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Given the immense significance of the outcome of the American presidential election, I awaited its results before writing this blog. And though I, like a great many other people, was rather taken by surprise by what happened, the overall semiotic outline of the event was clear both before and, now, after it. So, doing my best to avoid partisanship, I will sketch out that outline here in the shape of a series of fundamental takeaways.
First, as the chapter on cultural contradictions ("American Paradox") in the ninth edition of Signs of Life in the USA explicitly explores in the light of the Trump campaign, America really has split apart into hostile camps, each one, in part through the use of social media, creating its own "echo chamber," largely deaf to the discourse of the other, and lodged, essentially, in its own construction of reality.
Second, when we situate the election into a larger system that includes the British Brexit vote and the rise of populist parties in Europe voicing similar complaints to those in America, we can find signs of the turmoils induced by demographic change in a highly unsettled global context. Try as one will, there is simply no way of avoiding the racial component of these events, and pretty much every hope of having achieved a post-racial society in the wake of the Obama presidency has been dashed.
Third, Trump's success signifies a highly paradoxical rejection of neoliberalism—paradoxical because such rejections are commonly viewed as a preoccupation of the political left. But alongside the Sanders campaign (which was explicitly a rejection of neoliberalism), Trump's rejection of the ideology of the global marketplace, which resonated so strongly with working-class voters, is itself a challenge thrown down before all of the global elites whose power and privileges owe much to the neoliberal order of things, no matter which side of the aisle these elites may sit. In short, this was a mighty challenge to America's socioeconomic elites—Republican and Democratic alike, led, paradoxically, by a member of the elite class himself. But America has been here before, as when the uprising of Jacksonian democracy in the 19th century was conducted by a plantation-owning aristocrat.
Fourth, the election signifies just how important the Supreme Court has become in a society so divided that neither its Executive nor Legislative branches can govern any more. A lot of voters (especially Evangelicals) swallowed their disapproval of Trump's personal life to vote, essentially, for future Court justices.
Fifth, and finally, the election has illustrated a point that I often make to my students about the difference between sociology and cultural semiotics. Both fields, of course, analyze human society, but while sociology relies very much on the measuring of human behavior and consciousness via quantitatively constructed surveys, semiotics simply takes the actual behavior of people (what they do rather than what they say) as evidence. The failure of pretty much all of the polls to predict what happened despite all of their surveys and quantitative data (just as the pollsters failed in the Brexit vote) indicates that people can be very chary about what they say about their beliefs, especially in the case of this election in which support for Trump was socially frowned upon. After all, it wasn't only uneducated working-class voters who supported Trump, and the pollsters missed that. And since semiotics is an interpretive, not a predictive, activity, we can now see just how much louder actions have spoken than words in this election.
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