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The Politics of Narrative

“There were no governing principles. There was no one to say, `No, this is going too far, this isn’t what we stand for.”

— Barack Obama, November 2016

Barack Obama succinctly expressed what the politics of narrative signifies: there are no governing principles, no universally recognize gatekeeper/arbiter to tell us “this is going too far.” And within this politics of narrative, there does indeed exist a “going too far” narrative. That’s a narrating against resident governing principles, a narrating that believes President Donald J. Trump is not going too far, that he represents what Americans should stand for but have been silenced and impeded by a political authority inimical to him and them.

We seem to have fallen very quickly into a cultural life-world in which governing principles have collapsed to the point where any mutual agreement or even compromise seems like an archaic, naïve fantasy, a remnant of an analog mindset. We can trace a shadowing of the American mass psyche’s dark side from the country’s beginning right up to the display of hate and loathing in Charlottesville, Virginia but that is not the case with our cultural mindset change. We seem overnight to have leaped into a way of knowing ourselves, others and the world severing us from returning to what Habermas has called a “communicative rationality.”

Before Trump came on the national scene and Kelly Anne Conway’s assertion of “alternative facts,” facts were already being suspiciously viewed as just someone’s values. We could all easily see on Twitter that you had your opinion of the facts and I had mine. Truths were stories/narratives that we could no longer settle by appealing to any universally accepted universal rule of judgment. Whose truth is it? Everyone was tweeting/texting inside and not outside the flux of the moment. That flux might involve a great deal of turmoil as contesting narratives clash, neither side able to land a knockout punch.

Whatever joined us in believing that we could respond rationally and empirically to an “external reality” has left the scene. We look back at history and what we now see are concocted stories of that “external reality.” We see our ancestors living in those stories, most appearing preposterous and silly to us. Individuals were living in bubbles not of their own making. And so we suddenly became aware that each of us was not outside the world observing it objectively but confined within spaces not of our own choosing. Suddenly, and with the marvelous facilitating power of cyberspace, we became free to narrate a personal life world that we ourselves were creating merely by choosing to do so.

The kind of “reasoning” that had led to a stupefying wealth divide is now observed to be a reasoning from pinnacles of power whose power is preserved and protected by such reasoning. And such power in the American mass psyche is always governmental and political. Trump’s persona as not a politician, which he daily works at confirming, as well as his disrespect for the political structure he has stepped into signals that he is the one “fighting the power.” He does not read books but he did read the narrative within which his followers were living. He knew their story and could mimic it in both style and substance.

Although Trump did not create an attitude in which rational argument had given way to “my” narrative/”your” narrative, he has definitely brought the post-truth attitude into the Oval Office. In doing so, he legitimizes and authorizes a way of knowing that cannot by its very nature establish and preserve any order of things. It is not a mindset upon which a government that is structured to serve the general Welfare and not the idiosyncrasies of an individual will can be formed.

Doubt that any story of truth can be anything more than self-confirming extends to the story of American democracy itself,  which has been for almost a half century a front for a working plutocracy which a party duopoly, Democrats and Conservatives, equally support. A slowly emerging battle between Congress, which may be forced to assert its power to impeach the president and thus protect a democratic balance of powers, and the president, who has from the beginning promised to tear down the Washington powerbrokers, plays out on a stage in which democracy is already viewed as conspiratorial and Trump as a challenger to that power conspiracy.

Much of this turn toward no authority beyond one’s own opinion, truth as a narrative, alternative facts, and reality and reason as self-designed came to fruition cataclysmically with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and his election, most stupefying for some and exhilarating for others. I refer to a cataclysm because regardless of what Trump narrative you are in, his election is an event both surprising and momentous. The narrative divide here is not over policy but personality as those on both the Democrat and Republican side wonder how such a man can be president and what kind of people would vote for him as president. Although there have been countless armchair psychiatric exams of Trump, he yet remains outside an established political frame of understanding. You have to switch jump into another story frame to make him real, a jump to the spinscape of Reality TV and the hyperreal of celebrity and enormous wealth that infects the American cultural imaginary.

This is a jump every Trump supporter made; into a world narrated in the same way they narrate the world. It is not a jump that all those who voted for Hillary were able to make, not by choice but because they were already living elsewhere. Both narrative realms are variously plotted and valued but the grounding force separating them seems clearly to be an enormous wealth divide and the long term consequences of that. In a simplified and also over generalized way, we have a meritocratic, professionalized, dividend recipient story/reality frame over here and over there we have a narrative world we’ve not been inclined to narrate until Trump won the election.

The disinclination or disinterest has of course been on the side of those who have been before the advent of The Web in a gatekeeper position to narrate the world we are all in from their perspective. What that has meant in terms of the politics of narrative is that a good deal of frustration was built up in those whose stories of the world were impeded by not being disseminated. At the same time it meant that the Impeding Gatekeepers had encased themselves in a bubble of their own selective narrating, confining themselves to a selective vision of things which excluded, as we now know, those 78% who live on wages that have remained flat forever.

The fact that Donald J. Trump is now president of the United States is astounding and troubling to this rarefied zone faction unacquainted with the lines of the story he seems to be following. They are, however, more unacquainted with those who are loyal to Trump and remain so. These Trumpians live in a life-world that remains opaque and unknown to those whose own life-world distinguishes itself by excluding such recognition and such knowledge.

