Conference Report: Culture & the 2016 Presidential Election

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2017. Vol. 29 Issue 3, pp 7-8.

Dustin S. Stoltz,
University of Notre Dame

In a paper session organized, and presided, by Ronald Jacobs (Univ. of Albany), cultural sociologists reflected on the events leading up to the 2016 US Presidential election, and the aftermath. In particular, the talks consider the intersection of meaning and power, politics and media.

Philip S. Gorski (Yale University) tackled the question of why white evangelicals preferred Trump to other GOP candidates. That is, this constituent of the electorate supported a candidate who seemed antithetical to their espoused values. Why? Gorski suggests that Trump engaged a “secularized” version of “American religious nationalism,” which went far beyond the story of “American exceptionalism.” This is exemplified by two Biblically inspired discourses about conquest and apocalypse, and which are both joined by the common metaphor of blood. Blood, in particular, provides for the ease with which religious boundaries are equated with ethnic and racial boundaries in this discourse. Finally, Gorski argues, in American religious nationalism, there is a longing for a real or imagined “Golden Age,” which was embraced quite clearly in Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” In short, Trump’s rhetoric incorporated conquest, apocalypse, ethno-religious boundaries, and nostalgia, and, in turn, resonated with white Christian nationalists. However, Gorski suggests, as a secularized version of this American religious nationalism which omitted direct references to scripture or Biblical allegories, Trump was not beholden to Christian political theology.

After winning the Nevada primary, and in response to support from those in Nevada with less formal education, Trump said “I love the poorly educated!” Mabel Berezin (Cornell University), reflecting on this statement asks: what made Trump so appealing to the ‘‘poorly educated’’? In her cultural and historical analysis, she finds that the answer to this question is not so much what Trump said, but rather “what he did or what he promised to do.” The value of doing over saying—or one might say, street smarts over book smarts—was a primary source of attraction for voters with less formal education. Trump built his public persona by emphasizing the physical and material ways in which he acts in the world, and he did so against a popular culture that “devalorized” those who worked and did not attend college. By way, for example, of pictures of him hard-hatted on job-sites and of Donald Trump Jr. stating that because of his father they were the only billionaire’s children that could operate a “D10 Caterpillar.” Thus, despite being a wealthy east coast elite with an MBA from Wharton, his persona united with those who “worked on things” in rejecting those who “worked on concepts.”

Robin Wagner-Pacifici (The New School for Social Research) and Iddo Tavory (New York University) argue that  Trump’s win in 2016 is an “event” precisely because it was unexpected, and for many, disorienting. Using the concept of “rupture” — as the suspension or rejection of predictable trajectories and narratives — they suggest that the Trump campaign did not simply create a rupture in political life, rather the promise of such a rupture was the modus operandi of the campaign. For many Trump voters, his rejection of “business as usual” in Washington was a motivating charm. Using the election, Wagner-Pacifici and Tavory reimagine the relationship between Weber’s charismatic and bureaucratic political apparatus. They suggest, in particular, that sociologists must better theorize empathy in a time of rupture in a way which resists the tendency to assume a simple temporal unfolding between means and ends.

Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, argues that a “deep story” captures the resentment of the white working-class, characterized by an allegory of waiting in line for the American dream, while others are allowed to cut ahead. Hochschild argued that while this story was more about feelings and not facts, it did reflect her participants lived experience—in particular, their economic burden. Concluding that Fox News, or other conservative media outlets, was the source of the story would be, she contends, “too simple.” Building on this, Francesca Polletta (UC-Irvine) with co-author Jessica Callahan (UC-Irvine), argue that two features intrinsic to stories, interacting with two historical shifts in the American media landscape, allow both of these interpretations to be true.  Stories often draw upon other stories, this, they argue, provides a pathway by which elite-produced stories come to feel as if they reflect people’s mundane lives. Stories are also told to build collective identity and this makes plausibility of secondary importance.  Regarding historical shifts, the rise of conservative commentary, specifically its pedagogical approach, deconstructed mainstream news to reveal the trenchant “liberal bias.” Finally, aided by the proliferation of user-shared media, people were able to see the “truth” of the deep story promulgated by conservative pundits even if did not directly reflect their own personal experiences.

Each of these cultural analyses of the 2016 Presidential Election can be found in a recent special issue of the American Journal of Cultural Sociology.