One of the fascinating things about FAKE NEWS and the attendant debate about bias, lying, facts and information is the incredible relevance of so-called “classic” anthropology in our current moment. For my money, Levi-Strauss has been particularly important for my ethnographic work with the highly combustible rhetoric and action of the American Right. For the past two years, I’ve been doing ethnographic fieldwork with Trump supporters, specifically white nationalists, but also everyday individuals with different investments in Trump as a symbol and idea concretized into a body. As anthropologists (and other assorted ethnographers) comment on the political milieu in the US, I have been shocked by the shallow, simplified assumptions about how the Right operates. “Ideology” is such an unsatisfying shorthand, which assumes so much. Here, I’d like to take off from Andria Timmer’s post over at Savage Minds about who George Soros, the Right’s [current] favorite punching bag, actually is. Here, I want to argue that for Trump supporters of all different stripes, it doesn’t actually matter who Soros is or what he does. George Soros – and the same thing might be said about FACTS or NEWS more widely – is something that “grassroots” conservative activists think with, not about. Fake news, in other words, is about ritual and a political cosmology.
“You see them,” Sam said pointing at the Anti-Fascist (AntiFa) activists at this rally. “They all live in their parents’ basement. They dress like shit because they’re losers. The only money they have is the money Soros gives them to make it appear like there’s protests. There are no protests. Everyone is really happy that Donald Trump is president. We’re here speaking for all of those people that are being erased by Fake News and the Liberal Media.”
We were standing feet away from a stage where pro-Trump minorities spoke on a stage sponsored by Gays for Trump. This was part of a nationwide march held to demonstrate that “everyone, gays AND minorities, support our President [Trump], each of us, as individuals, are here for Trump” as one of the rally’s organizers told me. There were approximately 100-200 people in attendance at this rally, which was part of a nation-wide March4Trump project.
When the rally began, one of the earliest “volunteer” speakers was a Latinx woman who, through various Kickstarter, GoFundMe and other micro-grant platforms, has traveled to Trump Rallies in the mid-Atlantic region. Some of the pro-Trump rally participants knew her, and proudly boasted that they helped support her travels. She stood on the stage, shouting “CNN, COVER THIS! COME HERE CNN! SEE US! WE ARE MEXICAN! AND WE LOVE TRUMP! WE ARE HERE!” After a few other local speakers, a commentator from World Net Daily, paid by his employer to attend, told the Trump rally participants about the “global resistance” against “Barack Hussein Obama,” who, according to a British speaker who received “help” to attend the rally, tried to oppress the British Working Class by interfering in the Brexit vote. For the main show, then, a gay Filipino man that specialized in Conservative and Patriotic fashion, paid through funds raised by donations, introduced an African American woman who quickly became one of the AltRight’s pop music stars – who had been paid a “speaker fee” and provided accommodation through the sale of $400 VIP tickets to a lunch at the Trump hotel.
And so, it appears, that for all of their consternation about how George Soros is using money to create simulacra of diverse resistance to the Trump presidency, it is actually a reflection of the Right’s uneasiness with their own practices. The easiest thing to do here would be to reference the obvious postcolonial psychosocial commentators – Memmi, Fanon, Cesaire – and then we could head home. In denouncing the pay scheme of Soros, the Trump supporters, AltRight or White Nationalist or Otherwise, both project and denounce the excesses necessitated by capitalism as they structure their political ideals contra their ethical commitments to democracy. But this critique misses some crucial points in the process. They’re points that often get skipped when we fail, intellectually, to “show our work” – to borrow a phrase from my elementary school math teacher.
If you actually talk to activists on the Right, it will quickly become clear that it doesn’t actually matter who Soros actually is, materially. Many don’t know him beyond his reputation crafted by various AltRight and Alternative news sources, which emerged from the Conservative Politicians’ derision of “LIBERAL MEDIA BIAS.” Soros’ actions are not important. His emotions are not important. Not even his convictions, as they are practiced, are important. To put it another way, Soros is not poetry – in which each signifying element is crucial to the cultural production – but mythology, patterned structures that are both product and productive of a social group’s mentalité. “Who fucking cares? He’s a liberal shit bag, and he’s trying to overthrow the world’s governments,” Sam told me as we talked about the strange parallels between Soros’ and Trump’s liberal modus operandi. “It’s in his nature. When Liberals wake up, they’ll see that. I get it, I’d like to live in an ideal world. But we don’t. We need authority and we need military and we need police, because idealism is dangerous. That’s why we do this kind of thing [rallies]. Come join us to make America great again. You have to believe in America, and stop trying to change it with Diversity. That’s killing us.” He was visibly upset, yelling over the AntiFa protestors chanting “Lock him up” – a commandeering of Trump’s own protest chant targeted at Hillary Clinton. “The rest of them turn out like Soros’ little bitches.” He stood on his toes, yelling into the crowd of anti-Trump protestors, “Soros’ money’ll do that to you, huh bitches?!” I jokingly responded, “Tell them how you really feel.” Sam responded: “Rotten pieces of shit. They’re poisoning America. Thanks Soros.” Oh, hello Levi-Strauss.
