By Julius L. Geertz 

Americans who voted Trump did not believe the rhetoric – apparently. Since the election, British commentators and politicians of various ideological hues have argued that these individuals actually voted in a rational, yet undeniably angry, manner in their own economic interest. Ohioans and Pennsylvanians, in mourning for the collapse of heavy industry and manufacturing, were just choosing the candidate they thought would rescue their rust belt economy. That would be an achievement not seen since Jesus gate-crashed Lazarus’ wake. They are not bad people, just desperate. They do not actually believe in the racist, bigoted gospel, nor that the man at the pulpit will actually carry it through. Apparently.

Yet compare these sympathetic rationalisations with the attitude towards populist voters in Turkey, India, and the Philippines. Turkey watchers accept that the rural population want the Islamification of the state and the rolling back of Atatürk’s secular legacy. Those that voted for Hindu supremacy are by and large happy with Modi’s government. They have not objected to the discrimination against Muslims and the murder of those who legally eat beef. The fish in Manilla Bay grow fat on the extrajudicial dead from the drug war whilst Duterte sits happy on an 86% approval rating. So, Turks, Indians, and Filipinos that voted for populists are just to have shared their values. Why then are Trump supporters apparently some sort of rational exception that defies the pattern?

There are two concurrent yet separate cognitive strategies in effect to deal with the populist phenomenon: to ‘other’ise and to rationalise. As Turkey marches inextricably from its secular foundation it has been easy to otherise. Not so long ago, it was the nation that straddled East and West, and calling it European was not exactly incorrect. But as Erdoğan became entrenched, it has slipped away to the Middle East. No longer potentially Western, in parts of British perception it is now increasingly Asiatic. When it rejected secularism, it rejected a pillar of the Enlightenment; it rejected a system of thought. Conceptualising a people as the Other is not overly difficult if they perceive the world differently to us. They do not think like us, they are not us, therefore of course they would vote for a populist demagogue. They are a completely different culture, and so we do not have to think too much about their motivations. Otherising Turkey is not a new strategy. Europe has engaged in it since the days of the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, it includes dangerous narratives concerning a mad, bad, dangerous Islam that is the antithesis of the West and an existential threat. Fundamentally, it is easier to talk of exotic aliens than attempt to understand why they are rejecting what we perceive to be so fundamental.

“…lest we accept that a people who are meant to be so similar to us, really do believe something so abhorrent to many of our sensibilities.”

It is much more of a challenge to otherise America. Yes, they have aerosol cheese and country music but they are part of the Anglo-Saxon pantheon. We have a special relationship after all. Of course there are cultural differences, yet when it comes down to what really matters we are the same. The reality that we are not, that social values differ, is irrelevant. A conceptual wall is erected around Britain and America and it is the boundary that counts. That we may share more with cultures outside than inside the division, is relegated beneath the importance of the group identity itself. The English speaking power couple, where the marriage matters more than the domestic discord. That is why we cannot simply otherise them like we do with Turkey. If Americans are perceived to broadly share our system of thought and we cannot fathom that we ourselves would elect such a man, Brexit notwithstanding, than we are forced to rationalise it. Hence, we descend into arguments of economic self-interest and desperation, lest we accept that a people who are meant to be so similar to us, really do believe something so abhorrent to many of our sensibilities.

Hidden beneath the Orientalism expressed towards Turkey is the truth that many really do want Islamification. Strip away the rationalisation and it is the same for America. Many really do want the wall and they want Muslims out. The irony is that the same processes are at play in both countries. A rural/urban dichotomy exists and it is about more than a feeling of being economically neglected. There is a socio-cultural divide between them where values are increasingly polarised and little understanding exists between the two. Writing off deeply held beliefs and convictions that manifest as ideological difference as just economic forces is idiotic. Too little acknowledgement is given to just how much people care about their own moral structures. The buffer zone between town and country is where post-truth politics finds space to function.

Much has been written on post-truth politics, its neglect of facts and how what is true no longer matters. However, the assumption that there can be some objective political truth is wrong. Additionally, it is not a new  phenomenon. Mass participation politics has always been about competing world views. The recent conceptualisation of the idea is more to do with a transition from modernism to post-modernism after the collapse of the USSR. During the Cold War there were only two perceptions of the world that had any real weight: capitalism vs communism. However, when the wall came down, there was a mass fracturing of identity. There were no longer two supranational ideologies through which to understand the world. The fundamental basis of many national, regional and indeed individual identities had to be reworked. As a result, we now have a mass of world views and cognitive conceptualisations: global south vs global north, the West vs Islam, China vs the World, Eurasianism (how Russia sees itself as a unique culture neither Western nor Eastern), the return of nationalism. All these perspectives are socially constructed myths and in the case of nationalist dogma, pretty ugly ones. They arose from the global existential crisis of the 1990’s.

