Election Special: Fear Itself

For the fourth instalment of our US election series, tracing Trump’s nativist paranoia back to the founding of the USA

Tomorrow morning, the United States will go to the polls to vote for their 44th president, choosing between the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and the Republican candidate Donald Trump. This election cycle has been more divisive and toxic than any other in living memory in the US; it has widened old conservative and liberal fault lines, and created new, even more dangerous ones with the potential to effect not just the US, but the whole world.

This entry, from Andrew Hultkrans, is one of a seven-part frieze.com series that has been published throughout October in anticipation of tomorrow's vote. The remaining entries, considering key issues such as gender, education, environment, Brexit, race, and class, are available here

***

As a US citizen interested in the paradoxes of my country’s national character, which are often most stark in the unhinged precincts of our bumptious right wing, I have regularly been asked to explain the Donald Trump phenomenon to friends both foreign and domestic. Surely The Orange One’s outrageous candidacy is without precedent in US history, they say. How could a country founded on the ideals of ‘liberty and justice for all’ cough up such a divisive, hateful demagogue, one who has so little respect for the Constitution that he flippantly threatens key elements of the Bill of Rights (such as press freedom and no religious test for citizenship or public office) in his campaign speeches?

In truth, The Donald is merely the latest iteration of a dark, confused strain of US politics that has been with us almost from the nation’s founding, a mishmash of contradictory attitudes bound by a few central tenets and exhaustively limned by historian Richard Hofstadter in his book The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (1964). In a series of linked essays on ‘pseudo-conservatism’ that served as post-mortems on the McCarthyite 1950s and Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, Hofstadter traced the beliefs of American nativist right-wing populists – hyperpatriotic, authoritarian, isolationist, anti-immigrant, given to conspiracy theories, united in seething hatred of a cosmopolitan ‘elite’ that looks down its nose at them while redistributing their income to the indolent, undeserving poor – whose rage is driven above all by resentment and a feverish conviction that the country has been sold down the river by its own leaders.

In an essay titled ‘The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt – 1954,’ Hofstadter explained that he derived the term ‘pseudo-conservative’ from The Authoritarian Personality, a 1950 study by Theodore W. Adorno and associates of those who ‘believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism’ but who ‘show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions, and institutions.’ According to Hofstadter, the American pseudo-conservative ‘sees his own country as being so weak that it is constantly about to fall victim to subversion; and yet he feels that it is so all-powerful that any failure it may experience in getting its way in the world … cannot possibly be due to its limitations but must be attributed to its having been betrayed.’

Beginning as early as the 1790s, this sensibility led to successive panics over the invasion of our white Protestant nation by hordes of Bavarian Illuminati, Freemasons, Catholics, ‘gold gamblers’ (read: Jewish bankers), Communists, and other foreign malefactors, all sent (like Trump’s fictional Mexican rapists) to sap the precious bodily fluids of ‘real Americans’ and steal the country from its rightful owners. (The howling absurdity of holding nativist attitudes in a nation of immigrants should go without saying, but constantly bears repeating.) A passage from an 1895 Populist Party manifesto exemplifies the hysterical pitch of pseudo-conservative rhetoric: ‘A vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two continents, and it is rapidly taking possession of the world. If not met and overthrown at once, it forebodes terrible social convulsions, the destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism.’ Seen as part of this tradition, wild Trump allegations such as ‘The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive’ and ‘[Clinton’s] international donors control every move she made … history will record that 2017 is the year America lost its independence’ are as American as baseball and apple pie.  

gettyimages-585212634_900.jpg

Attendees listening to the national anthem during a Donald Trump campaign event in Ashburn, Virginia. Courtesy: Alex Wong / Getty Images

Attendees listening to the national anthem during a Donald Trump campaign event in Ashburn, Virginia. Courtesy: Alex Wong / Getty Images

From the moment colonial leader John Winthrop delivered ‘A Model of Christian Charity’ (1630) – the oft-exploited ‘city upon a hill’ sermon – on the deck of the Arabella prior to its landing on the shores of the future Massachusetts, America’s ‘Ship of State’  has flown the twin standards of exceptionalism and paranoia. ‘The eyes of all people are upon us,’ Winthrop warned, adding that the fledgling colony’s failure would make it ‘a story and by-word through the world.’ Such Old World chatter would not be mere schadenfreude, but apocalyptic in tone, threatening the survival of Christianity itself. ‘We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake,’ Winthrop continued, ominously. ‘We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.’ The stakes were mercilessly high, celestial even; failure would be total, irrevocable, and deleterious to all of world Christendom.

From the very beginning, the people of this country suffered a unique form of status anxiety, initially instilled by the grim fatalism of Calvinist predestination, in which all were preordained by God as saved or damned eons before birth, with no recourse to change their status or method of divining it in this life. Furthering this uncertainty was an intentional lack of an aristocracy and rigid class system, a major break with European tradition that to this day prevents individuals from knowing where they truly stand in their communities. As successive waves of immigrants arrived, first- or second-generation US citizens felt they needed to consolidate and ‘prove’ their Americanness, often by prejudicially distinguishing themselves from the new arrivals, even if they came from the same country or faith. Material success was granted a moral character – an indication that one was of the Elect – and tied to the authenticity of one’s identity.

It is a short leap from this anxious patrolling of individual and national identity to doubts about Barack Obama’s provenance and religion. The ‘birther’ movement, whose most prominent voice was Donald Trump, was textbook pseudo-conservativism, blending nativism and McCarthyite smear tactics in an insinuation campaign based on a conspiracy theory. Obama himself represented a kind of Antichrist to such people – a transnational, post-racial, post-American, Ivy League-educated, neoliberal globalist, more at home with the Davoisie than with ordinary citizens. The benighted New Hampshire man at an early Trump rally who said, ‘We have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know, he’s not even an American…. But anyway, we have training camps brewing where they want to kill us. That’s my question, when can we get rid of it?’ neatly encapsulated the contemporary pseudo-conservative perspective. Trump’s answer – ‘A lot of people are saying that, a lot of people are saying bad things are happening out there’ – was the type of vague, baseless insinuation that encourages such sentiments to fester and spread. 

So, is Trump unprecedented in American political history? Not at all. If you fashioned a man out of the legacies of the anti-Masons, the anti-Catholics, the Know-Nothing Party, the Populist Party, Nixon’s ‘silent majority,’ and the Tea Party, as well as the genes of Father Coughlin, Huey Long, Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan, and placed a golden loaf of challah on his head, you’d have our Donald, an Ugly American for the new millennium.

Andrew Hultkrans is a writer based in New York, USA. He is the author of Forever Changes (Bloomsbury, 2003).

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
At La Panacée, Montpellier, Nicolas Bourriaud’s manifesto for a new movement and attempt to demarcate an artistic peer...
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018