Raw, Cooked, Rotten
Just as the cook moves food from the category of nature to culture, ensuring it’s socialization through a repertoire/language of unconscious and conscious strategies, political rallies for AltRight activists like Sam function as a ritual of transforming political ignorance (raw-ness) into political consciousness and rationality (cooked-ness). But, as Levi-Strauss argues regarding myths of cooking, the cognitive structure for thinking through transformation is not a simple binary, but constituted by a culinary triangle: raw/cooked/rotten, which involves the double opposition between nature/culture and elaborated/unelaborated. Thus, cooked food is food moved from nature to culture through elaboration, and the rotten is two moments in a temporal sequence that begins with raw and fails to undergo elaboration, thus going bad. But, importantly, this process is not only about sustenance, but also a core set of myths that constitute senses of dangerous states (shout out to Mary Douglas!). Similarly, for Sam and other activists, Soros and the “rotten pieces of shit” reflect the danger of refusal to undergo elaboration from the raw form of “idealists.” That is why “trying to change it with diversity” will kill us. To become a safe thing, Liberals need to “come join us” (undergo cooking) and be socialized into an unmarked opposite of “rotten pieces of shit.”
What this example also reveals, though, is that the “unelaboration” that transforms the raw into the rotten is in fact also a social process. Levi-Strauss doesn’t believe that any experiential process can happen in isolation without human thought or practice. Soros’ money, here, is the agentive refusal to elaborate. “They’re poisoning America. Thanks Soros.”
And what of being “pieces of shit?” This is one might be a stretch, but for fun, here we go: In The Jealous Potter, Levi-Strauss attempts to place shit within the cosmological order of Amerindians in South America. The blowpipe, Levi-Strauss argues, is an instrument surrounded by various myths that are themselves permutations of a moral philosophy of the body as a set of tubes: propelled by breath from the mouth, poisoned darts are shot upward to kill higher beings qua animals in trees, that fall to the ground, and then get cooked and eaten and thus put into the body, coming out the other end as shit. The tale, then, is one of a metaphysics of how what seems cooked and done can become either once more raw (as fertilizer, through proper disposal) or rotten (as danger, through ignorance). Similarly, conservatives like Sam understand their vote as the dart shot forth from political voice (i.e. what Sam calls “speaking” and other theorists call “voice”). The vote was shot “upward” into the hierarchies of institutional government, killing “big” or “liberal” government. We can see it in the headlines: “Is Liberal Democracy Dead…,” “An ‘Obama Era’ Crashes…” “The Catastrophic Fall of the Democratic Party,” “The Fall of House Obama…” And Obama’s quickly captured soundbite from his final speech, “We rise or fall as one,” engages this cosmological order. The dead neoliberal centrism was then consumed in the ritual feast of the inaugural lunch by the presidential avatar of the body politic, which was then celebrated through the inaugural parade. While never fully realized, liberals then become either the nutrient-rich fertilizer necessary to “make America Great Again,” or rotten and dangerous shit (i.e. “diversity is killing us.”) left out of place by Sorosian conspiracy.
Really, Soros is not the only conspiracy figure available – although, they do as a group seem to consistently and fascinatingly revolve around anti-Semitic, Islamaphobic mythemes that confusingly articulate Zionism with an Islamic conspiracy. Soros is only the one chosen for various functions at the moment. And, as Levi-Strauss would contend, the patterning remains the same: non-Christian with money takes over government, tricks Liberals into irrationality that benefits wealthy manipulators using another religious pawn, destroy America. Here again is Levi-Strauss’ argument about how myths are not poems in themselves, as the patterns matter more than the pieces.
But what is also fascinating about this mythology is that it functions to disavow the process by which minority Trump supporters are a product (and productive) of the same monetary transactional processes that somehow renders liberals rotten — to return to our psychosocial commentators. This is the contradiction of political ideology, but also the function of mythology. For Sam and his peers, the myth of Soros forms the bridge between what they feel to be true and what they rationalize to be true. Soros, in short, is simply part of the operation by which feeling and thought are statically fluid, sloshing about but never spilling over the rims of the glass. If the paid speakers of this rally do not resonate in the Soros-ian myth of raw and cooked politics, it is because experience and/or feeling makes them feel cooked. It is this dimension that makes Trump supporters feel part of a community. “Each of us, as individuals, are here for Trump,” to re-quote the rally organizer. As Levi-Strauss writes, the radical individualism of libertarian politics is in all actuality impossible. We can either choose to be “we” or not exist. “We” has an infinite number of permutations, and humans do not do well with infinity. it compromises our socialized instinct to be control freaks. Myth, and specifically Soros in this case, is part of the apparatus through which Trump supporters make a clear distinction about who is American qua safe political actor, and who is “a rotten piece of shit.” Because, like eating the right food, it is a matter of life and death.
Best to end with some caveats. We know, for instance, that the myth of Soros is not an organic myth, but a mechanical one, produced by a quarter of the media industry that profits from selling the eyeballs of conservative readers to advertisers (cf, political economist Dallas Smythe). What is crucial to examine, however, at least for anthropologists, is the importing of cooking metaphors to the rehearsal/reproduction of this myth during political rituals that seek to define the TRUE populist qua Trump cosmology (or the populist qua Trump cosmology as true). Similarly, I have no answer for what we do with this understanding, or how to intervene in the ritual of news- and facts- making. Develop counter-mythologies a la Barthes? Create distractive affective systems a la DeBord? Imagine new empathetic networks that dampen the pleasures of oppression a la Bourdieu? One thing is for certain, we can’t afford to just “understand” this problem. Hopefully we can chat about some possibilities in the comments section.