Berkeley Conversation: Trumpism and its discontents

A panel of UC Berkeley scholars called for public engagement and the protection of voting rights to ward off a resurgence of Trumpism in Friday’s livestreamed discussion.

The four panelists and moderator Osagie Obasogie, professor of bioethics, opened the event by sharing their reactions to the Jan. 6 storming of Capitol Hill by a gang of Trump supporters.

Ann Keller, an associate professor of health politics and policy, said that, as a political scientist who studies institutions, she found it unbearable to see the complete failure of security in protecting the Capitol.

Similarly, Catherine Albiston, a professor of law, noted that coups may occur as slow-moving phenomena and cautioned against dismissing “even silly and defeated coups,” as they can make a resurgence.

All five speakers have contributed to the publication Trumpism and its Discontents, published by Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute (OBI) and the Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS) in November.

The book included contributions from more than a dozen Berkeley faculty who examined Trumpism in the context of various issues, including speech, race relations, foreign policy, demographic changes and immigration policy.

Keller, whose contribution to the volume focuses on Trump’s rejection of science, explained during last Friday’s panel that the right wing for decades has challenged facts, especially on environmental matters, in its long push for deregulation of industry. But Trump was particularly effective at undermining science because he had a large and loyal base, which set him apart from other right-wing figures.

“There’s both this long-standing move that I would locate in the 1990s, which emerges with (former House Speaker) Newt Gingrich and the 104th Congress, where they began to use their budget tools to cut off science,” she said. “But I think Trump as a leader really animates it. … He’s fanning the flames.”

Much of the discussion centered on the role of the deep racial resentment that fuels Trumpism.

john a. powell, professor of law and OBI director, described the social climate that contributed to the rise of Trumpism as being marked by “group dominance,” in which some conservative white people are organizing against the perceived threat of having their dominance replaced by a multi-racial democracy.

“Group dominance has a leader. Trump is the leader of the group, which makes it hard to actually move people away from group dominance, even if they start having some second thoughts,” powell said. “One of the things you get from group dominance is group membership, and Trump makes it very clear that if you violate the norms of group dominance, then you’re out of the group.”

Zeus Leonardo, a professor in the Graduate School of Education, described the “post-colorblindness” that emerged in the Trump era, in which racial expressions became more overt. He said the rise of Trump marked a period when some whites began to use white identity politics to organize for autonomy and separation.

“For so long, white meant to be a person, it meant to be a human individual. Now, it is meant to be a racial label. It is one that they carry, and one that they’ve weaponized,” he said.

Albiston said she regretted that Trump succeeded in turning what was meant to be a campaign against gender inequality into a discussion of Trump’s “boorish behavior.”

“This isn’t just (a women’s) issue, this is a broader issue. Now, it’s become a much more gendered (issue). The problem with that is that harassment stops being normatively a problem. It changes what harassment is as a conceptual matter. It’s no longer about inequality; it’s now a part of the culture wars,” she said.

Responding to audience questions about how to protect democracy against the threats discussed during the panel and to defuse hate groups, the speakers provided multiple strategies grounded in bolstering institutions and improving dialogue with other groups.

“I do think engagement is going to be an important answer to this — that is to say, have a more or less rational conversation about peoples’ feelings and emotions, and owning them, and trying to have dialogue and conversation about that,” Leonardo said.

Keller said the first thing to do for democracy is to protect voting rights to make sure everyone who is eligible to vote can do so.

powell agreed and said new measures were required to prevent the right wing from succeeding in making it so that Black people, Latinos and anyone who is not a white Christian can’t vote. “If they succeed in that,” he said, “then we don’t have a democracy.”

“Our container has a crack in it. If our container breaks, then all bets are off,” powell said.