Anthropology / Everything Human

The Paradox of Donald Trump’s Appeal

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The Paradox of Donald Trump’s Appeal

Donald Trump is the most rule-violating candidate this country has seen in decades. Even Barry Goldwater, who some have compared Trump to, was not out for a hostile takeover of his party. Trump repeatedly says and does things that most pundits think should destroy his viability: Many Mexican immigrants “are rapists.” Women who have abortions should be punished. Asked whether he’d publicly reject the support of the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, he said, “I just don’t know anything about him.” None of this has blunted his appeal. An old anthropological theory about religion sheds light on why Trump may be appealing because of his transgressions, and not despite them.

Fifty years ago, British anthropologist Mary Douglas published Purity and Danger, still one of the most remarkable studies on faith ever written. Unlike the early Edwardian anthropologists who were confident of their place atop the ladder of human development, Douglas did not see religion as a simple mistake, a misstep on the triumphant path of progress toward science. “Once when a band of !Kung Bushmen had performed their rain rituals,” she wrote, “a small cloud appeared on the horizon, grew and darkened. Then rain fell. But the anthropologists who asked if the Bushmen reckoned the rite had produced the rain, were laughed out of court. … How naive can we get about the beliefs of others?”

To Douglas, it was clear that the !Kung simultaneously did and did not believe that their rain rituals would work. For her, the core anthropological problem of religion was not false belief: It was to understand how people hold, at one and the same time, the conviction that events will unfold as their faith says they should and an awareness that they might not.

Douglas began with the observation that religion is full of rules—the kinds of rules that Trump violates with such glee—and usually, rule-following is supposed to protect you and keep you safe. She pointed out that the rituals connected with gods, spirits, and ancestors among preindustrial peoples were loaded with taboos—foods the faithful couldn’t eat, things they couldn’t touch, and people they had to avoid.

The ancient Israelites, for example, could not eat what the book of Deuteronomy called “any abominable thing,” beginning with animals that did not both chew their cud and have cloven hooves. Sheep and cattle were acceptable; pigs, rabbits, and camels were not. According to the text, “Their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcass you shall not touch.” Prescriptions about how to behave with corpses, lepers, and widows go on for many verses. The ancient Zoroastrians had an even longer text, the Vendidad, filled with elaborate rules meant to ensure purity. Menstruating women not only had to retreat from the world but also had to sleep on a bed made entirely of iron. Anthropologists found similar codes in numerous human societies.

Many scholars have been tempted to make sense of these long lists of rules as the result of a concern with hygiene. Jews and Muslims were forbidden pork because of the risks of trichinosis; Zoroastrians leave their corpses to be eaten by vultures to keep their people safe from disease.

Again, Douglas disagreed. She thought that humans had a deep-seated impulse to order their world and that this imposed order had far less to do with practical necessity than with theology and metaphysics—an insight that came to her, she said, when she realized that her new husband defined as dirt all manner of things she never noticed. “When we honestly reflect on our busy scrubbings and cleanings in this light we know that we are not mainly trying to avoid disease,” she wrote. “We are separating, placing boundaries, making visible statements about the home that we are intending to create out of the material house.” What we call “dirt” is simply stuff that is out of place in the world as we imagine it should be.

From this perspective, ritual acts are not so much about practical efficacy—getting what you pray for—as they are about something more complex and psychologically subtler. They impose upon the world a sense of just order—the sense that if you behave rightly, the world will unfold as it should. What made Douglas’ book so brilliant was her understanding that the order we impose always fails to deliver a just reality. The faith that the world is good, safe, and beautiful is held in a world that is often brutal and unfair. And so, she pointed out, religions sometimes elevate a deeply impure object as a source of divine power. The paradoxical logic goes like this: That which is disorderly is always dangerous, and thus it is powerful; because our attempts to impose a just order fail, that dangerous, rule-violating power can be understood as the force to reset the system.

