Why The Alt-Right Is Right

Why The Alt-Right Is Right

The Case Of Sex & The Border

By Professor Daniel Gordon (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

January 15, 2017         Picture: Carlo Allegri/Reuters.

This article is part of The Critique’s January/February 2017 Issue “Stick It To The Man: A Year Of Anglo-American Populist Revolt Against A Changing Culture And An Obtuse Political Establishment.”

“Let us mark the limits. There are no limits in things.” Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 1670[i] 

“I understand the border, she doesn’t.” Donald Trump, Second Presidential Debate, October 9, 2016[ii]

Upon Donald Trump’s victory, academics lost no time knowingly condemning the American voter. Hamid Dabashi, who holds an endowed chair in Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, blamed Trump’s victory on “racist, misogynist, ignorant, paranoid, xenophobic, white supremacist America.”[iii] Before you decide to emigrate from the United States, consider that Dabashi’s most recent book, Can Non-Europeans Think? (2015), portrays the entire Western world in just the same terms. And among the highlights of this volume, which consists of articles originally published in Al Jazeera, are Dabashi’s attacks, replete with expletives, including the f-word, against those who disagree with him.

Unfortunately, Dabashi is not an outlier. Published writing in the humanities and social sciences increasingly reads like Osama Bin Laden’s “Letter to America.” Unwilling to do what professors are supposed to do—to analyze events sine ira et studio—many academics today portray all political contests as Manichean struggles. They prefer to attribute every vile prejudice they can think of to their ideological adversaries. They seem to lack either the personal detachment or the intellectual skills to dispassionately map out the terms of any principled debate.


Unmasking Versus Understanding

The term “alt-right” appears to have been coined by the white nationalist Richard Spencer. However, the term has expanded to include a wider range of thinking that is conservative without being racist. I should emphasize that the ideas that I focus on in this essay are ideas that I consider to be separate from Spencer’s brand of extremism. During the presidential race, Steve Bannon, the CEO of the Trump campaign, described Breitbart News as a platform for the alt-right. At that moment, Hilary Clinton accused Trump and Bannon of being racists.[iv] However, I believe it is more sensible to say that the term “alt-right” underwent an inflection when Bannon appropriated it. Having studied speeches by Bannon, having read Breitbart extensively, having studied the Tea Party which Bannon avidly supports, having read the history books that Bannon endorses and the films he has produced with Citizens United, I do not discern the hate-filled ideology associated with Spencer. I discern a cluster of conservative principles that need to be understood if we wish to comprehend the terms of political debate that are going to endure in America for many years to come.

In sum, the alt-right movement underlying Trump’s victory consists of principles and not just prejudices. To embark on an analysis of these principles, one must ignore much of the media coverage of the Trump movement. Indeed, a common point between academic and media analysis is the tendency to “unmask” an ideological opponent. To unmask is to reveal a delusion beneath a political or intellectual claim. To unmask is to presuppose that there is no principled basis for debate. There is nothing to understand besides the error of the other. The presence of difference of opinion attests only to the existence of false-consciousness, not to the existence of a question that admits more than one answer.[v]

Some terms commonly used to portray Trump and his circle are “neo-Nazi,” “anti-semitic,” and “misogynistic.”[vi] These are of course the evil antonyms of equality; they are sufficient to undermine the legitimacy of any viewpoint under review. But there are several methodological problems here. First, some of these terms do not figure in the discourse under investigation. While “neo-Nazi” may well be a preferred term in certain fringe political associations not endorsed by Trump and Bannon, “misogynistic” is not a term that conservatives of any stripe that I am familiar with employ to characterize themselves. The imposition of condescending labels implying ignorance and hatred raises the question of what constitutes the threshold for imputing such predicates. And why not—in the spirit of Max Weber’s sociology of understanding as opposed to the Leftist sociology of unmasking —focus on the terms of self-description used by the subjects themselves?

A second methodological issue is cherry picking extremist members of the voting public. As a Jew, I am well aware that anti-semites exist in our nation, and that some of them voted for Trump. But surely some anti-semites, such as those among the black community, voted for Clinton. I discern no anti-semitism in Trump himself, and I am not willing to consider him anti-semitic simply because some anti-semites voted for him. Anti-semitism is not limited to those who vote for Republicans. The critical question is this: Is it proper for one to reduce a candidate and his or her platform to the lowest denominator to be found among his or her supporters?

