Trump and Anthropology

We are the new Indians…there are people today who want to discover us again, who want to conquer, enslave, and colonize us, and who want to use us like the conquistadores once did….The Indians were sacked for centuries…we are the new Indians and we need defenders.

“We are doing worse than our Indians did during colonial times, because at that time there was no illiteracy. They had their culture. There were no differences. There were no beggars then. There were no beggars. There were no abandoned children. All these inequalities and this tragedy did not exist. These things that the new Indians are enduring did not exist then”. Fidel Castro, 1990a

A Thanksgiving

For what I had characterized as a key world-historic event, I had to offer rare (unprecedented) thanks to the US for producing such an exciting and even inspiring electoral campaign, which I began to follow on a daily basis since August of 2015. For the past year, the forces revealed in the US elections, and the UK’s Brexit, have inspired some of the best essays yet on Zero Anthropology, and certainly the most successful in terms of the numbers of readers, and the translation of a few of the essays into Italian and French by other sites. This battery of articles on globalization has led to new contacts, becoming part of new research networks, accompanied by a growth in the number of subscribers and readers, both here and in Twitter and Facebook. There is even some initial talk about a new book that directly pertains to this work, work which I have already begun and expect to see finished by the end of next year. Between Brexit and Donald Trump’s successful electoral campaign, clearly many writers were inspired to intensely re-examine and critically investigate all of the following: neoliberalism, globalism, cosmopolitanism, empire, immigration and citizenship, identity politics, media propaganda, the urban-rural divide, free trade, austerity, deindustrialization, democratic socialism, the working-class, provincialism, nationalism, nativism, populism, and even offering new conceptual and theoretical tools such as the “New Victorianism”.

This was not another dry election between cardboard cut-out figures, each a member of a dynastic political oligarchy, engaged in torpid pseudo-debates about “capital gains taxes” versus “fighting for families”. No, instead this was an election that saw Fox News embrace the concept of “working class,” when previously all Americans were deemed to be automatically “middle class,” and only Marxists spoke of proletarians. This was an election where one of the leading candidates campaigned as a “socialist” (and was not incarcerated). This was an election where Libya cast a long shadow, or to be specific, what the US did to Libya—the closest we can get to “accountability” in the real world of extreme power asymmetries. We (gladly) witnessed the one who cackled, “we came, we saw, he died,” being felled in turn, dispatched and banished from the political landscape, to preside over dwindling fortunes without any of the special insider access to sell to corporations and foreign governments. No more bank speeches for her, as she eyes the prospects of real bankruptcy. Again, in the real world, this is the most we could expect in turns of the wicked being brought to justice. And then it also turns out that US voters may have averted nuclear conflict with Russia, which would have terminated humanity. One would think there would be much jubilation for this Thanksgiving holiday, but some will need hammers to take the scales off their eyes.

There has been neither anguish nor fear here that resulted from the US electoral process, and I suspect that is one reason why I have less difficulty than many colleagues and students in viewing the results unclouded by misplaced worries and misdirected concerns—which is not the same as being carefree and abdicating vigilance. What I am going to argue here is that US anthropologists, and those aligned with them, should take a deep breath and recognize that their work could become far more valuable than ever, if they have the courage to do their own thinking and avoid partisan rituals that display elitist, loyalist, and restorationist tendencies.

An Anthropological Challenge That Went Unanswered

At the start of May “Why Donald J. Trump Will Be the Next President of the United States” was published on ZA. This was preceded by an even earlier prediction, posted to Twitter on January 14, 2016.


In September of 2015, I teased students in one of my classes that they should start practice saying “President Donald Trump,” with many groans received in response. The article above was the only one published by any anthropologist, anywhere, that outlined a reasoning as to why Donald Trump would win—not could win, not might win, and not just a single line, but a reasoned article that explained the empirical support for the conclusion, with the logic that held it together. The point was not to turn ZA into a predictions site—I have little patience with crystal-ball types, and certainly the fortune-teller is as much a part of the circus, carnival, or fair, as any clown. However, when you feel something so certainly that it seems to be entering through the pores of one’s skin, a conviction that remained unchanged and even got stronger with the passage of time, it deserves to be analyzed and expressed. That article quickly became the #1 hit of ZA’s nearly decade-long history, read and shared over 100,000 times.

Anthropologists may not have read my “prediction” right: I publicly stuck my neck out as part of an open challenge to the merits and reputation of US anthropology—and it was a serious head shot that I executed. True, I may have “won” small, but they have certainly lost “bigly”.