Those who are not drawn to the slogan “Make America Great Again” are already enjoying the present America. And if they live in gated communities, one of the reasons they do so is avoid contact with those unhappy, disgruntled by their present status in America. In a politics of narrative world, this unacquaintance signals surprise if this unhappy faction reaches visibility on the national stage. More accurately, they have reached that visibility via both Trump and The Web of cyberspace. Trump continues to communicate with his followers on Twitter because he did not reach the presidency and they did not reach visibility by the paths of “governing principles” already cordoned off to them.

We live now within a narrative between those who connect with Trump, those who are repelled, and those who are repelled but cannot disconnect out of fear and greed. The fear is that such a disconnect will lose the Republican Party’s Trump supporters. The greed has all to do with the money to be made when a Republican president signs legislation a Republican Congress brings to him. Tax reductions, infrastructure contracts, deregulation of everything, and military/industrial contracts in never ending wars loom enticingly.

The question that those who find Trump to be a real nightmare as president ask is “What are these Trump supporters like?” “Who are they?” They don’t swim in the same waters so identification is a problem. The unknown “Other,” often an ethnic or racial minority in the Liberal perspective, is in this case, that 78% of the U.S. population who live on their wages, or are making the attempt. History reveals to us that the plight of a multitude can remain invisible to an order in which wealth and attendant power have no incentive to recognize it. Cyberspace has made the invisible visible.

What cyberspace has done on one level, say, a noble democratizing level, is liberate every voice. In market terms what it has done involves sudden, frequent explosions of huge demand, that is, wants and not wants, likes and not likes,  and equally quick responses to profit from the  dissemination of such. There was and remains profit to be made in Trump the celebrity going viral, regardless of how destructive his presidency may turn out to be. When market interests, both apolitical and amoral, determine that Trump is a marketing frontier then a one sided synergy results, one restricted to profit to shareholders.

In the political realm, the profit is in making whatever goes viral your platform, that is, your narrative. And because whatever goes viral is mass popular and mass popular because it has affective, prereflective force, the loony, both in what is said and who says it, has taken center stage.

Those who connect with Trump on a gut level have, if you follow Twitter, little difficulty identifying those who are repelled by Trump. They’re the Hillary sore losers, of course, but beyond that they are the gentrifiers, the bosses who lay them off with a phone call, the Liberals who vote to give away tax money to the minorities whose votes they seek, the “kingmakers” and gatekeepers who muzzle them with “political correctness,” the first class and elite passengers, the parents who have nannies and Mandarin tutors for their kids, the shoppers who drop stuff in their basket at Whole Foods without looking at the price, who care more about the way Trump hits on women than his promises to “make American great again,” who have garnered their wealth “by hook or crook” and hypocritically point a finger at Trump for doing the same, who think Trump is a cretin, a low life, and so think they are also.

In short, the narrative the Trumpians can recite about those who hate them and Trump is a long, detailed narrative whereas the anti-Trumpians are mystified as to what kind of lives these Trumpian must lead. This Grand Canyon divide in narrative is itself a symptom of a long lasting wealth divide. Trump’s followers have not had the social and economic power to leverage their frustrations on the national stage until they entered cyberspace as a market force to be exploited. Or, less skeptically, they became profitable. Trump entered the same marketing/political space as his followers and remains a similar source of revenue.

Beyond the fear and greed that defines the Republican Party’s relationship with Trump, the dilemma they face has also to do with the fact that they cannot represent a sector of the U.S. population they cannot represent to themselves. Before Trump, this party felt no need to profile closely those who avidly became Trump followers. They had, instead, taken the low ground of a racial and ethnic politics to front their own refusal to tackle the problems that a wayward capitalism had created. Now, after cyberspace has become the opened Pandora’s Box of dark affinities and dark imaginaries, Republicans have either to accept that base of the basest or lose their electoral power by joining with Democrats in bringing down Trump. Enter fear and greed.

The Democratic Party shares the dilemma of the Republicans in not being able to identify the Trumpians. If there had been any inclination by the Democratic Party which boasts of putting people before profit, to discover what narrative frame enveloped some 78% who are wage earning Americans, they could have learned much. They could have recognized the plight of 78% of the population as well as Trump did and years before he did if they were not almost solely attached to a narrative of the margins not the Heartland. This attachment to a cultural politics of marginal lives has been a front covering up their disinclination to tackle the problems that a globalized financialized techno-semio capitalism has created for 78% of the population.

Trump and the Trumpians are outside the narrative both Republicans and Democrats uphold. David Remnick in The New Yorker defines a need to resist Trump and the narrative of resistance itself: “The most important resistance to Trump has to come from civil society, from institutions, and from individuals who, despite their differences, believe in constitutional norms and have a fundamental respect for the values of honest, equality and justice.” (August 28, 2017) In the politics of narrative we are in, however, different narratives construct different beliefs while norms themselves are now newly refashioned by viral flows of tweets. Thus, neither party can within this climate of narrative politics hope to return to a foundation of “fundamental respect” which is like hoping to close the door when that horse has already left the barn.

Equally dismal is a situation where no narrative of those with whom you differ is available to you beyond one that is demonizing. Why pursue a politics of identity regarding Trump supporters when you believe they are some form of aberration that time and “progress” will erase?

What the Trump/anti-Trump divide mirrors then is the divide in the country as a whole, a divide spinning within a politics of narration, which is not simply one-sided and lop-sided as the wealth divide but rather this politics of narration situates us within a whirlwind of unreachable opinionating, a hurricane of contesting stories we cannot adjudicate or dissolve.

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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