From Homer to Trump…
Why Trump’s Tall Tales Win Hearts & Close Minds
Looking back at 2018, I return again and again to this photo. Taken May 29, 2018 at a MAGA rally in Nashville, Tabitha Kaylee Hawk’s photo was the feature image used with Salim Matt Gras’ Open Letter to Trump, written after Gras attended a Missoula rally.
Gras describes the shift from ‘ chitchat with the people around me [who] seemed quite ordinary, people who could be my neighbors’ to a seething ugliness,
“as if this crowd of otherwise ordinary people had been given permission to morph into something very dark and very menacing. And it was the glee they showed — when you badmouthed Clinton, say, or boasted about building a wall to keep out people suffering abuse seeking refuge, or spoke admiringly of our Republican U.S. Representative body slamming a reporter.”
In the past two years, we have seen a surfeit of articles and photos capturing the ugliness of populist demonstrations and the resurgence of white nationalism, yet this is the image that haunts me. Look at those faces. Look at those beaming smiles. The camaraderie. The light. The joy. When I studied that photo it seemed absolutely clear to me that no matter what Trump does or says, his base will support him because this is how he makes them feel.
Happy. Seen. Spoken to. Affirmed. This response is not news, as understanding the Trump base is a much discussed topic. What might be new, though, is a different way of thinking about the relationship between storytelling and the self that I’d like to share here.
We know in this era of storytelling that being able to tell your story (tell your best story!) is an essential skill promoted in business, marketing, and entertainment. An entire industry of consultants, resources, and strategies are at your digital fingertips, to help you refine your storytelling craft. Take this excerpt from a 2005 article in the Harvard Business Review:
“All of us tell stories about ourselves. Stories define us. To know someone well is to know her story — the experiences that have shaped her, the trials and turning points that have tested her. When we want someone to know us, we share stories of our childhoods, our families, our school years, our first loves, the development of our political views, and so on….we’re talking about accounts that are deeply true and so engaging that listeners feel they have a stake in our success.”
Personal storytelling is often positioned as a component of mental health and recovery, as contributing to a stronger sense of unified, integrated selfhood:
‘“Life stories do not simply reflect personality. They are personality, or more accurately, they are important parts of personality, along with other parts, like dispositional traits, goals, and values.” Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, and Erika Manczak (APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology).’
From Black Panther to Call Me By Your Name, we know how vital seeing oneself represented is for individuals and communities whose stories have for decades been denied or denigrated in white heteronormative mainstream cultural domains.
My areas of expertise are not in medicine or psychology, so I pose this next thought tentatively, knowing that there are many many instances where being able to understand and tell one’s story is vital.
What is missing in the model of ‘telling’ of one’s story is a recognition of the role of someone else to listen, to hear, and to acknowledge the story we tell. If we focus only on the telling, we run the risk of sliding towards the implicit isolationism of Descartes’ cogito. A story that is not heard or acknowledged is akin to Midas shouting into the reeds. Hence, an industry devoted towards finding your audience and moving your audience, such that getting ‘listeners [to] feel they have a stake in our success’ is an unquestioned goal of marketing, branding, and communications broadly. Think TED Talks to NIKE ads.
From a distance, when I look at images of enthusiastic Trump supporters, what seems clear is that they LOVE the story he is telling to them, of them. His nostalgia-driven narrative of Make America Great Again resonates to a degree that it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. Trump understands how to mobilize a range of mythos that confer a communal identity, positioning his supporters at the center of history in the making.
The more I thought about this, the more my thoughts returned to the work of an Italian philosopher, Adriana Cavarero, on the dynamics of life stories and “the narrative work of memory” (33): “Every human being, without even wanting to know it, is aware of being a narratable self — immersed in the spontaneous auto-narration of memory “ (33). In her 1997 work, Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood, Cavarero’s argument traces ‘the relational character of the self,’ and the effect of what occurs when we entrust another to ‘tell me my story’ (86).