The challenge was not the prediction. The real challenge that was contained within that article was a challenge to US anthropology. That unmet challenge can be described with the following questions:

  • Why didn’t US anthropologists see the coming victory of Donald Trump? Why is it that it took a Canadian anthropologist to understand their society apparently better than they do, at least enough to interpret and predict their presidential campaign?
  • Why were US anthropologists not better positioned to understand, explain, or even predict the rise of the Trump movement, and then its eventual victory?
  • What does the general failure of US anthropology in anticipating the Trump movement’s emergence and victory say about their discipline’s current theoretical fascination? How did “the ontological turn” prepare them for this outcome? What did Bruno Latour have to teach them about globalization, white workers, or Trump? How did Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s “Amerindian perspectivism” help them? How is the rehabilitation of the nature-culture debate anything other than the senile conservativism of what one can only conclude is a discipline at its wits’ end?
  • What does this process reveal about US anthropologists’ remoteness, distance, detachment, and unfamiliarity with their own society and its dominant cultural and political forms? What does it say about their actual understanding of the local impacts of a globalized economy?
  • How much did US anthropologists take for granted, and why?
  • How have US anthropologists learned more about themselves and their own society, by studying others? How have they applied what they learned abroad, at home?

It is not “unfair” to pose such questions, and in the manner above. Also, while it is true that I am generalizing in my comments about US anthropology as a whole, it is because the exceptions are so few as to be virtually invisible. The “big question” that now confronts US anthropology is the most lethal one of all: what good are you? In other words, what useful knowledge do you really produce?

The currently dominant theories, methods, and social positioning of US anthropologists all come into question—also, their political stances. Echo-chamber anthropology is not anthropology. And there is no way anyone can look at US anthropology journals and go to US anthropology conferences, and escape the fact that it is a giant echo-chamber. They know it is, because they consciously invest themselves in maintaining the echo-chamber, by shunning, scorning, and diminishing all serious challengers, local and foreign. US anthropologists should forget about “safe spaces” as university life has clearly afforded them too much comfort already. If anthropologists cannot depart from their zones of comfort—please understand this—it means they cannot be anthropologists. The “comfortable” is not the familiar, as some might conclude, but is instead the zone of consensus, conformity, and unwarranted tranquility.

Something is Rotten in Minneapolis

That something is very wrong with US anthropology is evidenced by the unjustifiable and unreasonable expressions of “shock” that have been made public. For example, in a series of articles presented by Dominic Boyer for Cultural Anthropology online, titled “Crisis of Liberalism,” it is easy to encounter these expressions of shock, while they take comfort in contempt and mockery in an all too familiar, liberal manner. The opening statement introducing the series engages in demonization when it points to “the perverse spectacle of Donald Trump” (by virtue of omission, Hillary Clinton is preserved as respectable). Thus Dominic Boyer refers to an “orange man’s narcissism” speaking of Donald Trump, also described by Boyer in this act of hyperventilating verbosity: “a seething, leering, glowering hypersubject radiating twentieth-century white male Northern privilege and dominion”. Boyer then comfortably concludes, “Trumpism is really not that much of a riddle”—while failing to predict his victory. Lilith Mahmud makes the predictable lurch to “fascism” in her article—I really wish North American writers would stop invoking “fascism,” because their obvious ignorance of actual fascism, as it historically emerged and existed, only trivializes real fascism. Mahmud also conflates liberalism with democracy, pointing to the fact that anthropologists are still woefully unprepared to discuss democracy—she thus writes: “Trump winning the presidency would not be a sign that democracy works….it would be a sign that the whole political system of liberalism is doomed”. Almost perfectly echoing Hillary Clinton’s now infamous “basket of deplorables” remark, Mahmud writes: “the injection of racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic language into legitimate discourse threatens to undo strides made toward social equality”. She has also introduced the notion of a “legitimate discourse,” which is typically a concern of those who engage in silencing opponents. Indeed, most of Mahmud’s rant consists of demonizing the anti-liberal insurgency, not explaining it, and far less understanding it. The fear in her remarks is certainly palpable. Likewise, Douglas R. Holmes is also convinced that he is dealing with “fascism”. Fear is unmistakable in the “Time of Monsters” by Andrea Muehlebach, who at least knows something about historical fascism, but then bungles her analysis by suggesting but not proving that she can make a valid argument by analogy. In other words, the reader needs to have already accepted, in advance, that the Trump phenomenon is fascist, in order to accept her argument. Sadly, Muehlebach resorts to argument by assertion, as when writing of “the blatant irrationalities of a Donald Trump”. Unjustifiably, Muehlebach refers uncritically to “liberal humanitarian empathy”—once again, the degree to which US anthropologists ignored the devastation wrought on Libya, and ignored those like myself whose analyses were consistently proven right, has come back to haunt them—if they want to see real monsters, they should peer into a mirror. Naomi Schiller, not to depart from the safe space of Cultural Anthropology, also concurs with her colleagues that “a Trump presidency is a truly terrifying prospect”. What the contributors did not reflect on, among many things, is that these repeated invocations of terror, fright, threat, fear, danger, and monsters, also suggests that they are too emotionally frail to be relied upon to produce sober analysis, let alone a fair analysis. The degree of personalization, where Trump is magnified to the point where he stands in for all those who supported him, is also a major analytical failing. The Cultural Anthropology articles thus constitute a grand act of auto-disqualification.

