Podcast Recommendation

"The Rise of ‘Middle-Finger Politics’"

Photo by SLT

James Joyner’s post this morning made me immediately think of this week’s installment of the Ezra Klein Show: The Rise of ‘Middle-Finger Politics’.

The entire conversation is interesting and links a lot of where Trump is politically with people like David Duke in the 1990s and Patrick Buchanan. There is some good general discussion about the ongoing, preexisting support for Trumpesque populism (historically and in a comparative sense).

There is also a lot of focus on Trump’s skills as a showman.

One very insightful observation by the guest, John Ganz, is the degree to which Trump taps into the gangster movie motif.

His New York accent conveys a kind of folksy, but highly intelligent, cunning thing to people. And he sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. He is a little bit of a gangster. So I think the archetype of gangsters from movies which we’ve — as being, you know, they’re bad, but they’re good, they’re kind of fun, they know how to get things done, there’s no bullshit with them. We have this very affectionate, almost, picture of gangsters in American culture. And he’s a gangster in a certain way. He’s a little bit of a mobster.

This strikes me as quite insightful and is a better metaphor than saying that he is a religious figure to his followers (despite the rather obvious way in which religion is a tool he is using and that MAGAites are happy to amplify). We in the US do often see the gangsters as heroes (or, at least anti-heroes we root for). Are not gangsters the protagonists in many major movies? People love them some Godfather.* Were you not rooting for Henry Hill in Goodfellas? Walter White was the hero until you realized that well, you know, he really isn’t.**

As Ganz also noted:

There’s a certain type of wise-guy masculinity of Trump, which I do think is entertaining. And I wouldn’t say I could identify with it, but I get the appeal for sure. I mean, it’s the same reason why we like Tony Soprano and stuff like that. It’s like — there’s something atavistic about it. There’s something stupid. You know it’s kind of stupid. But there is a kick that’s there. Yeah.

I think that intersects with another observation that Ganz made:

It’s strange to think about this, but I think Trump is a family values candidate. And I think that a lot of liberals look at him and say, well, he’s such a horrible father, and he’s got all these divorces and all these children. Yeah, and how could they be so hypocritical? And they used to talk about family values. And now look at Trump.

Trump’s family looks like a lot of American families. There’s divorces. There’s lots of extra kids. He might not like his ex-wife very much. He might not even really like the kids that much. And he still is able somehow to provide for them and look like a big, strong guy.

I think that he represents a kind of family values that are in some ways new because of the change of the family structure because of divorce and because of — in some ways, very old and patriarchal, like he’s Big Daddy. He’s the head of the clan, the C-L-A-N. [CHUCKLES] Yeah. So I think that that appeals to a lot of Americans who want to take care of their families in the same way — their families writ large.

The patriarchal stuff really resonates with a subsection of the population. Indeed, Fareed Zaharia was on Colbert this week, pushing his new book, and noted, correctly I think, that perhaps the single biggest shift globally in culture and politics is the rise of women. And there is undoubtedly a concern on the right about not only the loss of men’s relative status but also things like birth rates. Look at Hungary’s concerns about this topic, or even things like this from the NYT: China’s Male Leaders Signal to Women That Their Place Is in the Home.

Another is this lengthy exchange about outrage and humor.

Ezra Klein

And I want to go back here to this idea of the middle finger politics because this feels to me like the trap liberals are in with Trump. That part of what makes him funny is how outraged he makes them.

John Ganz

Oh, for sure.

Ezra Klein

That the energy is actually unleashed in the interaction.

John Ganz


Ezra Klein

It is — I have a little kid. What is the first joke little kids tell? It is some kind of complete nonsensical setup, and then the joke is “poop.”

John Ganz


Ezra Klein

The absolute joke is a little bit of shock value.

John Ganz

Oh, for sure.

Ezra Klein

Like, can you believe I just said that? Can you believe we’re saying that together?

John Ganz


Ezra Klein

At a much more elevated level, a lot of the energy, it seems to me, in a Trump rally, when I watch them, is this can you believe we’re doing it together and then the response, right? If there was never a response, if my kid didn’t think I would ever have a response to him saying naughty words, it wouldn’t be funny.

