The Left should not reject defectors from the Right: Anthropologist William Mazzarella

Courtesy University of Chicago
01 November, 2020

William Mazzarella is an anthropologist at the University of Chicago. His areas of research include mass media, public culture, populism, psychoanalysis and performance. His work has explored the phenomenon of the US president Donald Trump’s appeal, and what it has to do with “attachment,” “affect” and “enjoyment.” He has worked extensively on South Asia and his books include, among others, Shoveling Smoke: Advertising and Globalization in Contemporary India, and Censorship in South Asia: Cultural Regulation from Sedition to Seduction.

As Indian politics places itself on the right of the ideological spectrum, some individuals who were members of right-wing organisations, have moved towards the Left—or at least, away from the Right. Yet, others, who hail from a notably right-wing milieu, never embraced it and have become the political right’s fiercest critics. Abhimanyu Chandra, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, seeks to explore these transitions in a series of interviews, titled Converse Lens, published by The Caravan. The initial set of interviews focused on individuals who turned critical of the Right despite previous associations. In the latter part of this series, Chandra interviews experts who comment on when, why, and how some people leave right-wing settings, even as so many others do not.

Chandra spoke to Mazzarella about how people’s attachments to figures like the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and Trump can be understood as ways of organising anxiety. “If another powerful form of organising those same anxieties comes along, then that can as it were take over from the previous one.” 

Abhimanyu Chandra: Could you briefly explain what “affect” means in the social-sciences?
William Mazzarella: Let’s say you are at a political rally, or in the audience of a concert or a play, sometimes you feel that some kind of energy is moving in the crowd—you feel the collective enthusiasm, or the collective agitation, or the collective outrage, or the collective anger, or the collective joy. You feel that there is an energy moving in that space, and it is an energy that is also affecting you, that you are involved in. That would be a shorthand description of what affect is. It’s a sense of intensification that you feel, in the first instance, as a kind of a bodily response. It’s not on an intellectual plane. It is that you feel something.

There’s a crucial difference between situations where you feel something, and situations in which you feel nothing. We have all been to public events where the atmosphere is completely flat. No one feels anything; there is a general sense of indifference, apathy, inertia—an absence of affect.

The point about affect, the way it gets used in cultural theory, is that it’s a kind of intensity before it is a specifically definable emotion. It’s this feeling of being activated at a sensory level. It doesn’t have to be some big, spectacular context like a mass rally or a football stadium. It could be something small from everyday life, like you wake up in the morning and you get a sense that something is going to happen today. You meet a person and there is something about that person that resonates. That’s affect, in the sense that we use it in cultural and critical theory. As a footnote, I will say that not everyone talks about affect in this way. Some people talk about it more like in terms of different colours of affect based on specific emotions, like an affect of sadness, or an affect of joy.

AC: Tying this with today’s situation, there is evidence that Trump and Modi have mismanaged the COVID-19 pandemic quite significantly. Despite that, a lot of their supporters not only support them, but also their handling of the pandemic. How does one understand that in terms of affect and populism?
WM: I think there are a couple of different questions in there. One has to do specifically with why apparently objective evidence of mismanagement doesn’t harm the enthusiasm for a candidate. And the other question is how we think about enthusiasm in politics.

I’ll speak more from the perspective of what is going on in the US, and there may be some parallels for the Indian situation. The question of why objective evidence of mismanagement doesn’t seem to harm candidates—in part, it’s an extension of something that we have seen for the last several years with Trump.

I think right before the presidential election of 2016, I remember watching some news program on television, and there were some Trump supporters that were being interviewed. They [the interviewer] kept escalating the awfulness of whatever they could imagine him [Trump] doing. And at no point were any of those people prepared to say that that would make them stop supporting Trump. There was a kind of a priori commitment to the idea of supporting Trump. It was as if they needed to convey precisely that nothing would make them stop supporting Trump.

What is that? What is this kind of commitment to supporting a politician, whatever that person does? This, maybe, is not so foreign. Something like nationalism has that sentiment built into it already—that whatever my country needs, I will be there. There is no circumstance in which I will disown my country, because my country and me are basically the same substance.

