American Sociological Association

Featured Essay: The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump

The day before the Louisiana Republican primary in March 2016, I watched Donald Trump’s Boeing 757 descend from the sky at the Lakefront Airport in New Orleans, Louisiana. Inside the crowded hangar, Elton John’s “Rocket Man” was playing. Red, white, and blue strobe lights roved sideways and up. Cell phones snapped photos of the blond-haired candidate as he stood before thousands waving and shaking signs that read MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. A small, wiry man bearing this sign with both hands, eyes afire, called out to all within earshot, “To be in the presence of such a man! To be in the presence of such a man.” There seemed in this man’s call, I wrote in my field notes—part of a five year ethnographic study of Tea Party supporters in Louisiana—a note of reverence, even ecstasy (Hochschild 2016:224). How do we understand the states of mind and situations of those to whom Donald Trump appeals? How does such emotional appeal work? Whatever Trump’s future, he has touched a cultural nerve we sociologists need to study. In this essay, I explore illuminating works in and around sociology before venturing an interpretation of my own.

In The Paranoid Style in American Politics, the historian Richard Hofstadter (1996)traced the relationship between paranoid political rhetoric and “style of mind” as these periodically emerged in the United States through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The leader expressing such a style, he says, “does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. . . . This demand for total triumph leads to …

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Arlie Russell Hochschild





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