Berkeley Conversations panel discusses growth, impact of Trumpism

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Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons
During a virtual Berkeley Conversations panel, five speakers reflected on the emergence and effects of Trumpism in the United States. One of the topics the panelists discussed was the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Gage Skidmore under CC BY SA 2.0 .)

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Months after former president Donald Trump lost his bid to reelection, five UC Berkeley professors addressed the implications and impacts of the Trump presidency during a virtual Berkeley Conversations event Friday.

Named “Trumpism and its Discontents,” the conversation followed the five speakers’ involvement in writing a book of the same name. They discussed why Trumpism gained massive traction among Americans and how it has affected the United States.

The event was sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute, among other institutions, and included Osagie Obasogie, panel moderator and professor of bioethics in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program and campus School of Public Health; Ann Keller, campus associate professor of health politics and policy; Zeus Leonardo, campus Graduate School of Education professor; john a. powell, director of the Othering and Belonging Institute; and Catherine Albiston, campus professor of law and sociology.

The panelists began by reflecting on their reactions to the U.S. Capitol insurrection, which took place Jan. 6. While they noted that the event was shocking to observe, they pointed out that it was “not a surprise” to them.

“Folks who breached the building and putting their feet up on (Nancy) Pelosi’s desk — it’s all very, very much shocking,” Leonardo said. “I tried to resist the temptation to feel that way because, in a sense, why should we be surprised at all?”

Leonardo later analyzed the idea of colorblindness, in which people avoid speaking explicitly about race while still promoting racial discrimination. Obasogie asserted that Trump is emblematic of a “post-colorblind” era.

According to Obasogie, when Trump was president, his explicitly racist remarks would be cleaned up with “colorblind language” by his defenders. As a result, people were able to rationalize otherwise irrational thoughts about race relations in the United States, Obasogie added.

Additionally, powell noted that while instances of discrimination tend to be blamed on individuals, the core of the issue is with group dominance.

“In the group dominance discourse, we can’t really imagine groups actually not dominating,” powell said. “You have the Proud Boys saying, ‘We will not be replaced by Jews.’ I can’t remember Jews saying they want to replace the Proud Boys, but there’s anxiety.”

Albiston added that Trumpism has drastically changed the conversations around sexual harassment.

According to Albiston, it has caused the “re-sexualizing” of sexual harassment to be more about individuals’ behavior rather than of structural inequality, as well as “devaluing” the harms of sexual harassment.

Keller noted that during the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump could have used American volunteerism, or the idea that Americans do not want to be told what to do unless by the group they are affiliated with, to his favor.

“Trump had an opportunity to say, ‘I’m going to be the crisis president that leads us through this,’” Keller said. “Even people who didn’t want to see the economy shut down or were sort of reluctant to shelter in place would have followed him into that.”

Keller added that moving into the post-Trump era, President Joe Biden has the opportunity to lead through example by showing hate groups that their actions are “unpatriotic” and modeling for leaders across the political spectrum.

Contact Karen Vo at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @karenvo_DC.