Notes on Anthropology and Trumpism Part 1

For many on the political centre-left, this week was jarring. Donald Trump, quasi-successful businessman and reality TV personality was voted into United States political office as President-elect. The world was literally watching as Trump secured key “battle grounds” securing his position and in-turn threatening to dismantle many of the key initiatives of President Obama’s government (such as repealing the Affordable Care Act, restoring the construction of the Keystone pipeline, withdrawing payments to UN climate change initiatives, and making the extraction of coal, oil, and shale gas easier through reduced restrictions). What many commentaries on Trump lack is an anthropological focus and analysis. Let me share some context with you.

Myth, Illusion, and Celebrity Culture

In two articles for Huffington Post, Paul Stoller, an anthropologist that I first encountered during my undergraduate degree, tries to make sense of Trump through a cultural perspective on myth, illusion, and celebrity culture.

As an anthropologist, I see the rise of Trump from a cultural vantage. He is the embodiment of celebrity culture — a world filled with glitz, fantasy and illusion. It is culture in which shallow perception is more valuable than deep insight. If you watch Donald Trump perform his shtick, you hear pretty much the same thing. Mr. Trump comes on stage, recites his poll numbers, insults his opponents, invites famous supporters to the stage to sing his praises, and then talks, without giving concrete factual examples, about how bad things are and how he’s the man to make things better (Stoller 2016).

Donald Trump in the “reality” TV show The Celebrity Apprentice. Photo:

Stoller makes clear that the language and demeanor of Trump is one of invincibility mixed with celebrity illusion where nothing is as it seems, but the “good guy” will make the “bad guys” pay.

In this celebrity illusion, Trump is already “playing” the part of President regardless of whether he knows anything about foreign or domestic policy, government regulation or the constitution. Trump is a soap opera doctor, reciting the lines that pits good against evil in the quest for greatness (read: fame).

He is not yet the president, but is trying to play one on television. Although he seems ignorant of the social, political and cultural complexities of world, not to forget the U.S. constitution, it doesn’t matter, for he is operating in a fantasy world in which facts don’t matter, in which “competent” people — actors all — can quickly solve difficult problems. In the fantasy world of television problems are easy to solve. On television or on social media, it’s easy to build a wall across the US-Mexico border and get Mexico to pay for it. In the vicarious mythic worlds of television, Facebook and Twitter, it’s easy for Mr. Trump, who has disparaged Muslims, women, gays, the physically challenged and Hispanics, to claim — with conviction — that he will win their support. In this mythic world, it is easy for Mr. Trump, who insults his opponents — even opponents of his own party — to say that he will be a unifying force (Stoller 2016)

The Emperor Has No Clothes

Thinking about the future of our children and grandchildren, lets hope that it’s not too late for us to discover that behind the wall of illusion that Mr. Trump has built, the emperor has no clothes (Stoller 2016).

The most poignant and literal demonstration of Trump’s illusion is the art collective INDECLINEs creation of naked Trump statues which they placed in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Seattle. According to the spokesman for INDECLINE, the statues conjure, in part, the “Hans Christian Andersen’s story about an overly confident leader without clothing” (Holley 2016). In this retelling, Trump not only has no clothes but “no balls” (Holley 2016).

Photo: INDECLINE on Instagram
Photo: INDECLINE on Instagram

Thinking about these installations I recall another published work by Paul Stoller that was transformative for me. The book, Embodying Colonial Memories: Spirit Possession, Power, and the Hauka in West Africa, explored possession among the Songhay people of Niger by colonial spirits. Extending Michael Taussig’s work on mimesis and alterity, Stoller explores the role mimesis plays in workings of power.

According to Stoller, 

the Hauka have mimicked the white man to ‘master’ him, to tap into his extraordinary power so that it might be recruited for local uses. In Niger, people used the power of mimetic excess to oppose and come to grips with French colonial rule in the 1920s. During the first regime of Niger’s postcolony, peasants used it as a kind of sedative to deaden the pain of their growing alienation.  During the postcolony’s second regime, the President, himself a Hauka medium, transformed mimetic excess into state policy, forging a link between mimesis and the will to power (1995:195-6).

We can understand the mimicry of the Trump statues as a way to “tap into” the potential of Trump’s power. Trump’s overconfidence and potential for power is ridiculed through exposing Trump’s naked body, as a would-be emperor with no clothes (read: comprehension of political affairs or issues) to shield hm from the critical gaze of bemused onlookers. While shocking, the installations also invoke the Theatre of Cruelty.

More on that soon.

Holley, Peter

2016. These protesters wanted to humiliate ‘Emperor’ Trump. So they took off his clothes.

Stoller, Paul

2016. The Anthropology of Trump: Myth, Illusion and Celebrity Culture.

Stoller, Paul

1995. Embodying Colonial Memories: Spirit Possession, Power, and the Hauka in West Africa. Routledge: New York.

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