Melodrama on the campaign trail

Politics sometimes has to be understood more as a performative act than a rational argument or an ideological battle

Decoding politics is not easy, especially after election time. The calculus of victory and defeat creates a virtual reductionist effect, vitiating the complexity of events to the inevitability of a score. It is not just, as Camus said, that statistics do not bleed, but that number is too rudimentary a portrait of the complexity of politics. Watching Donald Trump convinced me that it is not Mr. Trump that we need to understand, but the way we construct him.

At a recent college election, I heard a candidate describe himself as the Trump of the college. The candidate was shrewd. He sensed in actuality there was little to recommend him. But as a caricature, a Rorschach, an inflatable version of himself, he made sense. People realise today that politics is virtual. The image makes more sense than the real. The battle is between virtual realities, of metaphors caught in dialects. Words like immigration, unemployment are mere triggers, the pictures we construct must go beyond the real and the measurable.

The real Mr. Trump would be quite boring in real life. It is like meeting Arnab Goswami in a bus. After a minute, you wonder if it is the same man. Without TV, neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Goswami seems real. TV shows that the real is inflatable, that exaggerations are more true than empirical sentences. They tap into an unconscious that virtually picks the candidate. Simply put, it is only as part of dream works that American politics makes sense.

Collapse of three concepts

Yet politics is caught between the reality of exaggeration and the devastating way it interrogates key concepts. Three concepts collapsed in recent times, or rather were reworked to suit the current state of the imagination. The American elections reworked the idea of politics, Brexit demanded a redefinition of economics, and the BJP victory in India showed us that some democracies need to be more authoritarian than others.

American politics, despite evidence to the contrary, was not a battle of left and right. The right won but the Republican right had very little to do with strategies and trajectories. The party was pushed into victory as a part of the Trump caravan. His top leaders treated Mr. Trump as an outsider. They made little sense of a man who, while rich, did not convey the snootiness of the elite, the inclusiveness of club membership, the quiet snobbishness of Ivy League genealogy. Mr. Trump looked like something out of folklore, a combination of a Barnum circus and a peddler of patent medicines, promising quick and understandable solutions to problems neither he nor the voters understood. But Mr. Trump realised that the ordinary citizen is a combination of a hard hat and a hypochondriac. As a hard hat, his solutions are violent; and as a hypochondriac, he incessantly talks about pain and his helplessness. The latter conveys the message that politics is no longer a process of empowerment. The citizen’s message does not reach the people in power, and if it does, it has a distorted quality which alienates him further.

Mr. Trump realised that politics is Shakespearean in an epic world. In everyday politics, it’s the Charles Lambs that capture the prose of the world, to simplify and bowdlerise it so that reality, even if distorted, becomes recognisable. The world of globalisation and finance capital is full of gobbledygook, technical terms which make no sense of the feeling and experiences of the people. Mr. Trump simplified things by showing you do not have to summon a Henry Kissinger and an Alan Greenspan to explain things to people. A village idiot could do it provided he spoke the right language. Mr. Trump did. His homespun American sermons were a combination of Playboy shorthand and salesman’s smooth talk. One merely spun it out like Old Testament spoof, and Americans loved it. In fact, his bawdiness gave people a sense that he was being inclusive, like a millionaire who was a street fighter.

This was an immediacy Hillary Clinton could never create. She was the ice maiden and if she thawed, she was the bumbler. She sounded like a textbook, or some forgotten piece of catechism located in a development handbook. Ms. Clinton often sounded like an embalmed text. She might have the right answers but to use local idioms, she sounded like a prissy first class first addressing a chorus of also-rans. They wanted to cut her to size, make her smell defeat, fade into anonymity, while they gloated over her defeat. Ironically, Ms. Clinton won the majority, that is custodian of the great American repressions. Intriguingly, she was like the great American text, ponderous, sophisticated, correct, but it was Mr. Trump’s oral eloquence which rang true. Orality and Populism go together. In the age of digital competence and textual hermeneutics, people play down the drama of orality, its invocation of memory, its ability to catch the core tropes of a citizen’s world. Orality, as folk wisdom or a caricature of it, allowed Mr. Trump to trump Ms. Clinton’s text with facility.

American elections are always a performative tour de force. But what changed this time was the logic of reading a performance. It was not the standard critic’s choice of a classic and correct performance with a full sense of ritual and recitation. Ms. Clinton had shades of it. She sounded like well-groomed recitation with most of the right references. She was correct but never rang true to the American audience, while Mr. Trump produced a version of the idiots’ wisdom.

A psychological ritual

Three factors contributed to that consequence. Firstly, globalisation had introduced a fear of the expert. An expert truth lacks a sense of the vernacular and the dialect. It lacks inclusiveness while Mr. Trump’s bawdy jokes and coinages which sounded like proverbs made an effort to create an inclusive public. Secondly, language becomes important. When politics seeks to be empowering, it need not be correct. It can be folksy, bawdy-body talk. It conveys he is one of us, rather than someone outsourced by the establishment. Thirdly and more critically, this election went beyond political correctness to include both the idiom of physical threat and menace and the sense of symbolic violence. Mr. Trump’s bully boy language pretended to be the language of everyday exorcism. There is a psychological ritual here that we must emphasise.

Today the American election, or even Brexit, appears more like an act of emotional catharsis than a campaign around ideologies, arguments, platforms and facts. It is as if the nation becomes the public couch, where all manner of dreams, jokes, repressions and fantasies are paraded. It is more an emotional outpouring than the national arguments that deliberate democracy boasts of. Ms. Clinton appears cold and frozen in such a crowd while Mr. Trump not only appears at home, he realises that it is a homecoming into American politics where the second best is always more endearing, human, than the imperious front runner. It is as Indian voters would say “everyone has to have a chance” and Ms. Clinton already had one. It was Mr. Trump’s turn, and it provided a sense of poetic justice, that the establishment was pipped at the finishing line. There is a sense of populist ambush as most of the media and the Ivy League finds it difficult to utter the words “President Trump”. It sounded like history’s favourite oxymoron till yesterday.

Not ideology alone

Politics sometimes has to be understood more as a performative act than a rational argument or an ideological battle. If one reads it as an ideological war, one sees it as a victory of the right, but the right was as surprised by victory as the left. It was actually a semiotic war where symbols, languages which were more empowering won. In an odd way, it was not the party the citizen voted for. It was for a politics which was more empowering, and which made him feel assured about the future. Ideology was important, but a semiotic war, a politics of the symbolic, became more important than the ideological tussle. The symbolic ease of Mr. Trump’s stand beat the cold communications of Ms. Clinton. Semiotics trumped ideology to leave American pundits even more confused than before.

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