Finally, a major methodological issue that often escapes attention pertains to the fact that some blacks (8% overall, 13% of black men) voted for a candidate reputed to be racist, that many Jews (25%) voted for someone portrayed as anti-semitic, and that a majority of white women (53%, and 45% of all women with college degrees) voted for an alleged misogynist.[vii] Of course, one could choose to extend the logic of unmasking by arguing that the white women who voted for Trump are “white nationalists” who are ignorant of the gender dynamics in the Trump camp. By the same logic, black men who voted for Trump are presumably misogynistic and blind to how the alt-right seeks to victimize them.

But a better argument is that how people envision politics, and how they choose to vote, does not map onto the grid of social interests and biases articulated by leftist academics and journalists. Critics of the alt-right often seem to presuppose that people must vote based on their real social identities. Our interests are based on who we are. And who are we? We are white or black, rich or poor, male or female, Christian or Jewish. In short, privileged or unprivileged. Everyone who is rational and humane ought to vote for the party that espouses more equality and less privilege, in order to create the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

But this conceptualization falsely polarizes all identities into the category of the dominating and the dominated. Even more, it ignores the fundamental nature of politics. Politics is not merely the sphere in which pre-existing social interests and hierarchies register their existence. Politics is the arena in which new questions are raised, new words introduced, new issues constituted, new passions generated, new identities and movements forged.[viii]

The first task of the student of political culture, therefore, is to focus on political rhetoric and the topics that are constitutive of public debate. This area of discourse is where political opinions arise. What makes the alt-right “alternative” is not the racism allegedly harbored in private by all those who voted for Trump. Rather, “alt” is an appropriate term because Trump and his strategists openly claim to be a new option in the political arena. What constitutes this alt quality, first and foremost, is the framing in the public square of acute political issues that established politicians have allegedly avoided. The New York Times recently said of Jeff Sessions, the nominee for Attorney General, “Mr. Sessions offers an uncompromising brand of conservatism that combines Christian and small-government values with strains of populism and a willingness to say the unpopular, or even offensive [italics added].”[ix] That is what the alt-right is largely about: breaking the ice, decrying “political correctness,” weathering the hysterical charges of racism that inevitably follow, and counting on victory in the end.

For purposes of this essay, then, the premier representative of the alt-right is Trump himself. Next in importance are those who have forged a conservative idiom that can be iterated legitimately in public, without racism; a rhetoric that successfully highlighted political problems that voters from many different demographic backgrounds found compelling.


A World Without Borders?

If one reviews the language of Donald Trump in the three presidential debates, or the speeches of Stephen Bannon, or the articles on Breitbart News, or the political films, such as Generation Zero, produced by Citizens United, or the ideas of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement, or the assessment of the “unraveling” of our culture by conservative historians William Strauss and Neil Howe[x]—one does not find racism and ignorance. One finds an idiom that is novel to many of us in the academy but that raises important problems in an acute fashion. Above all, the alt-right draws intellectual vigor from its emphasis on the need for limits and borders. Given the commitment on the part of some Leftist intellectuals and politicians to a borderless world–not only in matters of immigration and trade but in matters of sexuality and morality—the alt-right’s concern about the consequences of a borderless society registers a real need to have a national debate about how far we can go: how far can we push the frontiers of transgressive thinking and action without destroying our own freedom? With its emphasis on borders, the alt-right has managed to articulate some of the most important philosophical issues of our time.


What is “Right” About The Alt-Right?

By affirming that the alt-right is “right,” I mean two things. First, I mean that it is “Right” in the sense of being a major reaffirmation of conservative values. The alt-right is something new by virtue of the fact that it has made the conservative strand in American thinking self-sufficient. It has extricated the Right from the old combination of conservative and free market ideology, the combination that previously had been characteristic of the Republican Party.

The second sense in which the alt-right is “right” is that it has rightly isolated a problem: the growing tendency to celebrate the crossing of borders. This is not to say that Donald Trump or anyone else supporting him has a magic formula for restoring a balance between openness and finitude, between self-liberation and civic tradition. But the alt-right is at least highlighting important contradictions.


Conservatism Reasserted

The alt-right rejects unregulated capitalism as its bedfellow. In previous elections, Republican candidates offered a heterogeneous mixture of libertarian and conservative ideas. The predominant element in Republican rhetoric was not conservatism but the commitment to the free market. In domestic matters, the central dichotomy was the productive market versus the wasteful welfare state, or in Cold War terms, the openness of the market versus the closed system of communism. The market, of course, is not a framework for preserving traditions; it is a force for disruption and change, benignly described as “progress.” The language of the Republicans owed more to Milton Friedman than to Edmund Burke. Economic conceptions like “supply side” and “trickle down” overshadowed references to civic virtue and generational continuity. Admittedly, on certain domestic issues, such as abortion, religious conservatism was in play. Yet, on the whole, Republican thought was capitalist at the core and conservative around the edges. It was the party of business owners and critics of the state, not the party of workers and saints. That has changed.

