This Is What Liberals Are Missing About Trump’s Appeal

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tags: election 2016, Trump



Susan J. Matt is Presidential Distinguished Professor and Chair of the History Department at Weber State University. She is author of Homesickness: An American History (Oxford University Press, 2011); Keeping up with the Joneses: Envy in American Consumer Society, 1890-1930 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), and co-editor of Doing Emotions History (University of Illinois Press, 2013).

The election season has brought endless surprises and there seems no end in sight. Yet despite the discovery of new troves of email perhaps the biggest surprise still remains the rise of Donald Trump. Even if he loses, it’s worth asking how Trump got as far as he did. One overlooked answer lies in the emotional culture that he resurrected—a culture based on shame and honor, which flourished in the nineteenth century, receded to the margins of public life in the twentieth, but which is having an unlikely resurgence this year. And though few today would call Trump honorable, his emotional style clearly resonates with older notions of honor which still can be found in the South, some rural, western, and working-class communities, and in the nation’s military and quasi-military institutions--such as Trump’s alma mater, the New York Military Academy.

If one considers anthropologists’, historians’, and sociologists’ descriptions of honor, the parallels with Trump are impossible to ignore. Transplanted from Europe to the South, honor shaped Southern life in the nineteenth century. According to historian Bertram Wyatt Brown, Southern white men worried incessantly about how others perceived them. Any insult to their reputations needed to be quickly parried lest they lose face. Historian Keith Thomas noted that among English elites, the concern with honor “generated extreme touchiness, and hypersensitivity to any form of slight. As a result, honour was invoked as justification for almost any kind of self-aggrandizement.”

Some of that aggrandizement could be based on sexual prowess. Men could boast of their sexual exploits, for lust signaled virility and strength. Reputation also depended on outward carriage, for Brown writes, “honor was a state of grace linking mind, body, blood, hand, voice, head, eyes, and even genitalia.” Consequently, southerners were concerned with their own bodies as well as their ancestors’, for bloodlines and racial purity affected the ability to embody honor.

Those who believed in honor engaged in physical, sometimes violent displays of power to defend it. Historian Elliott Gorn found that to display honor, poor men had vicious brawls, gouging out each others’ eyes, as well as biting off ears and windpipes, while elites relied on duels as a more genteel way to defend reputation. To be honorable required men to take risks, display bravery.

Men were also supposed to risk their pocketbooks, for gambling too was a display of nerve. If men ran up debts, they must repay them, for those they gambled with were presumably honorable gentlemen; however, they need not pay back people below them on the social scale. William Grayson of South Carolina noted, “A gambling debt is a debt of honour, but a debt due a tradesman is not.”

Southern whites who subscribed to this cult of honor lived publicly, and when possible grandly, boasted about their sexual prowess and bravery, focused on outward appearances and reputation, and took forceful, even violent action when that reputation was assailed.

Today, Trump’s supporters celebrate his brazenness, boasting, vanity, lust, cheer on his nativism, racism, and sexism. They revel in his dramatic responses to perceived slights to his image and physique, and forgive his sexual forays and debts, seeing in them a willingness to take risks. To them, he is reviving the code of manly honor which modern, Northern, capitalist values and organizations have undermined.

One Trump supporter who grew up in Texas told me he had been raised on stories of “Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, John Wayne,” and “the Alamo.” Trump did not quite match these childhood heroes, “but compared to the other choice,” he came closer. Another supporter observed, “Do you want a leader who’s just simply popular? A nice guy?” He believed a more traditional kind of leader was needed: “we’ve been a tribal type people for thousands of years. . . . The leaders have always been the biggest, meanest, toughest . . . .” Likewise, Duck Dynasty star Willie Robertson explained: “See, when you’re from the South and you grow up with rednecks, there are some occasional disagreements. Sometimes those disagreements turn into fisticuffs. . . . But any time I was ever in a bad spot, I always knew my brothers would have my back. And today in a lot of ways, America is in a bad spot. We need a president who will have our backs. . . . Donald Trump will have your back.”

Trump’s supporters regard him as an honorable, forceful, strong, masculine man, who “has America’s back,” and will defend the nation’s bloodlines from those he labels Mexican “rapists.” While critics call his self-absorbed and self-congratulatory nature narcissistic and his sexual habits predatory, his supporters regard such traits not as psychological disorders, but as signs of strength and honor.

