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]