One day, somebody will compile the statistics for new blogs in the early months of 2017. They’ll look at how many more people started writing now than the same time last year, and then they’ll look at how many of those people immediately started talking about Donald Trump. I expect those numbers to be pretty close to one another, and I’m more than happy to oblige myself on that front. Realistically, this isn’t even really about Donald. Trump is just bankable right now, a fact that I’m shameless enough to exploit, but also sheepish enough to feel the need to lampshade.
Disclaimer: The following is a generalisation, intended only to demonstrate and discuss the principles underlying one pillar of the right’s recent success. If it were humanly possible to write a full disclaimer extolling the universal individuality of humanity, my desire not to denigrate or make assumptions (despite the occasionally curt nature of the language used), etc., I would do so here. Since it is not, I will have to trust the reader to take everything in good faith.
Image: The Independent. Adding some journalistic credibility to my nonsense.
Politics is an interesting discipline, in that there is a vast, qualitative gulf between political thought and the meaningful execution of those same thoughts. To indulge in some rather crass divisions, the former is mostly philosophy, the latter an exciting cocktail of social science and thick, viscous bureaucracy. The translation from one to the other is doomed to imperfection – it’s why ideas like cosmopolitanism and (real) communism can have persisted for literal millennia without ever really existing outside of theory. The sad truth is that these two halves of the political world are not of equal significance, and the primacy lies fairly clearly with the latter. An idea that can’t be implemented is absolutely worth having, but it’s essentially trapped until somebody comes along with the nous to emancipate it. In other words, politics as it applies to somebody like me (a disgusting milksop with no sense for praxis) is basically about ideas. Politics as it applies to politicians is more about trying to coerce a variety of barriers into letting an idea through. In a democracy, the first and most important gatekeeper from this perspective is the electorate, be that your own political party or the general public. If you can’t win elections or referenda, you are dead on arrival. The ideas that you represent remain imprisoned.
Now, on rare occasions the world may be blessed (or cursed) with a legitimate natural, somebody who is equally, intensely proficient in philosophy, demagogy, and administrative strategy. I don’t feel too risqué in saying that there isn’t currently anybody operating on that level, although I’m sure I can think of at least one person who would disagree. In the absence of such a living legend, priority number one for any political brand is marketing. Policy barely matters at all compared to the ability to sell it, as long as what is being suggested is even notionally presentable – and as we’re seeing now, it really doesn’t need to be any more than that. Mandatory goat ownership for all citizens might be a stretch, but you can absolutely make homophobia work, despite the former being if anything more relevant in affairs of state.
The irony of all this is that, in the current climate, highly conservative groups have by far the sleekest, most modern sales pitch. Consider television and internet advertising: a whole swathe of it is gaudy, artless, mildly to severely offensive, and has no respect for the audience’s intelligence. It seems like it should be totally ineffectual, and, indeed, nobody will admit that it could possibly influence their purchases. Clearly, however, it isn’t and it does. With Trump’s election and continued shenanigans, I believe that the political sphere will finally be forced to accept the same of the new strain of right-wing movements that he so aptly caricatures. It’s only bad politics until it keeps winning.
Le’s see how that turns out. Image: Still The Independent.
The analogy here is completed by the fact that these campaigns are succeeding using moves straight from the commercial sector’s playbook. I’m sure that there are countless ways to sell a product, but the one that I see more than perhaps any other goes as follows.
1: Encourage a negative emotional response in the audience.
2: Offer a simple way to resolve that troublesome emotion.
Clear problem (1), clear solution (2).
Picture the scene.
A man/woman sits, indolent, on their sofa. They’re not looking too good. On the seat next to them, clearly visible even through the pallor of tactless desaturation, is a box half full of retch-inducingly oleaginous pizza. The voiceover informs you dispassionately of the myriad perils of an unhealthy diet. This man/woman, like you, is a flabby wreck trapped in an agonising, self-imposed death march.
But, don’t worry – there’s a solution. All you need to do in order to be the vibrant, beautiful person you now see on the screen, frolicking in a park with their equally beauteous friends, is to follow Donald’s five rules for perfect health. Finally something that works! Nutritionists hate him!
Or something along those lines. Accentuate the negative sentiments already present, then offer a straightforward route away from them.
People right now feel doomed and powerless. Global economic, scientific, and social processes have become more and more inscrutable, but their effects are as palpable as ever on the ground floor. The availability of information has grown exponentially, but the limits on how much can be healthily processed remain constant. We are more frequently reminded of every calamity, present or predicted, than ever before, just as the complexity of these situations eclipses our understanding by ever greater margins. There are whole demographics whose thoughts and skills once represented modernity and power, but now appear woefully outdated, even to themselves.
