Emotional Refugees and the Trump and Brexit State

A supporter of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump yells at the media during a campaign event in Concord

Roy Coleman 

This post focuses on popular passions in politics and why they cannot simply be rubbished by ‘progressives’ and made to fit some ‘correct’ and mechanized interpretation of the world. Passion – the ‘good’ and the bad’ – is what drives change in state and society. So it’s no good attacking Trump supporters as ‘over-emotional’. They have, borrowing from Gramsci, a rudimentary understanding of their world which is neither unified nor coherent.

So can the Left shape a narrative to challenge the Trump and Brexit victories? As Gramsci stated such a narrative must demonstrate an ‘”impassioned” understanding of mass suffering and not one that is merely mechanical. Such an understanding can only be a sham when it is “pure pedantry” and good ideas do not detach themselves from emotion in order to appear “superior”. Antonio Gramsci’s words are as relevant today as when he was attempting to oppose Fascist “passion-politics” in the 1920s. For him, passion-politics contains both “good sense” and “morbid symptoms” (with the Right ramping up the latter with its racist and sexist narrative) and either can shape social change. Brexit and Trump are embryonic movements attempting to create a new kind of state built on swathes of emotional frustration directed at ‘politics as usual’. These movements talk of ‘newness’ and ‘clean sweeps’ but also, and less clearly understood, is how they articulate continuity with authoritarianism as feature of capitalist neoliberalization since the late 1970s – only now more avowedly cemented with illiberal emotional catharsis.

The idea of the emotional energizing political leadership and change is not new. William Reddy noted that “emotional regimes,” “emotional suffering,” and “emotional refuges” are drivers of politics and state building. “Emotional regimes” are integral to political-economic leadership and regulate what is permissible in emotional-political life. They saturate politics with kinds of feeling and objects of feeling.  Emotional suffering becomes evident in times when people are required to feel (or not feel) in ways restricted within the dominant emotional regime. Emotional refuges provide relief from suffering by providing “safe release from prevailing emotional norms”. The Trump and Brexit campaigns selectively reinforced the feelings of emotional refugees from neoliberal capitalism. Their next step is to organize these refuges for authoritarian statecraft. The danger in a Right-Wing inspired emotional refuge of the ‘new’ is a masking of the continuities of power within the state and its ‘new’ business-national elites.

The alternative to Trumpism is compassion and compassion will have to address the refuges of emotion that the Right is now attempting to organise and define. Gramsci is clear: the role of leader for a more compassionate world is not one that starts with him or her slamming the folklore of the powerless. For him, both leader and led engage on a journey that revaluates passions and encourages self-criticism. So the re-casualization of misogyny, racism and patriotism associated with Trump Brexit would be targets of this kind of “compassionality”. Sneering ‘at the peasants’ is not an option in the fight against a resurgent Right not least because it is not only ‘the poor’ who voted Brexit and Trump but white collar workers too who have suffered neoliberal immiseration.  For the Left this requires leadership of “specific feelings” and a degree of spontaneity “not merely an adventure by groups claiming to represent the masses” (Gramsci).

A Trump/Brexit passion-politics presents (at the very best) an “organized tolerance” – a kind of state in which people are encouraged “to put up with something or someone [and] not to sympathize or understand” (Mestrovic). Even this can only lead to more divisiveness and violence. When sympathies are discouraged then emotional refuges spill into the wider society in the form of normalised hate crime. The President Elect has already brought white supremacists into his administration. However, leaders cannot lead if the leader “is distinct and separate from the people” (Gramsci). And in many ways Trump and Brexiteers are clearly separate from those they seek to lead – not least in terms of wealth, status and emotional habitus. Leaders cannot lead “without feeling the elementary passions of the people, understanding them and explaining them in an historical situation”. It is not merely enough to impersonate common passions and Trump’s new ‘outsider’ administration may still fail to establish leadership in this regard. Such a failure may leave elemental passion in a state of morbidity – festering and chaotic. On the other hand, Trump may ‘succeed’ in leading passion-politics into an imagined community of proto-fascist “real American’s first” as Trump has put it.  The point here is that the business of leadership is not yet complete. Supporters of Trumpism do not exist as a unified folk-emotion and cannot be mechanistically led in the long term. Nor do they know their situation with reference to a uniform folk-experience: diverse combinations of economic and political marginalization as well as racism, sexism and xenophobia played their part in both Brexit and Trump victories.

The mechanization of leadership has for a long time been a problem for the capitalist state in attempting to reorganise its leadership. Neoliberal mechanized leadership is crumbling but not dead. Gramsci’s words also remind the socialist challengers to the Trump / Brexit state: to build a non-mechanistic emotional refuge is the first step in figuring out the road to a compassionate state. This step cannot be taken by mechanical, pedantic and rational arguments alone.


Published by EmotionalStates

Roy Coleman: Lecturer and Researcher at University of Liverpool, UK.

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