Animosity and Shenanigans

To say the parties don't trust each other is akin to describing the Antarctic as 'a bit nippy'.

"Do you know what the life expectancy of an Obama-Biden yard sign is 'round here?" a Tennessee Democrat asked me last weekend. "Two days. Doesn't matter, though. They just march straight back in here and buy another one, and that's another eight dollars for the campaign."

The odd thing is, I'd heard exactly the same story the previous week. Only that time, it was from a Republican.

To say the parties here don't trust each other is akin to describing the Antarctic as 'a bit nippy'. Each is convinced, completely and whole-heartedly, that the other is trying to screw them. "They're plotting to steal this election like they did in 2000 and they did in 2004," one Democrat said to me last week. When I reacted with surprise - surely the last victory, at least, was fair and square? - she just shook her head, disappointed that I could be so naive. "They stole the election in Ohio," she said firmly.

And it's true, there are plenty of stories of electoral shenanigans circulating. Republicans surrounding polling stations with volunteers in police uniforms, to put black people off voting. Democrats registering Mickey Mouse to vote in Florida. And, in a stunt lifted straight from an old Onion story, Republicans warning voters that, due to overwhelming demand, election day is to be split, and anyone thinking of voting for Obama should come to the polls on November 5th. Both parties are planning to flood polling stations with lawyers.

Yet when activists talk about a friend or parent who's voting for the other guy, they're more likely to roll their eyes indulgently than start foaming at the mouth.

You get the feeling that, when people demonize the other side, they're not talking about the neighbours or family members who happen to disagree with their politics. They're talking about them, these strange, shadowy figures who want to destroy their way of life by taking away their guns and forcing their kids into gay marriage, or, conversely, forcibly baptizing them and sending their kids to war.

Attempts to get past this, and actually understand what the other guys have to say, are depressingly few and far between. One is the Ohio politics blog, run jointly by Obama hugging liberal Kyle Kutuchief and arch conservative Ben Keeler. Despite disagreeing on just about everything, the two of them have, so far, managed to work together without accusing each other of being mentally ill. And both reckon their debates have made their own arguments stronger.

The catch, though, is that they can only do this because they were childhood friends before they were political enemies. "When Kyle called me in 2004 after John Kerry lost, I really felt bad for him. But not that bad," says Keeler. But he adds: "We couldn't have done it if we didn't already know each other."

Kutuchief agrees. "When I was in college, my professors would talk about the great political leaders arguing tooth and nail all day and then going out to have a beer," he says. "That concept seems lost on our generation."

If it wasn't lost, I suspect, this election would need a lot fewer lawyers.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

Getty
Show Hide image

France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt