So far the story of the 2016 presidential election is far from what anyone expected. New York businessman Donald Trump, former host of the NBC reality television show The Apprentice, seems on course to win the GOP nomination, while Vermont senator and self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders is posing an unexpectedly strong challenge to Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side. Both candidates are telling stories about the weak and corrupt state of the nation that are resonating with millions. Some befuddled political observers can only conclude we have entered into a Dada-esque alternative universe, while others claim they saw the seeds for this state of events being planted long ago. But perhaps we can explain what was once unthinkable by examining the various ways candidates and their advisers in the modern era have learned to shape a narrative.
Journalist and historian Theodore H. White gained Pulitzer-Prize-winning renown from his The Making of the President series which began with the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon contest and continued until the 1984 Reagan-Mondale campaign. White’s insider accounts examined the nuts and bolts of presidential campaigns over three decades while also analyzing the diverse shifts within American culture. More recently, journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin have provided gossipy narratives of the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns in their books Game Change and Double Down. One can bet that they are already at work chronicling the head-spinning 2016 presidential election.
These popular post-mortem accounts have helped readers understand how presidential campaigns evolve in response to rapidly changing events and how campaigns often affect the victor’s subsequent presidency. More importantly, however, they remind us of the stories that candidates tell about themselves. These self-narratives are intended to define the candidate to voters in a way that makes them seem worthy of the nation’s highest office. This year Hillary Clinton offers perhaps the most complex storyline, emphasizing her multiple roles and identities: woman, mother, grandmother, devout Methodist, former First Lady, US Senator, and Secretary of State, and lifelong proponent for liberal issues. Which strand of her storyline she emphasizes the most often depends on the particular issue she is addressing. Among the Republicans, both Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have played up their own life narratives: offspring of Cuban immigrants, family men, devout Christians, and lifelong champions of conservative principles and traditional values.
Such detailed self-narratives may prove dangerous to the candidates when they seem to clash with other realities and accounts. Clinton’s self-narrative of honesty and competence has been called into question when she has had to discuss her use of a personal email server while Secretary of State and her actions prior to the killing of US Ambassador Chris Stevens during the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. Her efforts to present herself as a defender of women have been complicated by attention to her husband’s adulterous behavior during their time in the White House. Senators Cruz and Rubio have their own problems when they are asked to reconcile their positions on immigration with their own ethnic backgrounds. President Obama’s complex origin story, retold in his bestselling Dreams of My Father, helped get him elected twice, but also generated never-ending assertions that his birth certificate was falsified, that he is a socialist, a Muslim, and other absurd twists. Offering a compelling self-narrative in your campaign can easily come back to bite you.
A successful presidential candidate not only presents a compelling self-narrative, but also constructs a narrative about America—its origins, its problems, and its promise—using mostly vague language about big ideas. President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” campaign theme is perhaps the most famous and successful American narrative in recent memory; it has become a surprisingly durable meme about emerging from darkness into a new era of prosperity and optimism. Both Presidents Clinton and Obama trafficked in the idea of “hope,” tying their personal narratives to a vision of American economic and racial progress. And recently, the phrase “American exceptionalism” has become shorthand for a narrative about an America set apart from the other nations of the earth—perhaps by a divine hand?—whose destiny is to lead the world into peace, democracy, freedom, and prosperity. These carefully crafted patriotic “mono-narratives” not only enable candidates to talk about their own vision for the nation, but also provide ways to draw a contrast with their opponent’s presumed pessimism, ignorance of America’s exceptionality, and alienation from its true values.
In 2016, it is Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders who have made the most powerful use of their respective mono-narratives about America’s problems and promise. Each has created what literary theorist John Stephens calls a “master narrative” or “metanarrative,” which he defines as “a global or totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience” (Stephens and McCallum 1998, 6). The narratives proffered by the Trump and Sanders campaigns seem to fit such a description, and are proving to be wildly, if improbably, popular with wide swaths of the voting public.
