American Journal of Cultural Sociology

, Volume 5, Issue 3, pp 460–480 | Cite as

Legitimacy Troubles and the Performance of Power in the 2016 US Presidential Election

Original Article


In this article, I pursue the themes of newness and rupture as representing manifestations of legitimacy troubles in a host of America’s political and civil spheres, and in and amongst its democratic institutions. I present findings from the literature on legitimacy that indicate, despite much commentary to the contrary, a Trump like-character is not anathema to American symbolic representations of legitimate authority. Finally, I offer a brief cultural pragmatic analysis of the election and specify what performances of national identity and claims to leadership look like under these conditions.


legitimacy performance cultural pragmatics Donald Trump elections democracy 

All US presidential elections are unique in some ways. One of the hallmark features of the 2016 election is just how thoroughly it departed from what had become late-modern America’s “politics as usual”. A common refrain amongst commentators was that the old playbook of campaign tactics was being shredded, and that the US was experiencing the creation of a new mode of politics. References to campaigns’ and candidates’ “unprecedented” features (Kurtzleben, 2016) created a drumbeat against which the election narrative marched relentlessly forward toward Election Day, lending the proceedings an atmosphere of impending rupture (Wagner-Pacifici and Tavory, 2017). Many of the established means of doing campaign politics continued to animate the election, of course. Yet oddities abounded in the election’s cast of characters, its electorate, and in its parties, and these differences portended that change was afoot.

In this article, I pursue the themes of newness and rupture as representing manifestations of legitimacy troubles in a host of America’s political and civil spheres, and in and amongst its democratic institutions. I present findings from the literature on legitimacy which indicate, despite much commentary to the contrary, that a Trump-like character is not anathema to American symbolic representations of legitimate authority. Finally, I offer a brief cultural pragmatic analysis of the election and specify what performances of national identity and claims to leadership look like under these conditions.

Cultural Pragmatics and Political Legitimacy

Cultural pragmatics represents political processes as greatly influenced by performances, which are themselves shaped by interactions between six conceptual realms: actors, audiences, collective representations, the means of symbolic production, power, and mise-en-scène (Alexander, 2004). These concepts cover substantial epistemological terrain – action, culture, materiality, power, mediation – and open to the scope of explanation a wide array of potential contributing factors and determinants.

Actors and audiences, for instance, bring to the fore issues of agency, normativity, and interpretive autonomy. Collective representations create space for analysing cultural forms such as codes, narratives, symbols, and discourses. The means of symbolic production bring materiality and mediation into the analytical matrix. From financial- to symbolic- to network-, varieties of power are given explanatory space. And the concept “mise-en-scène” opens to investigation the intersections of staging, mediation, and the contingencies of liveness.

Given this range of concepts, cultural pragmatics allows us to analyse with great flexibility shifting relations between these conceptual realms’ empirical referents at each stage of an event’s development. Put another way, cultural pragmatics does not insist that the determinant – or combination and arrangement of determinants – of one stage necessarily explains the entirety of an event’s outcome. A form of power may account for much of a particular phase’s outcome, yet a cultural pragmatic framework does not restrict the researcher to explaining the event’s entirety through the same prism of power. Subsequent phases may still be found to be determined by forces operating in one or more of the other five conceptual realms.

To date, cultural pragmatics has excelled at theorizing performative power, which it conceptualizes as a cultivated capacity for creating and performing interpretations and narratives that are widely accepted as accurate, reasonable, and desirable. While performative power is associated with actors, legitimacy is typically defined in terms of citizens’ “belief in the rightness” of repositories of political authority. As such, legitimacy moves us from actors to audiences, thereby opening, in the interpretive space between these two conceptual realms, a strategic research site.

Weber’s comparative-historical treatment of the means by which power may be translated into varieties of authority has loomed large over the topic of legitimacy. Since the mid-twentieth century, analysts of political power and civil society have contributed a number of significant revisions of Weber’s work and have made innovations that allow for more accurate representations of the era’s conditions of troubled legitimacies.

In The Civic Culture, Almond and Verba (1963) argued that legitimacy was a collective feeling based on value consensus and widespread sentiments of trust. The work became a lodestar in the consensus versus conflict battles of the 1960s and 1970s (see also, Lipset, 1959). In terms of concept development, legitimacy flourished in the 1970s when figures like Mann (1970), Habermas (1973), and Lyotard (1979) breathed new life into it with, respectively, theories of pragmatic role acceptance, legitimation crisis, and master narratives splintering into language games. Mann (1970, p. 473) argued that Almond and Verba’s formulation of legitimacy “does not exist” in the empirical world, and suggested that legitimacy instead represented pragmatic role acceptance combined with a fraction of false consciousness. Habermas (1973, 1979) and Lyotard (1979) both argued that the sources and foundations of legitimacy had grown troubled (Habermas, 1973; Lyotard, 1979), but they offered opposing theories of legitimacy’s future. Habermas (1979) reiterated the concept’s connection to consensus formation, arguing that both are grounded in human capacity for communicative reason. Lyotard (1979), on the other hand, argued that postmodern legitimacy was rooted in paralogy, the very elision of consensus formation.

