Competing Views of Our History Are at Heart of Brexit/Trump Conflict

Fear and euphoria have greeted this years Brexit and Trump victories. The elections were about far more than one candidate or one option triumphing over another, however. They were about two competing visions of Western history.

On the one side, the ‘fear’ faction, the view is that we should have no history, so to speak. Everything that happened in the past, the wars, the Imperial ambitions, the racism, the clearly demarcated roles for men and women, and above all the nationalism – all these are sources of shame. Emblematic of this shame of history is WWII and the Holocaust. According to this vision, history should be left in the libraries or in documentaries.

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On the other side, the ‘euphoria’ faction, the view of history looks different. In this world, wars were heroic. People knew their place. Nationalism and religion bonded people together. Men and women lived up to standards of conduct. Everyone within a geographical area knew one another and shared things in common. While the international political world was chaotic, the domestic scene was one of bliss and above all, stability.

One can easily see these competing visions of the past coming to the fore in debates. Nigel Farage was roundly criticised for unveiling a poster that looked like a Nazi era piece of propaganda. Confederate and national flags are being proudly hung out once more in public. There are cries of ‘taking our country back.’ The n-word is no longer a dirty word. Demonstrations feature swastikas and not just on the ‘fear’ side. British and American voters are talking openly about a ‘splendid’ isolationalism. Trump has announced he wants to renew 1930s style trade tariffs. The list goes on and on.

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2016 has reminded us that history is very much alive. I don’t just mean in the sense that history repeats itself cyclically. I mean that our interpretations of history determine how we function in the present. From the end of WWII up to recently, one view of history, the ‘fear’ vision, was largely unchallenged. Today, three generations after WWII, it finds itself in serious crisis and under assault by those who no longer want history to be consigned to … well, history.

Trump Stormed to Victory Because He Mastered the Art of Storytelling

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.

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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.

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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.

The Hard Political Truth Donald Trump Dramatically Demonstrated To Us

In less than a week from today we should know who has earned the keys to the White House.  While the establishment candidate seems to have the election sown up, the unorthodox campaign of Donald Trump is undoubtedly the real story of the election. Trump crushed his Republican rivals, despite barely adhering to Republican values and despite being assailed from virtually all angles. While he may have been unable (and that awaits to be seen) to have gone the final leg, he must be congratulated for having exercised considerable nous in even getting so close to breaking the tape at the finishing line.

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A whole bunch of theories have been advanced with regards to Trump’s success, spawning a science of Trump-ology. The American public have been ‘dumbed-down,’ there is a resurgence of racism, Trump has positioned himself as an anti-establishment candidate, Americans are afraid of procuring or losing employment and Trump seems to know a thing or two about business, the list goes on.

If any of these are true, or to what degree they are true (if they are so), is probably something that will take a great deal of analysis. I would contend, and there is some evidence for my view, that Trump’s popularity is largely down to another factor: Trump has invoked the power of myth.

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Now, when I say myth, please don’t take it that I am talking about a ‘noble lie’ or indeed an outright falsehood. Myths are those stories we tell ourselves that portray our struggle in a heroic and even religious light. They are not necessarily falsehoods. What myths do, however, is go beyond our rational and intellectual faculties. They work on us by images and symbols. Myths essentially appeal to our emotions.

America is replete with myths, heroes, images, and symbols. A powerful myth (and very patriarchal one in a land of gender equality) is that of the Founding Fathers. Another myth, which has taken hold of the public imagination since the middle of the 20th century, is the depiction of the US as a country with a universal, civilizing mission. Heroes may depend on whose party you are allied to. JFK has been elevated to a heroic figure for many on the left. As regards images and symbols, there is the flag, the soldiers on Iwo Jima, Pearl Harbour, 9/11, etc …So America, like virtually every other country on Earth, has a history of mythic portrayal, heroism, imagery and symbolism.

What Trump did in this election was stick to a simple, yet mythic theme, the basic idea that America is a great country that has lost its way. For many minorities, this may ring hollow, but the slogan of “Make America Great Again” was specifically designed to appeal to the conservative, Northern European, constituency in the US. Polls show that Trump has scored very high with white, male voters across all regions and other demographic measures. He has done this – not by appealing to their intellect or rationale – but by holding out to them a mythic image of America.

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There is also an element of religion that informs the American myth and indeed Trump’s campaign. One cannot fully understand American history without also appreciating its roots in Protestantism. Using Old Testament analogies, Americans have viewed themselves as a chosen people who migrated to the Promised Land. They have seen themselves as a ‘light unto the nations’ (these types of images were evoked by President Reagan). In this tradition, Trump has thrown the religiously based idea out there that America needs to atone for losing its way. The US needs to go back to its pristine origins (the beating up of protestors who interrupted Trump rallies has even been justified by hearkening to the past).

And of course, there is the carefully crafted image of Trump himself. Trump is appealing to those Americans for whom General Patton or Douglas MacArthur (possibly even Dirty Harry) are the ultimate heroes. It is the ‘moral sheriff’ image which is so ingrained on the American psyche through Westerns and other forms of mass communication. What adds grist to the mill is that the Don is odious in the sight of the ‘do-gooders.’ These humanitarians do not understand that what made America great was individual toughness and their determination to go it alone (this is a mythic picture, admittedly). Lastly, there is the heroic image of Trump as a self-made man, another of those timeless images in the US.

If Trump had had to have run an intellectual and rational campaign, he would have failed miserably. He is barely able to explain himself on many issues, such as abortion, and his statements, as on Iraq, are wildly contradictory. The fact that he has overcome his incoherence, which has reached comic proportions at times, and lack of political poise, demonstrates the effectiveness of his mythic portrayal of both himself and America.

In conclusion, we shouldn’t label Trump as someone who lacks intelligence, or even that his supporters lack intelligence. People have a genuine need for meaning in their lives and Trump has supplied that. Successive candidates since Reagan have largely dropped the appeal to mythic images, at least in their campaigns. Trump resurrected the idea of myth in American politics. While he might not be able to go the extra mile, his roaring success shows the value of myth in political discourse.

Dogs, Bites, Barks, and the US Elections

 

Clinton or Trump?

Trump’s bark is worse than his bite.

The Don has a habit of making grand pronouncements, then ‘backtracking,’ modifying his position, or maneouvering.

Hilary’s bite is worse than her bark.

She looks like the nicey-nice, syrupy smooth, school-mistress. But her emails show her to be cunning and conniving. Hilary can destroy a country (especially a poor and weak one) with a press of the ‘send message’ on her email provider.

So the question is: who, at the end of the day, has the worst bite?