Seize the Narrative Ground

The arguments over why Hillary Clinton lost the election distract us from the more crucial question, how did Donald Trump win?

Trump won the election by constructing and wholly dominating three interlocking narrative worlds. He will continue to win as long as he continues to control the narrative ground of the nation. He builds these narrative worlds out of continually changing and contradictory lies. The often blatantly false stories he tells are not arguments designed to convince with evidence and facts; they are fantasies designed to enthrall the emotions and to ignite reactions that seemingly confirm the lies. He maintains his dominance with continual verbal explosions that shatter people’s trust in reality, stun them, and distract them whenever anything calls his narratives into question.

Trump constructs his primary narrative world around a fantasy of himself as the omnipotent and omniscient savior of the nation. Only he knows what will make the nation great again. And only he has the power to make what he imagines real.

Supporting this primary narrative world is a second one that portrays the nation as in “terrible, just terrible,” shape because of attacks by external and internal enemies—immigrants, Hispanics, Muslims, the news media, protestors, uppity women, and anyone who disagrees with or mocks him. In Trump’s stories, these enemies threaten not only the image and power of America, but its economic health, which is, according to Trump, in the worst shape it’s ever been because of Obama,  Clinton, China, the Democrats, and the Republican establishment.

The third narrative world is a variation of the second. Trump attacks any individual whom he perceives as a threat with vicious, contradictory lies. He portrayed Hillary Clinton, in contradictory lies, as the lying, criminal, greedy, corrupt, incompetent stooge of corporate interests and a Lady Macbeth scheming to gain total power. He portrayed and continues to portray Obama (except when it serves him not to), in contradictory lies, as an illegitimate, weak alien and as the scheming all-powerful destroyer of the nation.

None of these narrative worlds originates with Trump. Fantasies of a god-man who has the power to save the world through redemptive violence is a stock figure in the world’s religious and popular imagination. Demagogues, fascists, and totalitarians regularly ride such fantasies to power.

Fictions of the nation as a victim of external and internal enemies inevitably accompany the god-man fantasy. They lie at the heart of nativist, racist, and misogynist national narratives. During the last eight years, right wing purveyors of these nativist narratives have largely taken over the Republican party.

Right wing ideologues and some left wing ideologues have been proclaiming the false narratives about Clinton for over two and a half decades and about Obama for over eight years.

The threat Trump poses, as the narrator and hero of false stories, is a moral one. He denies and deafens us to the moral stories of the nation, the ones that inspire us to become more fully a democracy committed to the defense and expansion of human rights and the welfare of people of all ethnicities, religions, and national origins, the nation embodied in our great moral heroes, including Lucretia Mott, Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Trump replaces these moral stories with ones in which America is either a broken victim or a pure and self-righteous empire that has the obligation to brutalize anyone else if necessary to defend itself. The battles between enactments of these two kinds of stories, the moral and the anti-moral, have shaped our history since before the nation’s birth.

Recognition that Trump poses a narrative and moral threat to the nation leads to three proposals for mitigating this threat:

  1. Proclaim the truth and the facts continually, especially whenever and wherever he, his associates, his supporters, and others tell lies, deny facts, and spout unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.
  2. Defend the rights and dignity of all—African Americans, indigenous peoples, Latinos, Muslims, Jews, women, LGBTQ people, the disabled, immigrants, the poor, workers, as well as white, wealthy males. Defend the democratic and other institutions that secure these rights. Recognize and proclaim that respect for human rights necessarily means doing all we can to stop and mitigate the effects of global warming. Make these defenses not only in demonstrations and large public events and printed and electronic forums, but in everyday interactions at work, at home, on the telephone, in social media, and in public places.
  3. Seize the narrative ground by telling and promulgating, through effective presentations, demonstrations, dramatizations, social media posts, blurbs, texts, flash mobs, and spectacles, moral stories in which the heroes act to proclaim and defend truth, facts, and the rights of all. As much as possible, make Trump irrelevant, except as an obstacle to be overcome, in the stories that we tell and listen to 24/7. The Standing Rock occupation provides one model for how to seize the narrative ground.