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

by Steve Seager


A plurality of stories will create new political and social discursive spaces from which new realities can grow. But first they have to be written.

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 primal 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, 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 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 still 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?

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

A much diminished Kingdom is on the cards for decades to come. As more Tories bail the UK, even avid Brexiteers believe it might take 50 years to reap the rewards — if there’s any at all.

And the unstoppable Farage is now back, claiming May’s betraying Brexit and he’s here to fix it. He fawned 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 has no truck with philosophy. All he needs is the Wall and an audience.

You Talkin’ To Me?

Trump’s lying is not a chink in his armour, so don’t even try. 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, and 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, closer instead to Niro’s improvised genius of ‘You talking to me?’… Desperately linguistically limited, empty of sense, chock-full of meaning and intent.

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

More importantly, he knows that bullshit is the best 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 …”

The rhetoric of Trump and Farage is exceptional… in all senses of the word.

They know you cannot ‘defeat’ a performance. They build their narratives around the Wall, the most powerful signifier of them all. And the binary mechanics of today’s democracy, immersed in cash-gobbling meme-driven media, provide the most fertile discursive space in human history.

The zero-sum is the one narrative to rule them all, because social heuristics run deep. Not a single critique will ever create a new reality. I’m right, you’re wrong. She’s weak, I’m strong. Tory and Labour, Republican and Democrat, smart and stupid, rich and poor, white and black; these are the fault lines through which democracy is fracked.

Thinking in binaries is our mortal enemy when meaning at stake. Meaning is messy and complex, contrary and contradictory, just like history. We literally write our own reality. Because the Achilles heel of the zero-sum is plurality.

A plurality of stories will raze the breeding grounds of prejudice and entitlement that keeps incumbents safe. It will destroy the credibility of the zero-sum game.

But they first need to be written. Literally written: gotten out of our heads and homes, into the digital wild, through our laptops and phones into zeroes and ones, where they can be surfaced and shared, scaled and mutated by artificial intelligence, to form new discursive spaces … from which new realities can grow.

There really is no other way.

—  Steve

[This post is a synthesised extract from ‘Fracking Democracy’ an unpublished/unfinished thesis from September 2016]

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