Douglas illustrated this claim through her ethnography of the African tribe she studied, the Lele of the Kasai, who live in what is now the Congo. In their worldview, the pangolin should have been understood as disgusting and taboo because it violates many Lele expectations about what proper animals should be. (The pangolin is a mammal, but it looks like a lizard. It’s a very odd-looking creature.) Yet Lele cult initiates saw the pangolin as the most sacred of all animals. They believed that the pangolin would wander into the village as a kingly and voluntary sacrifice, and they killed it to eat in rituals to enhance their own fertility. The Lele, Douglas said, had a “composting” religion. “That which is rejected is ploughed back for the renewal of life,” she argued in Purity and Danger.

02-Pangolin - kaitlyn tierney Flickr

The pangolin is the most sacred of animals for the Lele people, whose initiates eat the animal as part of their fertility rituals. kaitlyn tierney/Flickr

Douglas was a devout Catholic. Behind the way she imagined the pangolin lay the way she saw Jesus—as dirt made divine. Jesus was a poor man conceived out of wedlock and killed as a common criminal, a man who violated the precepts of his own religion and yet became imagined as the purest embodiment of the sacred. In Christianity, that which is most taboo redeems us.

The anthropological puzzle of Trump is how to make sense of the apparently deep appeal of this most taboo-violating candidate. Many observers ascribe his popularity to the economic frustrations of poorly educated white men who are angry with the immigrants they think have taken away their jobs. Douglas might argue that Trump’s appeal has something to do not only with political anger but also with the religious imagination, so that the qualities that make him seem subhuman to some—his willingness to flout all codes of respectful behavior—make him superhuman to others.

That transcendent quality might also explain why the facts do not seem to matter much to his followers: We are in the domain of faith, not that of reason. Perhaps it even explains why at least some conservative Christians are not disgusted by Trump’s non-Christian behavior. The figure of the disgusting-but-redemptive has a long Christian lineage. It is a stark reminder of the intimate connection between the politics of hatred and those of hope.

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  • Barry Bainton

    Very interesting article and helps to demonstrate how the ethnographic record can be used to interpret a modern event of the day.

    The idea of boundary (or boundary maintenance) is critical if we are to distinguish between that which is “Human” and that which is “cultural.” A. F. C. Wallace, in his Culture and Personality, noted that there are two sides (processes) that humans engage in, OD or The Organization of Diversity and RU or the Replication of Uniformity. As described here, Douglas is making the distinction between how people arrange their natural – or physical – environment (OD) and the methods they develop and employ to replication the arrangement (RU) of that environment.

    Cleaning is a physical act that is the method one develops for solving the problem of disorder in one’s personal or collective physical environment. Cleaning is a physical behavior. Cleansing is ideational, to borrow Bidney’s term, and conceptual of what is desirable. Cleansing is the particular solution employed by an individual (habit) or group (social practice or ritual) to clean the physical and the psychological environment.

    As with all things such as the experience from cleaning my office, there is always something that is left over. That is the “dirt” or “disorder” that defies OD classification but which must be accounted for if the RU process is to be completed. The RU process is both the method or ritual used to return the situation back to normal; and it is the “cultural prescription” and “template” or to use Wallace’s term “mazeway” for what is “normal.”

    If you are deeply religious, the authority of the Bible or other sacred writing or myth, is the mazeway explanation of what is “normal” in God’s universe. In this context, Trump is acting out what many of his followers only wish they could do faced with what they perceive as a blasphemous “politically correct” cultural environment. Their religious dimension, their RU so to say, provides the template for explaining the disorder/dirt they experience. “The world is profane'” “man is condemned by original sin.” “the end times are coming”. Religion provides the explanation, the messenger is just reminding the believers of that. In our real world, social, cultural, technological, and the physical environment is changing faster and faster. The established rules for OD are not keeping up with the changes. There is no guarantee that the RU methods will work, Parents are isolated from children by technologies the parent doesn’t fully. The break in values link between generations leaves many lost and feeling isolated As is often said and reported that our laws are no longer keeping up with technology or its use. Unintended consequences are becoming more the norm. Francis Fukuyama in the Great Disruption points to lose or devaluation in our social capital.

