Surveilling Trump: A Call to Action

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the South Point Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Trump Watch

For better or worse, many people across the globe pay close attention to the Unites States. To be sure, it’s a juggernaut. Some observers consider it — and for good reason — the most powerful country on earth. Social scientists, meanwhile, recognize that it is a nation-state and a society with great internal complexity and volatility. Making sense of how the U.S. interacts globally and what it means for ordinary people to live there is a hefty task. Anthropologists have been at the forefront of such efforts, producing in-depth studies explaining a state, a society and the lives of citizens and noncitizens therein in ways few others do. Anthropologists rely heavily on ethnography, a unique and powerful way of understanding the world; their efforts to do so in and about the United States have produced plentiful insights, and something akin to a litany of concerns, all of which should be of interest to ordinary people, to decision makers in government and beyond, and to other academics.

“Trump Watch,” a new series for Anthropology Now, is an attempt to harness the power of ethnography and point it directly at the presidency of Donald Trump, which, when this issue is published, will be in its fourth month. Members of our editorial team have agreed that his presidency needs to be closely tracked and reported on, and that anthropology is uniquely situated to do exactly that. On the one hand, anthropologists are doing work all over the world, and U.S. policies both domestic and foreign have effects far beyond its borders. Thus, it makes sense to gauge the impact of Trump outside the U.S. We hope and expect that anthropologists will do so. But Anthropology Now is equally keen (or perhaps more so) for anthropologists researching topics in the United States to tell us how the Trump presidency is affecting the lives of people living in the country most directly affected by the decisions he will make. Less than half of the U.S. voting public chose Trump, but all Americans will live in a society shaped by the initiatives he will try to move forward.

Given the political nature of a series entitled “Trump Watch,” a few points regarding what it means for Anthropology Now to undertake it are in order. Some might ask whether Anthropology Now is, by default, taking a position as an organization that opposes his presidency simply by initiating this series. Or it could be argued that “Trump Watch” contradicts the need to mitigate bias in the social sciences by presuming Trump’s presidency is deserving of such attention and critique, that the series is prejudging Trump. These are reasonable points to raise, but they are also easily addressed.

Michael Brown’s insightful revamp of cultural relativism provides the cornerstone to my response to such concerns. While there is not space here to spell out the details, Brown argues that upholding the century-plus-old axioms that constitute cultural relativism does not lead, necessarily, to moral relativism. In short, it is possible to cast judgement, essentially, without violating the principle that the beliefs and behaviors of one worldview should not trump (pun perhaps intended) those of another. To be sure, it is still wrong to simply judge one way of being human using the measuring stick of another.

However, Brown emphasizes that if you understand a society well, it is perfectly reasonable to point to and comment on the dysfunctional elements in it. Cultural practices and beliefs are anything but uncontested within societies. Plenty of people that live in any given society object strongly to various features of that society. This is to say that we should not equate dominant practices with cultural norms, at least not straightforwardly. Precisely because power is unevenly distributed, not everyone has the same opportunities to shape the sociocultural, political or economic contours of the world within which they live.

As the new general editor of Anthropology Now, I am interpreting Brown’s position on cultural relativism as argument and license for anthropologists to unabashedly undertake the political in their work by emphasizing dysfunction in society, when, of course, they have done their homework. It is still very important, according to the basic axioms that underpin cultural relativism in its revised form, to understand thoroughly the internal workings of a society before one goes about pointing to dysfunction. With this in mind, many anthropologists, not a few of whom are closely associated with Anthropology Now, are in agreement that the United States has reached something of a tipping point when it comes to dysfunction.

In one way of looking at it, the election of Trump might be seen as only the latest in a string of major and problematic developments. A rich and rigorous body of scholarly work by anthropologists of many stripes has undertaken social critique focusing on a wide range of U.S. issues, from migrant workers to gender relations, from formal education to the informal economy, from the lives of the working poor to motivations of Wall Street bankers. Much of this analysis paints an unappealing and often disappointing image of a society with many problems — though not all of it does.