John Ganz


Ezra Klein

He doesn’t find the word “bagel” funny, even though it’s kind of a funny word to say.John Ganz

Yeah, there has to be a reaction.

Ezra Klein

There has to be a reaction. And that feels like the deep bind, that you’re trapped in this interaction with it.

John Ganz

Well, yeah, OK. I think Trump’s insight, and the insight with a lot of these people — and this might be the key populist insight — is that there’s something obscene about power and you have to be able to walk up to the line and go past it. Trump is obscene. He says obscene things and people love it.

I do think that this is what happens with the way populist politicians campaign, though, which makes it hard to say, well, just don’t react. They do two things. They have a very effective little tactic, which is, well, if they get reacted to, they play off that. And if they don’t get reacted to, they take it a little farther and see what happens.

One thing that occurred to me about the interchange, and some of the additional discussion that they had is that it reminds me very much about what powered Rush Limbaugh (and a lot of talk radio). Tangentially it fits to me how people like Alex Jones operate (or even the energy of things like Maury Povich and similar nonpolitical, but outrageousness-fueled daytime TV). Even Dr. Oz and his ilk bill themselves as telling us all stuff the elites won’t tell us (after all, pitching pseudo-science also is based in part on the notion that someone is going to tell the masses the real truth that the pointy-heads are afraid of or, some obvious, commonsense answer that the elite science types who think they are so smart are really too dumb to understand.

All of this connects to an observation that Klein makes early on in the podcast:

 So the political scientist Larry Bartels distinguishes between this idea of populist waves and populist reservoirs, that, often, when one of these guys wins, you’re like, well, there’s a big populist wave sweeping the world.

But there’s also a way of looking at this, that it’s a reservoir. This feeling is always there. There are always insiders and outsiders, always elites and people who are not the elite, always institutions that you can’t penetrate, always a rural urban divide. And things happen at different moments, often around changes in media structures and communication structures, that make it harder for elites to suppress that dynamic, right?

I think this is accurate and also, as Klein notes, why we see similar phenomena over time and across cases. And this is where I have to point out that having weak parties (and only two that matter) combined with institutions that give immense power to numerical minorities (e.g., primaries and the Electoral College) can allow the faction that encompasses the reservoir in question to not only take over one of the only two parties we have but to take over the government as well.

At any rate, I recommend the entire discussion.

*I am reminded, weirdly, of Tom Hanks’s character in You’ve Got Mail flirting with Meg Ryan’s character using a phrase from The Godfather, “go to the mattresses”–because what else could be more romantic than quoting gangsters? We do like our gangsters.

**Spoiler alert for Breaking Bad: even in the last episode, where it is clear that Walter is not a good man (and he admits as much) we can still root for Walter when he fights Uncle Jack and his band of neonazis. Sure he murders them all, but they deserved it and who needs law and the courts to sort it when a trunk-mounted automatic weapon can take care of things quickly and easily?

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, 2020 Election, 2024 Election, Political Theory, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. steve says:

    Isn’t the tough guy/gangster image that most leaders of the cults of personality try to project? It certainly seems to be most common among the authoritarian group. Certainly part of that is opposing the elites, even if the cult leader was driven to school in his mother’s Rolls Royce and went to private schools and inherited millions and never did a day of manual labor in their life. You just have to project that image to an audience that wants to believe. Anyway, still think it’s a cult of personality and Klein and Ganz have just pointed out the personality most likely to fill the role.

    Otherwise, yes politics has become more obscene. I think that comes and goes in our history. Maybe it is worse right now because the obscene people used to live more on the margins and now they are in front.


  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    Can we avoid, please, the tyranny of the binary? Yes, of course it’s pissed-off losers who want to project macho defiance. And yet it is still, clearly and unmistakably, a cult of personality. Where do you think cult members come from? From well-adjusted, successful, psychologically-sound individuals? Fucked-up kids join cults to spite their parents. Fucked-up adults much the same, to spite whoever, to distance themselves, to defy, to label themselves, to attract attention, to have a home and be surrounded by other losers in the magical thinking belief that a community of losers are not still, losers.