Adding to the fear-demonization momentum, the parent society that publishes Cultural Anthropology—the Society for Cultural Anthropology—is planning an “open mike” session which will be moderated by Anand Pandian, which will take place at the upcoming meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in Minneapolis. The description of the event involves a “discussion” about the “troubling aftermath” of the election—anthropologists who voted for Trump, stay away, is what that says. From “troubling,” the announcement jumps to “startling”: a “startling time of political and cultural crisis”. Crisis? A crisis of what? A crisis for whom? Why not include the “economic crisis” that has shut down tens of thousands of factories and removed tens of millions of workers from participation in the labour force? Why not the crisis that sees many unemployed men ending their lives with drugs, alcohol, and suicide? Why was no emergency session called when it was revealed that life expectancy—of all things, in a “developed” US—has gone in reverse and is declining among non-college educated whites? The only “crisis” these anthropologists are really concerned about is their own nervous crisis.

The SCA’s invitation seems to assume in advance that a like-mindedness prevails among its members, and no doubt they have good reason for such confidence. However, if that is true (and I believe it is), then the SCA has a hegemony problem. Hegemony is a bad place to be: it’s the very high point to which the powerful rise, just before they fall. The SCA also has a homogeneity problem—that means it is more silo than “society”. All of this is ironic too about the articles in Cultural Anthropology—they lash out at Trump’s alleged “racism,” yet US anthropology is still the whitest of all social science disciplines, and the study of “race relations” has been marginalized in most anthropology curricula.

All told, the upcoming AAA conference sounds like it should invite John Podesta to deliver the keynote address. The catering could be provided by Marina Abramovic. Anthropologists should feel relatively safe visiting Minnesota, as long as they stay within Minneapolis (the state nearly went to Trump).

Remember HTS?

Apart from the fact that evidence of “shock” and needing to “cope” betray a lack of preparedness for Trump’s victory, possibly because they never departed from the comforting assurances offered by experts in the liberal media (and shunned those who were alert to reality), there is also some political irony. Do readers recall the years of fierce debate surrounding the relationship between US anthropology and the US Army’s Human Terrain System? I was actively involved in those debates, and indeed, in some quarters of the Internet my name is still “asshole” as a result. (Less noticed are my essays that show my increased [self]criticism about the nature of anti-HTS critiques, as shown here and here.) The AAA Executive Board condemned HTS in no uncertain terms. A special AAA commission negated HTS as a legitimate exercise in anthropology, and warned anthropologists away from it. The Network of Concerned Anthropologists mounted a successful petition against HTS. So who institutionalized HTS, and made it a permanent budget item? That was the administration of Barack Obama, a politician supported by the vast majority of US anthropologists. And who led the charge in terminating HTS? That was, to a significant extent, Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican—the same Duncan Hunter who was one of the first members of Congress to endorse Donald Trump. How is that for irony? Their Obama affinity produces no fruit. Then it’s the Trump supporter that acts on their demands. Silence.

So What?

The points being made here are of the most serious kind: they are about academic incompetence and professional malpractice. Having demonstrated their uselessness in anticipating and fairly interpreting the nationalist working class political insurgency, and engaging in ever louder screams of terror, US anthropologists betray the fact that they (currently) have little in the way of an important contribution to make. The survival of their discipline is now at stake, more than ever before.