What makes the current juncture unique, perhaps, is not only the yet-to-be-determined likelihood of cataclysmic outcomes, but the possibility of an awakening of sorts. While on the one hand the election of Trump can be seen as signaling deep social dysfunction, the protests against him on inauguration day were also unprecedented. Supporters of Trump wore red ball caps and enjoyed the day. Many Trump opponents showed up to proclaim that Trump is entirely unacceptable. Perhaps we are witnessing, or soon will witness, a renewed progressivism rooted in the belief that Trump represents an image of the United States so unsettling that it is no longer possible to sit idly while complaining until one’s next chance to vote comes around. Or perhaps my glasses are too rose-colored, though I’ve been accused of exactly the opposite on more than a few previous occasions.

For these reasons, Anthropology Now recognizes the importance of getting out in front of the Trump presidency from the start and writing about it with the public in mind. Not all Americans will be affected by the Trump presidency the same way, obviously. Anthropology Now envisions a point in the future when it will be possible to look back on this series and construct not only timelines of his presidency but also social and spatial maps, the combination of which will provide a portrait of everyday effects resulting from Trump’s policies and his presidency more broadly.

The election of a leader that many consider at least potentially troubling also tends to highlight key features of that society — good and bad, I would argue. Conceptual maps become relief maps, with critical aspects more obvious or clearly visible. Currently, something like this is almost certainly afoot in the United States. Social class, sexism, the urban-rural divide, racism and the role of the intellectual in society represent only some of the many characteristics that appear more clearly than they did before Trump was elected. This is not to say they necessarily make more sense than before. What has changed most of all is the urgency felt by anthropologists to energize and focus.

Some such concerns arose after Trump was elected but before he was even inaugurated, indicating that his eminent rise to office was itself significant. That Trump was about to gain power was assurance enough to empower people with what would appear to be xenophobic beliefs to act on those beliefs. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, reported that there was an increase in hate crimes in November of 2016. The Center’s report, which is available on their website, explained that 867 “bias-related incidents” occurred within 10 days of the election. Examples of these hate crimes included black children being told to ride at the back of their school buses and “Trump Nation” and “whites only” being spray painted on the walls of churches with many immigrants in their congregations.

A potentially scary indicator of the symbolic meaning of Trump’s victory for scholars specifically has come in the form of the recent launch of Professor Watchlist. One of anthropology’s own, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, features prominently on this website, which, it would appear, is intended to silence voices that counter conservative views. The majority of scholars included on this list share two features. First, they are teaching in programs in the arts and humanities. Of the 168 professors currently on the list, 124 are in the social sciences or humanities. The liberal arts tradition that anthropology so strongly supports would appear to be under attack. Second, many of the professors on the list are criticized, often in intellectually dubious ways, for speaking out against conservative agendas. If reasonable dialogue between those who disagree is important to addressing the questions that a nation or society will face, the motivation behind this website would seem to be working toward the opposite goal. Its creators seem to be saying that fewer voices are better.

Though Professor Watch and the increase in hate crimes are troubling, to say the least, it is somewhat difficult to link them directly to the Trump presidency, at least at this point. There is no such uncertainty, however, regarding the several executive orders that Trump has issued since taking over. Journalistic reports are mounting daily regarding the negative effect these directives from the White House are having in the U.S. and across the globe.

Importantly, as of the writing of this introduction in early February, there have also been many important counter-movements to Trump’s initiatives. When Trump was elected in November, I opined to friends that his presidency was as interesting for what it said about the current state of affairs in the United States as it was because of what Trump might actually do as president. I also hoped that it might prompt people previously disinclined to demonstrate, because of these new developments, to speak out and even act in ways that opposed Trump’s initiatives. It would seem that something like this is afoot.

