In 2008 Barack Obama decided to not wear an American flag lapel pin. Time magazine reported on the controversy, arguing that “a large swath of Americans […] take symbols like the pledge of allegiance, the national anthem, and, yes, the flag in its many iterations very seriously”. A former Clinton adviser, Doug Schoen, told the Wall Street Journal that most of those who care about the wearing of the pin are “white working-class”. At the time, this was ‘a big deal’.
Now, in 2017, such missteps pale in comparison to the daily gaffs of Donald Trump. During the electoral campaign he appeared to some as an irreverent master blunderer, whose daily political incorrectness offended “a large swath of Americans who take symbols seriously” and thus make him loose the election. Over and over, Trump did what was not done. He was arrogant. He was rude. He was a racist... and a misogynist. He also seemed to have very poor taste and style. He was obsessed by gold and glitter. His face was orange. His hair was fluffy. His ties were too long. He rode escalators. He was basically a clown, facilitating the work of satirists and talk-show hosts.
But commentators, spectators and voters soon understood that these were not social mistakes. The incorrectness was intentional. Trump was using the violation of more or less tacit norms for political gain.
Blowing-up, he visibly enjoyed the misbehaviour -- and the crowds loved him for it. They took pleasure vicariously. Simply witnessing his rebellion constituted a liberation. It was as if everything that was forbidden was suddenly permitted. Civilization was put on hold while Donald Trump transgressed every taboo.
Like the best stand-up comedians, Trump had a profound understanding of the social rules everyone follows but never talks about. In other words, he knew his audience. He knew those "white working-class" voters better than all the statisticians. He knew them so well that he could discern which norms to mock and which to respect. Unlike Obama, for example, Trump understood the symbolic important of those empty signifiers: pins, flags, anthems, the unknown soldier, etc. It was a masterclass in cultural anthropology.
Today, journalists and talking-heads continuously remind their audiences of all the American values and institutions Trump is apparently desecrating. “He is undermining what is means to be American”, they say. “On the international stage, he acts like a fool”, they say. “His approval ratings are historically low”, they say. And yet, Trump endures. Every morning, he tweets his simple, repetitive, personal insults. At summits, he has his daughter to sit-in his place. When he meets a head of government, he makes no effort to perform the right facial expressions. He does not hold his body 'right'. He does not shake hands. He shoves. Be it his attitude, his posture, his manners, or even his gait, Trump refuses to conform.
Now, it could be that Trump will actually slip. That he does go too far. That he says the one joke that puts everyone off. Or his supporters might simply get bored of his behaviour. It could also be that Trump becomes more ‘presidential’. That those around him and derided journalists teach him how he is to behave. There are some signs that these phenomena are taking place, but for the most part the Donald is being The Donald – and 4 out 10 Americans are loving it. But the real lesson here is an anthropological one. No need to read books or go to school. Watch Donald Trump! Watch closely, and every day, through his offences, he will show you a norm that was hidden in plain sight.