Through the prism of American politics

We sometimes call it “gut feel”—a phrase that designates the positive or negative emotions we have about people or issues. Conscious that such emotions do not supply a reasonable basis for an opinion or action, we may, when challenged, offer a justification for our initial feelings. Coming after the fact, this justification is not the cause of these feelings. It is, rather, the rationalization that tries to align “gut feel” to what is perceived to be socially acceptable.

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that it is these amorphous feelings or dispositions—rather than opinions that can be expressed in a coherent way—that are typically captured as public opinion in most surveys.

“At present,” writes Bourdieu, “the opinion poll is an instrument of political action: perhaps its most important function is to impose the illusion that there is something called public opinion in the sense of the purely arithmetical total of individual opinions; … The ‘public opinion’ that is manifested on the front pages of newspapers … is a pure and simple artifact whose function is to disguise the fact that the state of opinion at a given time is a system of forces, tensions, and that nothing more inadequately expresses the state of opinion than a percentage.”

Nothing illustrates Bourdieu’s observation more sharply than the inexplicable rise of Donald Trump in American politics. No one took him seriously at the start. In the eyes of the mass media, he was nothing but a wealthy charlatan, a loquacious con man who sought to ride on the celebrity status he has acquired as host of a reality TV show about smart management and creative entrepreneurship. To many Republicans, he was an outsider who provided comic relief to the presidential debates but talked nonsense.

That view has radically changed. Today, despite his outrageous pronouncements about America’s problems and role in the world, Trump is close to capturing the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Political analysts are at a loss trying to account for his phenomenal victories in recent state-level party caucuses.  The leaders of the party have felt compelled to come out and warn their members against this reckless and ignorant politician who seems to have tapped into a major vein of American anger and frustration.

Indeed, Trump has managed to establish an emotional connection to a segment of the American public that feels bad about almost everything that has happened under Barack Obama, the country’s first black president. Having done so, he has become the mouthpiece of this grumbling and resentful public.  Trump’s emergence calls to mind Nietzsche’s warning: “[T]here is a small dose of revenge in every complaint; people blame those who are different from themselves for the fact that they feel bad, possibly even for their badness—as though it were an injustice, an illicit privilege.”

So strong is the emotional connection he has built that even people who are turned off by Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric have found ways to rationalize the support they are giving him. One newspaper quotes a supporter who can’t seem to find the right words to explain her mixed feelings about Trump: “I don’t think anybody understands his rise, do we? Other than this generation votes for the American Idol. … They are not really looking at who would really be the best politician or who would be the best president. They look at who they like.”

I used to think that the American political class has managed, through its stable party system, to insulate itself from the vagaries of demagogic politics. That view now seems inadequate. It does not take into account the element of cathexis—a positive or negative emotional charge lying just beneath the surface of everyday life. Not to be confused with catharsis, which signifies the purification of emotions or fears by consciously confronting them, cathexis packs powerful emotions that, given the right conditions, are discharged and directed at a person, a thing, or an idea. I believe that is what Trump’s rise signifies—a discharge of America’s darkest emotions and insecurities.

In some ways, this reminds us so much of Philippine politics. We don’t have a Trump in our midst; the closest to one might be Rodrigo Duterte. Many voters see the colorful mayor of Davao as the answer to the disorder that seems to hobble our nation’s progress. But the emotions Duterte stirs are nowhere near the frenzy that Trump has successfully unleashed in his country.

Grace Poe is the other person who could be a vessel for positive cathexis. The emotional association of her persona with the status of abandoned infants furnishes the basic material for a cathectic narrative. But, this is a movie that cannot easily accommodate the other facts in her life. We have here a foundling who grows up in the comfortable and loving home of her adoptive celebrity parents, and goes to the United States for college. Instead of coming home after graduation, she marries and settles down there, and renounces her Philippine citizenship to become a naturalized American.

Returning to the Philippines after her father’s untimely death, she reacquires Filipino citizenship to qualify for a job in the government. After two years as head of a small government agency, she runs for senator on the strength of her father’s residual popularity and tops the elections. Now, just halfway through her term, she seeks the presidency of the country on which she once turned her back.

If we can rise above gut feel and allow these facts to sink in, we may find that this particular foundling is not exactly a figure of empathy, but of unwarranted ambition.

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