Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.



Total Pageviews

Monday, March 14, 2016


Thomas Frank, whose new book I mentioned several days ago, recently published an important article in The Guardian, which I urge you to read.  My son, University of Pennsylvania Professor of Law Tobias Barrington Wolff, sent me a link to the article together with a long, thoughtful reflection on it.  He has graciously given me permission to reproduce it on this blog.  Here is what Tobias has to say:

Let me lay out the fundamentals of my reaction in stages.

First, Franck is clear about the distinction between figuring out what Trump "really" believes and investigating what his appeal is among voters.  That is clearly appropriate and too few commentators do that, so that's helpful

Second, Franck focuses on fear and economic hardship as key motivators for a lot of voters, White voters in particular, and he emphasizes the economic components of Trump's message that appear to be resonating with working-class and middle-class voters.  Also helpful.

But there are some missteps in Franck's essay that are serious and, I would argue, dangerous.  Those missteps have to do with two issues (1) race, and (2) what it means to deal with a charismatic sociopath.

First, on race.
Franck sets up a dichotomy -- are people "really" responding to Trump's racism, or are they instead "really" responding to the part of his message that purports to advance economic populism?  I think this is a dangerous mistake.
This is not a dichotomy.  It is a symbiotic pair of dynamics, mutually reinforcing.  In fact, it's what legal scholar Janet Halley has called a chiasmus, a literary device in which the author has two messages that operate in counterpoint with each other, with one message taking the dominant position when it is the most useful and the other taking the ascendant when the weaknesses of the first message become apparent, but then fading into the background again when the power of the first message is needed.  That way, the weaknesses of both messages are hidden and the two form a more powerful harmony than would exist with either in isolation.

Trump is wrapping a purported message of economic populism in racist language, inviting his audience into expressions of "legitimate" grievance about wage inequality and unemployment through the gateway of White Supremacy.  This is a reiteration of centuries of racial / economic exploitation where poor White people are urged to sign onto a populist message that allows them to feel superior to people of color and therefore less bad about their inferior economic status.
The reason that message works is because a lot of people are, in fact, White Supremacists in their hearts.  They have been taught that expressing such views is socially unacceptable, and they genuinely do not want to think of themselves as "racists".  But they do think that all those lazy Blacks / illegal Mexicans / terrorist Muslims are inferior, and being invited to believe that those "others" are also the reasons for their economic woes is very attractive, reinforcing their White Supremacist beliefs while allowing them to avoid the label "racist".
When Franck quotes one commentator saying, "These people are not racist, not any more than anyone else is" (or whatever), he contributes to this problem.  They are racist.  And so are a lot of people -- perhaps not "everyone else", but the racism is structural and endemic and something that we constantly need to fight to make visible and to dislodge.  This counterpoint with an economic populist message -- once again, an old tactic -- does the opposite, embedding the White Supremacy and making it invisible and plausibly deniable.

Second, on dealing with a sociopath.
Normal human beings have a conscience.  We have a sense of moral regard for our fellow human beings.  That means that we usually lead our lives restraining our behavior in various ways.  We concern ourselves with questions of ethics, we ask ourselves whether our actions are harming others or incurring their disfavor because we care about not harming others and not incurring disfavor.  We seek connection in a way that acknowledges the humanity of others, and that means restraining our impulses in a multitude of ways.

That is a central part of what it means to be a normal, well-functioning adult.  But it is also limiting and frustrating at time.  Almost all of us, I dare say, entertain fantasies on a regular basis that we could cast off those restraints.  For most of us, the fantasy is not that we can hurt and exploit other people, but simply that we can lead our lives without ever feeling like we have to restrain our urges and impulses.  The idea of living that way feels liberating.

When we see another person who seems to be free from the restraints that govern normal adults -- who can seemingly do or say anything without self-editing and "get away with it" -- it looks exciting and powerful.  Suddenly, our small, day-to-day, largely unacknowledged fantasies of living without the necessary restraints of adult life seem attainable, possible, real, embodied in an actual human being.
That is the power of the highly charismatic sociopath.
A sociopath is a human being who does not have a conscience -- does not have that ingrained regard for the moral status of other human beings and the attendant ingrained need to restraint behavior in various ways.  Some sociopaths are sadists.  They usually wind up in jail for murder.  But there are many other types. For most sociopaths, the two primary drivers in life are to satisfy whatever their emotional needs are and to manipulate other people in order to feel powerful.  Sociopaths view normal human beings as chumps, always worrying about this nonsense called "ethics" and always restraining themselves when they could be exploiting the other chumps around them.

A smart, highly charismatic sociopath is perhaps the most dangerous personality type there is, because the power of the personality comes across as charm and femininity / masculinity, rather than (for example) dangerous sadism.  A smart, highly charismatic sociopath can make you feel like the sun is shining just on you.  They have this ability to focus attention on a person that is utterly disarming.  It is the powerful gaze of the avaricious predator that makes its prey feel special and entranced.
A lot of what I am seeing in the public's response to Trump -- in addition to the counterpoint between White Supremacy and economic populism -- is a response to a smart, highly charismatic sociopath. People resonate to Trump's outrageous behavior not primarily because they have a deep commitment to the misogyny or the racism that he exhibits (though that may well be true in many cases), but because they see him acting in a completely unrestrained fashion and getting away with it -- indeed, having people give him huge affirmation for doing so -- and seeing that spectacle touches on some of their deepest and most unacknowledged fantasies.  People who resonate with Trump have daydreamed about being able to be as unrestrained and uninhibited as they see Trump being, but they never thought it was possible to do that and also be a successful adult.  In Trump, they see that fantasy realized, and they want to make themselves a part of it.

For some of them, the misogyny and the racism is just a secondary detail, perhaps even one that they find distasteful but that they are willing to accept as part of the deal in order to satisfy the long-held desire to feel unrestrained by adult limitations.  For others, the misogyny and racism are mutually reinforcing, because they have also wanted to indulge those particular ideas but have felt unable to do so openly because of social disapprobation.  In both cases, they want to feel the way that they imagine that Trump feels when he behaves this way -- like grown-up infants who can give full expression to the impulses of their minds and their bodies while also enjoying the trappings of a successful adult life.

That is what I see going on.  And it scares the daylights out of me.
The one saving grace, and it is a partial grace, is Trump's own limitations.  He is a desperately emotionally and sexually broken man.  He is a slave to his own needs, and I think he is actually quite subject to manipulation through those needs.  And he does not appear to have any actual ideological beliefs, other than the satisfaction of his emotional and sexual impulses.  If he had a core ideology to go with his charismatic sociopathy and his bottomless personal needs, then he would be Hitler.  I mean, no joke, that's what Hitler was, and Trump is 2/3 of that.

I think there is some reason to hope that the lack of a genuine driving ideology will blunt the impact of this current phenomenon somewhat.  But it will not simply disappear all by itself.  There is a lot that is real there -- real White Supremacy and misogyny, and a real complex of emotional responses from his audience that Trump knows how to inflame and manipulate.

I think that the Franck essay captures some small parts of that overall dynamic, and it's a useful contribution in that respect, but I think it also fails utterly to understand the interlocking pieces, and in the process it helps to empower some of those other dynamics by making them less visible.


Jerry Fresia said...

Brilliant. The best I've read thus far as to what is going on. I also had never heard of "chiasmus." It is wonderfully explanatory but must it be binary only? Finally, Professor Wolff's characterization of what it means to be a charismatic sociopath struck me as a particularly apt description of imperialist states. (If corporations can be people) can states be charismatic sociopaths?

Tom Cathcart said...

This is an excellent and frightening analysis. We politically motivated folks often overlook the psychological dimension. I think Tobias has identified what's in it psychologically for Trump's followers.

David Auerbach said...

It's very good. Corey Robin has been writing similarly complicated analyses on his blog/facebook page. And then there's this:

Lounger said...

Thank you for sharing your son's excellent analysis of the candidate Trump, very interesting and informative.

Vox recently published an article about the Trump phenomenon that looks at his supporters. According to the article they are "authoritarians":

"Last September, a PhD student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst named Matthew MacWilliams realized that his dissertation research might hold the answer to not just one but all three of these mysteries.

MacWilliams studies authoritarianism — not actual dictators, but rather a psychological profile of individual voters that is characterized by a desire for order and a fear of outsiders. People who score high in authoritarianism, when they feel threatened, look for strong leaders who promise to take whatever action necessary to protect them from outsiders and prevent the changes they fear.

So MacWilliams naturally wondered if authoritarianism might correlate with support for Trump.

He polled a large sample of likely voters, looking for correlations between support for Trump and views that align with authoritarianism. What he found was astonishing: Not only did authoritarianism correlate, but it seemed to predict support for Trump more reliably than virtually any other indicator. He later repeated the same poll in South Carolina, shortly before the primary there, and found the same results, which he published in Vox"

s. wallerstein said...

This is very interesting. So when a smart psychopath offers you what you're looking for or long for or dream of in political terms, you fall for him or her: reason goes out the window. I've seen this happen on the left too. It's worth keeping in mind.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Lounger, I read the reports of that research. It was quite interesting.

Aaron Alvarez said...

Jerry, there are different types of chiasmus. I am most familiar with the Byzantine chiasmus though. They are not necessary binary. Some can be aporetic others point to new terms. The skeptics made use of that type of aproetic chiasmus. There are metabole, anti-metabole, tetracolonic, conjugate epanelpsis, one created by parechesis and a few others. Some make use of structure and others make use of tones in which things would be sung, others make use of syllable length or theme.

Salome said...

"Trump is wrapping a purported message of economic populism in racist language, inviting his audience into expressions of "legitimate" grievance about wage inequality and unemployment through the gateway of White Supremacy. This is a reiteration of centuries of racial / economic exploitation where poor White people are urged to sign onto a populist message that allows them to feel superior to people of color and therefore less bad about their inferior economic status. The reason that message works is because a lot of people are, in fact, White Supremacists in their hearts."

Where do you find this power of seeing into other people's hearts? Some people on the left should take a look into their own hearts. Maybe you also have some desire to feel superior.

s. wallerstein said...

Salome, It's impossible to see into the hearts of others, but we can get a fairly good idea of what goes on by watching their behavior.

Thus, if someone swears they're not racist, but goes out of their way to avoid eating lunch with black coworkers, sells their home when the first black families
arrive in the neighborhood, votes for candidates with an implicit or explicit racist message, constantly criticizes and puts down moderate black public figures such as Obama applying strict criteria in their criticism which they do not apply
to comparable white public figures, well, they're probably racist.

Salome said...

S. Wallerstein -- well, that I understand. But the post did not argue that this is typical behavior of Trump supporters. It responds to another article which interprets their behavior in terms of legitimate economic greivances. It offers an alternative interpretation whereby a large portion of the American lower and middle class are basically driven by incurable racism and a desire to feel superior. I find that incredibly condescending. If this is how you think of ordinary working people then I don't see how there can be much hope for socialism or democracy at all.

Frank Wilhoit said...

"They are racist."

Well, and what if they are? This observation is not false, but neither is it in any way useful. Nothing can be done with it, because it is only a pinhole view of a broader truth.

What they are is sadists.

We call them racists when their targets-of-convenience are racially identifiable. Often they are, because racial identity is sometimes outwardly visible, which makes those targets very convenient. (Note, in this connection, the persecution of Sikhs who are accused of being Muslims.)

But, even within the space of racially identifiable targets, note the millisecond latency with which the target can shift from Blacks to Hispanics to Asians to Arabs to whatever. The targets are always targets of convenience, but they are not always racially identifiable at sight, or by linguistic origin of surname, or by any other marker. The targeting of Jews, gays, atheists, persons who are either too prosperous or not prosperous enough, etc. is no better for not being racially determined.

The common thread is always in-group versus out-group. The desideratum is that the members of the in groups should be protected by the law, but not bound by it; whereas the members of the out groups should be bound by the law but not protected by it. This, in turn, is motivated purely and exclusively by sadism.

This is why it is no good telling a sadist that Target X is henceforward off limits. Another target will be chosen before the echo of the words has even died; and nothing is accomplished thereby.

s. wallerstein said...

Salome, Does the post say that they are "incurably racist"? As to wanting to feel superior, well, I suppose that we all like to feel superior to someone.

Salome said...

S. Wallerstein, maybe not explicitly, but it doesn't sound like there's much to do about it:
"a lot of people are, in fact, White Supremacists in their hearts. They have been taught that expressing such views is socially unacceptable, and they genuinely do not want to think of themselves as "racists"."

