Explaining the Trump effect


To my mind no one has come close to explaining the Trump effect yet. I don’t mean Trump the man, but rather the nature of the effect/affect he produces. This is more than his actual supposed support, but the way he is defended and understood. The work he does in the world, to coin a phrase.

The false consciousness approach exemplified by What’s the matter with Kansas? can only take you so far. Anyway, Žižek already reversed the “they know not what they do…yet they do it” of Marx, into “they know very well what they do..and they do it.”

James Surowiecki, writing in this week’s New Yorker (no, I haven’t suddenly caught up; I jumped ahead) gets us a little closer to the effect. Surowiecki discusses loss aversion, a powerful human emotion. The basic idea is that people take bigger risks to avoid loss than gain, and that they are much more negatively affected by a loss than they are positively affected by a gain. Trump plays on this to encourage a bigger gamble on him to avoid further losses (and his unpredictability and self-contradictions here are not a weakness, but a strength, which is why Hillary can’t beat him by pointing them out–his supporters like those things).

One problem–Trump’s supporters are actually “better educated and richer than the average American.” In what sense then have they lost so that they fear further losses? In places like central Appalachia where longstanding ways of life are being taken out from under your feet (the coal industry) this argument might make partial sense. There’s still an explanation needed for why people vote for those who’ve told them they’ll take things away, however–this was the case with the current governor of Kentucky who promised to rescind Obamacare and received overwhelming support from areas reliant on it.

But Surowiecki draws on the pioneering work of Tversky and Kahneman to suggest that people measure their gain or loss not objectively but relatively to some reference point. This point may be a true or false point, meaning it could be created and projected backwards historically (the status quo ex ante). It’s not whether you’ve really lost; you could even have gained, but you’ve lost relative to some reference point.

The secret of the Trump effect then is the construction of this reference point and the fear of sliding backwards in relation to it. It’s where you project yourself. If you’ve read my previous blog post, you could even say that it’s Lacan’s objet petit a.


4 responses to “Explaining the Trump effect

  1. I feel like the media broke the media, maybe two decades ago. Trump has just figured out better ways than anyone else to exploit its broken-ness.

    • It’s definitely part of it (mostly because of the attention lavished) but if the media were broken two decades wouldn’t we expect to see Trumps in the past? tbh, I don’t think the effect is any single thing. Added: For instance, if there is disaffect about wages not going up even as unemployment goes down under Obama, then what Trump is doing is exploiting the actual processes of neoliberalism!

      • Definitely not any one thing, just arguing against the media’s self-diagnosis that somehow they have been fooled by Trump (poor them), when in fact they have been instrumental in creating the environment in which he – and many others not unlike him! – can thrive

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