unjustified rudeness differs from yours? Mitt Romney was pretty rude about Trump wasn't he?

  3. "Honour culture" is supposedly a big part of black gang culture, yet I doubt many of those guys will be voting for Trump. How well do you think he'd be polling if he did have policies to stop non-white immigration?