And I feel there is something along those lines going on here. We are not used to thinking of people’s commitment to a political candidate in those terms, even though it’s quite familiar for us to think of say patriotism and nationalism in those terms.

So, when I see people on television saying, “No matter what Trump does, I am going to continue supporting him”, what I have to conclude is that those people actually identify, in their very substance, with Trump. He is not just their representative, he is them. They are him. This is not about an elected politician who somehow is supposed to convey your interests. It’s more like, “This is our man. This person is us.” And there’s a lot of affect bound up in that, of a substantial commitment to a politician.

One way in which that works in the US, and there may be similarities in the Indian context, although also differences, is a sense of grievance. My sense is that Trump supporters—and I am talking of people who we think of as Trump’s base, who say that “whatever he does, I am going to continue supporting him”—are animated by a sense of grievance. A sense of having been overlooked. A sense of belief that the political establishment doesn’t take them seriously, actually despises them. As having been seen by the political elites as uneducated, irrational, backward. And so, part of the affect of support for Trump has to do with basically saying, “Screw you. This person, our leader, he is us, in that he may not know how to spell, but he is someone who speaks his mind. He may not be polite, but he is unafraid to act.” 

In a way it doesn’t matter what he does, because the very fact of his unapologetic presence is already a source of elation for the people who support him. This is identification in the deepest sense of the word. This is participation in the deepest sense of the word—you understand this person as being made of the same stuff that you are made of. I remember reading a quotation from a Trump supporter in the New Yorker some years ago, around the time of the [2016 US] election. This Trump supporter was basically saying that they supported Trump because, and here they were referring to the liberal critics of Trump, “What they hate about Trump is what they hate about me.” 

AC: But what can and what does break this affective link? Say, if Trump says something disparaging about his supporters? Or is the affective link so deep that it cannot break?
WM: Yes, this happens. But it doesn’t happen because you convince someone that their attachment is irrational. This is where liberals tend to get it wrong. Liberals have this idea that if you can just explain to people why their attachments and their enthusiasms are wrong-headed, or irrational, or ill-informed, they will change their minds and become sensible and choose better. We have enough evidence now, in different areas of research, to understand that people’s attachments are pretty much impervious to reason—the attachments we have, the affective resonances we feel, have very little to do with rational choice, or reasoning. 

So, yes, these links can be broken, and they do get broken. But the reasons why that happen are often mysterious and unpredictable. We have seen situations where a political leader is idolised, adored; they have that quality we call charisma—another way of talking about affect. You feel a kind of affective intensification in the presence of someone you experience as charismatic. Such leaders, their charisma can collapse sometimes. I think what happens in those situations is, just as we tend to project charismatic power onto the charismatic person—we tend to assume that it’s coming from them rather than us—so we tend to blame the charismatic person when charisma collapses. 

But the point about someone like Trump, and I suspect about Modi, is that the power of their charisma has very little to do with whether they succeed in fulfilling the policy promises of their election platforms. And I wish I could tell you what would cause the charisma of someone like that to collapse. But I’m not sure that’s something that is easily predictable.

AC: Would you have examples of this collapse of charisma or affect of a prominent figure in the 20th century, perhaps the case of Stalin, who many people adored, then soured on?
WM: One way of thinking is that these attachments are a way of organising anxiety. So, if another powerful form of organising those same anxieties comes along, then that can take over from the previous one. And when that happens, there is often an over-compensatory condemnation of the previous attachment. In the Soviet Union, after the Stalin period, when you had Khrushchev, there was this comprehensive condemnation suddenly. Of everything that had been done under the Stalin period, which only a few years earlier everyone felt duty-bound to support and celebrate. 

I want to make another point about what I was saying earlier. And this is connected with what we are talking about now, about how it’s as if people identify themselves substantially with a leader, rather than thinking of them as a representative. After all, the notion of political representatives, in the liberal democratic sense, is historically quite recent—an artefact of the democratic revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries. Prior to that, there was nothing strange in thinking that one was essentially of the same substance as one’s leaders. Divine kingship was a form of authority that rested on the idea that the king, their subjects, and the entirety of creation was made of the same stuff, and was in a cosmic sense linked. 

