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14 October 2020updated 15 Oct 2020 10:26am

Liberalism will remain vulnerable unless it can speak to our need for emotional storytelling

Even if Joe Biden does triumph on 3 November, this should not be mistaken for a restoration of some temporarily disrupted order.

By Jeremy Cliffe

Close to the end of Hari Kunzru’s new novel, Red Pill, the narrator is telling a Manhattan therapist about his deranged attempts to expose Anton, an alt-right screenwriter who he believes is stirring up dangerous political forces. The therapist scoffs that Anton’s television shows hardly make him a significant figure: “Dragons, that sort of thing. Surely I could see that this was not a field for anyone with serious political ambitions. It would be hard to think of anything more purely escapist.” But he demurs: “There were underground currents, new modes of propagation. It wasn’t even a question of ideas, not straightforwardly, but feelings, atmospheres, yearnings, threats… Essentially I was talking about fascism.” The therapist dismisses it as anxiety about the presidential election. It is polling day, 8 November 2016.

The narrator is a restless New York intellectual who accepts a fellowship at the Deuter Centre, an interdisciplinary institute at Wannsee, outside Berlin. Alienated by its clinical and rigid atmosphere he takes long, bleak walks around the lake; encountering the grave of the romantic poet Heinrich von Kleist, the villa where the Nazis devised the “final solution”, and a former East German punk haunted by her past as a Stasi informant. He also lurks in his room, binge-watching footage from war zones and Blue Lives, a trashy cop drama whose nihilism and unacknowledged quotes from an anti-rationalist opponent of the French Revolution beguile him. Meeting Anton, the show’s Nordic supremacist writer, in Berlin, he develops an obsession, pursuing Anton to Paris and a Scottish island.

Back in New York, his wife is devastated by his melodramatic self-absorption, friends regard him with pity and detachment and the therapist dismisses his sense of dread about the future. The novel concludes as his wife’s fashionable Brooklynite circle gathers to watch the election results coverage, champagne at the ready to toast a Hillary Clinton win and the natural next step on a timeline in which “the future is predictable, an extrapolation from the past, a steady progression”. Donald Trump triumphs, their world collapses and suddenly the momentum seems to be with Anton’s people, the alt-right trolls with their memes, in-jokes, sinister Nordic symbology and conspiracy theories; a rival timeline in which “all this normality is a paper screen over something bloody and atavistic that is rising up out of history to meet us”. It occurs to the narrator: “My madness… is about to become everyone’s madness.”

A presence looms over Red Pill but is not named in it: Friedrich Nietzsche. He looms thematically, as the supreme theorist to emerge from the mists of German Romanticism. And he looms intellectually, his arguments echoing in the contrast that strikes Kunzru’s narrator towards the novel’s end. The world experienced by the narrator at Wannsee and in Anton’s oeuvre is not the orderly, rational, linear system of the therapist or the Brooklyn sophisticates, what Nietzsche dubbed the Apollonian. It is revealed disorder, frenzy, urges and appetites, or what the philosopher dubbed the Dionysian. Nietzsche argued that Greek tragedy’s synthesis of the Apollonian and the Dionysian – order forged in the very affirmation of the chaos of reality – made it the highest and purest form of art. It is such a tragic synthesis that Anton finds in his fascistic nihilism, and that the narrator, too, finds in his own, doomed quest to stop Anton.

Four years on from the fictional Brooklyn party, the “madness” seemingly unleashed at the last US presidential election has indeed become “everyone’s madness” to some extent. Established assumptions about the march of progress are not gone, but are less glib and more qualified. The Dionysian forces – tribes and masses, mysticism and disorder – have announced their presence behind the paper screen. It is now widely accepted that desiccated liberalism, the weightless technocracy of “Stronger Together” (Clinton 2016) or “Stronger, Safer and Better Off” (Remain) is vulnerable when up against rival offerings that speak to the human yearning for emotional story-telling, for operatic goodies and baddies, for the recognisable narrative of a “Make America Great Again” (Trump 2016) or a “Take Back Control” (Leave). Once more a US presidential election approaches and once more a liberal candidate looks likely to win. But this time few are willing to predict that outcome with confidence.

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Even if Joe Biden does triumph on 3 November, this should not be mistaken for a restoration of some temporarily disrupted order. The Dionysian will still lurk below the surface, and with it myriad chances, for those willing to take them, to mould it into forms and stories. Trump will almost certainly decry the result as illegitimate, urging his supporters to agitate against it. Violence may ensue. Disinformation and myths will continue to ripple across social media. More previously apolitical types, isolated by lockdowns and spending too long online, will be drawn into conspiracy theories such as the QAnon claims that Trump is secretly battling an elite, Satan-worshiping paedophile ring; modern-day Quixotes driven mad by reading too many fanciful tales.

None of which is to say that these threats should be overblown in a way that flatters their propagators, or to deny that humans also have an immense capacity for reason and science and individuality. But it is to remind ourselves that there is something universal, eternal and, like it or not, innately human about the atavistic passions that seemed to come out of nowhere four years ago. They existed beforehand and will long outlive any Biden presidency. “Feelings, atmospheres, yearnings, threats” will still shape and define experience. History will not be over, nor will it have been proved to be linear. Stories will still matter.

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This article appears in the 14 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?