    Trump, in his Anti-Christ role, presents explanations for the chaos.Just as the biblical SATAN, tempted Job in the Old Testament and Jesus Christ in the wilderness in the New Testament, Trump is offering hollow explanations and promises that address the fears of his potential followers. The real question for anthropology: Is this a purely cultural phenomena in America today or part of a natural dimension in the evolution of human socio-cultural systems? Or, Is this just a cynical attempt at applied anthropology used to accomplish personal and/or political ends directed toward a vulnerable segment of society?

  • John Platko

    From the article:

    “Douglas was a devout Catholic. Behind the way she imagined the pangolin lay the way she saw Jesus—as dirt made divine. Jesus was a poor man conceived out of wedlock and killed as a common criminal, a man who violated the precepts of his own religion and yet became imagined as the purest embodiment of the sacred. In Christianity, that which is most taboo redeems us.

    The anthropological puzzle of Trump is how to make sense of the apparently deep appeal of this most taboo-violating candidate. Many observers ascribe his popularity to the economic frustrations of poorly educated white men who are angry with the immigrants they think have taken away their jobs. Douglas might argue that Trump’s appeal has something to do not only with political anger but also with the religious imagination, so that the qualities that make him seem subhuman to some—his willingness to flout all codes of respectful behavior—make him superhuman to others.

    That transcendent quality might also explain why the facts do not seem to matter much to his followers: We are in the domain of faith, not that of reason.”

    I’m having a bit of trouble wrapping my mind around what exactly is being said here – words can be difficult. Surely it’s not something like: “Christians are attracted to Christ because he broke the rules.” – Right?

    Martin Luther King Jr. dealt with this sort of idea in his “Transformed Nonconformist” sermon when he said:

    “ … Nonconformity in itself, however, may not necessarily be good and may at times possess neither transforming nor redemptive power. Nonconformity per se contains no saving value and may represent in some circumstances little more than a form of exhibitionism. Paul in the latter half of the text offers a formula for constructive nonconformity: “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Nonconformity is creative when it is controlled and directed by a transformed life and is constructive when it embraces a new mental outlook. … Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit. The transformed nonconformist, moreover, never yields to the passive sort of patience that is an excuse to do nothing. And this very transformation saves him from speaking irresponsible words that estrange without reconciling and from making hasty judgments that are blind to the necessity of social progress. He recognizes that social change will not come overnight, yet he works as though it is an imminent possibility. … ”

    I’m not seeing any linkage between MLK’s idea of constructive nonconformity and Donald Trump’s “rule breaking” – no no. Some of us do not see the story of Jesus as, “dirt made divine.” Some envision that every child, even one born to poor parents under questionable circumstances, is just as precious as every other child. And I imagine that his Mother felt that, just as I imagine that her feeling had a lot to do with the man he became. For me, it’s not a story of dirt becoming divine as Douglas seems to suggest but a story of the transcendent power of love. And the transcendent quality that many find in what they understand of the life of Jesus is not about merely breaking taboos – it’s about an ability to say and do what is right, regardless of the personal consequences, with an eye toward helping life grow. As MLK added in his sermon:

    “The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists, who are dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood. The trailblazers in human, academic, scientific, and religious freedom have always been nonconformists. In any cause that concerns the progress of mankind, put your faith in the nonconformist!”

    I’m also thinking that the domain of MLK’s faith fits comfortably in the domain of reason, as it did for another nonconformist Christian – Thomas Jefferson. And I’m equally confident that facts mattered to both of them.

    So I’m confused about exactly what is being said. If I was less familiar with Tanya Luhrmann’s work I might make assumptions and find this article offensive because it seems to me to imply some linkage between why a person would be attracted to the life and message of Jesus and why a person would be attracted to Donald Trump – but surely it’s not doing that – right? What am I missing?

    • Barry Bainton

      Let us step into the mind of the follower, and not try to explain the “Leader” per se. The Government in Washington, especially, is seen as Roman, if we use the Biblical context, by many in middle and working classes in the Mountain and Midwestern States. Washington imposes its taxes and regulation on the “natives” (mostly white working class) and the industries that they identify with. Especially hard hit are the technologically and/or economically obsolete industries and the firms that employ these people. It also includes the small business operator, the family business, or a local entrepreneur who depend upon them. They see their interests and themselves in these “leaders”. Their personal and family success is being held back by the Other, supported by policies emanating from “Rome”.

      The strong Biblical tradition found in these areas and in the followers emphasis Sin, Evil and Redemption Their religious and secular leaders foster a climate of the end times, secular or sacred prophesies of doom and challenge to their faith. The Old Testament and the New Testament give religious or supernatural explanations that can appeal to the disenchanted. The science and technologies of everyday secular society help to create a climate of disenchantment ripe for a messianic leader to create a Nativistic Movement (e.g. Linton Ralph 1943 (American AnthropologistVolume 45, Issue 2, Version of Record online: 28 OCT 2009)

      One can’t really hope to understand the Trumpian follower without also looking at the Sanderian followers. Both distrust the center. The Center represents the colonizer, the imperial impersonal forces controlled by powers beyond local control. Trump represents the single businessman (Barabbas) who had “succeeded and is rebelling against the corporate forces controlling the Republican agenda; Bernie, the socialist/progressive, (John the Baptist) is crying out in the wilderness for social justice. For the true believers, it is in the man, and not his message, where they place their faith. They surrender their political hopes and souls to the man who will cleanup the mess if only given a chance.

      I think the author was trying to point out that an anthropological
      perspective and the ethnographic record have something to contribute to
      understanding the present disconnect between Leaders and followers. By the time of their respective conventions both Trump and Sanders found that they did not own their agendas. These agendas had been co-opted by
      their followers. This is evidenced that they had lost control by the viciousness of the Republican delegates crying for blood, and by the Sanders delegates disrespecting and booing their own leader.

      But what is really called for a cleansing of the system, and this requires compromise. The world has changed, and with it the alignment of powers, the winners and losers, in this rapidly evolving global universe. There is little logic and much emotion on the extremes; however, their underlying concerns have merit. The question from the anthropological perspective is which of our models help to explain this phenomena and how might they help to resolve the problem(s) they present to Western, and especially American, political ideals and principles.

      • John Platko

        “Let us step into the mind of the follower, and not try to explain the “Leader” per se.”

        The difficulty I see in doing that is that there are minds of the followers, not a mind to step into – they are not all the same – no no. But I’ll have a go at trying to analyze a couple of my relatives who are Trump supporters.

        “A”, a Catholic (no so biblically oriented) educated white male about retirement age who always votes Republican. “A” believes strongly that people should be able to get health insurance regardless of pre-existing conditions. “A” was happy that he could keep his children on his insurance plan for a longer period. As far as I can tell “A” is generally in agreement with many/most of the ideas of progressive democrats – there are exceptions. “A” is a businessman – which does provide a certain connection to Trump, i.e. he likes the idea of a business man being in charge. But after years of trying to understand why “A” votes the way he does (which seems against his interests) it seems clear that family loyalty, his tribal loyalty, is what he is captured by. His father was a conservative Republican, his brothers and sisters are conservative Republicans, I think for “A” there are deep seated unconscious forces that color how he sees all candidates – and the issues are not really what matters when it’s time to vote.

        “B” is “A’s” brother – same religion, a few years older. “B” has the same family loyalties but “B” is a better fit for the angry white guy. I believe “B” also has a college degree, he served in Vietnam, he’s a very clever man in many ways, he’s also a racist. Trump’s ideas fit well with the map of reality that “B” has developed over a lifetime. I’m reminded of what William James said:

        “THAT IDEAS (WHICH THEMSELVES ARE BUT PARTS OF OUR EXPERIENCE) BECOME TRUE JUST IN SO FAR AS THEY HELP US TO GET INTO SATISFACTORY RELATION WITH OTHER PARTS OF OUR EXPERIENCE, to summarize them and get about among them by conceptual short-cuts instead of following the interminable succession of particular phenomena. Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true INSTRUMENTALLY.”