So, I would suggest, that part of what we are dealing with now, is what my colleague Eric Santner calls the “royal remains.” That is, with the democratic revolutions, the question of collective substance was left hanging. With getting rid of kings and resting sovereignty in the people, we were left with this problem of where is the embodiment of our sovereignty. What is the substance of the embodiment of our sovereignty? Part of that work can be done through all the iconography and ceremonial stuff of nationalism and so forth—like the flag. But part of the “royal remains” return in the form of the body of a leader like Trump or Modi.

AC: Speaking of the physical embodiment of the leader, what do you make of Trump’s claim that he is a “young, vibrant man” compared to Joe Biden? What do you make of Modi’s projection of his supposedly 56-inch chest, and now a saintly beard amidst the pandemic? Some of his supporters called him a reincarnation of the god Vishnu because of the beard. How do you see these at the level of affect, of physical embodiment, of attachment to the leader?
WM: What Modi aims for, is dignified virility. Whereas what Trump aims for is undignified virility, or vulgar virility. The way in which he [Trump] carries himself, the kind of performance he has always pursued, he simply projects himself as a bullying presence. If you see the way in which he stalked Hillary Clinton during the [2016 US] presidential debates, in this completely unapologetic kind of way, it was one step from physical assault. What they share is a commitment to performing virility, but Modi’s version is an attempt to project this traditional Hindu dignity in a certain way.

It’s interesting that according to liberal democratic theory, the quality of embodiment should be irrelevant to the pursuit of politics under modern conditions. There is no reason why a leader should have to be physically impressive in order to function well as a leader.

A while back, the novelist Norman Mailer proposed that it would be healthier if political leaders were chosen on the basis of physical prowess, and you could just have them go hand-to-hand in physical combat, and that would resolve all sorts of geo-political conflicts. We wouldn’t actually need to go to war and we wouldn’t have this apparatus of the military and all that sort of stuff. This seemed ridiculous and comical at the time.

But, what we have seen in American politics, and maybe a version of this in India, too, is repeated instantiations of this idea being taken seriously. You have politicians like Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California, Jesse Ventura, a wrestler, who became an elected official. And then you have a figure like Trump, who is not actually physically impressive in terms of fitness, or health, or strength but nevertheless cultivates a wrestling image. He, in his past life, has been quite closely associated with television wrestling, and continues to use the performative idioms of wrestling in his public persona.

With Modi, the form, the performance of embodiment, is aiming for a high level of cultural legitimacy—the idea of the embodiment of Vishnu; the attempt to mobilise a kind of Sanskritic dignity. With Trump, it’s more what some scholars of populism call “flaunting the low”—a culturally low persona, not having to be polite, not having to be restrained, not having to be dignified.

But the larger question—why should we even have any reference to the body in contemporary politics—has to do again, partly, with this question of the “royal remains.” Specifically, in the US scenario, I think that the form that the body takes in the age of Trump, the Trumpian body, is a body of resentment, a body of grievance, a body of “I am going to eat as many hamburgers as I like, even though every doctor tells me that it’s bad for me.”

AC: One of the critiques of the Left is that it embarks on purity tests, and is not welcoming enough of people it disagrees with or disagreed with in the past. Could you speak to that at the level of strategy? If someone’s affective relationship with, say, Trump has broken, can and should the Left try and build an affective relationship with them?
WM: Someone who has broken with the attachments of a lifetime is a person in crisis; they are going through an existential crisis. That person is looking for some stability, acceptance, some reorganisation of their anxieties. I don’t know, empirically, how widespread the issue of purity politics in the Left is; I am sure it is true to some extent. To me, strategically, of course it would be a mistake for the Left to reject defectors from the Right. If only because defectors tend to actually turn into the most zealous converts to the new cause, probably much more zealous than people who have been liberals or leftists all their lives. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.