“The Republican party was the party of business owners and critics of the state, not the party of workers and saints.”

With its opposition to “free trade,” the alt-right co-opted the Left and helped Trump gain the vote of industrial workers in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Trump himself identified a real problem. Something must be done about how businesses relocate to Mexico to take advantage of lower wages, while Mexicans come illegally to the U.S. to take advantage of higher wages. Anyone listening to Bannon’s speeches[xi] or watching films like Generation Zero will quickly realize that the pursuit of profit unbound from national welfare is what the alt-right stands against. Bannon invokes with reverence Burke’s compact between the living, the dead, and those yet to be born. Our duty, he says, is not primarily to enrich ourselves; it is to bequeath something to the next generation. With an astronomical debt and trade deficit, we risk being the first generation that bequeaths nothing to the future. Thus Bannon castigates “crony capitalism” and promotes the ethic of social responsibility over unrestrained egotism.

“The pursuit of profit unbound from national welfare is what the alt-right stands against.”

Another way of highlighting the unadulterated conservatism of the alt-right is to appreciate the “alt” part. As evident in the Tea Party, large numbers of conservative voters have expressed disenchantment with “established” Republican politicians. This means that the alt-right construes itself as having the utmost autonomy. It understands itself as a revolt and not a compromise. It is not a partner under a big Republican tent. This “my way or the highway” is part of the alt-right’s mass appeal. Polls clearly show that Trump, in spite of his elite station in life and his stake in the financial status quo, was viewed as much more likely than Clinton to reduce the influence of lobbyists and special interests.[xii]

In fact, the problem facing the Democrats is that they have no alt-version of themselves at the very time when voters are unsatisfied with both parties. Bernie Sanders seemed different but was hard to take seriously, precisely because he did not convey what Trump transmits so well: a sense of self-created power, which brings the capacity to defy. More precisely, neither Sanders nor Clinton took the risk of rhetorically distancing themselves from any of the burgeoning interest groups within their own camp. By the time of the November election, Black Lives Matter was no longer the touching slogan of a grass roots movement aiming to protect blacks against police shootings. It had become a black and trans-gender power movement. It is now an organization, dominated by a small number of radical theorists of “intersectionality,” making innumerable and far-reaching demands. Among its extremes, this platform includes the denunciation of Israel as a racist and apartheid state, and support for the BDS movement.[xiii]

Clinton never questioned this or any other mode of leftist rhetoric. She was happy to feature the disparity du jour; eager to be the spokesperson for every group portraying itself as marginalized. Hilary Clinton is an admirable person. She does have core values. She is notably a lifelong advocate for the rights and welfare of women and children. These are the concerns that embarked her on a noble legal career, but they are not enough to articulate a compelling platform in a national election. Her tenure as secretary of state, as Trump repeatedly said in the debates, revealed no practical success in dealing with terrorism and other complex challenges. She has no special theoretical insights: She is not a foreign policy intellectual like Madeleine Albright, who did her Ph.D. with Brzezinski and knows French, Russian, Czech, and Polish. Clinton offered no distinctive words or concepts for characterizing either our domestic politics or the international scene. Her slogan, “America is great because America is good,” seemed to fudge every political dilemma that requires critical analysis.

Ultimately, Clinton had to piece together a platform based less on any decisive priorities than on everything that other people in her party considered to be important. The many messages in WikiLeaks from her campaign manager, John Podesta, and other campaign advisors, are revealing in this regard. One can see their effort to funnel every minority interest, every passion for compassion, into her platform. She herself did not discriminate. The debates suggest that her campaign strategy was to take advantage of Trump’s verbal indiscretions with regards to women and other minorities, in order to alienate numerous voting blocs from him. “But it’s not only women . . . Because he has also targeted immigrants, African-Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, POWs, Muslims and so many others.” (From the second debate.) Her strategy was to itemize her opponent’s prejudices, rather than provide a trenchant diagnosis of our country’s problems. “We will celebrate our diversity,” she stated repeatedly in the debates. It didn’t occur to her that this statement came across as stale and politically correct. What did she mean, other than to say she would not acknowledge the need for any form of exclusion in our polity, and that she would not make any hard choices?