        I think trying to understand how the ideas of Trump (or any politician) fit in “satisfactory relations with other parts of peoples experience is an approach that can drill deeper into the underlying processes. Why do ideas like: we need to build a wall to enforce our boarders, we need to insure fair trade, China has very smart leaders they’re ripping us off, our leaders are stupid, We need to put America first, We need to make America great again, appeal to so many.

        In her book Of Two Minds: …, Tanya Luhrmann has a chapter on The Culture And Its Contradictions, it talks about how people laugh at contradictions in their systems that no one seems able to remedy. To shed light on Trump followers I suggest looking at some of the contradictions in the American system. For example: should a country keep boundaries? I’ve never heard a serious argument suggesting that we should just have open borders. Is it really a mystery why the idea of a wall fits nicely in relation with the other ideas some have? Boundaries, from a cellular level on up are a necessary structure for life. What about the idea of putting America first, fixing bridges and roads here instead of doing so in other countries? If America is great now, then why do we rank so low in education and many other areas?

        I’m reminded of what Barack Obama’s said:

        “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.

        And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

        That’s how our President fit his brief experiences of the people of PA in satisfactory relation with other parts of his experience at the time. Having grown up in PA, I know that there’s far more to the story. I know how culturally important guns are to many who have fond childhood memories of getting out of school to go hunting with fathers and uncles. How they pass those traditions on to their children. Now I’m not a gun person, hunting wasn’t part of my cultural tradition, but religion was and religion wasn’t only about explaining frustrations in my life – although among other things, it does a good job of that too.

        Now I bring this up because, President Obama has also been holding as true that the world has changed, that many manufacturing jobs are a thing of the past in the US, and that everyone must move on. But, does it have to be that way? Is that truth? How much of the fact that his life was more geared towards education, ideas, and social service, rather than actually building things, influenced how his ideas about manufacturing fit in satisfactory relation with the other parts of his experience. Trump claims the manufacturing jobs went away because of unfair trade practices. Is that true? What does it suggest when Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders suggest something similar?

        I think these sorts of examples of cultural contradictions and the cognitive dissonance they cause in people – in all sorts of ways, play an important role in why some like Trump and others like Bernie Sanders. It’s a question of which ideas, including ideas about who is saying them, fits with the least amount of fuss in the existing cognitive maps that people have. Of course there are other reasons too, it’s complicated, some project themselves onto Trump and they like what they see. Others do the same for Bernie or Hillary.

        If there is an anthropological perspective in which your models can help to explain this phenomena and help to resolve the problem(s) they present to Western, and especially American, political ideals and principles, then I think they’re going to have to be better than, as Luhrmann stated:

        “In Christianity, that which is most taboo redeems us.

        The anthropological puzzle of Trump is how to make sense of the apparently deep appeal of this most taboo-violating candidate. Many observers ascribe his popularity to the economic frustrations of poorly educated white men who are angry with the immigrants they think have taken away their jobs. Douglas might argue that Trump’s appeal has something to do not only with political anger but also with the religious imagination, so that the qualities that make him seem subhuman to some—his willingness to flout all codes of respectful behavior—make him superhuman to others.

        That transcendent quality might also explain why the facts do not seem to matter much to his followers: We are in the domain of faith, not that of reason. Perhaps it even explains why at least some conservative Christians are not disgusted by Trump’s non-Christian behavior. The figure of the disgusting-but-redemptive has a long Christian lineage. It is a stark reminder of the intimate connection between the politics of hatred and those of hope.”

        I don’t think that explains very much of anything – no no.