That Trump’s style is incomprehensible to the other half of America speaks to the fact that another emotional code has gained ascendancy in business and politics. It started to take shape in the nineteenth century, as capitalist markets emerged, for one’s worth was increasingly defined through commercial measures – contracts, credit ratings, bank balances. By the early twentieth century, corporate capitalism was making new demands. As historian Angel Kwollek Folland observed, business leaders required workers to adopt what had traditionally been deemed female virtues and emotions. Men at work in corporations were no longer their own bosses and had to learn a gentler, less assertive, more restrained emotional style.

Efficiency expert Frederick Winslow Taylor summed up this new ethos in 1911, writing, “In the past the man has been first; in the future, the system must be first.” That vision affected how workers displayed their feelings, for they had to subordinate individual desires to company goals. While it had been acceptable for self-employed men to express envious ambition in the nineteenth century, envy became less tolerated in the twentieth-century office and factory, where workers had to function as members of a collegial team. They must get along, bury ambition, pull for the good of the corporation. Likewise anger, as historian Peter Stearns has demonstrated. Once an acceptable emotion in public (with fights not uncommon on factory floors and the floors of Congress), by the early twentieth century, it was banished from factories and offices. In public life, bland cheerfulness, quick smiles, and a certain distance became the norm.

Over the last century, the pressure to adopt this style has only increased. Beginning in response to labor unrest, and accelerating with the rise of a service economy which depends on emotional labor and the commodification of cheerfulness, industrial psychologists, personnel departments, offices of Human Resources have created a workplace where strife is suppressed. New government regulations which fight discrimination and sexual harassment have further tamed the office. These measures, however, are perceived by those on the right, particularly white men, as limiting their ability to express their masculinity and the emotions—anger, aggressiveness, envy, resentment—which give it shape. Instead, the expectation is that workers will hide such taboo feelings and radiate near constant good cheer.

This is the emotional style of corporate office-workers and government officials. And though it has been described as a feminized style of emotional expression, it is no more natural for women than for men. As Hillary Clinton noted, she watched Bill Clinton and Barack Obama practice this style, and knew it was not innate:

I’m not Barack Obama. I’m not Bill Clinton. Both of them carry themselves with a naturalness that is very appealing to audiences. But I’m married to one and I’ve worked for the other, so I know how hard they work at being natural. . . . They work and they practice what they’re going to say. . . . It's hard work to present yourself in the best possible way.


The emotional demands were even more taxing on her, because she had to further regulate her feelings to counter the stereotype that women were overly emotional: “I can’t be quite so passionate in my presentation. I love to wave my arms, but apparently that’s a little bit scary to people. And I can’t yell too much. It comes across as ‘too loud’ or ‘too shrill’ or ‘too this’ or ‘too that.’ ”

If the modern emotional style is unnatural to Clinton and “No Drama Obama,” it is even more foreign to the working class, whom sociologist Arlie Hochschild recently typified as “Strangers in Their Own Land.” To them it is emasculating and purposeless, for in blue-collar jobs it is required, but does not bring the economic benefits that accompany middle-class professions where it is on display. Instead it feels like an imposition, another oppression of class.

While this cheerful, slightly reserved emotional style has become the workplace norm, in the age of Donald Trump it has been challenged, for Trump represents an alternative. Dan Phillips, a rightwing blogger, explained this in a post entitled “Real Men for Trump”:

. . . modern mass democracy does not select . . . for men with traditional masculine virtues. Here’s a test. Think of all the national politicians you can. Which ones would you want on your side in a bar fight? . . . what modern politician would inspire that sort of confidence? . . . . Modern society is becoming increasingly feminized and sexually androgynous. . . . Enter Donald Trump. The appeal of Donald Trump surely has a lot to do with a visceral, instinctual reaction to this societal feminization.


Trump, of course, is a capitalist, but, because he was born rich, heir to the family business, he has not internalized the corporate code of behavior. His emotional style is deemed “masculine” rather than “feminine.” He appears both successful and able to flaunt emotional conventions that offices have typically demanded of people. His outbursts, insults, and anger suggest to his followers that there might still be a way to succeed without adopting bourgeois ways of feeling, without subordinating their manhood to impersonal, exploitative economic forces.

In reality, Trump’s style of business is far different than his fans believe. His success is based not on manly business acumen, nor on the “art of the deal,” but instead is the result of having inherited the family business and being surrounded by gifted accountants—and even these have probably not given him the level of success he likes to claim. Yet he has created a myth that his forceful personality, his manly swagger, his passion and anger have brought him success. And in promoting such an idea, Trump plays into the nostalgia of the working class, who long for a different emotional—and economic—order.



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