An Angry Election

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For most of us, there is one person whose views we seek when something does not add up or make sense. Someone rational and insightful. I would go to this one friend, who is unfailingly analytical. In the last six months however, he has been trying to make sense of the US election. After watching the third presidential debate, he said, “I realise watching it made me angry. There is so much anger. And it is contagious.” It took a while for it to sink in. Suddenly it started to make some sense. This US election is driven by rage. The main engine of this rage is not Donald Trump. Trump fans the fire. With full-fledged rage, common sense and civility fly out of the window. Which is why this US election is the nastiest in modern history. Why this nastiness is not the new normal. It is the new abnormal.

The 1976 movie ‘Network’ has an iconic character Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, who famously yelled, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Trump is the present-day Howard Beale who has declared, “I am very angry, because our country is being run horribly, and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger.” Some of us may think that ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ applies to Trump’s forceful narrative. His antics, ironically, overshadow the real issues he brings to the table – a populist fury at the consensus for a more globalised world which benefits only some, frustration over 15 years of slow economic growth, unhappiness with immigration laws, and the perceived helplessness towards conundrums like homegrown terrorism.

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A new research by Barclays Bank PLC has emerged about an angry movement driven by the disenfranchised, those who find themselves at the wrong end of change, or the lack of change. There is “a perception among ‘ordinary citizens’ that political and institutional ‘elites’ do not accurately represent their preferences amid a growing cultural and economic divide.” This “spans nearly all advanced economies, has been taking place for more than a decade, is unparalleled in modern history, and is deeply entrenched.” Brexit and the US election are just two glaring by-products of this movement. It is quite clear that demagogues of all kinds, from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to France’s right-wing leader Marine Le Pen, and to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, have all tapped into the simmering reservoirs of growing rage.

And if you think Trump is the only angry candidate – look deeper. While we see how Trump takes the bait from Hillary Clinton and loses it time and time again during the debates, Clinton and her campaign, have in turn consciously taken the bait from Trump and his angry followers. Americans may not agree with Trump when he interjected that she is “such a nasty woman”, but their distrust and dislike of Clinton go beyond what WikiLeaks lays bare, her emails, and the finances of the Clinton Foundation. Beneath a guarded composure, Clinton’s persona belies a quiet anger, a controlling passive aggressive vibe, lashing out occasionally at what she called the ‘basket of deplorables’. A psychologist offered this view: “From her public behaviour, I can see Clinton ranting and screaming in private.”

Trump, in contrast, is a transparent screamer and yeller. The tape of his lewd remarks of women is entirely consistent with the crude and bullying Trump we have come to know. Honestly, is anyone really surprised that he privately bragged about trying to bed married woman, then explained it away as ‘locker-room talk’? Which is why the statements of outrage from both the Democrats and Republicans come across as shallow. This tape is ‘offensive’ not because it uncovered a new Trump but because it is now apparent the old Trump is the only Trump. He will not turn ‘presidential’ for this election or for anyone. In fact, Trump’s initial response to the tape was, “I apologise if anyone was offended.”

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My friend is amazed that the leader of the free world will be picked from these two raging candidates, arguably the most unpopular of all time. Fanning the burning discontent, Trump, as a self-professed ultra-successful businessman, thinks he will bring the change America badly needs. Betraying her distain, Clinton, whom Obama proclaimed as the most qualified candidate, thinks as the first female American President, she not Trump, will make America great again. Yet many Americans are angrily conflicted that they have to choose from the lesser of two evils, while we watch from front row seats, an American debacle unraveling with unprecedented venom and endless surprise.

No one has divided America like Trump has. He has also single-handedly lowered the entry level to understanding the politics of an election, and for the uninitiated, elevated it to mass entertainment. The first and third presidential debates are among the three most watched in history, respectively garnering 84 million and 71.6 million viewers in America. But the arena of a presidential election is unforgiving. A long-time nemesis of Trump said, “He has exposed his flaws and failures to the world and … the people he will brush up against for the rest of his life. To them he is now officially a joke.” And whether she wins or loses, Clinton’s accomplished political career will be permanently discoloured by investigations into her missteps.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was once described as having ‘a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament’. When angry, he would write draft after draft of speeches. By the sixth, most of the offensive phrases would be gone. Abraham Lincoln would write furious letters when he was mad. But he never mailed them. Barrack Obama confessed to cursing more in the oval office than he had in his entire previous life. But the new abnormal is how Trump and Clinton feed into each other’s vitriol causing reactions from raised eyebrows to abject shock in an election getting angrier by the day. And the new abnormal is how Rodrigo Duterte gets away with some of the most flagrant political rhetoric. As a parting shot, my friend interprets this angry phenomenon with resignation. In this digital media landscape that is crowded and noisy, perhaps there is a real need to be louder, be angrier, to offend, to shock, in order to get your message across, in order to get results.

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