Trump and the new version of identity politics

There are many things I don’t feel like I fully understand. The concept of identity politics is one of them. Perhaps it’s not that I don’t understand it as much as it confuses me because it seems thrown around so much that it’s kind of meaningless to me. But for many years I’ve thought of identity politics as a term used to describe the way that politicians try to attract voters of specific identities. The way that democrats have tried to appeal to LGBTQ voters or African-American voters, and the way that republicans have tried to appeal to military members and people who are very religious. When I think of identity politics, it’s about appealing to people with these specific labels being part of their identity. But I think the idea can also be thought of in the converse: that support for a specific politician becomes part of a person’s identity. A shorthand for what’s important to them and where they stand on issues.

Some politicians clearly do this better than others, but it seems to be such a key component of the support for Trump. For many Trump supporters, their support of Trump, being on team Trump, voting for Trump, is part of who they are and who they want others to see them as. Perhaps more so than with any other candidate in my lifetime. This is perceived as an enthusiasm gap, discussions of which often focus on lawn signs, bumper stickers, and flags. Of course lawn signs and bumper stickers have been around forever (not literally, sorry to lapse from my usual literalism), but the flags feel very Trump-specific. Sure, there were Obama flags, but these were reserved for campaign headquarters and maybe the most enthusiastic supporters out there (the ones who the rest of society might look at as a little nutty). A lawn sign seems normal. A bumper sticker is fine. But in normal times, if I saw a house like the one in the picture here (and there are several that have large Trump displays like this in my neck of the woods), I would assume that the person who lived there was working for the campaign.

But today is different. Trump has embedded himself into the identity of many of his supporters, and he’s done so in a way that supersedes party identity. Indeed, many Trump supporters will boast about being democrats their whole lives or being independent, unlike the democrat or republican “sheep” out there. For some, this looks like an enthusiasm gap, and it might be part of that, but it seems that independent of enthusiasm to vote, it’s really a stark difference in how a politician has managed to become part of the identities of many of his supporters.

I wonder if this is how things will be moving forward. Will there be other candidates or elected officials who engrain themselves so deeply into the identity of so many people that they are moved to wave a flag to show who they are. How much a part of our identity will support for individuals become? It’s hard enough to get a handle on who we actually are as humans, and what words identify us. What words do I want to define me? My twitter bio says that I’m a “political junkie, behavioral neuroscience professor, father of three (not always in that order),” but when I think of who I am, I’m also a husband and a runner and a guitar player and a liberal and a Jew and a West Wing fan.

Just for fun, I asked my wife to describe herself and she said, “mom, wife, lawyer, friend.” Not a bad list, but when I think about us, as anecdotes, and what we display about our identities to the world, the ways we identify ourselves to others are sometimes subtle, and sometimes less subtle.

Focusing on my wife for a minute, she (sometimes) wears a wedding band, so she nonverbally tells people that she’s a wife. She dresses nicely to give off the impression that she’s well put-together (upper to upper middle class). She talks a lot about our kids, making it clear in the first few minutes of meeting her that she’s a mom. She sometimes wears a Buffalo Bills shirt (especially on a game day, like today), but I don’t think she’d ever say that being a Buffalo Bills fan is enough of who she is to mention it. She drives a Toyota Highlander, which feels like suburbs to me, but somewhat unassuming, which is exactly what she wanted. Also interesting is that she’s very liberal, and feels very strongly about her political positions, but has almost no desire to share those opinions with others. She has a separate social media account that she uses to vent about politics, but keeps it anonymous and totally separate from the vast majority of people she knows. She hates political lawn signs and in the 26 years since we first kissed, she’s never had a political bumper sticker on her car. I thought she might break that streak with Hillary, but it didn’t happen.

Then there’s me. I do have a sticker on my car: a small circle with “26.2” that identifies me as a marathon runner. My car itself, a BMW, probably says something about me, and I’ve noticed that whenever somebody says something about my car I quickly pivot to it being the most affordable in the BMW line, and also super fun to drive. Which makes me think that even though I love driving it, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want it associated with my identity. I own several political t-shirts: one from the Kerry-Edwards campaign, a few from the Obama campaigns, one from the Hillary campaign, and one from the Biden campaign…but I haven’t worn any of them, I just own them. I share my wife’s dislike of lawn signs and bumper stickers, although I did have an Obama magnet on the side of my car from about July 2008 until mid-November 2008. I clearly wanted people to identify me as an Obama voter. I’m very outspoken on social media and in the past, have been more likely to turn the conversation to politics. I shy away from that, in person, these days, but still very much like to have conversations about politics online. You probably don’t have to talk with me for too long before I mention that I’m a professor, and when asked “what do you teach,” I’m pretty quick to say that I don’t teach much, but that I run a research lab (at least for now…struggling with the possibility of that changing, for several reasons, some outside of my control, is weighing on me these days). In any event, being a scientist is certainly part of the identity that I want others to see. Same with running. “I’m a distance runner” comes out of my mouth plenty.

I don’t have a crystal ball, but it’s hard to imagine that if Obama-supporter didn’t become part of my identity, that being a supporter of any politician will. But who knows. Maybe I’ll have a flag flying from my front door some day and will look back at this, or forget it exists. The great thing about this blog is that I get to see how my views change (or don’t change).

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