A semiotics expert shrewdly watching politics once told me a man can only become president of the United States if he looks like a cartoon. Think of Ronald Reagan or Bush I and II. It is true for India also. Narendra Modi looks like a piece from Madame Tussauds. Donald Trump looks like a leftover from Mad magazine. Hilary Clinton carries the weight of history and the historicity of her husband. She is like a bad piece out of the New Yorker while Trump reads like a graphic novel. His daughter and wife are perfect accompaniments, nay accomplices, to his career. Clinton appears like a set of broken promises, bits of glass that do not connect as a kaleidoscope. Trump is a cartoon whose career will be a caricature of his promised self.
Reality, values, consistency play a serious part in the construction of both. Clinton is a collage of broken moments – feminist democratic, internationalist. She has played pied piper to many multinationals. She sounds like a hypocrite, a part of the upper-class establishment that talks values but insists others should pursue it. She is real, historical and tired.
Trump is sheer fiction. His reality stems from his power to exaggerate. He is part American salesman, part playboy playing out the repressions of middle America. He represents a working class that is threatened by loss of work. He is a hard hat representation of a working and blue-collar working class.
Both emphasise their anxieties by immediate threats. The enemy, says Trump, needs to be extradited, interned and exorcised without any of the human rights claptrap that Clinton or the New York Times may want. Trump is outrageous, provocative, a salesman of the repressions of an America that is not quite global. Clinton is cosmopolitan, hypocritical. Trump sounds like a combination of a bully, a Sunday sermon and an obscene joke. Clinton sounds like a prevaricating editorial, a representative of all the institutions that create the credibility gap in America – from Wall Street to Silicon Valley.
Clinton sounds like the United Nations secretary general, a post she could have filled with greater elan. Trump sounds like something that preceded the Monroe Doctrine – which warned European nations against interference in US interests – isolationist, a salesman pretending to be Old Testament, calling for God to strike with thunder and lightning anyone who seeks to outsource America.
The electoral battle was not so much an ideological war but a semiotic battle where Trump was a believable version of himself. Trump could only be Trump while Clinton pretended to be too many people caught in a ganglion of too many issues. Clinton sounded confused trying to please too many people. Trump echoed a simple catechism. Clinton sounded like a multi-cultural handbook in a congregation of hard hats wanting immigration to end.
Both were readings of the global world. Clinton read America like the former British Prime Minister David Cameron read the European Union. Trump had the simplicity of Brexit. Any outsider, in fact all outsiders, was the enemy regardless of whether they were Chinese, Arab or Mexican. Globalisation to Trump was anti-American. But for Clinton, globalisation was the next step in the American dream. She sounded like an area studies handbook, Trump was a simplified America. Clinton looked like something from a salon, Trump from a bar room brawl.
Clinton was politically correct, liberal, democratic and cosmopolitan. Trump was a bull in a China shop in a world tired of China shops, tired of delicacy when it demanded immediacy. Oddly, Trump came out as more honest than Clinton. In a Bible thumping heartland, an Old Testament prophet in the garb of a salesman is more effective than a feminist liberal. For Trump, boasting about grabbing beautiful women “by the pussy” was mere locker room talk. Clinton was coy but people felt that Trump in his Playboy candidness was more real than the Clintons. An advocate of porn is preferable to a hypocrite with backroom indulgences. Trump’s promises sounded real, simple, like a medicinal advertisement. Clinton reeked of policy documents that have little credibility. In fact, Trump as the inexperienced outsider contained more of Horatio Alger’s America than Clinton who reeked of the establishment. It showed that a movement that speaks the language of experts and policy cannot match the language of folklore.
Trump may not have articulated new dreams but at least he played out old repressions. Clinton sounded like a collection of old dreams and promises that were difficult to redeem. It was like Ivy League battling working class America as the true locus of the American dream. A John Kennedy could enact Camelot. Clinton’s Camelot had too many vacancies. It failed as a poetic act. A bad epic sometimes is no match for a Falstaffian limerick. It is not the content of the message alone but the messenger. Trump is the Barnum of the communication world. Clinton as political soprano lost her voice.
The American election is like a card game that reminds you that the joker often comes up trumps. Clinton becomes a period piece who can be confined to history as Trump steps out to create it. This was a communication and semiotic war where idols were vandalised and iconoclasts valorised. In a strange iconic way, Trump might be more surprised by his victory than Clinton by her defeat. But such is the world we call electoral politics.