America Beyond Pornography

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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It’s not about diminished America but diminished politics

WE ALL KNOW that an American presidential election is not a matter of America’s alone, and on November 9th, when the leader of the free world is announced, we will all be Americans, at least as long as the headlines last. In the campaign’s final hours, and when the winner is not a foregone conclusion, it is not the sublime that keeps us hooked. We don’t much hear about what Hillary means for, say, the Middle East, not in any nuanced policy vision certainly. Apart from his simplistic one-liners—bad trade treaties, parasitical Saudis, and thieving Chinese—the Trump weltanschauung doesn’t explain details of what his ‘America First’ means either. The world is watching the closest race between two unexceptional candidates—an experienced generalist and establishment insider pitted against a celebrity billionaire who sells America First to the angry, poor, White middle America in ghetto-friendly idioms. In a season of bad Hollywood blockbusters, here is a C-list entertainer that overshadows the overwhelming absence of a message and a worthy messenger.

So it’s not policy but pornography that sustains popular interest in this election. The abiding metaphors are a sexting ex-Congressman’s penis and the threatened genitals of women in a possible Trump America. In the wake of the latest email troubles handed out to Hillary Clinton by the FBI, whose director is now the liberal media’s bad boy who sabotaged the cause, op-ed structuralists and rearmed feminists are busy telling us how HRC has all along been a victim of priapic transgressions, the latest culprit being her closest aide’s estranged husband, an ex-Congressman under investigation for sexting his penis to a teenage girl. First, it was her husband as president who embarrassed her, and now, it’s an opponent who brags about his machismo and comments about her “unimpressive” appearance. She could have done without an aide with such embarrassing baggage, so goes the lament as roadblocks continue to mount for the one American who can save the future from the looming ‘evil’.

This election may have already seen one of history’s biggest anti-campaigns. You still don’t hear much of what a wonderful candidate HRC is, even in all those media endorsements she has accumulated. You cannot afford to be so judgemental or harsh while putting forward a case for the candidate whose victory may not be as good for America as her opponent’s defeat is. Even the hallowed media institutions are suspending the so-called church-state dichotomy in reporting the ‘evil’. It’s all about keeping away the dangerous vulgarian, and only very few bother to explain the sociology of America’s most popular candidate. Most popular because his ratings are not because of his being anti-Clinton, but because of his being just Trump.

America and the world are not transfixed by the dazzle of their mind but by the faux-morality of the vaudeville. In the recent past, there was a Bill Clinton or a Barack Obama to mesmerise a people—and the world—with their ideas, their ambition matched only by their originality. Today, it is the ordinariness of the candidates that gets the least media scrutiny, even though Trump is called a moron. Is it that America of the moment gets the candidates—and eventually the president—it deserves? Is it that a diminished superpower is only worthy of a choice between an ageing, opaque policy wonk without a single original idea and an ageing, hate-mongering protectionist with a bundle of crazy ideas? Does it tell a larger story about America—or about politics itself?

I would say it’s not about the currently fashionable less-than- glorious story of America. In the growing sub-genre of declinism, America happens to be a familiar case study: a superpower shrinking into its own fragile existential shell. This America, devoid of its imperial morality or Wilsonian idealism, has been overshadowed by aggressive, paranoid Asian powers such as China. This America, in the expansion of its spheres of influence, both economically and territorially, is not as agile or ambitious as… well, China again. This narrative has become boring, though there is an element of truth in both descriptions. Obama’s America— keep away from all those damn flashpoints and when you don’t know what to do, make a speech on reconciliation—did not believe in its moral superiority in a world still inhabited by so many cannibalistic ‘freedom fighters’. Not that any kind of internationalism is emerging elsewhere, in Europe or Asia. Europe is more inward looking than ever, and when it looks out, it can only see a menacing Russian. China, in spite of its global ambition, is so paranoid that it does not trust the political instincts of its own citizens. America is still the world’s most influential power because it still has the resources of ideas to determine the freedom of others far beyond—and its competitors are too steeped in their nationalist grievances to reach out to the world.

What the candidates tell is a larger story about politics, and neither of them has spelt out a charter that can redeem it. Between status-quoist Democrats and divided Conservatives, politics has been emptied of ideas, and it was ideas that made America not just a country but a universal statement of freedom. Meanwhile, we may enjoy the pornography, which is perhaps the only shared factor in the most polarising campaign.