Having displaced religion as the organising framework of American culture, the therapeutic outlook threatens to displace politics as well. - Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 1979
Since the election of George W. Bush, I have been telling anyone who would listen that the 21st-century Republican Party was unlike any other centre-right political party. As a result, Australia and other US allies would find a future Republican president very difficult to live with because they were likely to be more undiplomatic and more nationalistic.
This has led to many arguments with policymakers who like to claim that the office of president moderates the elected candidate (Reagan and Obama seem examples to back up this position). My argument is that if you spend some time listening to popular Republicans, it is hard not to be alarmed.
This week I have spent hours on my couch watching the Republican Convention in Ohio. To be honest, it is a dismal way to spend one’s time – not exactly fieldwork, but primary research nonetheless. As a teacher of American politics, I feel obliged to do this so I can tell future generations that I was there (well, in a mediated sense) when one of America’s two major parties nominated President Trump. It is also my penance to watch this because, even after months of analysing, I am not able to understand fully what generally seems to be a highly emotive and irrational event – namely, the electoral success of Donald Trump.
Day one of this year’s convention was very similar to the last Republican Convention, with the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans died (two diplomats and two CIA contractors) again front and centre.
However, those who have been following other events might be aware that possibly as many as 470,000 people have died in Syria since 2011. This year police officers have killed 533 people in America and in the last year alone America has borne witness to 372 mass shootings featuring four or more victims.
The focus on this 2012 event in Libya at a second GOP convention in a row represents a myopia that would be considered insane if it were expressed in an individual.
If that analysis seems overblown, imagine being an alien whose first day on earth was at the GOP convention. At first you might think that America is living in relative peace if the worst loss of life in recent memory was four men in Libya in 2012. But, to your shock, you would soon learn that America is an apparently endangered nation facing an “existential threat”. It is also, in Trump’s oft-used words, “no longer going to be a country” if drastic action is not taken immediately.
Even if millions of Americans feel anxious and uncertain about their futures – which most people in the world also feel a good deal of the time – this rhetoric is totally unedifying. Moreover, the cures suggested – a wall, banning Muslim entry and high trade tariffs – are worse than the apparent problems faced.
The Cleveland convention reminded me that high emotion in public life has always been more American than British or Australian. Such outward displays of emotion are not seen at Australian or British election campaign launches, where policy and politicians still dominate the show. The circus has always been more a part of American politics than in other Western democracies. This year, in the GOP primaries and now at the convention, the circus is almost the whole damn show.
Sometime in the 1980s, The Phil Donahue Show and then Oprah pioneered daytime confessional television, broadcasting a level of personal angst that had once occurred only in private on the therapy couch. The results were widely viewed by audiences around the world, giving foreigners a constant window into the psychological woes of Americans. Given this, I should have been more prepared this week when “talkin’ from the heart” veterans and an “unhealed” (as CNN commentator Van Jones referred to her) mother featured as the headline speakers for Donald Trump’s Republican Party.
Having watched many prior conventions, I know the audience to be highly emotional. One moment they are an excitable bunch of sugar-bingeing kids at a birthday party; the next, grief-stricken mourners at a funeral. I should have known that the camera will always find a person crying in the audience on cue before shifting to another supporter chanting “U-S-A” to the lamest punchlines imaginable. The loyalists who attend these conventions are generally more interesting to watch than the speakers.
Based on the evidence above, it might seem like America is losing its mind. But, to be fair, American political conventions and those who attend them are not particularly representative of American society. Those with more faith in America than I have would say that the words of the campaign trail do not really matter; it is the actions in office that one should focus on.
So why don’t those same people watch elections with the sound turned off? There are rewards for listening carefully during campaigns: in 2008, Obama said he would authorise the US military to kill terrorists in Pakistan and that he would negotiate with Iran, policies that have defined the Obama doctrine for better and worse.
It is worth paying attention to Trump’s words because his political opportunism reveals that many fundamental policy issues that are the basis of America being an open, tolerant, and global society are up for grabs. In other words, the case for mass immigration, global trade and religious tolerance has not always been made effectively or humanely by elites (in America and elsewhere). Trump reminds those of us who support these policies that greater effort is required to point out why these liberal policies are beneficial and decent.
After listening carefully to the Republican convention, my sense of why Trump has been so popular with voters this year is because he appeals to his fellow citizens' sense of grievance and feeds their resentments, while offering fantastic and simplistic solutions.
As far back as 1979, Christopher Lasch worried in The Culture of Narcissism that a therapeutic outlook had supplanted proper political debates over “who got what, why and how”. The rise of Trump suggests that Lasch’s concerns were warranted as the narcissism of reality television is supplanting politics in America today.
Authors: Brendon O'Connor, Associate Professor in American Politics at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney