18 December 2016

Narrative Power: Power Narratives, Pt. 3

[The first two installments can be read here, below this post.]

Re-reading the previous post, I recognize there's an aura of sexism in saying the perceived narratives of the campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election could be boiled down to something like "The Strong Man vs. The Good Wife." The themes and tropes and memes of the respective campaign narratives, however, support this reading and make the conclusion practically inevitable. I will address this objection in these next two entries.

One of Clinton's main arguments about Trump's unfitness for the office of president had to do with his lack of presidential temperament. On multiple occasions, when asked about this critique, Trump shrugged it off, disagreed, and spoke about "winning" as his temperament. Winning, of course, implies besting someone, beating them, conquering them. It is a trope of masculinity. He turned her vague, insider-ist criticism into a reinforcement of his masculinist narrative.

This was either a deliberate and crafty deflection on his part or a simple misunderstanding of what Clinton was implying—and I will admit, on first hearing him say it, I thought it was the latter. It does not matter which. Being a winner was not what Clinton was referring to when she spoke about his lack of Presidential temperament. Yet, Trump managed to turn her negative implication into a positive quality that played perfectly into his "Strong Man" narrative.

A further problem of this attack: many, if not most, of the people who heard this during the debate did not understand what she was referring to by temperament. Trump's masculinist trope trumped her effete, elitist-sounding critique in their minds. The perception was that he managed to bull his way through her, dare I say, constant nagging about what a bad man he was.

Likewise, the leak of Trump's "pussy" grabbing video reinforced the masculinist theme of his narrative. The video was somehow leaked from Mark Burnett's NBC archives and absolutely dominated the news coverage for weeks—particularly as more and more women came forward accusing Trump of being a masher and a potential criminal sexual abuser. This clearly hurt Trump with feminists and their liberal allies. But they were never going to vote for him anyway. The effect on his base, those looking for a strong man as a leader, someone who knows what he wants and knows how to go out and get it—regardless of the consequences—was, I suspect, somewhat different.

What I found interesting is how and why that video turned up when it did. Burnett is Trump's partner on NBC's reality television show "Celebrity Apprentice." One suspects those behind-the-scenes videos are locked up somewhere in his personal vault. (And, as a parenthetical, I would note that no one ever found out who leaked this particular video and no other videos turned up during the campaign. Watch this space to see if Burnett, the man who made Trump a TV star, is rewarded somehow by Trump. Billy Bush, the other participant in the video dialogue, was paid $10 million for his part in the matter and "dismissed" from his job at NBC.) The video appeared on October 7, 2016, and, one can fairly say, it rocked the world.

That very same day, however, The New York Times also reported, "The Obama administration on Friday formally accused the Russian government of stealing and disclosing emails from the Democratic National Committee and a range of other institutions and prominent individuals..." This news, with potential elements of espionage and collusion and treason and computer hacking, had all the earmarks of a game-changing October surprise. Yet, it seemed to fade into the background when, by all rights, it should have been the single most important piece of news in the entire campaign. (To anticipate one argument, even if it wasn't the Russians who did the hacking and leaking to Wikileaks, the fact that the Obama administration publicly called Putin out on this matter was a major development that should have sent media and investigative reporters scrambling.) Instead, everybody got caught up in the lurid braggadocio of the GOP candidate, believing it would bring down Trump's campaign.

Yet, the opposite happened, and it happened because of its narrative significance. Though initially it registered negatively in the Pecksniffian press and media (often so predictably puritannical about sexual matters), as with any good plot point in a novel, this video managed to serve several important narrative purposes crucial to Trump's campaign narrative:
  • it brought massive amounts of attention—and further name recognition—to the Trump campaign (something I wrote about at length right after the party conventions);
  • at the same time, it provided cover for and a very real distraction from the truly world-shaking news that Vladimir Putin was actively intervening to affect our election process;
  • and, perhaps more importantly (certainly for purposes of this post), it perfectly reinforced Trump's masculinist narrative.
This was a critical moment in the campaign, and Trump's people knew it. If it came out that the Republican Presidential Nominee was somehow tainted or even in cahoots with the Russian dictator, the campaign was finished. Remarkably, the video was leaked. Was it an attempt by NBC to derail Trump, as many, especially at FoxNews complained? Or, was it a black bag or psy-op by the Trump campaign to take the scrutiny off his own business's and campaign's connections to Russia? Who's to say?

The point is: it happened, and Trump's personal masculinist narrative prevailed.

That is narrative power.

[to be cont'd]

12 December 2016

Narrative Power: Power Narratives, Pt. 2

[Part 1 can be found here]

In order to win, a competent United States presidential campaign must tell an effective story. It must provide a disparate, desperate, disaffected electorate/audience with a persuasive narrative.

The Trump campaign narrative was nearly mythic heroic in conception, analogous to the stories of Hercules: the entire country (its economy, its employment, its trade, its military, &c.) is a disaster, the U.S. government is a swamp of corruption and insider elitism, its establishment (all three branches of government and mainstream press & media) has no credibility, and the world-order is crumbling. All of this is conspiring against real Americans; and only he, Trump, can fix it. He will drain the swamp—clean out the Augean stables, if you will.

The Clinton narrative was more akin to a classic marriage plot. Our heroine achieves her aim by capturing and marrying the seemingly indifferent object of her affection—the voter. Clinton sought to cast the American electorate as the romantic lead whom she aimed to woo with her appeals to love and caring. She cares about good governance, keeping the household of state in order, dedicates herself completely and totally to it, and wants to bring the country together in a sense of shared patriotism. Capturing the vote would achieve the feel-good denouement—the happy ending—she, and by implication we all, desire.

The strong man vs. the good wife.

As I pointed out in the first post: "A coherent narrative, i.e., a well-told story, satisfies at least two basic human needs: (a) the need for authority and (b) the need for meaning." In a structural sense, these two fundamental goals of narrative in general actually worked in Trump's favor in this election, and he was able to exploit this advantage fairly convincingly.

In my pre-election six-part Frameworks series and post-election Aftermath post, I pointed out how Trump offered himself up as a classic Romantic hero, a candidate for the role of the "great man" of history consistent with a Republican deontological ethical philosophy. [Sorry about the big words.] Like a great novel, his narrative generated conflict after conflict, feuds, outrages, obstacles, and, importantly, Antagonists. He scapegoated Mexicans, Arabs, immigrants, inner city Democrats, corrupt Establishments in both parties, coastal elites, celebrities, and on and on. What's more, and as proof of concept, he managed to quell an apparently feuding GOP Establishment and bring them to heel. He gave a face to the causes of the angst he stoked in his followers, and he offered himself up as the strong Protagonist who alone could vanquish all those bugabears—including Hillary Clinton in all her corruption and dishonesty. He offered authority and meaning.

What's more, Trump managed to portray Hillary Clinton as ineffective, as a member of the elite, as an embodiment of the Establishment, as the face of all that 'otherness' that he asserted conspired against his constituency. And this portrayal of her stuck because it comported with her own self-characterization as a champion of diversity.

For my money, the absolute narrative climax of the campaign came in the second debate when Trump got in Clinton's face, pointed his finger at her, raised his voice angrily, and called her a criminal and said if he became President he was going to throw her in jail. He wasn't speaking to the moderator or the audience. He was confronting HER. It was a shocking moment. Nevermind the niggling protest of the Constitutional Separation of Powers, this was the Protagonist confronting and, at least rhetorically and showily, vanquishing his antagonist. It took.

It was the high point of an effective narrative. Character-driven. Full of intriguing plot twists and turns. A real page-turner. One simply did not know what the protagonist would do next (though you could rest assured it would be entertaining and rife with conflict). And the collective catharsis among his constituency when he won was as intensely purgative as Aristotle told us that a well-told tragedy should be after their emotions of (self-)pity and fear were triggered and, satifyingly, soothed.

The moral here is: Never underestimate the power of a good narrative, nor the consequences of failing to relate one. Quite frankly, the Clinton narrative did not have the classic power of Trump's. She was unable to wrestle the diverse, micro-targeted messages she was seeking to convey into a compelling, unified story. And in failing to do so, perhaps more importantly, she failed to portray herself as a powerful protagonist. She came across more often as a constant victim—of a vast right-wing conspiracy, of a Russian hack, of a rogue FBI faction and its intemperate Director, of a resentful mostly millennial Bernie constituency. Even of ill health.

And no one likes a passive hero. [Except, of course, for the 60+ million who voted for her, giving her at last count nearly three million more votes than Trump.]

What's more, she managed (with Trump's stong help) to come across as a classic unreliable narrator. In telling her own story, no one felt they could grasp quite what she really believed—again, a natural consequence of what I have called her all-things-to-all-people approach. Moreover, the promise of on-going scandal and investigation continuing long after her election did not portend a satisfying catharsis.

Clinton's appeal to love and positivity and diversity and competence, though denigrating Trump as a rank and divisive amateur, failed to identify a true villain or even any kind of strong cause for the brooding sense of anxiety that seemed to grip the electorate this cycle. And, perhaps most damningly, her campaign narrative had no effective climax or closure. No moral. She merely asked for everyone's votes because she deserved them. Very unsatisfying!

[to be cont'd]