Intertextual Politics in the Trump Era

I have to admit I’ve been feeling a bit shell-shocked as I’ve watched the inauguration of President Donald Trump from across the border. It still seems surreal, and unfair, and like something, anything, has to make it go away. But it’s real, and we continue to wait to see what it will mean.

That includes watching to see what it means for politics in Canada. While we have a different set of cultural expectations, a different political system, and a different team of players, it would be a mistake to assume that it would be impossible for a similar wave of white resentment, regionalized economic anxiety, misogyny against female politicians, and validation of outright lies to take over this country as well. In our parliamentary system, a leadership race happens when it is needed because the previous leader has stepped down, not according to a set electoral clock (Ed: Thank Cthulhu, because I feel like I can’t remember a time when the Americans have not been absorbed in this neverending series of primaries and elections). As coincidences would have it, the Conservative parties of both the country and my province (Alberta) are in the midst of leadership races. Watching the campaigns and the discourses around them, the influence of Trump’s victory, and his tactics, is undeniable, and the use of intertextual references makes the whole thing rather chilling to me.

Let me take an aside to define the term and illustrate what I think is its most powerful manifestation in this political context. Intertextuality basically refers to the way that we use elements of other texts in order to root the meaning of what we are saying in relation to those previous texts. So beginning a speech with “I have a dream”, regardless of what you say next, will always result in having it judged in relation to Martin Luther King’s famous words. During the Trump campaign, and since his victory, the most gutting intertextual reference, for me, has been to his now-infamous “Grab them by pussy” recorded comments. Immediately afterwards, women responded to this by invoking its vulgarity in a message of empowerment. T-shirts and posters appeared saying that on November 8, “Pussy grabs back”. But when he won, his words took on even more power than they had before – women attending protest marches after the election, or women whose bumper stickers revealed them as Clinton supporters, were approached by groups of men using Trump’s very words. The threat of sexual assault – always horrible – became something even deeper as a result of the specific word choice that linked it to the behaviour and implicit sanction of the man who is now running the entire country. Trump’s ongoing aggressive refusal to display even a minimal amount of grace and political decorum is echoed by his supporters’ creation of t-shirts that indicate they intend to violently dominate, rather than governing, the country. On the other hand, the incredible turnout on Saturday for the Women’s March opposing Trump and the violent misogyny he stands 16245029_10154686273846293_614535326_ofor and enables took this intertextual point to the next level with the widespread wearing of homemade “pussy hats” (witness the one worn by my esteemed colleague Biittner in the photo, which also includes an *additional* point of intertextual awesomeness in which General Leia Organa has become an inspiring face of this real-life resistance now that her portrayer, the inimitably fierce Carrie Fisher, has passed). While I think the criticism that the women’s march movement needs to find ways to ensure they are trans-inclusive (ie not every woman has the body part represented here), the potency of the multimodal (knit hats being used to bring words to more tangible metaphorical form) intertextual forms make me loathe to give them up completely.

This goes to show how a phrase can first come to mean something much bigger than it did when it was originally said, and how that expansion in meaning plays out in intertextual forms. So what are we seeing creeping across the border to Canadian politics? The one phrase that struck me the most was the chant “Lock Her Up” being applied to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley by a group of people who oppose the recently implemented carbon tax. The significance of that particular expression in that new context is that it only could have been used because it was one adopted by Trump’s supporters in their opposition to Hillary Clinton. While I think the threat to imprison one’s political opponents on, at best, spurious accusations of criminal wrongdoing is among the things that makes this president utterly terrifying, at least they made an accusation of criminal action. Since Notley hasn’t been accused of anything, the only source of meaning for those chanting “Lock Her Up” is its intertextual referent. The implication is less that she’s criminal (no one even said she was), but that she’s a left-ish female politician who needed to be put in her place. Earlier, a supporter of Jason Kenney’s campaign to lead Alberta’s conservatives made a red hat with white capital letter text that said make Alberta debt-free again“. On the website for the Fox-News-but-less-professional news organization Rebel Media, you can buy similarly styled hats that say “Make Canada Great Again”, and the phrase was used in a November 10 headline on the website of the Council of European Canadians (neither of these sites are ones I’m willing to link to), as well as in white supremacist poster campaigns.

I don’t mean to pretend that the use of these slogans necessarily indicates that Canadian politicians are going to adopt policies or practices that are in any way similar to Trump’s. But these phrasings show that, for at least some proportion of Canadian conservatives, invoking the image of Trump, even at his most vile, is a good thing. That’s what those forms of intertextuality are getting at, and for those of us who are on heightened alert of how to prevent a similar political disaster from taking hold in Canada, they’re worth paying attention to.

This past week, we had the announcement of an outspoken, proudly “politically incorrect” businessman-cum-reality-tv-personality entering into the leadership race for the federal Conservative party. While I’ve yet to come across any explicit intertextuality in O’Leary’s campaign, I’ll definitely be on the lookout for it. In the meantime, there’s another set of points to analyze about the discourse patterns these two men share, and how they are seen by their supporters and by their opponents.

It’s been a long week, and its meaning is reverberating. It will for a long time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s