    Is there a similarity between people who join cults and criminals who join gangs? No duh. Weak people follow. Weak people surrender their will to another. Beta males believe if they submit to a sufficiently alpha male that they acquire some of that big dick energy. Weak men in particular need a hierarchy, a slot they can fit into.

    The people who worship Trump today worshipped a cruel and punitive version of Jesus before switching to Trump. They are resentful, angry, self-pitying and narcissistic, like maladjusted teenagers without the hormones. A changing world has devalued men qua men, and since most men have nothing to hang their egos on but their maleness, it’s a problem.

    Since long, long before I started hanging out at OTB I was telling anyone who’d listen that men were feeling displaced, made redundant, deprived in their view, of all that made them men. And the response was either, ‘bullshit men have all the power,’ or, ‘so what, who cares?’ And I would respond that you ought to care about large numbers of disaffected men because men are fucking dangerous. Men turn bad very easily, and when men go bad what do they turn to? Self-destruction and/or violence. Fentanyl and Donald Trump. Either path is the obliteration of a self no longer seen as worth anything.

    And no, I don’t have a solution because there isn’t one.

  3. @Michael Reynolds:

    And no, I don’t have a solution because there isn’t one.

    The snarky side of me wants to note that we have commenter on here who lately has been telling people that unless they have a solution they have to accept the status quo on a pretty big and complex contemporary problem. 😉

    (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).

    The actually sincere part of me would say that as a male, and the father of three adult males, the solution is learning to treat human beings equally, regardless of gender (or other differentiators), and being willing to understand that being male should not equal being in charge.

  4. drj says:

    This strikes me as quite insightful and is a better metaphor than saying that he is a religious figure to his followers

    For what it is worth, I think Trump is pretty much a cult leader (at least to his hardcore followers) because he seen by them as a unique, irreplaceable* savior.

    Salvation is a concept that can be applied to this world, too,** not necessarily only to the next.

    Trump is promising his version of salvation-in-this-world (i.e., “MAGA”) to his followers. And he is the only one who can deliver it.

    And because he is so unique and irreplaceable, he gets anointed as God’s chosen, which means there is a religious component to his persona, too.

    Still, his followers will be rewarded in this world, when the “true” America (as it once was, and as it always should be) will be eventually restored – of course, with the women, the blacks, and the big-city folk once and forever in their proper place.

    It’s almost an eschatological promise. In any case, not politics as usual.

    * Which is why DeSantis fell short, despite being at least as much as an asshole as Trump.

    ** E.g., the classless, communist utopia promised by Lenin/Stalin, Hitler’s thousand-year empire, or even Charles Manson’s post-race war society where the Manson Family would basically rule the world.

  5. Mister Bluster says:

    @drj:..of course, with the women, the blacks, and the big-city folk once and forever in their proper place.

    That would be the cemetery.

    How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?”

  6. Skookum says:

    I have been listening to the Great Courses seminar on the the history of Western Civilization taught by Robert Bucholz, DPh. He begins by discussing the Great Chain of Being and the upheaval when it is broken.

    I had a aha! moment when I thought of the threats that those at the top of the Great Chain of Being must have perceived over the last 50 years. Progress to help those caught up in systemic sexism, racism, and bigotry directed at non-binary genders and non-traditional marriage has increased competition for jobs and social status among white males and undermined that social control of conservative religious doctrine.

    Is adoration of Trump and toying with authoritarianism to gain control is last gasp to stay at the top of the chain?

    So how do we understand those whose self-esteem is based upon entitlement without merit and keeping “others” in a state of lesser economic, social, and spiritual well-being? In my less optimistic days, I think things won’t get better until an entire generation dies off–if western civilization and liberal ideals, including democracy, can last that long.

    And that leads me to think of Netflix’s Turning Point series on the Cold War and Putin and Russia’s long struggle for democracy. Will the Russian Great Chain of Being ever evolve into democracy?


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