Cavarero looks back to Odysseus hearing the song of his own famous exploits at the court of the Phaecians as defining an alternate model for how the self is constituted by narration. Odysseus, in disguise, listens to the bard sing of
“an episode whose fame has touched the sky:/Achilles and Odysseus’ quarrel — /how at a splendid sacrificial feast,/ they argued bitterly, and Agammemnon/was glad because the best of the Achaeans/ were quarreling”
On hearing the story of himself, shared in a court of strangers, Odysseus weeps. Cavarero argues that this scene encapsulates our desire to hear our story told, not as we would tell it ourselves, rather as others will tell our story. This insight, that our vision of self is defined by others, that our sense of self is confirmed when our story is told back to us, is profound. Odysseus hears the story of how he will be remembered, how he is being remembered, and he weeps.
That we need another to ‘tell me my story’ (86), to confer this understanding of ourselves narratable, a story that can and will be told emphasizes, too, the craft and vision of the storyteller. The craft involved in creating complex, meaningful, compelling, memorable stories out of the messy, dense, contradictory experiences of our everyday lives. We cannot do this for ourselves as another can.
This desire to hear our story as others conceive it is there at the end of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, when Augustus asks Hazel and Isaac to write their eulogies for a pre-funeral, as “I want to attend my funeral.” The eulogies that Hazel and Isaac read share the impact Gus has had on each of them and how each will remember him after his imminent death.
This desire for our story to be told back to us by others illuminates so many of the dynamics and consequences of online engagement and the dangers of echo-chamber isolation that have marked this year. Deeply divisive conflicts over whose story we believe. Whose story we affirm.
Cavarero’s insight as to the power of hearing our life-story told by another, that we desire to understand ourselves as a story that can be told, and that the ‘self’ is a relational self, affirmed, confirmed by others, is, I think, key to the joy we see in the faces of Trump supporters.
At core, Trump is telling a story that his base identifies with and claims as their own. It doesn’t matter whether the details are true now or true in the past. It doesn’t matter that the edifice of his lies is like a shaky Jenga pyramid, shifting from one day to the next. Collapsing and being set up again. It doesn’t matter that the stories he tells may have nothing to do with how these people actually live or have ever lived. Engage with their neighbours, diverse co-workers, or communities. None of that matters compared to how he makes the people in this photo feel. It’s worth looking at the expressions here again.
We all know ourselves from the inside, subjective, messy, distracted, layered, dense. We may learn the art of storytelling to craft and share a story of ourselves. We may tell it well or tell it badly, and we may turn to the multi-sector industry of consultants dedicated to helping you shape and deliver a better story. None of this matters if no one affirms it back. If no one responds, likes, claps, shares, retweets, etc., etc.
None of this is as powerful as hearing a story of ourselves told back to us, especially by someone we admire and respect. Cavarero argues that in this episode, Homer shows us our ‘desire to hear one’s own story in life’ (33). The power of the storyteller is to give us is a vision of our life in ‘the figural unity of the design’ (xxi). Our story is made manifest and confirmed in the eyes and understanding of another. We cannot do this for ourselves as ‘the story can only be narrated from the posthumous perspective of someone who did not participate in the events’ (xxii). This power of transformation and mediation is the storyteller’s gift and for Odysseus at the court of the Phaeacians, he hears how he is being remembered and he weeps.
Looking ahead to 2019 amidst the rise of global populism, we need better stories if we are to move those who are drawn to narratives that empower a few at the expense of others. What story can you or I offer to those who will condone callous inhumane policies and actions if the trade-off is a sense of communal valorization from a man they admire? I look to the work of many I know with hope, from Jeff Gomez and Maya Zuckerman’s work on the collective journey, to Michael Margolis’ Get Storied, to Lina Srivastava’s storytelling for social change, and many others. My hope is that Cavarero’s insights as to the power of our desire to hear another tell our life-story can lend some light to the puzzle of the unwavering support of Trump’s base, no matter how vindictive or polarizing his claims and policies. What can you or I offer that can spark the luminous joy so clear in each of those faces?
Notes for the future:
The Rogerian style of argument…
Judith Butler on interpellation…
New narratives…new communities… I’ll likely be tweaking this
Thoughts & comments & challenges welcome. I do not have an answer for this!