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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Strict father versus nurturing parent: the Trump v. Clinton show

I've made this point once or twice on Twitter, and I'm sure I can't be the only person in the world to have done so. Yet, I've not come across it from anybody else so far. My apologies, then, to anyone in the news media or the blogosphere who has beaten me to the punch without my noticing.

With my throat now duly cleared... it seems obvious, if you study such things, that the Democratic Party in the US has wholeheartedly embraced the strict father versus nurturing parent model of politics famously developed by George Lakoff. That is, the party has been casting Hillary Clinton, and by implication any federal government that she leads, as a nurturing parent to vulnerable people of all ages. In doing so, it has certainly played up her strengths (and her image) as a literal mother, but there has also been much talk about the future for America's children and about helping vulnerable groups.

I've never before seen this dynamic play out in quite such a stark way. The fact that Clinton is the first female candidate for US President from any major party obviously feeds into what is happening. Like it or not - and I don't especially - it's easy and tempting to cast mature women as mother figures. At the same time, contrast the blustering, bullying, bragging, swaggering persona of Clinton's opponent, Donald Trump, who always seems to be identifying imagined wrongdoers for punishment. Even Trump's manner of parading his adult children at the Republican National Convention feeds into the Lakoff dichotomy: according to Lakoff, the "strict father" is supposed to bring up his children to become ruggedly independent, successful adults in their own right. That's pretty much how the Trump brood are being showcased during this election.

It remains to be seen how it will all play in November. Irrespective of the intellectual plausibility of Lakoff's model, I fully expect Clinton to win the election handily... but I've been wrong before. Six months ago, say, I was confident that Trump would not end up being the Republican nominee; one way or another, I thought, he would be stopped by the GOP establishment before the train got so far. Well, I was wrong about that, and I definitely underestimated something about Trump's abilities and appeal. Mea culpa!

For the record, I'm not keen on any image of the government, or the state, as a fatherly or, more generally, parental figure. If anything, the idea strikes me as slightly creepy. Still, Lakoff seems to have a point about the state - and particular candidates for high office - taking on these sorts of public images.

Again for the record, it seems to me that a Trump presidency might be disastrous on an almost apocalyptic scale. Leaving aside all the other issues now involved in the political circus, I find it very easy to imagine Trump and the people around him making massive blunders in economic planning and foreign policy, among other crucial areas. I don't trust him, or them, to have the right kind of expertise ... or to show any epistemic modesty and due caution when they're needed. More generally, Trump's crazy salad of protectionism, isolationism, and xenophobia seems to me exactly what the US (and along with it, the rest of the world) does not need with its meat.

I don't usually blog about issues of party politics, but for whatever it's worth that's how I view it all from the relative safety of Australia. Apprehensive as I am, though, about the possibility of a President Trump, I'm also fascinated by such an extraordinary clash of political imagery and conceptual models.

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