Donald Trump and the rise of the Unidentified Political Object

by Hettie O’Brien

I think people in this country have had enough of experts”. In hindsight, Michael Gove’s sardonic comment captures much of the political sentiment of 2016. When John Prideaux, the US editor of The Economist, visited Cambridge just before Donald Trump’s election victory, he argued that a good political analyst has to do the gritty work on the street – making person-to-person contact and listening to the viewpoints of average citizens. Yet academics, journalists and policy-makers – the “experts” whom Gove riled against – are still scrambling to make sense of 2016. The experts didn’t see Trump coming.

This was the year when the peripheral citizen pushed back against political correctness and institutional formality. People who have long felt neglected by the Davos class seized on Trump’s promise to make America great again, rallied by his populist rhetoric on big business, border control, and corporate greed. Part of the reason experts failed to predict his presidency is the way information percolates in the 21st century. Social media algorithms shield us from contrary opinions, locking us in an echo chamber which obscures other people’s realities – the world in which the Trump presidency seems like a rational choice, or a protest vote. The same is true of academic networks and disciplinary assumptions. As students of politics, the methodologies we choose can disable us from seeing what comes next.

The types of information researchers collect shapes the types of knowledge they produce. Like explorers in a cave, researchers’ methodologies shine a light on partial aspects of the unknown. In its North American incarnation, Political Science’s bias towards high politics and the study of those in power has marginalized viewpoints on the periphery. But democratic decisions are made by the masses, beginning with informal dialogues. Trump’s election was not a sudden event. It catalysed slowly, flowering from an insidious seedbed of grievances: too many people distrusted a political elite, were sick of minimum wage jobs, and felt oppressed by liberal political correctness. James Scott calls this infrapolitics – the study of the gestures at the margins of society that, far from being irrelevant, threaten to become revolutionary politics.[1]

Political scientist Cedric Jourdé calls these unseen phenomena UPOs: unidentified political objects.[2] The rise of Trump is a paradigmatic example – a tacky businessman with no real political credentials, carried to power by discontent at the peripheries of society. As students of politics, we have a key role to play in spotting UPOs before it’s too late to do anything about them. Pushing back at the hegemony of quantification and elite interviews, we can incorporate ethnography, participant observation, and other mixed-methods approaches to help us to understand the unseen aspects that determine democratic decisions. A greater focus on the quotidian views at the margins of society might help us predict political phenomena. For now, we will have to make do with analysing Trump’s presidency through the lens of history, unpicking the elements that went unidentified until the institutionalist rule book had already been burnt.

[1] James Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990)

[2] Cedric Jourdé, “The Ethnographic Sensibility: Overlooked Authoritarian Dynamics and Islamic Ambivalences in West Africa”, in Political Ethnography ed. Edward Schatz (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009)


About the Author

Hettie O’Brien

Hettie O'Brien is a freelance writer and researcher who is currently studying for an MPhil in International Relations and Politics at Newnham College, Cambridge.