Their preoccupation with legitimacy is unsurprising, considering that these theorists were writing in the wake of world wars, which had given way to the Cold War and the regional wars it spawned; during the transition from industrial to post-industrial economic systems; and during a period racked by economic, energy, social and political crises. Soon, however, the concept “power” exploded onto the scene in the social sciences and humanities, displacing the topic of legitimacy, or people’s belief in the rightness of authority, to the periphery.

Despite the turn to power, figures such as Barker (1990, 2001), Beetham (1991), and Merelman (1989, 1998) offered significant correctives to the vestiges of strict Weberianism by reformulating the concept through developments in cultural structuralism, Goffmanian interactionism, new theories of identity, and by shifting the analytical frame of reference from political leaders toward interpretations of citizen audiences. Recently, figures such as Alexander (2010) and Saward (2010) have infused the concept with new life by approaching it through the register of social performance.

Troubled Legitimacies

The 2016 US election was replete with signs of troubled legitimacy. For the closest approximation to the contemporary election cycle, we have to return to the 1960s and early 1970s, the period to which Habermas and Lyotard were responding with theories of legitimation crisis, communicative reason, and paralogy.

During that era, institutional and symbolic boundaries in the US strained under tremendous forces, when ambitious domestic legislation (e.g. the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the War on Poverty programs), a devastating war abroad, and invigorated social movements sparked the shifting of political identities, an expansion of the civil sphere, and a reordering of the electoral map. Newspapers, radios, and television sets mediated the experience, beaming images and narratives from civil rights stagings, anti-war protests, and political campaign events. Citizens were shown uniting in common-cause, but also as engaging in violent clashes with other citizens as well as with state and federal authorities.

The period produced significant civil triumphs, but it also witnessed the profound erosion of political legitimacy. Grotesque discrepancies between state and press representations of the Vietnam War produced the “credibility gap”, while Watergate capped the period with a blow to the legitimacy of the nation’s symbolic and institutional center – the presidency. In the years that followed, polls traced significant declines in citizens’ belief in the rightness of the state’s authority to interpret accurately and narrate truthfully the country’s identity, status, and future.

When we turn to the contemporary era, we find a massive economic crisis, the state intervening to bailout financial elites and corporate structures, and, amidst reports of extreme inequality and sluggish wage and job growth, movements like Occupy Wall Street rising to protest the privileging of the one percent at the expense of the ninety-nine. We see a decade and a half of US military intervention in the Middle East. And we see the election of the first African American president being challenged by libertarian, ethno-nationalist, and “Birther” movements.

Redolent of that prior period, the 2016 presidential election became a conduit through which similarly destabilizing and transformative forces found animation. From the beginning of the campaign season in spring 2015, televisions, tablets, mobile devices, and newspapers disseminated images of terrorist attacks, shootings in which police played alternately perpetrators and victims, new iterations of civil rights protests, and sporadic incidents of profoundly uncivil behaviour occurring both in and outside of campaign events.

Against this backdrop, the election catalysed changes within both major political parties as well as a reshuffling of the electoral map. It evidenced an erosion of elite power, and signalled that an expanding arena of political media was implicated in this defusion (Alexander, 2004), or the troubling of legitimacies. It demonstrated that public sentiment about, and means of engagement with, election processes were changing, and that the norms of political campaigning, and the expectations of nominee behaviour and discourse, were in flux.

Facts and Lies

The Watergate scandal produced the iconic question, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” Asked by Senator Howard Baker, a member of the Senate investigative committee, the question was an appeal to facts and rational deliberation. It sought to reduce all the complexity and drama of the Watergate affair to a tangible, specifiable essence. The question’s power stemmed from its attempt to resist precisely the fact of its opposite: namely, that the facts could not be agreed upon, nor could their meanings or their significance.

The Watergate scandal exacerbated a crisis of political legitimacy. Yet the facts of the Watergate break-in and cover-up alone did not determine that scandal’s outcome; nor did they provide the seedbed for the dimensions of national solidarity and degrees of political legitimacy that eventually accrued in the scandal’s wake. Facts and rational deliberation were not irrelevant to these outcomes. What carried the day was that in presenting their facts, the scandal’s players constructed a highly dramatic social performance in which, even as fierce opponents, they appealed to a shared reservoir of cultural codes and narratives to expound arguments in support of their political allies (Alexander, 1988).

