Image: Flickr/Elena Pleskevich

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The strongman is back in political fashion. From Erodogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, Orban in Hungary, Modi in India, Trump in the U.S., Netanyahu in Israel, el-Sisi in Egypt, the call for the strong nation is back too.

There is a collective generational amnesia of the atrocities of the Second World War and the hybrid neoliberal consensus is carrying on since the 2008 economic crash as if nothing has changed. It’s back to the future with the rise of right-wing authoritarianism the world over.  Some call it the thirties, some call it the sixties and some call it the eighties. Only time will tell. 

It’s very easy to turn Trump and his cognates into a joke. The impulse to dismiss him is to fail to understand the phenomenon he represents. Politics as entertainment, as WWE showcase, does more to mobilize the base of an underdeveloped electoral system like the U.S. than a traditional campaign can muster.

Hate speech just isn’t a thing in America. Free speech means you’re allowed to say anything, including inciting violence. People used to dogwhistle in politics to communicate to their base — today, they just spout their bullshit and hatred unedited with a new kind of naked conviction and an apparatus that circulates it with nothing short of pure joy. It transgresses the old consensus and it makes for great media controversy. It blows open the terms of traditional political engagement.

If you don’t know how to fight on that terrain, the ground beneath your feet will quickly give way. The fact that this election is even close at this stage reflects a remarkable failure of media, politics, the academy and civil society — and the incredible success of culture and entertainment in shape-shifting politics. It is unlikely that Trump will win, but that the mere possibility that he could, is part of the failure of this political moment.

Mobilizing anxiety begins with colonizing the unconscious. This is the work of political advertising and propaganda. Repetition, simplicity and stagecraft project the image of the strong leader. In this sense, Trump has masterfully played to a crowd that usually doesn’t vote. The election will be decided by whether or not  traditional non-voters come out to the ballot box on election day.

The only way Trump can win is to bring out not just the populist mob who is currently behind him in the polls, but the people who are currently disengaged from politics. It’s not that far from the campaign that former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura ran for governor of Minnesota in many ways. Trump is running as the change candidate against Hillary Clinton as the establishment candidate.

Trump, not unlike Boris Johnson or Berlusconi before him, proves that it’s not just the strongman, but the buffoon that is also back in fashion.

The U.S. election campaign, Brexit, the political situations in Hungary, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Syria — the conditions that are unfolding are merely a symptom for larger changes at play that reflect a newly polarizing and increasingly militarized world. The two-party system in the U.S. cannot hold this fast moving, electronic world. In that sense, the old world of electoral campaigns is also dying and giving way to fragmentations and political possibilities in the future.

Global scale computation and surveillance also portend a new kind of “democratic” form emerging: authoritarian surveillance democracy (ASD); or what Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. National Security Advisor, a long time ago called “vigilant garrison states” in the 1970s, democratic states with authoritarian characteristics. 

Think India, Israel, Brazil, Egypt, Turkey writ large. There are opportunities to vote, there is a legal system, a press corps, an academy, some forms of freedom of assembly, but the periodic suspension of rights on the basis of security is already the new norm. This attempt at centralization and conditional democracy is the new pollution of the times. Decentralized global communication systems are indeed leading to greater centralization by states in a desire to maintain control and order of an increasingly fragmented and polarized public.

The virulent ideas in circulation today don’t end by Americans defeating Donald Trump in November by a listless, unexciting Democratic Party. Trump is merely a symptom of something else in the air. There will be other people just like Trump emerging. This is a trend that has been tracking for far too long — it is the momentary success of this type of politics that is most troubling.

As the impacts of climate change increase in the coming years, the state will no doubt roll out conditional forms of democracy and the centralized, managerial exercise of crisis will become the new norm.

As Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben and many before him in the twentieth century have stated, today the state of exception is very much the rule.

The question that ought to be asked is what might a countersignature of the times, a radical, egalitarian politics that functions at the level of power, look like today and how can it be brought in to visibility?

Am Johal studied media philosophy at the European Graduate School and is based in Vancouver, Canada.

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Image: Flickr/Elena Pleskevich

Am Johal

Am Johal

Am Johal is an independent Vancouver writer whose work has appeared in Seven Oaks Magazine, ZNet, Georgia Straight, Electronic Intifada, Arena Magazine, Inter Press Service,,