Misreading Trump(ism)

As I keep tediously insisting, there is a basic problem with the prevailing postulate of two competing alternatives: 1) Trumpism (and politics generally) is driven by economic factors masquerading as cultural ones (racism, xenophobia) or 2) it’s virulent political resentment, and economic factors supply a reassuring fiction that blinds us to this fact.

The problem is that framing these as alternatives obscures the internal relation between them, one that cannot be grasped in terms of surface appearance vs. underlying reality. Racism is itself an economic factor, insofar as it is one of the forms of positional distinction without which economic activity would be inexplicable. So both the reductionism of the political to the economic (“it’s the economy, stupid”) and its inversion (it’s about the failure of representation, political institutions, trust, etc.)

Standard discussions, such as the one we saw in the primaries, confront us with two options: either racism is an independent variable driving behavior, or it is “code” for economic anxiety. The latter is attributed to Trumpism and was more or less the view advanced by Bernie as an explanation of the predicament of African-Americans (“give them jobs,” etc.). Racial injustice is thus, for both perpetrators and victims, an economic problem masquerading as a tribal one. This is what is usually meant by “the economy is raced.”
But there is a further twist that gets lost in such debates, which has to do with the way economic activity is driven by positional as well as functional imperatives. What’s missing from both Keynes and Hayek, if you will, is Veblen. Economic anxiety is never, even in the direst circumstances, understandable in terms of scarcity (heck, scarcity is never a source of anxiety per se, since the latter is a social emotion). It’s always a matter of relative scarcity—who has more, who has less, and why? The question turns on the fragility of the social contract and our relative standing within its purview. So we worry about free riding much more than about lost wages, for example.
With this in mind, it becomes impossible to “reduce” racism to a displaced symptom of economic anxiety whose origin lies elsewhere. But by the same token, it is equally implausible (and erroneous) to argue that it is “really” a political phenomenon, whereby “ordinary people” feel disempowered and betrayed by their representatives and are taking it out on an ersatz enemy. After all, why this enemy? To complete this line of argument (rather than deferring it), one has to come to grips with the peculiar role race plays in sustaining the positional character of the economy. If the latter is “raced,” it is in this precise sense; if it is political, it is in the sense of positional competition that exceeds and conditions the relation of citizens to democratic institutions.

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