The 2016 election demonstrated that facts were once again eluding consensus. The condition grew so entrenched and widespread that a chorus of commentators diagnosed the US as having entered a “post-truth” era (Roller, 2016; Davies, 2016; Wang, 2016). Throughout the year, polls reported that staggering numbers of Americans did not agree on what many had believed were basic conventional facts. For instance, to point to just a few well-known examples, reports indicated that Americans disagreed about the existence and causes of climate change (Saad and Jones, 2016); they disagreed about where President Obama was born (Dropp and Nyhan, 2016) and which religion he practiced (Frizell, 2015); and they disagreed about the potential sources and prevalence of voter fraud and disenfranchisement (Guskin and Clement, 2016).

Lies, liar, and lying were dominant signifiers used to describe the political opposition. Prone to caution, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton demonstrated a tendency to omit, elide, or distort damaging but pertinent truths. Prone to impulse, Republican candidate Donald Trump lied so frequently that the practice seemed to be a combination of strategy and habit, and prompted theories ranging from psychological disorders to strategic “gas-lighting”. The candidates registered historically unprecedented unfavorability ratings (Enten, 2016). Both suffered enormous trust deficits, and were routinely accused of secrecy, misdirection, and mendacity, and of lacking the temperament required for meeting the baseline threshold of suitability for office. Even the wrong, misleading, or outright lies of past presidencies – Obama’s “you can keep your doctor”, George W. Bush’s “weapons of mass destruction”, and Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations” – were resurrected, weaponized, and deployed to pollute the opposition.

The splintering effects of a dis-consensus on facts in Watergate were mitigated by broad commitment to an underlying cultural structure. In the discourse section below, we find little comfort regarding recourse to a shared cultural structure, one that transcends the exaggerated differences in contemporary partisan civic epistemologies (see Kreiss, 2017).

Rigged system

Delegitimation practices are central to political campaigns. Candidates must cultivate auras of their own legitimacy while simultaneously portraying their political opposition as unfit and unprepared to assume the mantle of leadership. Most delegitimation discourse is directed at the candidates themselves. In 2016, however, the targets of delegitimation narratives proliferated, and incorporated into election discourse dimensions of populism (Mudde, 2014; Mueller, 2014) not seen since Ross Perot’s third-party challenge in 1992.

In 2016, public trust in the modern federal government hovered at record historical lows, or at levels lower than even those registered at the nadir of the post-Vietnam and Watergate period. A slew of Pew (2016; Fingerhut, 2015) and Gallup (2015; Clifton, 2016) studies indicated that sentiments toward public institutions, political actors, and media were at historical lows. According to surveys dating to 1992, signs of partisanship and political animosity, or in Pew Research’s terms, “frustration, fear and anger towards the political opposition”, were as negative as they have ever been (Chokshi, 2016). Political news media institutions and actors are not unfamiliar targets of delegitimation discourse, of course. Yet one thing that made the 2016 election exceptional was the degree to which delegitimation efforts succeeded in reducing the institution’s stature. In mid-September, Gallup released a poll indicating that the “American public’s trust in the media in 2016 has fallen to its lowest point since at least 1972” (Swift, 2016).1

In this context, candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders found the symbol of a “rigged system” immensely powerful. “The system is rigged against you”, both figures argued, wherein the “system” signified a host of sites ranging from the political, media, and economic elite, party leadership, international institutions and partnership agreements, and market capitalism.

Questions about the legitimacy of the vote found animation in multiple narratives asserting inflated votes, suppressed votes, and vote tampering from outside influences. While not entirely foreign in contemporary American presidential election narratives, the degree to which such accusations and theories were given prominence in the election’s major public events was unprecedented in post-Watergate history.

Candidate Trump’s effort to cast doubt about the legitimacy of the voting results represented the signature exchange of one of the election’s most watched events, that of the third and final presidential debate. Asked if he would accept the results of the election, candidate Trump replied, “I’ll tell you at the time – I’ll keep you in suspense, ok?” In a poll conducted following the event, NBC News found that 45% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters “might not accept the election as legitimate if their candidate doesn’t win”, a figure that included 18% who said they would “definitely not accept the outcome” (Hartig et al, 2016).

Seeking to create conceptual space between legitimacy and legitimation crisis, Richard Merelman (1998, p. 355) developed the term “legitimalaise” to represent just such tensions, or instances in which “the public becomes sharply divided over whether supposedly rational/legal institutions respect rational/legal principles in practice” (p. 356). Merelman examined public opinions about rational/legal institutions, such as whether the legal system was perceived to be procedurally fair (pp. 355–356), and if state bureaucracies were interpreted as being efficient, impartial, and effective (pp. 358–359). He concluded that, though “rational/legal principles of legitimacy do not provide justification for a number of contemporary American political institutions” (p. 362), the legitimalaise this discrepancy produces also stimulates “structural innovation”, or “far reaching, continuous change in the design and operations of political institutions” (p. 362). While Merelman associates legitimacy troubles with structural change, he is careful to note that the innovations the troubles provoke may not, of necessity, enhance and improve democratic practices and institutions. In fact, the troubles may channel their energies into non-political and non-civil spheres, by sparking flights into escape and fantasy through simulation and entertainment, or by invigorating concerns over religious and moral purity, for instance. In this light, it is possible to see the rise and success of Trump in 2016 as a product of just such conditions and energies.

