Illustration by Jorge Valle Artiga.
It hasn’t even been fifty days, and yet it feels like a timeless nightmare. When did it start? How does it end? Why is every moment saturated in an intrigue unfamiliar to the regular everyday schemes of government being government? Essentially, it is because the emotional thrust of the campaigning has not given way to the stoic business of the everyday. That emotional thrust is the narrative Donald Trump has not merely leaned upon, but has wielded like a club.
An Executive Order that was essentially a clumsy immigration ban that targeted Muslims was deemed unconstitutional by every judge who saw it (and patently offensive by the rest of us). It has since been rescinded and replaced by a similar order that is already receiving similar challenges. Next, there was the announcement of the Victims of Crimes Committed by Removable Aliens (VOICE) initiative, despite no evidence that immigrants are committing crimes at a higher rate than the native born, and perhaps even evidence to the contrary. We also have the ongoing assault on the media, which ranges from routine assertions that the media is dishonest and even the enemy of the American people, to a unique lack of accessibility and disclosure outside of the troubling regularity of erratic middle of the night tweets. There is so much more to be angry and concerned about, to be sure, but in the immigration ban, the VOICE initiative, and the assault on the press, we see the essential framework of Trump’s campaign. That is, the story of a nation under siege from foreigners who want to either kill us or take our jobs—depending on their port of entry—and an establishment that is allowing that to happen, leaving only the brave Donald Trump to boldly save our once great nation. With the suddenness of a nightmare, here we are. But we are not asleep, and this is all very real, so we need to look soberly at how we got here, not at the flash points that steal the moment, but at the broader landscape that persists from one news cycle to the next.
Some things seem to materialize quite out of nowhere, despite every effort of analysis, deconstruction and predictive modeling. The election of Donald Trump is a monolithic example, and yet, in the still-unfolding aftermath, it all makes sense. It was a tipping point, in part, and a tragic convergence of events. The maturation of an interconnected Information Age society had established “narrative” as the newly indispensable aesthetic, which motivated and unified voters, not of a great cultural diversity, or even a simple majority, but enough voters in enough places who all fell for the same story.
As rational, self-aware creatures, humans crave narrative. Narrative has a utility. It gave deeper meaning to expressionistic art—from prehistoric cave drawings to the bardic tradition of Homer; to religious art of the Renaissance; to the evolution of opera out of theatre and music; to Picasso’s Guernica; to the street art of the rebellious counterpoint across the globe. Narrative serves as the basis for all religions, dating as far back as we understand religions to exist. Cronus, Zeus, Hera, Arjuna, Karma, Gautama Buddha, Ganesha, Adam, Eve, Moses, Jesus, Muhammed; they are all characters in stories that have defined the existential identities of billions of people throughout history. Narrative provides a unifying principle that corrals all of the particular elements into a basic premise: a story. A story, which synthesizes an overarching emotion, rendering a greater purpose to all of the subordinate motivations and impulses that, considered alone, may seem negligent or small, but in the context of a greater unifying story, they are crucial, powerful and even indispensable.
Gone, for now, are the “single issue voters” in the modern political reality. They have been consolidated as elements into the greater narrative. Gone are the broader discussions that seek to appropriately represent the very complex realities of guiding a nation of 350 million very different people into a future increasingly uncertain and always faster approaching. In the same way one would pitch a movie or a show, a political candidate must also distill the breadth of their intention into a so-called “elevator pitch.” It’s a show about what? And how are the elements all connected?
For Trump, with more than four decades of one sales pitch after another, it was all too simple. He seized upon disaffected white Americans and offered them a very simple narrative: You are getting screwed because all of these people do not care about you or the country you know and love. And that’s likely how all too many people felt on a daily basis. The rest of the GOP field stumbled around the various “big tent” GOP constituencies; there was Rick Santorum appealing to the Bible beaters, Ron Paul rallying the libertarians, Jeb Bush relying on his surname, Marco Rubio emphasizing his xenophobia, and Ted Cruz wrapping himself around the Constitution-as-written. These are the primary colors of the GOP palette. Donald Trump put them all on the canvas in the plainest, if not vulgar and ridiculous, of ways.
