The Decorous and the Déclassé

One of the few things that actually harmed Donald Trump's political standing during the 2016 election was his bragging about grabbing women "by the pussy." Setting aside the justifiable skepticism that Republican outrage directed towards Trump was truly about his behavior rather than his tanking polling numbers, there was a seemingly genuine visceral repugnance to Trump's statements. This reaction appeared widespread among even the most reactionary elements in the American conservative movement.

The disdain came from two sources. First, overtly bragging about groping people demonstrates Donald Trump's valorization of personal violence naturally causes a measure of discomfort. More importantly, though, from the perspective of the ruling class and their media compatriots, Trump's true crime was merely using the word "pussy."

Trump faced no genuine consequences after the election for his actual conduct from any political figure who denounced him immediately following the release of the tape. Nevertheless, the language in the video set the media off into a pearl-clutching frenzy in which outlets tried to pretend they were beyond personally using such vulgarity even while gleefully playing the footage on repeat.

At first glance, cursing and boorish behavior in the media seem inconsequential and petty like much of the 24-hour news cycle's content. However, these issues hint at a broader societal phenomenon.

Part of what helped Donald Trump win the election was his speaking style, which was approachable and utilized language comfortable to all Americans. This was in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton's speaking style, which was impersonal and diffuse ("we" and "America" to Trump's "I" and "we," respectively). Counterintuitively, this made Hillary Clinton less approachable, despite her language's patina of humility. The cognitive effect of disassociating herself from the office of the presidency made her government feel distant and detached. These communication styles are hallmarks of elite communications and governing styles.

Americans have come to associate markers of decorum as indicators of elite status. Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush oozed the effete identifiers of high social class with every phrase they uttered throughout the election. In a year where the wealthy elite received a strong rebuke from the public, a candidate maligned by the well-heeled libertine managerial class was obviously going to be the underdog. Inasmuch as he made himself the little guy, Trump’s boorishness and déclassé conduct would earn him points for every condemnation from a Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan-type figure. 

To the ruling class and public perceptions of acceptable elite behavior, America has a high tolerance for physical and structural violence mediated through impersonal institutions that would otherwise be considered disgusting. In the collective American psyche, the preventable deaths of millions of Americans each year from treatable illness are not the fault of the rulers who block efforts to provide treatment. Culpability for avoidable medical loss of life, if acknowledged, is the result of a series of decentralized and amorphous institutions (the U.S. political system in which "both sides do it" or "rich doctors and HMOs prevent adequate health care"). The ruling class reinforces the system through linguistic and social codes to ensconce cognitive distance.

Admitting individuated blameworthiness and credit is seemingly neither in the best interests of the rulers nor the ruled. If personal culpability were assigned to policy, the ruling class would be exposed to consequences for its governing actions and, at a minimum, be forced to account for their decisions. At the same time, the governed would be forced to acknowledge, to their horror, the awesome power of the ruling class over every aspect of their lives from bathroom choice to the unilateral power of the U.S. president to kill thousands without oversight. The terror of their own powerlessness forces average Americans to view government as impersonal and therefore ostensibly impartial or, if not impartial, disinterested and systemically flawed without explicitly identifiable agency.

As a result of this mutual need to make governing as impersonal as possible, a series of behavioral norms have evolved among the elite. The well-heeled and connected, with their top-tier education, somberly speak in the passive voice on negative issues and talk down to the general public, when forced to interact with them. The effect of this dispassionate speaking style is to playact the removal of individuals from power and transform ruling into an inscrutable feature of life rather than a representation of power leveraged by people.

This is in stark contrast to America's underdog heroes who violate the codes of conduct of the upper class to the enjoyment of the average person. It's a trope so well entrenched that it's a staple in the comedy landscape, from the Three Stooges to Happy Gilmore. Trump's communication style and personalized politics fulfill a time-honored tradition in the American social landscape of cheering for the mocked boor over the libertine elite.

The real question now is whether or not Trump can maintain these characteristics after ascending to the most elite job in the world. During the campaign, he lost momentum during periods in which he appeared dominant. The pressures of the presidency and becoming part of the ruling class push for a more impersonal brand of politics, but Trump’s style has always been centralized around his personal “brand.” A more personalized presidency may be productive inasmuch as it exposes the vast military power accumulated without checks or balances in the office of the presidency that has gone publicly unacknowledged throughout the Obama presidency. 

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