The election was a political and civil society process (Alexander, 2006; Perrin, 2014) unfolding during the latest incarnation of a legitimation crisis. Trump’s nomination and victory were as much a product of troubled legitimacies as it was the instigator of them. The 2016 election generated energies and stimulated civil and structural shifts, as Merelman’s work suggests. Rather than provoking flights away from and out of the political and civil spheres, however, these energies prompted the robust importation of non- and anti-civil representations and practices into these arenas. Candidate Trump organized these sentiments into a campaign script. Through his campaign performances, he turned a loose network of likeminded individuals into a movement, into a demographic, and into a constituency. Through his performances, Trump became a collective representation to those who shared these sentiments. He channelled their energies into a presidency.

Candidates, and leader-to-public relations

For the first time in US history, a woman helmed a major party ticket. For the first time in US history, a figure who has neither run for public office nor served in the armed forces sat atop the other. That neither one of these ‘firsts’ represented the most salient and unusual features of this election bolsters the interpretation that change was afoot.

Troubled legitimacies create favourable conditions for outsider political characters. Hillary Clinton’s foremost challenge for the Democratic nomination came from a non-Democrat; a long-time political independent who self-identified as a socialist and ran on a platform of political revolution. Donald Trump, on the other hand, defied all expectations by securing the Republican nomination well before Clinton managed her victory. The characters Trump vanquished on his path to the nomination also suggested instability and fluctuation in the political landscape. One of the best financed, most endorsed, and deeply networked candidates ever to run for the presidency was one of the first forced out of the race, unceremoniously, due to lack of popular support. It was not Jeb Bush, the son and brother of two former US presidents, who offered Trump his stiffest challenge. To the contrary, the party’s second place finisher was Ted Cruz, a figure who ran as an anti-establishment crusader. Yet despite his highly praised and far superior ground organization, Cruz was out-performed by Trump, the name-calling, insult-tweeting, celebrity billionaire demagogue who was deemed to embody one of 2016’s most celebrated character formations, that of a true anti-establishment outsider (see Berezin, 2017).

Through a structural analysis of advertisements, sitcoms, corporate organizational statements, and social studies and history texts, Merelman (1989, p. 485) identified mythologized individualism as a deep structural classification form running through US political culture. Merelman’s findings indicate that political legitimacy in America is heavily shaped by character relations: “Americans…object to large gaps between leaders and led” (p. 486), and they have an affection for portrayals of “political leaders as certainly no cleverer than other people, and often more stupid” (p. 490). Leaders must communicate that they are worthy and capable of inhabiting their positions of power, yet paradoxically they can “become statesmen only when they behave like everyone else; they must never allow their specialized roles to isolate them from the common urgings of the human heart” (p. 490). The discourse of legitimate political actors and relations in America is also organized by a “distrust of centralized power”, a “dislike of politicians”, and by an affection for tales of “social mobility for individuals in pursuit of personal success” (p. 486). Merelman’s findings conjure the anecdote Weber (1946, p. 110) invoked in “Politics as a Vocation” to represent Americans’ relations to their officeholders. Consistent with his theory that expansion of rational legal authority would displace cultural phenomena from the spheres that it penetrates, Weber characterized Americans’ sentiments about their administrators with the quote “We [Americans] prefer having people in office whom we can spit upon, rather than a caste of officials who spit upon us, as is the case with you [Europeans]”. While Weber held that such sentiments would yield to the professionalization of state administrators, the 2016 election makes it clear that collective representations of leaders-to-led relationships remain infused with symbolic charge.

Consider the 2016 cast of characters through three instances that garnered significant press and public attention during the campaign competition.

One: Candidate Bernie Sanders thrived in public rallies, on social media, and in online platforms. His campaign established its preferred sites of performance and exercised them with precision. A bird landed atop his lectern during a speech? His “army of coders” (Samuelsohn, 2016) created stills and GIFs of the moment, and as digital files, the event circulated through his network of supporters online, creating an instant meme of a serendipitous blessing by nature upon the political revolutionary.