    • John Platko

      So, I’ve been trying to read Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas but it’s a tough go, my “she’s just making this up” detector (it sometimes goes by another name) keeps going off. And it seems that I’m not the only one whose detector was unhappy with the book. Mary’s detector seems to have gone off too later in life, and she tried to set things straight in the 2002 edition of the book. Wikipedia summarizes the issue: (read the preface of the 2002 edition for more details)

      “The line of inquiry in Purity and Danger traces the words and meaning of dirt in different contexts. What is regarded as dirt in a given society is any matter considered out of place. (Douglas took this lead from William James.) She attempted to clarify the differences between the sacred, the clean and the unclean in different societies and times. But this does not entail judging religions as pessimistic or optimistic in their understanding of purity or dirt—e.g., as dirt-affirming or otherwise. Through a complex and sophisticated reading of ritual, religion, and lifestyle, Douglas challenged Western ideas of pollution, making clear how the context and social history is essential.

      As an example of this approach, Douglas first proposed that the kosher laws were not, as many believed, either primitive health regulations or randomly chosen as tests of the Israelites’ commitment to God. Instead, Douglas argued that the laws were about symbolic boundary-maintenance. Prohibited foods were those that did not seem to fall neatly into any category. For example, pigs’ place in the natural order was ambiguous because they shared the cloven hoof of the ungulates, but did not chew cud.

      Later in a 2002 preface to Purity and Danger, Douglas went on to retract this explanation of the kosher rules, saying that it had been “a major mistake.” Instead, she proposed that “the dietary laws intricately model the body and the altar upon one another.” For instance, among land animals, Israelites were only allowed to eat animals that were also allowed to be sacrificed: animals that depend on herdsmen. Douglas concluded from this that animals that are abominable to eat are not in fact impure, but rather that “it is abominable to harm them.” She claimed that later interpreters (even later Biblical authors) had misunderstood this.”

      Nearest I can figure it, Douglas’s retraction doesn’t change the gist of Tanya Luhrmann’s article – but it does give me pause on how seriously to take Douglas’s ideas. And I’m still unsettled about the idea of using “dirt” as a symbol for “simply stuff that is out of place in the world as we imagine it should be.” The symbols we choose matter, and I think “dirt” is simply an inappropriate symbol in many cases when we are talking about “stuff that is out of place in the world as we imagine it should be.” My visceral reaction to “the way she (Douglas) saw Jesus—as dirt made divine” seems to me to be one such inappropriate use.

      And I wonder how people would react to Donald Trump using “dirt” to mean “stuff that is out of place in the world as he imagines it should be.” Imagine if Mr. Trump said something like: “We have a lot of people, a huge number of people, living in this country who came here illegally – we must remove this dirt from America.” – With a follow up Tweet as outrage ensued: “Obviously I was using dirt as Mary Douglas defined it: “simply stuff that is out of place in the world as I imagine it should be.”

      I’m thinking it best not to generally use dirt in the Mary Douglas way.

  • John Platko

    Some time has gone on and Donald Trump has violated another taboo. He attacked a gold star family. Judging by the outcries from the full political spectrum, this seems to be a taboo that crosses party, educational, religious, and economic lines. Violating this taboo appears not to have helped him in the polls – no no. Exactly how does this data/anecdote fit the anthropological puzzle of Trump as described by Tanya Luhrmann:

    “The anthropological puzzle of Trump is how to make sense of the apparently deep appeal of this most taboo-violating candidate. Many observers ascribe his popularity to the economic frustrations of poorly educated white men who are angry with the immigrants they think have taken away their jobs. Douglas might argue that Trump’s appeal has something to do not only with political anger but also with the religious imagination, so that the qualities that make him seem subhuman to some—his willingness to flout all codes of respectful behavior—make him superhuman to others.”
    And how useful of an approach is this to solving the puzzle of Trump?

  • RoseMarie Mucklin

    This article is total B.S. Trump won because people were tired of the establishment politicians not solving problems, 15 years of continual war, flouting of our laws with illegal immigrants, and the establishment looking mainly after all sorts of fringe groups instead of the whole and all the people. It’s as simple as that.