Two vignettes and the totalitarian rhetoric of Donald Trump

Views from without and within

Vignette # 1: Bad eating habits 

A few decades ago in Latin America, depending on considerations of class and culture, it would have been Chinese, Indian, or African kids who served as the ethnic group chosen by parents to be the signifier of distant commiseration, the psychological instrument used to persuade their kids—through guilt—to finish the food served at the table. At my grandmother’s house, kids were similarly the chosen demographic signifier, but not just any young member of a stereotypical “third world country” would do. No, she was always precise, my grandmother, creating a map in my mind of the specific distant nation where injustices occurred, and which, in some way, in spite of geographical distance, had immediate localized consequences in my life.  “Eat all your food,” she would say, in a pleasant voice the tone of which was dissonant with the ominous message that followed,  “because in the United States there are hundreds of thousands of starving kids!”

I don’t remember whether my grandmother’s gastro-social announcements caused the expected effect on me, and whether—in a precocious act of Pharisaism—I ended up eating all the food on my plate as expected. I do remember, though, having an intransigent position against certain colors in foods (green mostly) that gave my grandmother plenty of opportunities for exhorting me to think of the distant children in the U.S., and just as many opportunities for me to listen to her epicurean dictum. Back then, as a child, food wasn’t necessarily a source of pleasure; rather, it had the flavor of a somewhat forced and remote solidarity mixed with compulsory labor, a feeling that well meaning American food servers sometimes evoke in me in restaurants when they ask, gesturing to my plate, “are you still working on that?” as if the act of eating itself was marked by toil and effort, inverting the reality of the situation, in which I pay to be served food and am allowed—even expected—to overlook for a minute the real work incorporated into my meal, beginning with  the food production process, the labor of farmers and pickers and processers and transport drivers, to its arrival at the restaurant, and the labor of cooks and dishwashers, and indeed the very labor of the server her or himself.

I don’t remember reflecting on the validity of my grandmother’s statement about the United States.  The image I had in my mind of the U.S. had been created by watching cowboy movies in the cinema across the street from my parent’s house, and browsing the toy section in the Sears Catalog, which certainly showed no “niños” starving to death on its pages. All these “niños” seemed to be white, happy, well fed, and surrounded by wonderful possessions.  Nonetheless, regardless of the contrast between my image of children in the U.S. and my grandmother’s, as it is still, food encaged politics as a skull encages ideas, and this happened independently of my age, my annoying palate, and my age appropriate political ignorance about how the world’s wealth and food supply was created and distributed.

Later in life—and this I regret—I never asked my grandmother why she focused on the United States as the place where young kids experienced hunger. I knew her politics were not particularly radical—she was a Catholic and she was a conservative, although not a reactionary. She liked the United States, and overall she was democratic in something close to the Greek sense of the word, but I doubt whether she had time to follow closely the politics and social statistics of either Eisenhower or Kennedy’s administrations. She wanted me to finish my food and she appropriated the name of one country with that purpose. I’ll never know her real reason for choosing the U.S. Was it ideology? Did she secretly like the Soviet Union? Was it a mischievous linguistic game? Was it just a normative motivated utterance in which she was trying to alter my bad eating habits, with no ulterior motives whatsoever?  I’ll never know for sure, but it turns out that she was basically right.

In the U.S., there are serious limitations on kids access to food. In their 2014 report, “Income and poverty in the United States”, the U.S. Census Bureau states that 15.5 million or approximately 21 percent of children in the U.S. live in poverty. In their 2015 book Household Food Security in the United States, Coleman-Jensen, Rabbit, Gregory, & Singh point out that 15.3 million children lived in ‘food insecure households’—food insecurity being the euphemism used by the Census Bureau and the Department of Agriculture to describe the condition of having limited or uncertain access to food. According to various reports from UNICEF, it is now a well-known fact that the U.S. record on child poverty is one of the worst in the developed world.

Vignette #2: A caustic post on Facebook

It was with certain surprise and disbelief that I read a comment written by my mother on Facebook, in response to a post of mine urging MoveOn.Org to endorse Bernie Sanders instead of Hillary Clinton. Given the generational and geographical differences between us (she lives in South America), I must admit I did not expect—wrongly so, as it turns out—this level of social media participation on her part, nor had I anticipated the caustic tone of her words:

“The United States… without political future, without good candidates, one worse  than the other. It is a pity that this continues to be the way it is, a vicious circle of shameful administrations … and the people do not protest”.