Two: Candidate Clinton was a commanding debater, and her knowledge, expertise, and studied professionalism shined through in her performances in scheduled, televised events. Organic interactions with citizens in public spaces, however, proved troublesome for the campaign. For instance, Clinton attended the Independence Day parade in Gorham, New Hampshire, in 2015. Vanessa Williams (2015) opened her report of the event with this observation:

It wasn’t like A-list celebrities or pro ballers were being hounded by the paparazzi at Saturday’s Independence Day parade in Gorham, N.H. It was just Hillary Clinton and the workaday press corps that regularly follows her around.

So why did the Democratic presidential candidate’s campaign see fit to put up a rope line to keep reporters and photographers at bay while Clinton shook hands and greeted voters during an afternoon procession up Main Street?

Below photos of the roped-off candidate, Williams’ report continued:

A group of protesters followed her along the route shouting such sentiments as “What about Benghazi?” and “Show us your e-mails!”

As a result, Clinton’s campaign strategy for stepping outside the usual planned television format to create a more relaxed, public mise-en-scène became one of strategic avoidance.

Three: Like Sanders, candidate Trump thrived online and in staged rallies. In forming his political persona, Trump blended a narrative of personal success with one of identification with “the forgotten men and women” by distributing over Twitter and Instagram pictures of himself eating McDonalds while seated in his private plane. In almost comical fashion, he boasted about his cognitive superiority by making clumsy statements – “I know words, I have the best words”, or, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me”, or “I love the poorly educated” – all while speaking at a simpler “readability level” than both his immediate competitors and his presidential predecessors alike (Schumacher and Eskenazi, 2016; Moyer, 2016).

In short, Merelman’s findings illuminate the interpretive predilections (or symbolic charge) that allow for the accrual of legitimacy about a figure like Donald Trump, who presented himself as an individual who had dedicated his life to the pursuit of personal success, who channelled the dislike of politicians into a powerful laser beam of acrimony and disgust, and who maintained that he represented a levelling mechanism for erasing the hierarchy between the people and its government.


Pew Research (2016) reported finding in public sentiments about the election unprecedented levels of “frustration, fear and anger towards the political opposition”. In The Civic Culture, Almond and Verba (1963) argued that legitimacy was a collective feeling based on value consensus and widespread sentiments of trust. Mann (1970) used this formulation as a foil for charting an empirically informed theoretical space between value consensus, on the one hand, and cultural Marxism’s accounts of one-dimensional subjectivities, on the other. Mann concluded that, “whatever ‘legitimacy’ liberal democracy possess [sic] is not conferred upon it by value consensus, for this does not exist”. Instead, he argued, legitimacy is a façade that results when the dominated adopt a stance of “pragmatic role acceptance” to an unjust order, and whose displays of deference and nationalism represent a dimension of false consciousness that has been inculcated through techniques of “manipulative socialization” (p. 437).

Populist groundswells roiled the left and the right, with each manifesting expressions of staunch opposition to establishment figures and political, financial, media, and in some cases, scientific elites. Campaign events, particularly those staged by Sanders and Trump, garnered attention for the unusually passionate and vocal supporters they drew. Protestors drew increased attention. The Trump campaign inspired protestors to such feats as blocking access to his events and to staging disruptions from within them. Representatives of Black Lives Matter posed challenges to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in incidents that drew considerable media coverage. Both parties’ conventions witnessed performances of opposition not seen in decades. Sanders supporters disrupted the projection of Democratic Party solidarity by chanting “Sanders!” and booing attempts to celebrate Hillary Clinton’s incipient victory. While Ted Cruz’s “vote your conscience” convention speech failed to gain the sympathy of his immediate audience, his performance of opposition crystallized the Party’s deep divisions and reiterated the disaffection many Republican voters felt for their Party’s nominee.

Almond and Verba’s formulation of legitimacy based on consensus and widespread trust in one’s fellow countrypersons could not seem more distant. And yet it is in their formulation’s capacity to cultivate this idea, of this ideal, that we can glimpse some of the power of Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”, and its capacity for building feelings of identification, solidarity, and nostalgia amongst particular segments of the electorate. Mann’s formulation of pragmatic role acceptance mixed with false consciousness helps explain the 2016 election by emphasizing its opposite: that the support Trump and Sanders cultivated represented a refusal to perform in the normative political register, at least in terms of how these constituencies communicated their intentions and explained their actions. Yet as Merelman mentioned, movements designed to disrupt a “legitimate” order need not be seeking to promote and improve democratic institutions and practices.


Of the changes afoot in the election, the radical destabilization of the boundaries dictating legitimate political and civil discourse was the most unexpected and yet consequential. Donald Trump’s wilful activation of racist, orientalist, nationalist, sexist, and conspiratorial signs and narratives will remain a defining feature of the 2016 presidential election.

In the first Republican debate, in front of the largest television audience for a primary debate in US history, Trump opened his performance by naming the enemy: “I’ve been challenged by many people, and frankly I don’t have time for total political correctness; and to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore”. Political correctness was Trump’s signifier for the multicultural model of citizenship. His attack on it moved the Republican debate audience into a state of exuberance.

