The US Presidential race of 2016 was unique in many ways but in one sense it was merely a case of history repeating. When you strip away the controversial remarks, the use of social media, the typically airbrushed and glossy ads associated with US politico-advertising, the razzmatazz, you are left with two competing stories. And, inevitably, It was the art of storytelling, myth if you like, which decided the election.
Now stories are the bread and butter of politics. Think of some examples over the last 100 years. When making sense of the carnage of WWI, soldiers were told that they had fought a ‘war to end all wars.’ Benito Mussolini told his fellow Italians they were following in the footsteps of the Roman generals, Empire-builders, and literary geniuses. WWII was supposedly fought to end all dictatorship in the world. Ronald Reagan promised a world of pure good and evil because, the story went, America was a beacon in a land of darkness. The War on Terror is another mythical story of good vs. evil where a place called the ‘West’ clashes with a place called ‘Islam.’
Yes, these are all simple narratives. Yes, they contain a large element of myth and even outright falsehood. But they are compelling. They focus the minds of the ‘common’ man and woman on a make-believe world of heroes and villains. Ultimately, they spur people to action, actions they might not commit if a more sober analysis was conducted.
So, Trump came into this election with a simple, yet sustainable, narrative. His slogan (which has been used more or less by Ronald Reagan and wholly by Bill Clinton) of making America great again headlined his story. Americans were once a great people, Trump said, evoking feelings of heroism. But we have lost our way. Why have we lost our way? We have lost our way because the elites in Washington and New York and elsewhere are traitors conspiring against you. Yet, all is not lost, Trump continued. We can re-discover our heroism if we defeat our internal enemies who are holding us back from realising our past greatness.
Hilary Clinton, on the other hand, also told a story. American strength, she said, came from a diverse unity, a willingness to unite around common goals despite differences. Not a wholly bankrupt fable but it was not one that was compelling enough in the end, however. It really didn’t resonate with Americans. Clinton didn’t exude that roughness and coarseness which Americans admire in their on-screen heroes. The message of ‘stronger together’ evoked little in peoples’ hearts. The story didn’t tap into American heritage in the same way as Trump’s myth. Also, Trump tapped into one myth Hilary couldn’t. He is male and Americans are raised on a historical diet of the Founding Fathers who seized the torch of liberty. Gender matters in US Presidential races.
Today, demonstrations have broken out across the US in the wake of Trump’s victory. Hence, it seems like the election campaign for 2020 might start immediately on the Democratic side. In their own way, those protestors too are kneading together a story, the story of an uneducated populace frightened into submission by a manipulative oligarch, a myth of Fascism flying from Germany to the US across space and time, of old ghosts re-awakened. The question is whether myths and stories such as these will be enough to mobilize opposition behind a candidate who will challenge Trump’s occupation of the Oval Office in a leap year from now.