When Trump interrupted her accusation, in the second debate, that he was Vladimir Putin’s puppet by saying “You’re the puppet,” he didn’t have to elaborate. A lot of voters understood. Chris Wallace, the moderator in the third debate, pointed out that Clinton took $225,000 in one pop to tell a Brazilian bank that she favored “open trade” and “open borders.” She made no effort to pose as an alternative to her own party’s commitment to indiscriminate inclusion. This brings me to a fundamental point: the manner in which Trump and the alt-right leveraged the idea of borders in the election.

An awareness of the artificial but indispensable nature of boundaries is a basic characteristic of Western skepticism and of secular conservatism. It had never been the preoccupation of the Left, in real politics as opposed to academic discourse, to dissolve all boundaries, until recently. The alt-right has become more powerful because the Left has become so hostile to the use of power to uphold limits. Today, the globalizing and trans-sexualizing Left celebrates the continuous crossing of all borders. It rejects how millions of people are accustomed to describing themselves. In August, 2016, Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, stated, “Borders are the worst invention ever made by politicians.”[xiv] Consider how much more radical that is than saying that war is an unacceptable alternative to our differences. It is a denial of the very reality and need for separate identities.

Denying the benefits of borders is part of the Gramscian long march of radical ideas into the institutions that frame public policy. (I will illustrate below with case study from the Department of Education.) The existentialist affirmation of the nothingness underlying all commitments, of the arbitrariness of all choices, including even those that are guided by our previous choices, is now part of our political culture. This is not the skepticism of Montaigne, Hume, and Burke, which lends itself to disciplined and gradual modes of extending our outer and inward conversations through, for example, the intensive study of Great Books and the prolonged exploration of foreign languages and cultures. It is a childish wish to defer all binding self-definitions and to experience liberation from constraint at every moment of one’s existence. It is a rejection of pronouns and of every social grammar. The Brexit vote in turn rejected this nihilism. It affirmed the conservative principle that there is nothing wrong with being attached to something in particular. Likewise, the alt-right is a victorious reaction against what is too often – and mistakenly – called the “identity politics” of the Left. For what is in question today is just the opposite: the explosion on the Left of anti-identity politics.


Trans-Gender and Anti-Identity Politics

In April, 2016, the UMass Amherst Stonewall Center: A Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual (LGBTQIA+) Resource Center (that is its actual title), sent representatives out to give presentations to the academic departments. At our monthly history department faculty meeting, a Stonewall rep began by explaining the importance of bathroom choice to trans-gendered people. I thought this was an entirely reasonable discussion. Everyone has to have access to a bathroom. The rep spoke humanely, without any slides, without any jargon, about the need for inclusion in the use of public facilities. Things changed, however, when the rep undertook to advise the faculty about the value of beginning every course by asking each student to identity a pronoun of choice. Then slides appeared, we began to be educated. Those of us behind the times learned about the pronouns ze, hir, zir. We were also informed that students could invent other pronouns as they wished. A Breitbart News article featured a slide used at Tulane which says: “Please note that these are not the only pronouns. There are an infinite number of pronouns as new ones emerge in our language. Always ask someone for their pronouns.”[xv] This slide is similar to what the Stonewall rep presented to the history department at UMass.

I asked the Stonewall rep how many transgendered persons there are on our campus. The rep said that trans-gendered students comprise about 1.5%, or less, of the student population. I was surprised the estimate was so low because some of the colleges in this area (UMass, Smith, and Hampshire) are known to be hospitable to LGBTA students. I then wondered to myself why every professor should start a course with a pronoun investigation, when most courses would have no trans-gendered students in them. I also thought about how, in a typical course, I never need to use any pronouns to refer to students, other than the genderless “you.”

The Breitbart article on Tulane is neutral on the pronoun issue. It states, “The gender pronoun phenomenon on college campuses stems from sociological theory which teaches that gender is a social construct and biological gender is unrelated to ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender expression.’” However, a different Breitbart article features the critical analysis of a conservative English professor at Providence College. According to Anthony Esolen, transgender advocates aim to destroy common sense. Their goal is not merely to protect the members of a small minority group but to fracture everyone’s sense of reality and common culture. When a transgender activist “says that she wants all people to feel ‘safe’ and comfortable, regardless of their sexual identity, that is not true. What she wants is that ordinary people should feel uncomfortable.[xvi]

My exposure, admittedly limited, to queer and transgender theory, suggests that Esolen’s characterization is accurate. That does not mean that fracturing other people’s sense of reality and making other people uncomfortable is inherently bad. It is one way to describe what many humanities professors, across different fields, aim to do. Epistemological disruption should be one of the moments of the educational process. The problem is that the kind of theory in question, which points to the indeterminacy of basic social categories, fails to acknowledge that the policy implications of this theory are also indeterminate. One can draw many different conclusions, including conservative ones, from the fact that customary roles and signs are potentially free-floating. It is doubtful that we would all become more expressive or empathetic if we encouraged every person to engage in social and grammatical innovation. Democratizing transgression is not a good idea. A proliferation of vulgar discourses will be the first result, but ultimately, we will simply cease to comprehend the meaning of each other’s words and gestures. Communication, creativity, and love occur within language games that hinge on the preservation of certain rules.