Through his campaign, Trump energized sentiments percolating within members of core-groups who bemoaned and resented multiculturalism’s flattening of identity hierarchies, ones that had prevailed for generations. Trump transformed these Americans into a political base that lifted him to victory by forcefully activating powerful symbols and narratives from the non-civil spheres to which these core-group members felt not only deep solidarity but from which they derived large parts of their identity. Trump performed powerful binaries that privileged whiteness, Christianity, masculinity, heterosexuality, as well as symbols of economic and military might. His script dictated that these characteristics and traits – not the more universalist representations of ideal democratic citizenship (e.g. demonstrations of and capacities for rationality, autonomy, and reason) – represented legitimate criteria for selecting the country’s most powerful figure. He argued that reversion to primordial criteria was urgent and that failing to do so would imperil the nation. Continuing by the multicultural code, he argued, would allow terrorists, rapists, and community-destroying drugs into the country. Trump described African Americans as living in “inner cities” that had been rendered “ghettos” and “war zones”, or in terms that portrayed Black Americans as uncivil and unfit for full democratic participation.

The discursive universe that constitutes American understandings of legitimate political authority and institutions cultivates preferences for egalitarian classification systems and hostility toward hierarchical ones. Merelman (1989) argues that in a culture of mythologized individualism, movements will arise when its members feel they are experiencing “authoritarian structures internally” (p. 476). In his empirical findings, he asserts that Americans “prefer permeable boundaries between ideas (e.g. political ideologies) and groups (e.g. political parties)… and [they] refuse to be bound by consistent adherence to any particular level of tolerance or equality” (p. 486). This helps explain why Trump’s strategy of attacking “political correctness”, and incorporating it into his script, gained such purchase amongst his supporters.

Political correctness represents a set of discourses and strategies designed to combat and collapse historically rooted and socio-culturally entrenched hierarchical classification systems. Trump’s supporters, however, characterize political correctness as oppressive and as a blunt weapon being wielded against them. Put another way, the discourse designed to flatten hierarchical classification systems is experienced by Trump supporters as a hierarchical classification system. Merelman hypothesizes that “an egalitarian deep structure will promote broadly egalitarian political movements and institutions” (p. 477). While Trump supporters may have seen their candidate as one who liberates them from their discursive oppression, the T-shirts and pins favoured at his campaign rallies – Trump that Bitch; Hillary Sucks, But Not Like Monica; Donald Trump We Need A President With Balls; KFC Hillary Special 2 Fat Thighs 2 Small Breasts… Left Wing – indicate not innovative constructions of a new, post-politically correct, egalitarian classification schema but an interpretive reliance on a historically well-trodden, hierarchical and oppressive one.

Campaign Performances Under Conditions of Troubled Legitimacies: A Cultural Pragmatic Analysis

Semiotic and performative forces intersected with varieties of power to determine the party nominations and the election’s outcome. Sanders proved to be a spectacular candidate. A virtual unknown to the national stage, he started drawing large crowds to his campaign rallies within the first month of announcing his candidacy. Sanders created network and financial power by performing against network and financial power. His campaign script was, roughly: the economic and political systems are rigged against ordinary people, and short of a ‘political revolution’, there is little individuals can do to change things because the forces against them are so deeply entrenched. Sanders denounced big money donors as well as networks of political elites who were, he believed and would later have confirmed by WikiLeaks, thwarting his candidacy in an effort to aid Clinton in her pursuit of the Democratic nomination. Yet Sanders’ lack of access to financial and network mechanisms of power only fueled his transformation into a collective representation of the underdog fighting the politico-corporate behemoth, the Clinton Dynasty.

Sanders’ campaign script of ‘political revolution’, his presentation of self, and his performance style were so well matched that it seemed as if the candidate had been designed by a veteran theatre director. Ruffled hair, mussed up suit, and well-spoken and well-argued critiques about the financial and political powers suppressing wages and votes, all delivered in a Brooklyn accent, created persuasive political theatre. Sanders had a clear, coherent, and powerful narrative; he transformed his lack of power into a powerful collective representation; and he masterfully fused costume with performance style. And yet, these charms notwithstanding, he had no power over the press. Sanders was ultimately felled in good part by news journalists’ unremitting description of him as an impractical dreamer (or worse, a Ralph Nader-like spoiler) who had no chance of winning the election.

The contrast between the Sanders campaign and the Clinton campaign were stark. Sanders’ campaign was light and agile. Clinton’s campaign was a model of “rule by committee”, in which a dozen voices would express an opinion about even minor details. Worse still, the committee was planted in Brooklyn, New York, and it showed little interest in adjusting strategy based on feedback from local campaign officials and volunteers out in the field (Dovere, 2016). The organizational hierarchy was as distant from its field operatives as the candidate was from too many voters.