And Yet, a Gift to North American Anthropology

US anthropologists may have generally fallen very short when it came to understanding, explaining, or even anticipating the rise of a politically successful populist insurgence, but that does not mean they cannot benefit from the outcomes. There are many ways in which anthropologists can now produce valuable and important contributions. These include:

  • A critical investigation into the construction of canonical categorizations that are of dubious value to explaining actual political practice, such as “Latinos” and “Women,” among others. (Clearly, “women” did not vote as women, or as was “expected” of “women”—they may be women as such, but not women for such, to borrow Marx’s phraseology. Similarly, “Latinos” who were not perturbed by the anti-Catholic prejudice that was revealed about the Clinton campaign via WikiLeaks? Latinos that have little trouble with Hillary Clinton’s support for late term, partial birth abortions? Latinos that are not offended by the Satanic undertones of some of the private rituals engaged in by Clinton staff? Really? You found the notion of a “Latino surge” for Clinton to be credible? To quote Neera Tanden on Hillary Clinton, but to turn the question to you: what planet are you all living on?)
  • Anthropology “at home” has become urgent and vital. Those US anthropologists who are engaged in research projects in their own society, should no longer be looked down upon as doing second-best research. They should be prized as the discipline’s most valuable contributors.
  • Class is back, and particularly working class. The era of denial is over. As many anthropologists already know, class is an especially knotted and difficult problem for social theory. They will need to resume that work, finish the unfinished syntheses of what we know, and look for applicable improvements to our theoretical knowledge.
  • If there is continued deglobalization, “local economies” will matter more once again. Anthropologists are supposed to be experts at locality and localization, thus some “old” knowledge may become very useful once more.

In spite of the title of this essay, the real phenomenon at the centre of interest is not Donald Trump, and it never really was. I use “Trump” frequently as an abbreviated reference to those who support Trump, who matter far more to me than Trump himself, especially those who are the working class base. More than that, we are at the dawn of a generalized deglobalization, and no nation will be immune. The pro-deglobalization, anti-neoliberal forces already existing in China, could prove to have an even more momentous impact than a million Trumps, if they can coalesce. A series of crucial votes is coming in Europe, that may have Brexit-like effects. So, we need to prepare ourselves.

Ironically, as some of us may recall, for many years North American anthropologists actively resisted the study of “globalization”. Globalization only became a firm part of the anthropological research agenda by, I would argue, the late 1990s. Many anthropologists remain who were always more loyal to the study of the local. In a sense, they have been vindicated. With advancing deglobalization, the local will take on renewed importance and significance. This should be a boon to North American anthropology.

The New Indians and the New Anthropology

In connection with an article published in The New York Review of Books, “Inside the Sacrifice Zone,” which touches on the way that academic and media elites have become strangers in their own country, and can betray an amazing unfamiliarity, Larry Kummer of Fabius Maximus wrote to ask me: “How can social scientists study foreign lands if they find Louisiana so difficult to understand?” That is an excellent question. In fact, it is the question.

Let’s assume, just for the sake of discussion, that the Trump movement can be adequately characterized as “white nationalist”. The study of white nationalists by anthropologists is almost totally absent—it is, in fact, largely the stuff of Hollywood fiction. Some might recall the 1990 movie, “So Proudly We Hail,” starring Edward Hermann as a very convincing, very earnest college professor in anthropology. Hermann’s character in the film, James Wagner, finding himself sidelined in his anthropology department, is increasingly drawn to the case of an Aryan movement led by a character played by David Soul—a unique and challenging research opportunity. He does the dangerous thing of trying to understand them, and they in turn do the sinister thing of trying to exploit his work on cultural differences. (In fact, the few times I visited any Aryan websites in the 1990s, I found them littered with articles from physical anthropology, from the 1800s.) The college anthropologist, Wagner, testifies on their behalf, does controversial press conferences which he fumbles because he’s not an expert at that sort of thing, and is increasingly painted as a racist himself. His association with the “Aryan Resurgence Movement” begins to tarnish the reputation of his college, and from what I remember he ends up being more than marginal, he’s fired. That is the stuff of fiction. The real work that exists is what you see in those Cultural Anthropology articles discussed above. If anything, the film seems to be warning anthropologists to stay away (while also showing us as hapless, bespectacled dupes in tweed).

Assuming that you can get past the unforgivable “whiteness” of the white working class, especially the non-college educated, rural working class in the US, one might see them occupying a structural position that some label as “the New Indians”. This is a structural Indianness, not a cultural, or to be specific, an ethnic one. As we saw in the opening quotes, Fidel Castro was one of those to describe the New Indian as follows, and it was with reference to the post-Indigenous populations that came to dominate Latin America, himself included (a descendant of Spanish immigrants):

“at present they [rich and powerful nations] take more from us every year than what the conquerors took over three centuries. There are more of us Indians now, and we produce more gold now”. (Fidel Castro, 1990a)

“Because we are the new Indians of this hemisphere. I was saying that in my opinion, when we analyze the social and economic situation of our peoples, I said that the level of exploitation is greater, and in my opinion, in this hemisphere our peoples have become net exporters of capital to the rich countries, to those who have exploited us for centuries, those who made themselves the owners…those that became rich with our sweat and blood, and today continue to exploit us”. (emphases added, Fidel Castro, 1990b)