Trump’s master narrative is crude and vitriolic: America is crumbling in every way imaginable, a pathetic victim of the rest of the world, disarmed by weak and corrupt “establishment” politicians. Only Trump, the self-proclaimed phenomenally successful businessman, can “make America great again.” In Trump’s account, the causes of America’s demise have to do with one or another species of otherness that represents mortal danger to the nation: illegal Mexican immigrants, many of them rapists and murderers; Muslim refugees who may themselves be secret ISIS terrorists; cunning Asian businesspeople who threaten the well-being of innocent Americans. These presumed villains are abetted by corrupt and incompetent Washington politicians and insiders, personified by Barack Obama, who have no idea how to protect America and make deals to benefit its genuine citizens. Trump labels them as “losers,” “idiots,” “low-energy,” and with other epithets. His simplistic prose is laced with adjectives, most of them superlatives—“greatest,” “worst-ever,” “huge,” etc.
What is odd in Trump’s master narrative of American decline is the way in which his own self-narrative is inextricably woven into it. He himself becomes the sole counter-narrative to this relentlessly negative account—he embodies the “great America” he promises—and any other narrative, complementary or contrasting, is excluded, as if it were a distraction from the host of this political reality show writ large. Trump may say that he will be working for the American people, but we are relegated to being his apprentices in this scenario. Off-putting and easy to refute, Trump and his narrative have nevertheless captured the imaginations of those who sense he is speaking truthfully about the forces that are keeping them down. As Anne Applebaum writes in Slate, “Trump’s lies and his distortions of reality don’t stick to him because his followers are not interested in truth. They prefer satisfying stories” (Applebaum 2016). One might add that such stories are most satisfying when they have readily identifiable enemies, whom Trump names and promises to punish.
Bernie Sanders’s master narrative contains far less self-narrative and far more documentable fact than Trump’s, but it presents a similarly dour account of contemporary America. As he asserted in his opening statement at a February 11 debate,
[W]e have today a campaign finance system which is corrupt, which is undermining American democracy, which allows Wall Street and billionaires to pour huge sums of money into the political process to elect the candidates of their choice. And aligned with a corrupt campaign finance system is a rigged economy. And that’s an economy where ordinary Americans are working longer hours for low wages. They are worried to death about the future of their kids. And yet they are seeing almost all new income and all new wealth going to the top 1 percent. (Washington Post, February 16, 2016)
Dig into the details of this concise master narrative and you may find reasons to dispute some of his statistics or his account of the sources and historical roots of inequality, which elevates out-of-control campaign financing as the core problem. But the underlying assertion of income inequality that affects the vast majority of Americans is undeniably accurate. More important for Sanders’s campaign, this message feels true to the experience of millennials who are having trouble finding a foothold in the contemporary economy and to older generations who have lost their foothold on the ladder of success or never found it in the first place.
But Sanders’s master narrative is not without problems. When he tries to extend it to other dimensions of American life, such as problems of racial inequality or foreign policy, the narrative appears inadequate to the complexities of the issues, as if Sanders has not given enough thought to matters that do not connect directly to his narrative. That is not to say he is a one-issue candidate, as Clinton and some others have claimed. But, like Trump, his master narrative of American failure seems resistant to other counter, competing, or conflicting narratives from the outside. It depends on its own set of boogeymen: Wall Street bankers, mega-rich business tycoons, and politicians who are under their financial sway. Unlike Trump, however, he doesn’t try to redeem that narrative by asserting his own egotistical counter-narrative—or any other, for that matter. As a result, his mono-narrative communicates a certain ignorance of the complex needs of the very multi-narrative world to which he is trying to appeal.
I state this not to reject Sanders’s candidacy—certainly not in the way I do Trump’s, which I find morally repugnant—but to raise questions about how such master narratives are functioning in this year’s election. Some thirty years ago the French philosopher and theorist Jean-François Lyotard asserted that our postmodern era is characterized by a mistrust of the sorts of master narratives that modernity had championed. Rejecting these master narratives as too simplistic, undergirded by self-interested power structures, and dismissive of marginalized groups, postmodernists have interested themselves more with localized, incommensurable, and possibly irreconcilable narratives that more adequately mirror the fractured and tribalized nature of contemporary life.