Clinton had power, both financial and network. Her campaign was well financed. She had “secured commitments from many of the party’s biggest donors before she even announced her candidacy”, Confessore and Lichtblau (2015) reported in October in The New York Times. They also noted, however, that despite her connections to party donors, Clinton had “barely outraised Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described socialist” (ibid.). She eclipsed Sanders in the “invisible primary”, or the race to secure endorsements from Congresspersons and Governors. In fact, she far outpaced her Democratic nominee predecessors in terms of her rate of accumulation (Bycoffe, 2016). Yet in the primaries, every time her lead increased over Sanders and her tally of superdelegates rose, her monopoly of the legitimate use of network force reiterated the counter-democratic code of a “coronation”, and thus chaffed against the democratic ideal of winning in an open, free and fair competition.

Time represented one of Clinton’s foremost challenges, as it does for any candidate following a two-term president of the same party. David Axelrod (2016), President Obama’s former campaign manager, was correct when he suggested that the semiotics of character play to the opposition’s favour in non-incumbent elections. Clinton entered the election drama with an established, deeply polarizing symbolic framework. She was a collective representation, and this was part of her politico-dramatic bind. The challenges of narrating time explain why.

Clinton needed to establish a character that would situate her in terms of her past, but also one that would distinguish her from Obama (as well as from Sanders on her left, and from her anticipated challenger on the right). Typically, election narratives propose plots in which the candidate will lead the nation from troubled, problem-riddled times forward, into a better, more prosperous, safe and just future. The greater the difference between past and future in terms of perceived danger and moral urgency – damnation versus salvation; destruction versus rejuvenation – the greater the imperative for action, and the greater the heroism of the figure who will lead the charge. This rule of political drama requires the candidate of the incumbent party to cast her predecessor’s tenure not simply as partially successful or incomplete, but as failed, and in a dire way. Network and constituency realities, however, constrain such narration. To pollute Obama’s tenure so thoroughly would run the risk of alienating his supporters, the famed Obama Coalition.

Early in her campaign, Clinton referred to herself as a “fighter” (14 times in a 45-minute speech) in an effort to establish herself as an action figure (Chozick and Healy, 2015), one with traits that the “overly-professorial” and “lawyerly” Obama had been accused of lacking. This figure faded in the ensuing election drama, however, as did her campaign’s defining narrative. In the long slog to the Democratic convention, her script inched closer and closer to that of Bernie Sanders, such that the differences, like her character, seemed to fade and lose distinction.

Clinton also suffered organizationally, and in a way that suffocated her capacity to grow into a role within which she could project her own version a fully fleshed out leader, one with her own cause for serving the nation, and one that could be interpreted as organically conceived. When WikiLeaks released a batch of email exchanges, they revealed the “excruciating decision-making behind every step related to how Mrs. Clinton handled everything from her splashy campaign rollout speech on Roosevelt Island in June 2015 to a single Twitter post” (Chozick and Healy, 2016). In one of the chains of emails, four campaign aides exchanged versions of a Twitter post that Clinton would use to address her use of the private email server. The tweet eventually read, “I want the public to see my email. I asked State to release them. They said they will review them for release as soon as possible”. Clinton did not perform to win the presidency. Rather, she navigated an organizational vessel toward it, confident that the anti-democratic chaos emanating from the opposition would buffer her ship into port.

With the Clinton campaign tweet fresh in mind, we shift to one posted by her competition. On September 30th, 2016, a couple of days after the first presidential debate, the following tweet was posted on candidate Trump’s personal Twitter account: “Did Crooked Hillary help disgusting (check out sex tape and past) Alicia M become a U.S. citizen so she could use her in the debate?” While there is no official confirmation, it is suspected that Trump composed and sent this Tweet on his own and without input from campaign aides. My attempt at dry humour is a nod to the type of politics that Trump’s campaign laid to waste. This is how The New York Times characterized what followed: “like a car careening down a highway with no guardrails, Mr. Trump on Friday sent out one message after another. His suggestion… sent his most zealous followers hunting for images. A few of them posted pornographic images of women who they believe resembled Ms. Machado” (Barbaro et al, 2016).

Trump was improvisational. His campaign was improvisational. Writing for, Thrush (2016) reported that the Trump campaign’s “watershed moment” was on August 2015. Seeking to further raise the campaign’s profile, the Trump team took what they perceived as a risk and scheduled a rally in a football stadium in Mobile, Alabama:

The candidate and his tiny cadre of advisers—Lewandowski was fond of referring to the campaign as “Five People and a Plane”—liked the idea, but they were a little nervous Trump could fill enough seats at the Ladd-Peebles Stadium right up to the moment their 757 staged a dramatic flyover to the cheers of a crowd outside observers estimated at between 18,000 and 22,000 people.