“Democratizing transgression is not a good idea.”

Another problem is that this radical discourse – the discourse about the lack of any “essential” identities – is concentrated in departments such as Sociology, Women’s and Gender Studies, American Studies, and other “studies” programs. For these departments are the least diverse of all; they are typically devoid of conservative voices. Thus, radical theory is insulated from any contestation over its limits and implications. Finally, while many of us in other disciplines used to think that radical theory had no purchase outside of the academy, it’s evident that the graduates of those ideologically homogeneous academic programs are now in policy-making positions.

Consider the case of Catherine Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Human Rights, at the Department of Education. She is responsible for the infamous “Dear Colleague” letters sent to schools and universities across the nation on matters pertaining to sexual harassment and transgender rights. Dated May 13, 2016, her directive on transgender rights requires teachers at all public schools in the country to use the pronoun of the student’s choice, to let students use the bathroom and shower of their choosing, and to permit students to play sports for a team corresponding with their current sense of gender, unless “research-based medical knowledge” demonstrates that the mixing of genders would be harmful. Several state Attorney Generals protested about the ambiguities and possible pitfalls of these directives.[xvii]

Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk has observed that the Dear Colleague letter has dubious legal status because it was not enacted through the procedures, including public input, that federal agencies are supposed to follow before sending out new directives. Suk calls this a familiar strategy of the Department of Education and the Department of Civil Rights under President Obama. Suk also has been a prominent critic of directives dating from Lhamon’s office requiring draconian disciplinary procedures for sexual harassment cases on college campuses. It is now well known among college administrators that these directives tend to give those accused of assault a strong basis for appealing on the basis of due process violations. Numerous lawsuits are pending in federal courts about the directives on sexual assault.[xviii]

Suk is a most interesting scholar. She published a book, called Post-Colonial Paradoxes in French Caribbean Writing (Oxford University Press, 2001). I previously read her book carefully as part of a research project on post-colonial theory. I would describe her as a conservative post-modernist because her book demonstrates that the effort by Caribbean authors to proclaim their total independence from Western culture ultimately contradicts itself. The anti-French authors deployed the tropes of French Romanticism even when articulating their own negritude and need for exotic self-exploration. Anti-European creativity thus takes place within a European literary tradition; the dream of overcoming all inherited boundaries is impossible. In the same spirit, Suk detects a contradiction between the bathroom and harassment directives of the federal government. She writes that there is a “growing sense that some females will not feel safe sharing bathrooms, shower rooms, or locker rooms with males.” And she cites specific cases. “The sense that the Education Department has not looked down the road to consider the conflict is only confirmed by its penchant for announcing bold and controversial rules in letters, rather than through lawful processes.”[xix]

One is not born, but rather becomes, a bureaucrat randomly overturning gender norms in public institutions. To better understand the making of Catherine Lhamon, I recently read her undergraduate thesis on family law, written for the program in American Studies at Amherst College in 1993.[xx] I also read what appears to be her only academic publication, a 1996 book review in the Yale Law Review, entitled “Mother as Trope in Legal Theory.”[xxi] Some of the basic academic concepts in these writings are:

[1] There is a disparity between blacks and whites when it comes to the rate at which children are removed from their homes on account of parental child abuse. The higher rate of removal of black children reflects the systemic racism of our legal system and a tendency to assume that black women are bad mothers.

[2] “Intersectional” (a term she uses frequently) theory is important because it indicates that all women are “always already sexualized, raced, and classed” (her words).

[3] The various systems of subordination intersect, so that achieving equality for women in general hinges on achieving equality for other groups, including the trans-gendered.

[4] Likewise, women are presumed to be heterosexual and are negated if they turn out to be lesbian—again, with adverse consequences for all women.

What’s missing from the book review is what theory should be about: pinpointing the limits of theory itself. The book in question includes numerous articles by different legal scholars. Lhamon praises them all, she sees no contradictions within an author or among the authors. Her preoccupation with trans-gender rights in the Department of Education is intelligible in relation to her academically acquired belief that any challenge to the inequality of women must similarly challenge every structure of inequality that can possibly “intersect” with the experience of women.