We all like to feel superior, and for me, that would be only reason for accepting the interpreation in this post instead of the one it responds to.

s. wallerstein said...

Salome, In any case a socialist society, as I see it, is more about people working together for democratically determined common goals, without class differences in income and wealth, than about everybody loving everybody else or about no one ever feeling superior to anyone else.

Salome said...

S. Wallerstein, I agree completely. This post seems to imply that Trump supporters are mainly being emotionally manipulated and aren't really rationally participating in democracy because they aren't completely free of racism, the desire to feel superior and so on. But by that logic I don't think anyone can rationally participate in democracy. As the original article says, Trump supporters may be as racist as anybody else, but that doesn't mean they aren't mainly motivated by the economic message.

Unknown said...

Mainly in response to Frank Wilhoit above - partly to the article: I disagree that 'in-group' orientation is a sign of incurable 'sadism' or reactionary stupidity. In-group orientation appears to be largely hardwired into us through evolutionary processes, so that at least a large fraction of us our 'programmed' to orient ourselves primarily toward a (socially constructed) 'in-group' and to be indifferent or hostile to (socially constructed) 'out-groups'.

In-group orientation is not some kind of pathology - it's a perfectly reasonable response to the conditions facing our species through 90% of its existence. Even today 'in-group' attitudes can have a positive face - promoting equality, solidarity and trust within the group concerned, when the group has a real economic and social viability (think Bhutan, or Denmark).

Of course, critics of certain 'in-group' attitudes today (e.g Trumpism) obviously have a strong point - since groups such as 'the white race' don't exist as socially realizable entities - they are fantasies, and not promoters of real solidarity. However, this critique of the 'in-group attitude' often seems to go hand in hand with a cosmopolitan elitism which favors the dissolving of all 'in groups' into global, imperial formations, in which, naturally, the most intelligent and capable will find greater rewards than in the confines of little villages. said...

Nicely stated. The second half--about the charismatic sociopath--is a beautiful reminder of the enduring appeal of Plato's Republic. Glaucon and his friends admire the tyrant because he is the living embodiment of the Myth of Gyges. What Trump supporters are effectively saying, on this interpretation of things, is that everyone really wants to be a Gyges, to be able to do injustice with impunity. And now they've find the demagogue who agrees with them.

Simon said...

This is complete baloney. Your habit of making empirical claims without adequate empirical evidence is really astonishing, especially for an academic. Let's start with your interpretation of Trump supporters. How, exactly, did you achieve this marvelous feat of reading all their minds? How, exactly, do you "just know" that they are all really racists who are entirely driven by their racism? There's this old problem called "the problem of other minds", and it is at least useful for the purpose of illustrating the unobservability of other people's mental states, but you seem to have missed the point. When the native says "Gavagai", you say "See, he's a racist. I can just tell". More seriously, you simply haven't provided one shred of empirical evidence that actually favors your hypothesis over Frank's. None. What's worse is that you are left without any explanation of why Trump talks constantly about trade, and the control of government by big business, and the price gouging by drug companies, and the greed of hedge fund managers, and the great services that Planned Parenthood provides to millions of women. What odd window dressing for a run-of-the-mill racist. Well, I'm not going to waste much more time with this. I'll just leave you with an anecdote from an old socialist. In 1937, George Orwell reflected on the state of socialism in Britain, in a book called The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell observed that most socialists had all the sniffing snobbery of the middle class. If a real member of the working class, say a miner from the pit, had walked into the room, then these self-described socialists would have been angry and disgusted, and would probably leave the room holding their noses, because they couldn't stand the smell. Well, not much has changed, has it? Academic socialists are still useless to real working class people, because they just can't stand the smell.

s. wallerstein said...


You make exactly the same error that you accuse us academic socialists of making (actually, I'm not an academic, but I once was one).

You say that we claim to know what goes on in the minds of the working class without empirical evidence.

However, you yourself claim that we academic socialists are useless to real working class people because we can't stand the smell. What's your evidence for that besides a passage from George Orwell written 80 years ago?

Did Orwell conduct a complete, empirical study of the reactions of academic socialists? Have things changed in 80 years? Are things different in the U.K. and the U.S.? What about the fact that many academics now earn working class wages (teaching assistants)?