The Zero-Sum Narratives of Trump and Farage and How to Beat Them

by admin on November 17, 2018 . Views: 89

A plurality of stories will create new political and social discursive spaces from which new movements can grow


On 26 September 2016 I hunched over my laptop here in Amsterdam to watch the first presidential debate between Clinton and Trump. Clinton’s answer to the first question didn’t impress me much. Then it was Trump’s turn. As he started to answer, it hit me: He’ll not only win the debate, but probably the presidency too.

Coming so soon after Brexit, and as the expat father of my then two-year-old son with a South African mum from whom I’m separated, I was in some sort of ice cream brain freeze.

The morning after, no plan in mind, I started writing.

I’ve since cannibalised the essay (titled, Winning Fictions, Fracking Democracy) for a larger project I’m working on. But below is a roughly edited section from the original piece and a new coda.

As a writer and more, I am sloughing my old skin in search of a new one. And as both the US and the UK continue their great Unravelling, this piece seems a good place to begin.

Weapons of Choice (2016)

“Were he around now, Foucault would likely remind us that history is a series of fictions — the most interesting thing about history being not what happened, but how people were brought to think what had happened.”

After the farce of the Brexit referendum, the US presidential election, and the absurd fallouts of both, it should be clear that today’s political leaders are skilled in writing *winning fictions* from any squalid discourse they choose.

Electioneering and political success rests upon it. But so does resistance. That’s why we should pay closer attention to the twinned fictions of Trump and Farage.

They are masterful in form and style.

The Wall

While their narratives could be pigeon-holed as populist (an anti-elite discourse in the name of the People) I feel uneasy with that label and it’s aptness.

A zero-sum narrative is a much better fit. One side’s loss is the other side’s gain. Not everyone can flourish. There’s nothing to be shared. All is finite and to be fought for.

The Wall is the ancient symbol of the zero-sum game. It is signifier and signified, physical and metaphysical as and when needed. The Wall reduces complexity to manageable binaries. It dispels dialogue and makes argument malleable.

Its erection and embrace is both male and female — inclusive of both and excluding all else. By promising to protect those within and keep those without at bay, the Wall fixes and directs, records and controls.

In a perfect resolution, Trump’s border Wall with Mexico will snake across the Atlantic to embrace Farage’s dystopian Kingdom at Breaking Point.

We are close.

Having broken the UK’s back across his own hyper-nationalist wall, Farage left. May stooped to the gutter to pick up his baton, which she would, having built her own party leadership bid on a Westminster speech on immigration that even UKIP called ‘repellant and xenophobic’ and ‘damaging to the nation’.

May now leads an insidiously nationalist government, her polarising rhetoric setting up Sturgeon, who’s in the starting blocks for a Scottish independence referendum. The DUP too, when they tilted at May, had a super-smart play. No power then, but with a controlling union for their part in The Wall? Their endgame is grim and looking great.

Let’s make no mistake, good deal, bad deal, or no deal at all, the Wall will be built, and the Wall will be tall.

As from the start, the stunning Brexit paradox is that, in the pursuit of taking back illusory control the UK must now cede more actual power and sovereignty to the EU than at any other time in its history.

And so a much diminished Kingdom is on the cards for decades to come. As more Tories bail, even the more avid Brexiters believe it will take 50 years for your average Jane and Joe to reap the rewards — should there be any at all.

And the unstoppable Farage is now back, claiming May’s betraying Brexit and he’s here to fix it. He fawns over Trump’s UN speech on upholding national borders and sovereignty, calling it ‘music to my ears’ and Trump’s defining political philosophy.

But Trump gives precisely zero fucks about politics or philosophy. All he needs is a Wall and an audience.

You Talkin’ To Me?

Trump’s lying is not a chink in his armour. It is neither useful nor accurate to say, either. Lying takes learning, focus and craft, none of which Trump possesses by half.

As Harry G. Frankfurt would say, Trump is a bullshitter. His focus is panoramic, not particular. He doesn’t tax his brain to insert falsehoods inside arguments. So he’s not bound by truths that may surround it either. He fakes context too, when he needs it. Palms up, eyebrows to the sky, shrugging, ‘Who knew?’ Fuck you ’45. And so, democracy dies.

Bullshit offers opportunities for improvisation, colour and imaginative play that facts never can. In this light, Trump’s Kavanaugh conference should be easier to understand. Slammed by the media as incoherent and unbelievable, they miss the point by a country mile. Trump’s performance was a masterclass in style.

This was no political rhetoric, but closer instead to Niro’s improvised genius of ‘You talking to me?’… Desperately linguistically limited, empty of sense, but chock-full of intent and meaning.

Trump remains unscathed because he knows truth is relative to one’s position in society. He knows that people vote socially and on identity not politically, and that performance beats policy.

But most importantly, he knows that bullshit is a way better raw material from which to write meaningful, and therefore; winning fictions.

Where Power Lies (2018)

“ … And at the time of the Unravelling itself, many took shelter inside, mourning the loss of all that had been familiar. Others walked outside to watch the skies as the ancient binary referents slowly descended to be reabsorbed into the earth; hyponyms fracturing, antonyms dissolving, tiny gasps of joy accompanying each new possibility …”

One cannot ‘defeat’ a performance. One cannot pay too much attention to logic when crafting alternative realities. And facts are useless when they’re not the thing that is up for debate.

Trump and Farage trade in performance, intent and meaning. The binary and reductive nature of social media, the current state of party politics, and the mechanics of democracy themselves provide an incredibly fertile discursive space for zero-sum narratives.

It is the perfect storm.

Except that, by definition, resistance inhabits all power relations. Zero-sum narratives rely on pre-existing fault lines to frack. And thinking in binaries, dear reader, is our mortal enemy when meaning itself is what’s at stake.

Social heuristics run incredibly deep: I’m right, you’re wrong. She’s weak, I’m strong. Tory and Labour, Republican and Democrat, smart and stupid, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, have and have-nots, white and black. These are the deceitful fault lines through which democracy is being fracked.

And it’s not just politicians doing it. The responsibility lies in equal measures with an unwitting public, a semi-conscious mass media and a solipsistic intellectual class.

Still, the Achilles heel of any zero-sum narrative is plurality. When fanned to scale, a plurality of stories can raze the breeding grounds of prejudice and entitlement that give the zero-sum narrative stability and credibility.

Power lies everywhere, in everything, and with everyone. Anyone can write their own winning fictions. Literally write them. We have everything we need right here in front of us. There is nothing to stop us.

A plurality of stories will create new political and social discursive spaces from which new movements can grow.

And by mapping and surfacing the plurality of this power-knowledge we will automatically begin to write new, winning fictions.

Be splendid,

—  Steve

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