Despite this professed rejection of master narratives, they nevertheless retain their power to capture our imaginations and deepest longings. Let’s face it: It is hard being postmodern people living in a fractured, tribalized society. Even as postmodern theory may shape our academic and intellectual pursuits, as well as our social commitments, we have cordoned off the political arena as a space wherein we release the stress of postmodern existence. Politics becomes the site where master narratives thrive and ideological purity is accepted and even admired. These narratives satisfy a felt need that postmodern living denies.
Fifteen years ago, it appeared that the 9/11 terrorist attacks might become the new master narrative of American life, countering our fractured, tribalized condition that the contested 2000 election had exposed. But the ensuing Afghan and Iraqi Wars dashed these hopes, even as some politicians tried to use the attacks for partisan purposes. In electing our first African-American president, Barack Obama, many Americans thought, at least fleetingly, that perhaps he could heal the fractures and unite the tribes. But, as soon became clear, contemporary politics depends on fractures and tribalism, and thus reinforces and exacerbates them. Even a historic presidency such as Obama’s appears inadequate: racial discord has increased; the Middle East is in ever-greater chaos; and the economic crisis that marked his presidency’s earliest years still resounds negatively in many people’s lives—except those who were most at fault for causing it in the first place.
The Trump and Sanders campaigns represent the latest efforts to create new master narratives for this country, one each candidate hopes will prevail where others have failed. But the success of either narrative is no less dependent on the powers of tribalism and cultural fracture. Both speak to grievances against illegitimate powers; they respond to fear and anger more than hope. Whatever hope the campaigns do appear to voice is largely an image projected upon the candidates by receptive voters. Both candidates fundamentally take a via negativa approach; they infer what our society might or should be through their description of what it lacks. Neither engages in what might be called an “apophatic politics,” a politics which admits that it does not know everything. Instead, both candidates traffic in the certainties of ideology—Sanders that of democratic socialism, Trump a shifting and personalized hybrid that can best be called “Trumpism”—and refuse to consider their insufficiencies (or what I have here called counter-narratives). The ideologies that both narratives represent are as prey to the lure of legitimizing power as any other ideology—including the very “establishment” approaches to power that both candidates denounce, as both depend in their own ways on a hierarchical, top-down understanding of the executive office. Both retain the capacity to marginalize not just those whom they hold up as strawmen and scapegoats, but those who resist or reject their narratives as well.
If either Trump or Sanders is successful in his presidential bid—and at this point that is a very big “if”—it will be interesting to see whether and how they can carry their master narratives into their presidencies. Will they be able to govern out of them, or will the realities of the office and of contemporary politics require something different? Regardless of the outcome, the political master narrative will surely survive. The increasing diversity in American society has not, to date, made tribalism less prevalent or our common life less fractured, and it seems unlikely that our contemporary politics, mired in this residue of modernity, has any sure solution to that condition or even a desire to change it, though more diverse candidates are stepping forward. And so, we find ourselves in a never-ending cycle: imagining that such narratives, cloaked in the “respectability” of ideology, actually represent forms of resistance, we may ignore their potential—or all-too-real—power to oppress, power that must itself eventually be resisted, through new narratives. Breaking this cycle seems unlikely, but naming these narratives for what they are may at least help to blunt their unseen negative power.
David Lott is a freelance book editor living in Washington, DC.
Applebaum, Anne. “Why
Americans Believe Donald Trump’s Worst Conspiracy Theories.” Slate.
February 16, 2016.
Stephens, John and Robyn McCallum. Retelling Stories, Framing Culture: Traditional Story and Metanarratives in Children’s Literature. New York: Garland, 1998.
“Transcript, The Democratic Debate in Milwaukee, annotated.” The Washington Post, February 11, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/02/11/transcript-the-democratic-debate-in-milwaukee-annotated.