Wikipedia has a new entry: 2017 Women’s March. In the years leading up to Trump, as a university professor who regularly talks to young men and women, I was at best ambivalent about the state of feminism in North America. On the day after his inauguration, the Women’s March represented at least the possibility of a resurgence of the feminism I feel most passionate about — that promoted by the likes of bell hooks, one that unites people in a general call to fight all forms of domination and oppression, including those associated with sexism, racism and elitism. The March was undertaken on a worldwide scale and represented at least somewhat of a historical precedent, with an estimated 4.8 million participants across the globe.

As Trump’s first week unfolded, his troubling executive orders were met head-on by many. When he cut funding to organizations outside the United States who provide abortion services, both the Netherlands and Canada almost immediately announced that they were keen to make up the difference and pledged extra funds. When Trump tried to silence various government scientists, those working for NASA, the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency all launched rogue social media sites in clear defiance of Trump’s attempts to muzzle.

University presidents, moreover, reacted quickly to Trump’s executive order to ban and limit travel to the United States for people associated with Muslim majority countries. Some university leaders even refused to share information about members of their communities with the government. In a development that I would not have predicted, leaders and workers of technology companies throughout the United States stood up against Trump as well. CEOs posted letters strongly criticizing Trump’s move, and workers, too, displayed their frustration. Approximately 2,000 Google employees walked off the job in protest in January with support from their employer. While Trump’s mean-spirited and strategically flawed attempt to limit certain people from entering the U.S. has made life challenging for many of the people he targeted, a broad swath of the public appears to be outraged.

In the days following this particular executive order, the American Civil Liberties Union saw what the LA Times called “unprecedented public support.” The organization received donations over one weekend that far exceeded its previous yearly totals. As I submit this essay in early February, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has taken out a full-page ad in the Global and Mail, one of Canada’s most widely read newspapers, calling Trump’s attempt to limit travel and immigration, especially for refugees, “deplorable” and calling on the Canadian government to act. In short, Trump might be wise to pull back on the proverbial stirring of the hornets’ nests. The list of counter-movement initiatives, which I have only touched on here, appears to be growing by the day, if not the hour.

Four other pieces in this issue provide some early thoughts on Trump. In this section, Morgan Ramsey-Elliot and Paul Stoller write about Trump primarily from an American perspective, while in our “Rasanblaj” section, Melissa Rosario and Gerhard Hostaedter comment on the election of Trump as seen from outside the United States. Ramsey-Elliot uses his keen and insightful ethnographic observations to explain why the Trump victory should not have been as surprising as it was, pointing to ways of thinking among progressives that might need to be reconsidered. Stoller echoes this sentiment, in part, while also making a convincing call for “more anthropology” in times that he describes as marked by rises in celebrity culture, intolerance and political malaise. Rosario does not mince words as she reveals what the election of Trump was like in Puerto Rico, where people can’t vote beyond primary elections and yet will be subject to Trump’s leadership. Hostaedter, writing presciently from Australia prior to the announcements of Trump’s executive orders, offers his thoughts on how a Trump presidency will affect refugees, warning readers of the “flipside” of claims to make America great that will likely mean the wholesale mistreatment of those who don’t qualify as American under Trumps narrow and troubling definition of the term.

These four writers have provided a jumping-off point, or several of them, actually. Anthropology Now hopes that their essays will motivate others to take up our call to surveil Trump and his presidency. Over the next four years, and hopefully no more, life is going to unfold in both predictable and unpredictable ways. Our expectation is that ethnographers will be there on the ground when it does. I will go so far as to say that anthropologists have a duty to use their finely tuned research skills and sharp minds to interrogate Trump, metaphorically, as he would have others actually interrogated. In keeping with Anthropology Now’s mission, reports intended to do this should be ethnographically rich and written for a general audience. Now is indeed the time for more anthropology.


Rylan Higgins is associate professor of anthropology at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Canada, and the new general editor of Anthropology Now.

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