Reading Lhamon, one begins to suspect that bathrooms have become a major civil rights issue not merely to provide transgendered people with equal access to a public facility. Rather, bathrooms have been politicized because they are one of the most salient places, indeed they are arguably the last place, where the male/female dichotomy is flagrantly signified in public. After all, other public spaces are already integrated. One of the goals of borderless bathrooms is to get everyone to reflect on the imposed nature of their gendered self. We should all discover that we are oppressed, or are oppressing others, by viewing ourselves as male or female. Lhamon’s directives are thus a kind of ideological indoctrination.

Reading beyond Lhamon in trans-gender and queer theory, one observes a tendency to associate oppression with having an identity of any kind, a tendency to idealize not merely the right to change one’s gender but also the very process of redefining one’s gender. The idea that it is good to have an identity has been repeatedly challenged in gender theory since the 1990s. One reads that the body is “infinitely malleable,” is in fact “immaterial,” and so it is not necessary or consistent with our bodies to have a “fixed gender.” The purpose of gender taxonomies is to “destabilize our thinking” about our own gender. What counts is “performativity,” that is, the transgressive playing with gender norms, rather than discovering one’s inner self. We are each the locus of a multiplicity of genders. Gender should become a “plaything.” The bottom line, for some, is that we ought to “give up on gender.”[xxii]

I will admit that my knowledge of trans-gender theory is superficial; I have relied on a small number of review essays that provide an overview of the field. But the value of incomplete immersion is that one can still make comparisons with other doctrines. It’s evident that providing equal opportunities to people who are born with different characteristics now takes a backseat to affirming that no characteristics are inborn, that the truly mature person is one who embraces variation and is continuously unclassifiable. The trans-gendered person, particularly one who undergoes more than one change, is the ideal symbol of this border-crossing ideal. It is no surprise that Breitbart News tracks closely, and with alarm, all legal developments pertaining to transgender rights, such as the recent directive to admit transgender individuals to the military and to pay for their transgender procedures. There are about 100 articles on transgender issues in Breitbart over the past two years.


Immigration and the Border

I have suggested that the alt-rights interest in borders goes beyond the concept of national boundaries. However, the term “borders” is certainly most salient in the context of immigration and trade. In the three presidential debates, Trump’s mantra was “she wants open borders.” Immigration mattered a lot to American voters. This is evident from a Pew Research Poll showing that 70% of the electorate considered immigration an important issue, compared to 41% in 2012.[xxiii] Consulting the printed transcript of the final debate, one can see that the word “border” was used 33 times, usually of course by Trump. By contrast, the word economy was used 15 times, and the word jobs 10.

Particularly in the third presidential debate, Trump was very effective in framing immigration as more than one harm; he diagnosed President Obama’s benign neglect of borders as the source of numerous problems. He stated that heroine coming across the border was the biggest problem in New Hampshire. He spoke of the security risk of admitting large numbers of Syrian refugees. He evoked the high rate of violent crimes committed by illegal immigrants, “bad hombres,” in certain states. He transitioned easily between illegal immigration and the need to repeal NAFTA. He argued that tolerating illegal immigration was intrinsically unfair to all those who acquired their citizenship legally. And in his closing statement in this third debate, he said, “We take care of illegal immigrants, people that come into our country illegally, better than we take care of our vets. That can’t happen.”[xxiv]

Throughout the debates, Clinton tried hard to portray Trump as hostile to women and to a wide array of ethnic and racial subgroups. In suggesting that Trump is a male chauvinist and a racial bigot, she certainly had plenty of material to work with. But most of this evidence came from Trump’s private conversations. On stage, he managed to parry Clinton’s personal attacks with his own personal attacks against her, and he succeeded in transitioning from personal insults to vital public issues. His multi-dimensional assessment of the need for strong borders addressed the interests of many social groups. The immigration issue allowed him to recover at least some of the support he may otherwise have lost through his private linguistic slurs against women and minorities.

For Clinton, the border issue provided no political capital at all. When Mike Wallace, in the third debate, asked her why Trump’s talk of building a wall and deporting illegal immigrants was wrong, she did not reply by disagreeing with Trump’s assertions. She ducked his claims by talking about a young girl named Carla who fears that her parents might be deported, since she was born in the U.S. and they were not. “I don’t want to be sending families away from their children.” At that moment, she spoke from the heart; she built her answer on her long experience as an advocate for children. But she did not answer the question of whether or not we need to tighten up the flow of illegal immigration in the future. By looking at the massive issue of immigration through the lens of a child, she provided a humane touch. But perhaps hers was too womanly a response. Did she stereotype herself in the process? Did she thereby harm her credibility as a leader?

Conversely, when Trump was asked a question that gave him an opportunity to show that he could listen to and care for an individual, he refused to be sentimental. Here is an exchange from the second debate:

Hamed: Hi. There are 3.3 million Muslims in the United States and I’m one of them…with Islamophobia on the rise, how will you help people like me deal with the consequences of being labeled as a threat to the country after the election is over?

Clinton had already responded to this question by reminding the spectators that Trump had said “dark things” about Muslims such as the Khan family. She then noted that we’ve had Muslims in the country since George Washington. She said we’ve had many successful Muslims in America, such as Muhammad Ali. She gave a diversity answer. Trump began by saying “Well, you’re right about Islamophobia, and that’s a shame.” But he then stopped speaking to or about Hamed. He shifted the discussion to Islamic terrorism: “But . . . there is a problem. I mean, whether we like it or not, and we could be very politically correct…” He reminded the spectators of San Bernardino, Orlando, Paris, and the World Trade Center. Essentially, he was proving that he would not discuss Islamophobia without also discussing the reality of Islamic terrorism. He noted that neither Clinton nor Obama would use the term “radical Islamic terrorism.” Trump emphasized, “It’s radical Islamic terror. And before you solve it, you have to say the name.” While Clinton personalized the complex problem of immigration with “Carla,” Trump depersonalized his exchange with a minority in order to articulate a global problem.

It was close. Clinton won the popular vote. But the alt-right won the election, and it will continue to highlight the paradoxes of openness and inclusion. Moving forward, the Democrats, along with leftist academics, will need to reconsider their unreflective commitment to diversity and the borderless society.

Footnotes & References

[i] Blaise Pascal, Penseés (New York: The Modern Library, 1941), p. 123.

[ii] Transcript of the Second Debate, The New York Times, posted October 10, 2016, online at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/10/us/politics/transcript-second-debate.html.

[iii] For Dabashi’s comments and for hostile responses by other academics in Middle East Studies, see Cinnamon Stilwell and Michael Lumish, “Trump Terror within Middle East Studies,” December 13, 2016, online at Campus Watch, http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2016/12/trump_terror_within_middle_east_studies.html.

[iv] Matt Flegenheimer, “Hilary Clinton Says ‘Radical Fringe Is Taking Over G.O.P. Under Donald Trump,” New York Times, August 25, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/26/us/politics/hillary-clinton-speech.html?_r=0.

[v] Peter Baehr and Daniel Gordon, “Unmasking and Disclosure as Sociological Practices: Contrasting Modes for Understanding Religious and Other Beliefs,” Journal of Sociology, vol. 48, issue 4 (2012), 380-396.   Peter Baehr, “The Problem of Unmasking in Ideology and Utopia,” Sociologica: Italian Journal of Sociology On-Line, 1/2013, 1-32, http://www.sociologica.mulino.it/journal/article/index/Article/Journal:ARTICLE:649/Item/Journal:ARTICLE:649.

[vi] Examples of media coverage emphasizing irrational bias: Luke O’Brien, “My Journey to the Center of the Alt-Right,” Huffington Post, November 30. 2016, http://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/alt-right/. Yair Rosenberg, “Why a Vote for Trump is a Vote for Mainstreaming Anti-Semites,”
Tablet, September 2, 2016, http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/212402/why-a-vote-for-trump-is-a-vote-for-mainstreaming-anti-semites. Aja Romano, “How the Alt-Right’s Sexism Lures Men Into White Supremacy,” Vox, December 14, 2016, http://www.vox.com/culture/2016/12/14/13576192/alt-right-sexism-recruitment.

[vii] “CBS News Exit Polls: How Donald Trump Won the U.S. Presidency,” November 9, 2016, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/cbs-news-exit-polls-how-donald-trump-won-the-us-presidency/.

[viii] This conception of the political as non-reducible to social interests has led to the invigoration of the study of political revolutions. See Keith Michael Baker and Dan Edelstein, Scripting Revolution: A Historical Approach to the Comparative Study of Revolutions (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015). One can consult other works by Baker, and also by the historian François Furet, for this understanding of political culture as creative rather than reflective. I am thus suggesting that the failure of left-liberals to consider the alt-right as a political discourse, their tendency to reduce the alt-right to social interests and prejudices, is part of a larger failure to grasp the very nature of the political.

[ix] Sharon LaFraniere and Matt Apuzzo, “Bonding by Bucking the Establishment,” New York Times, January 9, 2017, A10.