Hope Hicks, Trump’s rookie press aide, was so thrilled she walked into the cockpit and asked the pilot to execute a wing waggle.

From that point on, Trump’s rallies became the centerpiece of the campaign.

The rally format, Thrush continued:

served to obscure the campaign’s glaring shortcomings, while letting an improvising candidate—Trump’s decision to call out Mexican “rapists” at his kick-off, for example, was inspired, in part, by a random chat he had with two border patrol agents at one of his golf resorts, two of his friends told me—road-test his talking points. Trump picked up insights and policies like a stand-up comedian collecting material for a show. The subject he kept coming back to, increasingly, was anger, and Trump’s promise to build a wall on the Mexican border became a staple, simply because it got the greatest applause lines.

Throughout his march to the primaries, meanwhile, commentators asked time and again – after the nicknames, the ethnic insults, the sexist asides – would Trump’s latest outrageous statement be the step that had gone too far. Backlash came, of course. Yet a steady thirty percent of the electorate identified with his performances, and formed a deep solidarity with him and his cause. They bought tickets to the Trump show and vowed to stay and cheer until the end.

Like Clinton had done, Jeb Bush had entered the race rich in financial and network power. He had donors and endorsers lined up. And like Sanders did to Clinton, candidate Trump turned Bush’s sources of power into sites of pollution.

Drawing from the deep wells of time and narrative, Trump was able to fuse power, his character, and his campaign’s preferred plot into a projection of autonomy, strength, service, and devotion. Emphasizing the temporalities of ascension, transformation and triumph, Trump’s narrative account of self-making related that he previously was not only of the profane world – wherein politicians enriched themselves at public expense and businesspersons negotiated like modern day gladiators in battle – he had triumphed in it. With his smarts he had vanquished his foes and succeeded beyond his colleagues.

That was before. Now, he narrated, he was leaving that world in order to serve a greater good, and to pursue a higher purpose. While battling in that world of trickery, instrumentality, and self-preservation and enrichment, he had witnessed the pollution and degradation of that thing that he loved, America. The country was no longer winning. It was being humiliated, laughed at, and taken advantage of. Trump’s campaign for the presidency marked the present, the time at which he was leaving his former persona and devoting himself to a future of serving “the people” and restoring the nation.

He alone could fix it, his script dictated, because he alone had been trained in the dark arts of underworld negotiations. Because of his former experiences, he now had power over the underworld figures. He knew how they worked, and in fact, in his past persona, he had controlled them, and had “bought and paid for” them. Trump’s modus operandi was to perform this heroic figure, and to lie or distract when challenged or asked for proof. Playing a CEO with the power to decide lesser figures’ fates on television also bolstered this particular heroic structure. Refusing to release his tax returns protected his heroic figure, since their release could have drawn back the curtain which had prevented audiences from seeing an ordinary man pulling levers that manufactured symbols of strength and power. In other words, they might reveal inauthenticity and artificiality.


Given that populist, ethno-nationalist, right wing movements were percolating through Europe and the United States in the wake of a global economic crisis and an extended period of military adventurism and unrest in the Middle East, it is tempting to conceive of Trump’s victory in the 2016 election in terms of Habermas’s theory of legitimation crisis, or as resulting from strains within the economic and administrative subsystems flowing into the cultural subsystem. While it is accurate that multiple spheres from across the American social arena were manifesting troubled legitimacies, it is not clear that economic crises and inequalities, or administrative failures, were the primary engines powering the rise of Trump and Trumpism. Trump’s support came principally from white voters with no college education and with greater degrees of distance, geographic and social, from groups with cultural differences (Silver, 2016a). He won college educated white voters as well (Green, 2017), and his voters were better off economically than average Americans (Silver, 2016b).

Habermas also offers us the theory of legitimacy as consensus achieved through rational deliberation. While not entirely absent, pure exercises in rational deliberation do not appear to have featured prominently in the election: “Policy issues – what nominees would do if elected – rarely attract high level of press coverage, and the 2016 election was no exception”, Patterson (2016) concluded in his analysis of 2016 election news coverage. On the other hand, while we need not accept all of Lyotard’s characterizations of the postmodern condition, it is not difficult to see the 2016 election, with its fake news, alternative facts, and its expressions of extreme dis-consensus, as representing a kind of a paralogical hellscape.


  1. 1.

    Space limitations prevent discussion of political news media as site of troubled legitimacy; see Jacobs (2017), and Polletta and Callahan (2017).



Shai Dromi and Anne Marie Champagne contributed mightily to managing this special issue project. Reviewers and Anne Marie helped me refine my argument. Thank you all.


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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Advanced StudyThe University of WarwickCoventryUK

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