Making and faking it

The role of personality in politics, why happiness can make us stupid, and a lesson in eye yoga.


ANTI-POLITICIANS
If you really want to know where politics is heading, you must consult a cultural critic. In 2003, Mark Lawson predicted the rise of Boris Johnson (and, implicitly, Donald Trump), with uncanny accuracy.

At the time, Johnson was editor of the The Spectator, backbench MP, and a regular on Have I Got News For You, which plays the part in his political biography that The Apprentice plays in Trump’s. The Tories were in the doldrums. Lawson argued that Johnson, unlikely as it seemed, was the man to save them. “The logic increasingly is that parties should be led by TV stars,” he wrote. Blair and Clinton were good on TV; Johnson was made for it. He was “thrillingly eccentric”, with a distinctive persona: the amiable buffoon, prone to gaffes, a bumbling incompetent who was anything but a normal politician. “In the strange political age we inhabit, Johnson's implausibility becomes a calling-card.”

At one point Lawson equates Johnson’s rise with a rejection of the “slickness” of Blair and Clinton. I diverge slightly from him here since I don’t actually think those two embodied slickness, in the sense of “smooth and efficient”; they were more expressive than that (and Clinton in particular was hardly a paragon of self-control). I imagine that if either entered politics as young men now they would succeed, partly because they were both so skilled at projecting personality. The truly obsolete style, the style against which Johnson defined himself, is that of the grey, overly scripted, cautious professional politician, which was and still is the dominant presentational aesthetic.

This tightly controlled style is itself a product of TV and 24-hour-media. It’s a kind of armour that politicians feel they need to put on in order to defend themselves from being clipped to death over some alleged mistake. But it comes at a cost. It makes them feel distant, shady, hard to trust, and somehow less than human. Johnson is one of the few to have consistently refused the strictures of the form. He has set his own rules, created his own personal micro-climate in which whatever mistake he makes, or absurd thing he says, only functions as a signal of his authenticity, a reinforcement of his brand. The reason the “liar” label hasn’t hurt him is that he doesn’t come across as a fake.

David Axelrod, formerly Barack Obama’s chief strategist, made a passing observation on his politics podcast (The Axe Files) that has stuck with me ever since I heard it. This was early 2016. The Republican primary contest was raging. Senator Marco Rubio, a polished if rather bland politician who had been one of the front-runners was making increasingly desperate attempts to defeat Donald Trump’s insurgency.

Axelrod was watching CNN when Rubio unveiled his latest attack line: Trump is a con-man. Rubio was then asked if he would support Trump were the latter to win the nomination. He would not not give a straight answer. He said things like, “He’s not going to be the nominee”. He used, noted Axelrod, “All the evasion techniques I suggest to candidates who don’t want to answer a question.” Watching the exchange through the eyes of a voter rather than a consultant, Axelrod was left wondering, “Who’s the conman?” (Of course, Rubio did end up supporting Trump).

Trump is known as a liar because he so often says things that are flagrantly untrue (whether he knows the difference between truth and fantasy takes us further into his psyche than I for one have any wish to journey) but it’s crucial to understand that many voters saw him as more honest than normal politicians, and it’s not because they were dupes. It’s because they were so revolted by the glassy equivocations of professional politicians - a whole guild of con-men - that they preferred this aggressively obnoxious, thrillingly unpredictable, honestly dishonest anti-politician. Trump didn’t pretend to be reasonable or nice or caring; he presented himself as an openly greedy bastard on a mission to humiliate elites. For voters who had become wholly distrustful of machine politicians, his outrageous untruths were preferable to what else was on offer precisely because they were obvious rather than oblique.

Most American voters hadn’t quite plumbed this level of cynicism, but in Hillary Clinton, Trump was lucky enough to find the perfect foil. He knew this, which is why he seemed almost nostalgic for her during his presidency. In 2020 he met his match partly because Joe Biden has never, in almost half a century of being a politician, learned how to stick to a script. What was once regarded as his fatal flaw - a pronounced tendency to ramble and make gaffes - became, on his third attempt at the presidency, a strength. As the old joke goes, a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth by accident. Biden isn’t very charismatic, but he is helplessly, accidentally himself. (He is also old enough not to have imbibed the desiccated, academic-sounding jargon that has infected the language of politicians on the left.)

The lesson here is not that ambitious politicians must imitate Trump or Biden or Johnson. It’s that they shouldn’t be content to present themselves as politicians in the conventional style, since that whole genre has exhausted itself, in the eyes of voters. They should avoid taking an off-the-shelf political persona and, like artists, cultivate their own unique voice, even at the risk of invoking bafflement or censure from the professional political classes. That’s not easy; in fact it’s really difficult. It requires rock-like self-confidence, a pronounced talent for improvisation, and a certain indifference towards the expectations of journalists, colleagues, activists and advisers.