“Nationalism is no different to religion – it is an exercise in belief”

Socially constructed myths do not appear out of thin air and they have existed for as long the genus Homo has had the cognitive ability of imagination. If Terror Management Theory is to be believed, these myths are the means by which structure and meaning is given to life as a defence mechanism against mortality and existential fears. Whilst the theory does have its flaws from an evolutionary psychology perspective, it does offer an explanation for the function of such devices. By placing faith and deriving value from such superstructures as the nation and religion, individuals are able to provide meaning for their existence beyond just the biological drive to reproduce and perpetuate life. However, these myths are malleable and have often been controlled by the elites of social hierarchies. Nationalism coalesced during industrialisation to create the homogenised workforces required and equally to buttress the whole nation state project. Individuals needed to speak one language and share in one community – the nation – in a manner never seen before. There was much greater cultural diversity within territorial units before the industrial revolution.

Engineering nationalism may be a cynical enterprise, seeing how it has been utilised to serve personal agendas and genocidal endeavours, but that does not detract from the significant value individuals place in it. Narratives of free peoples, commercial or artistic prowess, and mighty empires have a significant impact on how individuals view themselves within the context of national identity. Many British people derive great pride from centuries of parliamentary democracy and a sense of belonging to something that existed before them and hopefully, will significantly outlive them. Nationalism is no different to religion – it is an exercise in belief. The key to the success of socially constructed myths is that they are lasting even if their content is forever plastic. Christianity has existed for 2000 years and during that time its practises and teachings have changed innumerably, yet the vehicle itself persists.

Fundamentally, what has driven populism in both the USA and in Turkey are these myths people have employed to understand the world around them and their place in it. This created a conservatism that violently rejects changing social norms because change is a scary thing. Yet they do not recognise that their attempts at social preservation are in themselves revolutionary acts. Many Turks see Islamic traditions as the means to escape potential turmoil, ignoring that they all grew up in a secular society. The same in America, but switch out Islam for evangelical Christianity. Never mind the fact that many older Americans are clinging to a time of brutal legalised discrimination. That the Founding Fathers were liberals who created a secular state of religious freedom and would in all likelihood be appalled by the garbage being spewed today that violates the constitution they drew up. Again, the myth of America has persisted despite the content changing to a darker, fascistic tone. All that matters is that the people who vote for populism believe these socially constructed lies because it helps them to understand a chaotic world. It is easier to accept these totems.

“Populism and nationalism…are possibly the darkest, most destructive forces of modern times”

Why is this new national myth in America profoundly xenophobic and bigoted? It is down to the aforementioned rural/urban split. Rural and rust belt America are largely homogeneous areas both racially and culturally. The maintenance and perpetuation of socially conservative values is significantly easier in areas with a high degree of homophily. Whereas the ethnic, multicultural urban melting pots militates against such a tendency and promotes a liberal agenda. Prejudice is largely due to cultural difference. That is not to imply that all cultural contact is some form of antagonistic clash. It is not. The cities prove that. Rather that social structures of those rural areas facilitates an otherising of those from the outside. In essence, their lack of shared values with groups that are easy to otherise due to ethnic, gender and sexuality differences enables the germination of such systems of thought as evidenced by the isolationist, populist voters. The prejudice is not necessarily a perception of negativity based on whether individuals are gay or are Mexican, but that they do not share my values. It is vital to note however, that America is roughly split 50/50 and there are many who virulently reject this social construction and prefer to believe in core liberal, humanist values.

We can attempt to rationalise or otherise these populist voting individuals all we want, but it would be a disservice to them. Unfortunately, most of them really do believe what they vote for. It does not matter whether populist politicians cynically exploited myths to get elected and will then row back on them. They have unleashed forces they cannot control. Populism and nationalism are grubby, squalid things that trade on creating narratives that make individuals feel powerful and proud of an imagined national history and destiny. They are possibly the darkest, most destructive forces of modern times. Up next is the French presidential election with an insurgent, vitalised Front National.

Que Dieu vienne en aide à la république.


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