And while you may think that all of this is basically true, actually saying that is a terrible way to try and get people to vote for you – unless you can also convince them that you have the answer in your back pocket.
So, Clinton and Trump both want to sell you a new regime, which is good wordplay, because that can mean both a governing body and a set of dietary practices. How clever.
Anyway, Clinton walks up to the podium and talks for a long time about the tremendous nuance and depth of nutritional science. She describes how there are a vast number of opaque moving parts, which in any case are governed by equally many nebulous contextual factors. Your current diet isn’t ideal, and is only likely to get worse, which will raise your risk of diabetes and heart disease. You’ll have to maintain a disciplined, balanced diet, not to mention take up regular exercise, if you want to turn things around. Within a few months, you should start seeing improvements if you’ve been diligent and intelligent.
The response to this pitch is tepid.
Out comes Trump. The food companies are making you all obese, and you will die of fatness and/or cancer. But it’s OK. Carbs make you fat. Don’t eat carbs and everything will be better.
The crowd goes wild.
If you want to market a probiotic yoghurt, do you offer a detailed explanation of the intestinal ecosystem? Of course you don’t, you lunatic. You remind people that they are in pain, and then you tell them you have some friendly bacteria right here that can stop it. Same rules apply.
Image: Digital Spy.
To re-iterate: clear problem, clear solution. The more scared your audience is already and the more distant the answers seem to be, the better they will respond. At present, voters worldwide are primed to a degree and breadth that is perhaps unprecedented, and only the proponents of one traditionally fringe ideology are benefiting: in part because of shrewd messaging, and in part because this is how these groups have always worked. By way of (yet more, yet cruder) examples:
Crime and unemployment? Mexicans are rapists who have also stolen your job. Build a wall.
The international community? Brussels has stolen all of your money. Leave the EU entirely.
The penal system? Criminals are rapists who are admittedly not currently stealing your job. They deserve nothing. Death penalty, or at the very least as many cuts as you can make.
Energy? Climate activists have forced us to buy energy from China. Climate change isn’t even real. Dig coal.
And, of course, Terrorism. Muslims are terrorists. Ban Muslims.
You may have detected some minor exaggerations, but I hope I’ve communicated my thoughts with at least some degree of clarity. Right now, owing to a confluence of unfortunate circumstances, people are increasingly arriving at a state of mind that is better spoken to on the above terms than by more traditional political rhetoric. It would be easy to bemoan the intellectual state of the general public, but that would be missing the point. People aren’t any stupider now than we always have been, and in any case ‘intelligence’, whatever we take that to mean, is secretly barely relevant. Regardless of alignment, people vote according to emotion, informed to varying extents by reason. Hearts and minds – but only ever in that order.
Like this, but with Joy somewhere in the distant background. Image: Disney Movies.
The demand for clear problems and solutions is more vociferous than it has been in recent memory, owing, in my opinion, to the spiralling complexity of both. Centrist and leftist groups are not providing them, the right is, and so the right, and moreover the far right, seems for now to be ascendant. As described all the way at the beginning, I don’t think ideology is as important as presentation in ‘competitive politics’ – when it comes to gaining votes, you can plug any basically relevant ideas you want into the winning presentational formula and come out looking healthier than you were before. If the far right’s campaign model is indeed the most effective of anything currently in use (with all the saddening implications thereby entailed), then there isn’t any reason why centrist and left-wing groups can’t be applying it to their own ideals, unless:
A: These groups simply don’t acknowledge its efficacy and genuinely believe their own messaging to be more effective at reaching modern voters.
B: These groups do acknowledge its efficacy, but are unwilling to employ it themselves because they find it unsavoury.
C: I am wrong, and this approach is uniquely suited to right-wing politics.
D: Something else I haven’t thought of/some other way in which I am wrong.
In any case, what happens now may well be a test of conviction. ‘Clear problems, clear solutions’, or fad diet salesmanship, is obviously a somewhat distasteful mode of operation. It demands that the user deliberately fail to divulge some pieces of relevant information, and deliberately overstate the relevance of others. It forces them, in essence, to employ the logic of a con artist. That is unfortunate, but equally so is the fact that the most virtuous, truthful, edifying political discourse in the world isn’t going to help anybody if the electorate isn’t in the right place to hear it. That door is extremely unlikely to blow open of its own accord. If you, as a political actor, don’t believe that the current direction of world politics is a productive one, then you are compelled to put in the work to try and change course. In the absence of a paradigm-shiftingly major event or the appearance of a new, unstoppably compelling political figure, it may now be in the best ideological interests of politicians, regardless of inclination, to start working outside of the comfort zones that their senses of pride or propriety would usually dictate.
Just thinking out loud. Please don’t hurt me.