Friday, 5 February 2016
What Would Octavio Paz Think of Donald Trump?
For some months now it seems as though my newsfeed here in the UK has been swamped by articles on the various candidates in the US Presidential election. The election appears to have been going on for longer than the American Civil War and prompted such large amounts of partisan animus from my American friends that my heart sinks to think that the dratted thing has only just reached the first state caucus stage.
The smart move when referring to the politics of another country is obviously to be studiously complimentary to all parties, in the manner of Stephen Fry who ingratiated himself to his American hosts last time round by telling them that Barack Obama and John McCain were both 'quite remarkable men'. I will therefore refrain from expressing any sense of despair at the prospect of some of the current candidates actually winning.
My attention though was taken by reading an analysis of maverick Donald Trump's enduring popularity. Voters are turning to him it seems because in a world of increasing uncertainty and challenges to American hegemony, they desire to see a 'strongman' in the White House. All Trump's policy proposals - from imposing tariff barriers against Chinese imports to keeping out Muslims and (perhaps most notoriously) sending back illegal Mexican immigrants and building a wall on the border 'which the Mexicans would pay for' - apparently merely bolsters the desired 'strongman' image. The odd misogynistic comment apparently doesn't do any harm either.
This set me thinking about the classic 1948 book The Labyrinth of Solitude (revised in the 1960s and 1970s) in which Octavio Paz attempted to delve into the idiosyncrasies of the Mexican character and the distinctiveness of Mexican culture. Why was it, he asked, that Mexican culture was so different to that of its rich neighbour, the United States? Indeed why was there such a vast economic and social divide between these two nations?
Paz saw Mexicans as an essentially retiring people who were afraid to show their true characters and lived by a series of masks presented to the outer world. It was only on occasions such as the fiesta when the Mexican could show his or her true self. The rest of the time, Paz argued, men aspired to machismo - to being strong silent types - so their vulnerabilities would not be seen. Women were treated as passive and expected to be hidden away and long-suffering about the trials of life.
In Paz’s analysis, there were two strains to Mexico’s politics. The first was a pyramid structure with an Aztec-style ruler at the top, whose power was impersonal, priestly and institutional. The embodiment of this in the Mexico of the time, Paz said, was the president, whose power was enormous, but impersonal. The other strain was the caudillo, the regional boss or warlord, which belonged to the Hispano-Arabic tradition. The caudillo belonged to no caste and was not selected by the establishment, Paz remarked, but appeared at times of crisis and confusion and ruled until the storm blew over.
With the manifest failure of 'trickle down economics' and the explosive growth in wealth differentials over the last 60 years however, US society these days resembles a teardrop diamond, heavy-bottomed and with an untouchable political class, funded by the super-rich, sitting at the very top. Into this world of uncertainty and confusion, Donald Trump appears as the classic Paz-style 'caudillo', the strongman come to reassert certainty and order.
I'm sure Mexico itself is considerably more sophisticated these days than when Paz described it in the post-war decades. Yet it's interesting that if 'caudillo' Trump were to triumph, US politics would more closely resemble the patterns that Paz described in Mexico. One rather suspects that society too might become pyramid shaped as wealth steadily trickled upwards.
At Donald Trump's campaign rallies, in order to taunt Canadian born Republican rival Ted Cruz, they apparently like to blare out the old Bruce Springsteen song 'Born in the USA' indifferent to the irony that the song does not celebrate but rather excoriates the US. There's a certain irony that if Trump's policies were ever actually realized - with every Mexican illegal immigrant sent home and a large wall erected along the border - the America quarantined on the other side under its strongman president would be more classically 'Mexican' in character than it had ever been in its history before.