A wide-eyed, colorful guide to a dreadful story
December 18, 2019

Understanding the rise of Trump

Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America by John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck, Princeton University Press, US $17.95 Pp 360, ISBN 978-0691196435

Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016 was a surprise for many. But those who watched the campaign and politics closely and objectively could see the changes that were taking place in the American political system and how they were impacting the electoral politics. There were and still are many unexplained and unanswered questions about the results of the 2016 elections. In Identity Crisis, John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck give a definite account of the 2016 election campaign and the role identity played in shaping it. The authors argue that racial and ethnic identities drove new Democratic and Republican coalitions in the years before the election. The Trump campaign used racial and ethnic divides to win the election.

That identity matters in politics is a truism. The authors argue that getting beyond truisms means answering more important questions: which identities, what they mean, and when and how they become politically relevant. The answers to these questions point to the features of the 2006 election that made group identities so potent. The authors say that people can be categorized in many groups based on their place of birth, being a member of a group is not the same thing as identifying or sympathizing with that group. The key is whether people feel a psychological attachment to a group. That attachment binds individuals to the group and helps it develop cohesion and shared values.

The existence, content, and power of group identities – including their relevance to politics – depending on the context. The authors say that one part of the context is the possibility of gains and losses for the group. Gains and losses can be tangible, each as money or territory, or they can be symbolic, such as psychological status. Moreover, gains and losses do not even need to be realized. Mere threats, such as the possibility of losses, can be enough. When gains, losses, or threats become salient, group identities develop and strengthen. Groups become more unified and more likely to develop goals and grievances, which are the components of a political group consciousness. Another and arguably even more important element of the context is political actors. The authors argue that the actors help articulate the content of a group identity, or what it means to be part of a party. Political actors also identify, and sometimes exaggerate or even invent, threats to a group. Political actors can then make group identities and attitudes more salient and elevate them as criteria for decision-making.

A key question about identity politics is how much it involves not only an attachment to your own group but also feelings about other groups. The authors say that identities can be “social,” with direct implications for how groups relate to each other. These relationships do not have to be competitive, and thus group loyalties can and often do. Hostility can arise because groups are competing over scarce resources. It can also arise not out of any objective competition but because group leaders identify another group as a competitor or even the enemy. Both the “us” and the “them” of group politics can depend on what political leaders do not say.

Identity Crisis provides a new way of looking at the 2016 presidential election. The authors convincingly argue that Americans’ racial and ethnic identity drove them to vote for or against Trump and not so much bad economy. Identity Crisis answers the unexplained questions that have been agitating your mind. Identity Crisis is what you need to understand American politics and the rise of Trump. This well-researched and lucidly written book is packed with new perspectives and insights about American politics. It should be a required read to understand why Trump won and the direction of American society and state.

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