[x] William Strauss and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny (New York: Broadway Books, 1997). Stephen Bannon refers to this book in his speeches and the authors are featured in films produced by Citizens United. The book describes an “unraveling” of American culture, starting in the 1960s and proceeding through the moral dissolution of our corporate culture. The authors predicts that a “turning” will take place around the present time. The purpose of the “turning” will be to end the celebration of self-liberation from all traditions and restore civic order.

[xi] One can find numerous interviews and speeches by Bannon but the one I find the most informative appears on Youtube as “Steve Bannon Lays Out His Amazing Political Philosophy,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nTd2ZAX_tc. He gave the speech on October, 25, 2011. All the ideas that I attribute to Bannon throughout this essay can be found in this speech.

[xii] Pew Research Center, “Top Voting Issues in 2016 Election,” July 7, 2016, online at http://www.people-press.org/2016/07/07/4-top-voting-issues-in-2016-election/.

[xiii] The platform of the Movement For Black Lives is easily accessible online, and one can also find many news reports specifically on the part dealing with Israel. But it is especially relevant for this discussion to read the coverage in Breitbart News. See “Black Lives Matter Platform Author Tries to Defend Accusing Israel of ‘Genocide,’” August 10, 2016, online at http://www.breitbart.com/jerusalem/2016/08/10/black-lives-platform-author-defends-accusing-israel-genocide/. There are several other Breitbart articles exposing the extremism of the platform. My point is that no leaders of the Democrat Party has called out the excesses of the platform.

[xiv] Again, one can choose many news sites for reports on Juncker’s statement. But I choose Breitbart because it contributes to my claim that the negating of borders is a central concern of the alt-right. See “EU Prez Juncker: ‘Borders are the Worst Invention Ever,” August 22, 2016, online at http://www.breitbart.com/london/2016/08/22/eu-prez-juncker-borders-worst-invention-ever/.

[xv] “Tulane Advances Gender Pronounc Rule, Blames Trump,” December 7, 2016, online at http://www.breitbart.com/texas/2016/12/07/tulane-advances-gender-pronoun-rule-blames-trump/.

[xvi] “Transgender Advocates ‘Aim to Destroy’ Common Sense, Says Analysis,” October 14, 2016, online at http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2016/10/14/transgender-advocates-destroy-common-sense/.

[xvii] The letter of May 13, 2016 is available online at http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201605-title-ix-transgender.pdf.

[xviii] See Jeannie Suk, “The Transgender Bathroom Debate and the Looming Title IX Crisis,” The New Yorker, May 24, 2016, online at http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/public-bathroom-regulations-could-create-a-title-ix-crisis. And “College Students Go to Court Over Sexual Assault,” The New Yorker, August 5, 2016, online at http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/colleges-go-to-court-over-sexual-assault.

[xix] Suk, “The Transgender Bathroom Debate.”

[xx] Catherine Elizabeth Lhamon, “I Just Knew the Phone Would Ring Some Day and Joshua Would be Dead: Translating Knowledge into Just and Effective Protection of Children,” Amherst College Thesis, 1993.

[xxi] Catherine E. Lhamon, “Mother as Trope in Feminist Legal Theory,” a review of an anthology of essays, Mothers in Law: Feminist Theory and the Legal Regulation of Motherhood, ed. Martha Albertson Fineman and Isabel Karpin, in Yale Law Journal (March 1996)., pp. 1421-1426.

[xxii] I owe these concepts and phrases to review essays I have read in the area of queer and transgender theory, but above all this review of twelve books: Bernice Hausman, “Recent Transgender Theory,” Feminist Studies, vol. 27, no. 2 (October, 2002), pp. 465-490

[xxiii] Pew Research Center, “Top Voting Issues in 2016 Election.” (See note 6.)

[xxiv] Transcript of the Third Debate, New York Times, October 20, 2016, online at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/20/us/politics/third-debate-transcript.html.

Daniel Gordon
Daniel Gordon
Daniel Gordon is professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His research is on the history of social and political thought since the Enlightenment. Publications include Citizens Without Sovereignty (Princeton University Press, 1994), translation of Voltaire's Candide (Bedford Saint-Martins, 2nd edition 2016), and "From Act to Fact: The Transformation of Suicide in Western Thought" (Historical Reflections, 2016). Gordon's article, "Civilization and the Self-Critical Tradition," which is a critique of post-colonial theory, will be the center of a published symposium later this year, in the journal Society.
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Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) delivers remarks at the Federalist Society 2016 National Lawyers Convention in Washington, U.S., November 18, 2016.    REUTERS/Gary Cameron - RTX2UBN0U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a USA Thank You Tour event in Mobile, Alabama, U.S., December 17, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson - RTX2VHIV