Clinton, Blair, Biden and Johnson are successful politicians who are clearly not the same in some very important ways, but another thing that connects them (and we might even, to some extent, include Trump here) is that they exude a non-judgemental affection for voters. If you’re a politician, the question is not so much whether voters would like to have a beer with you, but whether you seem as if you’d like a beer with them. That is hard to fake.

OTHER PEOPLE
Just over a decade ago I decided to become self-employed. Up until then I had worked in advertising and marketing, changing employers every few years in the standard fashion. I went freelance mainly because I wanted to try and launch a writing career, but also because I was tired of corporate life and in particular office politics: the constant hum of personal conflict, power games and mini-dramas that can take up so much energy. The decision worked out well and I’m glad to be self-employed, but now and again I get attracted to the idea of getting a job again, and one reason for this is something I wouldn’t have predicted when I left my last job: I miss the politics. Or rather, I miss the interpersonal challenges that teamwork throws up - how to get the best out of someone with a delicate ego, how to navigate a feud between team members, how to gently argue with one’s boss. It can be stressful and frustrating to be yoked together with a bunch of people of varying personalities, abilities and motivations, but when you escape that stress it can feel as if your social intelligence is atrophying, or at least not developing. These thoughts provoked by a fascinating interview with the psychologist Susan Turk Charles about how our emotional life changes as we age. Charles finds that as people get older they tend to get better, on average, at managing their emotions (as Tony Bennett said, “life teaches you how to live it”). They have fewer stressful interactions with others, perhaps because they get better at avoiding them. But that means they can become too emotionally comfortable. People who don’t have the minor stress of arguments at work perform less well on cognitive tests. Charles says that psychologists used to equate happiness with clear thinking but it turns out things are more complicated than that: “People who are reporting being happiest are also not as high in cognitive functioning.” Happiness can make us dimmer. The role of argument in keeping us sharp is a theme of CONFLICTED, though I hadn’t come across this particular line of research until now. Charles observes that while other people are a source of stress they also challenge you and engage you in problem-solving: “So it’s not that you can find optimal well-being in all areas; there might be a tradeoff.”

MISCELLANY

  • Frank Abagnale became the most famous imposter in the world after he was played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, a movie based on his best-selling book about impersonating a pilot and a doctor. Now it turns out that much or most of what he claimed to have pulled off was fabrication. In other words, he was only pretending to be an imposter. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

  • The Frick Collection in New York, a place I love, is unexpectedly good at content marketing. This is such a great idea, born in lockdown: Cocktails With a Curator. (I’m also in possession of the Frick’s excellent collection of appreciations of pictures in the collection, written by various luminaries including Posh Spice.)

  • I agree with Tony Blair’s argument in this piece but even if you don’t it must be possible to acknowledge that he is thinking and writing at a higher level of clarity and urgency than anyone else in Labour politics. I mean that less as praise for him and more as a comment on the state of the discourse. All those saying ‘go away, your time is over’ have to first make him obsolete by being better.

  • COVID and the Indian variant. We’ll still get there and the vaccines can handle it but this new uncertainty was really unnecessary and reflects No.10’s painful inability to make and enact swift decisions (which comes down to the PM’s inadequacy).

  • I swear my eyesight has deteriorated during lockdown and apparently this is quite common because we’ve all been looking at screens so much. That got me wondering: why isn’t eye exercise a thing? We exercise the other parts of our body, why not this one? Well, as it turns out, someone is here to help us out on that front…

  • A discussion of ‘civility’ and free speech between Cornel West, Andrew Sullivan and Teresa Bejan. If you only watch one hour-long YouTube video this week make it this one! Seriously, once you start, you’ll find it hard to stop. It’s a conversation between three brilliant thinkers and writers who all happen to be amazing talkers too. There’s a musicality to the conversation, a delight in ideas and argument, and in each other, that’s very life-affirming. Cornel West in particular is a marvel. Enjoy.

  • This is just sublime. A song about healing, performed by Nicola Benedetti, Andrew Staples and the Aurora Orchestra, in honour of their friend Clemency Burton-Hill who is recovering from a severe brain haemorrhage.

  • So is this.

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HIRING ME
I am available for online talks and workshops on communication, effective writing, and creating workplace cultures of curiosity and positive disagreement. Drop me an email or hit ‘reply’ here to discuss.

WHAT I’M READING
Limonov, by the French journalist Emmanuel Carrére. I love everything EC writes. This one is about a Russian crook-turned-bum-turned-writer-turned-fascist, through whom Carrére tells the story of post-communist Russia. It’s also about Carrére, of course, like all his books are. Hugely readable, funny and interesting.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK
”The best arguments in the world won’t change a single person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” Richard Powers

How to buy CONFLICTED - links to your favourite booksellers (UK and US).