As he announced his candidacy—in a high-rise bearing his name, no less—he claimed Mexico was sending rapists to America, China was actively and intentionally destroying our economy and the entire Middle East was threatening the life and limbs of all Americans. Succinctly (the pitch), he claimed, “The US has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.” No nuance, no sincere acknowledgement of a complex and changing world with complex and changing problems demanding complex and innovative solutions, just the establishment of an antagonist that disaffected white America could rally against in anger. That antagonist was everybody and everything that was not disaffected white America. Who was the protagonist in this story? Well, we’ve all seen the hats. We’ve all heard mantra, we’ve all heard the (literally) delusional claim “I alone can fix it.” What we did not know then, in our Tale of Two Americas, was that what half of us saw as insulting farce, the other half saw as a solution.
Narrative also dominated the Democrats primary process. Both candidates had their stories, and they were vastly different. Hillary Clinton was at the culmination of a life’s work of public service and expectation-busting accomplishment as a singular woman in a male-dominated culture. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, was not running on his past, he was running on his opinion of the now, and his vision of the future. Like Trump, he too named his opponent as part of the problem, and inserted himself as the outsider who, like the common voter, resented an establishment that preferred special interests over regular people and nominal change over a real reimagining of what government should do.
Sanders found his narrative and rode it further than anyone expected. Clinton was deficient on narrative, because she was too much of a technocrat. Detailed plans, complex positions, deeper experience and understanding, “visit my website”; none of that inspires anybody. There was no story that superseded her own personal story. The problem with precision and detail and nuance and soberness is that it doesn’t add up to a thrilling and motivating validation of how a person feels. The elevator ride ends while you’re still intricately setting the scene, no compelling conflict and no appealing resolution.
That’s what great narratives do; they energize, compel and lead the audience to places they are unfamiliar. In the context of a campaign, they are incredibly useful, and a very legitimate method of communicating the broad scope of a candidate’s views succinctly. After all, nothing can be done in a campaign except talking. As it goes with all narratives, some are true, some are fiction and some are a combination of both.
Truth, reality, plausibility, decency…it all went out the window for so many Americans who were exhausted by a previously unseen destruction of stuffy protocol and proper process. That’s an easy story to tell, and an easy story to hear. Yet who among the GOP’s also-rans had even the slightest bit of charisma to deconstruct such a simple story? None.
While Sanders did not win the primary, it was not due to the effect of his narrative. By that measure, his campaign was vastly more successful than Clinton’s. He inspired new voters and young voters; he inspired engagement and activism; he inspired dialogue and discussion; most of all he inspired a material change in the Democratic Party. The only problem, however, was that he started it all too late. If Sanders realized in 2013, what he came to realize as he lurched into his campaign, we might have had a very different general election.
Trump easily replaced Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush et al, with Hillary Clinton as the antagonist in his story. When you are operating at Trump’s level of dishonesty and detail, that’s a simple replacement to make. Like the others, Clinton was establishment and was there for the three decades of socio-economic stagnation and erosion of the middle-class. It didn’t matter that people like Trump actively support and profit from that erosion. Simple narratives have simple villains. The Mexicans and Chinese are taking your jobs, the immigrants from near and far are threatening and changing your country, and she has been around for 30 years letting it all happen.
Many of us bristled, guffawed, mocked and laughed our way through the months leading up to the general election about the spectacle as it wore on, playing out like a script that was unfit for any page, stage or screen. But that laughter became a bit more strained—the mood considerably more nervous—as we realized that a plurality of Americans seemed completely immune to what many of us viewed as absurd and offensive. In the end, he was right, he could have shot somebody on 5th Avenue, as he famously boasted, and his supporters would not abandon him. More than anything, they wanted to see how his story—his narrative—played out.
While Clinton stuck to her technocratic adult-speak, it became more clear that what made Sanders so overwhelming in the Democratic Primary was what made Trump so overwhelming in the Republican Primary: a simple narrative that had good guys and bad guys, and a way for the former to deal with the latter.
