by Dinah Rajak
The more I think about, the more I think we might need a cultural revolution…
Donald Trump is an anachronism – a pastiche of some kind of 1970’s suburban used car dealer with terrible hair and orange face and cheesy mannerisms. You could imagine his adverts on local TV for ‘Trump Cars’ adorned with women in bikinis and Charlie’s Angels hair. He embodies a 1970s/80s idea of the American dream (much like the lower class version of the cockney hustler heroes of Only Fools and Horses over here) that could only appeal to old white men and women with blue rinses in Florida retirement communities. Even as Reality TV star (a phenomenon of the 90s and 00s), Trump is starkly retrograde and outmoded, as is The Apprentice on this side of the Atlantic. Like Alan Sugar in the UK version of The Apprentice, Donald Trump sounds like a dinosaur. The candidates picked for the show seem to be auditioning as Joan Collins for Dynasty (though with power much diminished) or Michael J Fox in the 80s classic The Secret of My Success. The women sport leopard Alexis Carrington hair and print pussy-bow blouses; the men with oiled hair and shiny suits have a certain Trumpesque or Trump Jr quality to them. The tasks they do, occasionally nod to social media or viral advertising campaigns, but boil down to old-school models of street-hawking and door-to-door selling. ‘I want a money sandwich,’ roars Sugar, ‘with money on the inside and money on the outside. This task is about selling, plain and simple, and you didn’t sell… waste of space.’ The transatlantic version: ‘Greed is Good.’ Meanwhile, the male apprentices (like their ‘mentor’) are sexist in ways that are truly shocking for men so young (for which they should all be instantly fired) and once again ape a Bonfire of the Vanities picture of the 1980s business world.
From aesthetics to ethics, style to vision, from his hairstyle and fake tan to his promise of mass infrastructure projects – everything about Trump is so bizarrely 1970s. So how, and for whom, did it work? His aesthetic couldn’t be more out of place in 2016. And the vision of Fordist factories filled with happy male workers earning a family wage, living in a Detroit suburb with a Ford car and a job for life, couldn’t really be more alien to anyone under 50. And the notion of giant infrastructure projects (road building, public works and so) is equally alien. That dissonance (aesthetically, politically and morally) between this and younger generations is immense – nothing about him resonates with the experience, tastes, styles, social norms of younger generations eligible to vote.
Trump’s retrograde and patriarchal vision of an America, a vision steeped in nostalgia for the supposed moral certainties of the 1950s picket-fenced suburban dream, resonates with an older generation, offering a palliative to the sense of social chaos, and retreat from the fluidities of the precarious present defined by both greater insecurity but also much greater openness which younger generations have embraced (whether in terms of social norms, identity politics, sexual politics, or religious association). In contexts quite different, anthropologists Amber Reed (2016) and Isak Niehaus (2010) have observed something comparable: a pervasive moral anxiety (in relation to the loss of authority over the younger generation) among older black South Africans so intense as to have elicited moments of nostalgia for the brutal, ordered certainties of apartheid in the face of exposure to the precariousness and social disorder of millennial capitalism.
Voting for Trump was a vote against youth: and an older generation fighting the passing of their social authority in a world moving beyond their control. Just as Thatcher-Reaganism emerged as a countercultural pushback to crush the revolutionary imperatives and quest for social freedom of the 1960s, so the popularity of Trump (like that of Brexit) smacks of a reactionary desperation against the fluidities of today and the need to reinvent the traditions of a mythical America. Of course one of the chief freedoms that Trumpism is an aggressive desperate reaction against is women’s liberation. The nostalgia for the days when America was apparently great, is a nostalgia for when America was apparently great for white men. The millennial misogyny that defined this election is not a hatred of women. It’s a hatred (and apparent terror) of strong free women. In the pits of despair after Trump’s election, a friend reminded me of James Baldwin’s words: ‘We are witnessing the end of white America as we know it. How long and how expensive will that funeral be?’ (thank you Rebecca Prentice and Allyson Hobbs for this glimmer of a silver lining). By the same token, take heart women! The election of this outdated absurd, obscene grotesque embarrassment of a man is pure desperation – you can feel the wrinkly white long-nailed grip of an aging American patriarchal order in its death throws clinging on for dear life.
If we can get through the pain of transition, we just need one more big push…
Dinah Rajak is a senior lecturer in Anthropology and International Development at the University of Sussex. She is the author of In Good Company: An Anatomy of Corporate Social Responsibility (Stanford University Press 2011), co-editor of The Anthropology of Corporate Social Responsibility (Berghan 2016) and co-founder of the Centre of New Economies of Development.
Cover Photo: Tony Webster, @flikr, Donald Trump Backyard Photo Sign at Night – West Des Moines, Iowa