American Sociological Association

The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump


October 26, 2016

"As the United States prepares for the upcoming presidential election, Arlie Hochschild’s essay, “The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump,” provides valuable insight into the emotional dynamics that underpin the political perceptions of Trump supporters. Hochschild’s account provides new perspective on the causes of the disenchantment experienced by large sections of the voting population and the particular nature of Donald Trump’s charismatic appeal to them." -  Michael Sauder, editor, Contemporary Sociology

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 the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes” (p. 31).

Propelling such movements, he argues, is not just economic deprivation as narrowly conceived, but the loss of an older America, inward-turned, Protestant, secure, busy turning the wheel of a thriving local capitalism. As one of the original so-called birthers (who questioned President Obama’s place of birth and religion) and as one who has extended this suspicion to Hillary Clinton’s religion, Donald Trump fits in Hofstadter’s “paranoid style.” Still, Trump’s appeal reaches far beyond the style of mind through which it is expressed.

The summary is based on: Hochschild, Arlie. "The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump."

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