“today, perhaps every year that passes, from our sweat, our efforts, our sacrifices, they extract from this America of ours more gold than they extracted in one century before. I would almost go as far as to say they are extracting more gold than all the gold they took in four centuries, or in three centuries”. (Fidel Castro, 1990b)

This way of thinking of the “New Indians” must have been influential, if you can hear it being echoed and elaborated upon in this dialogue taken from a recent US movie, “Hell or High Water”. This scene in particular stood out for me:

In a recent article, “Economic Citizenship and Resource Nationalism,” I also alluded to this new Indianness, in arguing for an economic nationalism that could be described as a broadening of the indigenization process. The “New Indian” idea is useful in another sense–it points to that large colony of white workers in the US, who were made to join the long line of targets feasted upon by a transnational capitalist class that has no loyalty to any nation. Yet, the most fatal error of neoliberal globalism was to dispossess the citizenry at the base of the electoral democracies of key states that had been appropriated by the transnational capitalist class, rendering their project vulnerable, as we currently see.

For very long—and some have said for too long (Adam Kuper)—anthropology has been the study of Indigenous Peoples. That is how I began my work in anthropology as well. Yes, anthropologists may tell students in their introductory college courses that “anthropology is the study of the human condition,” or “anthropology is the study of what makes us human,” but they’re lying: anthropology is the study of Indigenous Peoples (that anthropologists themselves long assumed would vanish). Put simply—because I prefer honest speech more than opaquely nuanced speech—to the extent that anthropology is still addicted to the Indian, globalization’s creation of new Indians should offer anthropologists a basis for structural, even if not ethnic, continuity in study, as long as they can rework and reinterpret past work. This point may be lost on anthropologists, even if everyone from Fidel Castro to Hollywood gets it.

The advance of deglobalization, and the resurgence of the local, merit attention being devoted to the New Indians, and some overdue sympathy as well. Anthropology needs to be reconceived as something that needs to be first done at home before it can be done abroad; that we need to be able to understand our own society, if we can ever pretend to understand, let alone explain, another. We can no longer get away with affirming that we study others to better understand ourselves, if we then show such a failure to understand ourselves that we resort to fear-mongering and insults. Canadian anthropology, for its part, needs to go back to its interdisciplinary roots, because the questions, methods, and ethics of this new research are not themselves confined to any one discipline. Canadian anthropologists also need to be more wary of US anthropology, because the latter is clearly failing.

We also need to apply at home what we have learned abroad. This “shock” over Brexit and Trump seems to be totally naïve and ignorant about the brutalities of neoliberal globalization, that were first visited upon nations such as Jamaica and Haiti, among other early laboratories. Some seem to have not only forgotten the “IMF riots” of the 1980s and the “anti-globalization” protests of the 1990s—they also appear to have become comfortable with what they apparently assumed was the new normal, as unsustainable and as unreal as that “normal” was. The half-headedness is inexcusable, lazy, and even immoral. Politically, it is in the process of being defeated, and will continue to be met with new defeats—between that, and the potentials for recapturing anthropology, we have something to celebrate.

10 thoughts on “Trump and Anthropology

  1. Wow, this article made me think. I’ve watched the Trump phenomenom with intense interest from afar (physically at least), and I find the analysis carried out here to be insightful, and to me, meaningful. The rise of Trump, and the consternation of the so called liberal progressives to his election has been an eye opener to me. For my part, I rejoiced in the election result.
    Thank you!

  2. made what I thought was a penetrating, somewhat downbeat comment but it has not appeared .
    Ah, well ! Viva la victoria siempre !
    “chastened” is not a word recognised by most academics, I suppose.

  3. Sorry David, as does happen sometimes comments are posted and then lost for good, and I don’t understand this system well enough to explain why. In some cases I have had to fish your comments out of the “trash” bin, but this sounds like something worse, because I cannot find it either in spam or trash.

  4. just a thank you- a good deal of the issue with the current Trahison des Clercs is, I believe , associated with an inordinate love of “comfort zones” both intellectual and moral.
    Thus, Larry Kummer identifies, as you say, THE question, of not being capable or perhaps not inclined to see what the “deplorables” sense in their flesh and bone. What is staring them in the face-although narcissism is probably widespread among those the Establishment has anointed, more so than among the “common man” rest of us, who, as the saying goes , have plenty to be humble about.
    At the current rate, one could guess optimistically that it will take academia three generations to learn humility and to become proactive in the building of an alternative model for the radically corrupted “West”.
    I have to add that my view of pessimism is like Leonard Cohen’s…

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