This political indictment of the United States, made by a Latin American woman in her mid-eighties, broke some tacit (and slightly embarrassing) image I held of the maternal octogenarian who is my mother. Her post represents an understanding of politics both as a mean of communication in the traditional way (using Facebook in this case), and simultaneously as the expression of collective will, in the form of protest and open discontent. My aim here is not to scrutinize the accuracy of my mother’s indictment nor the exactitude of her representation of the United States, but rather the intentionality behind the message, broadly speaking, which contains the same pessimism about the U.S. as was expressed by her mother (my grandmother) decades ago around the dining room table.

Donald Trump’s representation of America

Given that these are, after all, electoral times, I think it’s relevant to examine and contrast my grandmother and mother’s representations of America with the one being developed by Donald Trump’s campaign for presidency. Needless to say, the Republican candidate was born and has spent practically all of his life in the U.S.  My two ancestors were born overseas, and one of them—my grandmother—never visited the United States. While Trump is constructing a representation of his nation of origin, my maternal forebearers were and are constructing a representation of the nation of “the other.” As we know, Trump is building what he expects to be a winning electoral representation of the future of his country, a “Strong America” with him at the center as “The Strong Man”. This political picture is expected to buy him new real estate in DC, and also help him project a different image of the United States internationally. Different though they might be, Trump’s representation and those of created by my relatives are also similar in that any representation must suggest some kind of meaning and significance. By examining the meaning and implications of the complex agglutination of symbols that are being manipulated and sold to the American people, we can discern the true political content of Donald Trump’s electoral campaign.

Most political analysts have pointed out three main characteristics of Trump’s so far successful political style: his cavalier relationship with facts (from domestic to international politics); his anti-immigrant stands (mainly against Muslims and Mexicans); and his ability to agglutinate discontent particularly among white, economically poor, and not well educated segments of the electorate. However, according to a recent study conducted by Matthew McWilliams for “Politico Magazine”, there is a new, more significant variable that sheds light on Mr. Trump’s popularity: Authoritarianism.

In fact, the national poll that served as the basis for the article suggests that most of Trump’s supporters are not conditioned by issues of race, economics, or educational level, but by their attraction to an “Authoritarian Personality.” According to McWilliams:

“Trump’s electoral strength and his “staying power” have been buoyed, above all, by Americans with authoritarian inclinations. And because of the prevalence of authoritarians in the American electorate, among Democrats as well as Republicans, it’s very possible that Trump’s fan base will  continue to grow”

The article points out that the study of the “Authoritarian Mind” is not a new topic within political theory; in fact, it has been a constant theme related to the emergence of fascism in Nazi Germany (see authors such as Theodore Adorno, and the most recent, Bob Altemeyer, on this topic). But what has immediate relevance for the future of this nation is to notice the following: First, authoritarians rally to and embrace submission to strong leaders; second, they express high levels of aggression against outsiders or minorities; and finally, the are inclined to embrace the values endorsed by the followed leader.

The previous panorama is not necessarily good news for those who believe that democracy and authoritarianism are somehow antagonistic values. As McWilliams indicates:

“So what does this mean for the election? It doesn’t just help us understand what motivates Trump’s backers—it suggests that his support isn’t capped. In a statistical analysis of the polling results, I found that Trump has already captured 43 percent of Republican primary voters who are strong authoritarians, and 37 percent of Republican authoritarians overall. And in a general election, Trump’s strongman rhetoric will surely appeal to some of the 39 percent of independents in my poll who identify as authoritarians and the 17 percent of self-identified Democrats who are strong authoritarians.”

The Trump phenomenon has altered traditional primary expectations within both political parties, and others have pointed this out. What’s emerging now, and perhaps my mother was picking up on this from afar, is that its authoritarian content is also altering the potential images and political representations available to us to describe America, its body politic, and the form of life we choose to live under.

Enrique Quintero, a political activist in Latin America during the 70’s, taught ESL and Second Language Acquisition in the Anchorage School District, and Spanish at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He currently lives and writes in Olympia.