Nevermind that automation and technology has created a situation where US manufacturing output on a dollar value basis is actually at all-time highs, in stark contrast to Trump’s “we don’t make anything anymore” populist appeals, because manufacturing employment is at all-time lows. Automation and technology are not a frightening adversary to disaffected white voters, but foreigners? That narrative sells. The t-shirts and towels and whatever else say “Made in China,” not “Made by a Robot.”
Nevermind that you’re most likely to get killed by a white male or lightning than a Muslim terrorist; the safety of our nation is wrapped up into the aesthetic expression of “America” as a homogenous community besieged on all sides by newcomers and exotic mindsets. Once again, while many of us stood aghast at such an overt return to a jingoism we felt had been rightfully exiled to fringe politics, there it was, placating a segment of the population that had suddenly taken up the mantle of the Republican Party’s new leader. Disaffected white America wanted their mythical 1950s back, delusionally sanitized of all its moral depravities.
So, with the narrative firmly established, Trump staked himself to rural heartland landslides, predominantly white (even by GOP standards) and not as poor and uneducated as many would have thought. Yes, Clinton won the popular vote—by a lot—but she did not inspire enough people in enough places. The pragmatic Democrat, and even the more progressive liberal, suspicions aside, dutifully voted. The story, however, did not compel. Close to 30% of all eligible voters simply stayed home, during an election many of us saw as historically important on so many levels.
Narratives, however, do not govern. Campaigns are not administrations. The thrillride of Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency, a moment that rivaled so many in pure, heartfelt exuberance here and around the globe, quickly gave way to the somber realities of trying to actually do stuff, instead of just saying stuff. Obama’s campaign calls to transcend Red America and Blue America crashed tragically on the shores of a Congress that was about to become the cudgel of the disaffected white America that Trump was speaking to in June of 2015 as he announced his candidacy. In true salesman fashion, he saw what (some) people wanted, and he gave it to them, exactly and with all the ambiguity of a brick. That’s the good news for those of us who abhor Donald Trump and what he stands for, and stands against. One month into the Trump administration, we have seen the disconnect between his campaign storytelling and real-life policy-making. He alone cannot do much of anything, despite his promises to the contrary, and his first foray into xenophobic fear mongering has yet to meet a judge who deems it constitutional.
The bad news, however, is that unlike Obama, who came out as an honest-broker who dealt with the realities he faced, Trump remains the storyteller. The antagonists are being named, whether it be the “fake news” that soberly dispute his fabrications and outright lies, the “so-called judge” who was the first to strike down his immigration ban, or the millions of “paid protesters” who have upset his desire for a fable-worthy coronation and unchecked rule. Indeed, to the horror of any serious person, he even went so far as to say the press was the enemy of the American people. Less than a week into his term he filed papers to initiate his campaign for 2020. Less than a month into his term he held a campaign-style pep rally for himself, the motifs remained the same as his campaign: Them vs. Us with Trump as their savior.
We will soon see how the realities merge with the perpetual fiction that is Donald Trump’s worldview. Inured in the mythical conflicts of Trump’s narrative, hardcore supporters will remain just that, but for many the exciting journey will give way to a disappointing destination. As Trump continues to realize that one does not rule by mere fiat in the United States, that coalitions are needed, that simple and oftentimes dishonest pronouncements do not work in office as they did on the campaign trail, and as his list of antagonists continues to grow, pulling in even his Republican allies who are now experiencing the disapproving anger of once compliant constituents, Trump will need to craft a narrative of great complexity to maintain the façade of his all-conquering abilities. From what we have seen to date, that degree of complexity is well outside of his capacity, and what’s more, talk is talk. Doing stuff? Well, as he promised during the campaign, one of Obama’s very first Executive Order was to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay; it remains open. Forcing the regressive policies of a fear-mongering dilettante upon a nation increasingly at odds with, and popularly opposed to, Trump’s worldview should prove to be far more difficult.
Read more political ramblings from our trusted political reporter Robert Keller here.