March 17, 2021

It’s odd the way no one talks about Donald Trump anymore. After four years of continuous, apoplectic fury from the respectable press, it has been less than three months since Trump departed from the White House — and already it feels as though he Never Actually Happened.

But even if we seem to have collectively decided that The Donald was a political blip, best consigned to the dustbin of history, his utterances live on. In 2015, before he was even elected, Trump declared that the US needed “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on”. His statement was met with horror at the time. Today, though, it’s not just become a meme, but also mutated into a form of political debate.

Last week, in response to Sarah Everard’s murder, Green Party peer Baroness Jones of Moulscoomb called for men to be subjected to a curfew after 6pm. Baroness Jones argued that this would “make women a lot safer” and reduce “discrimination of all kinds”. Effectively, then, she was proposing a total and complete lockdown of men until we can figure out what’s going on. The Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford then made noises about the “dramatic action” needed to mitigate a “crisis”, and how his government would be “prepared to consider all measures”.

The proposal itself excited much discussion in the usual places, despite (or perhaps due to) having so many self-evident shortcomings as a policy. Baroness Jones herself has since admitted that the idea was “not an entirely serious suggestion”, while Drakeford was forced to clarify that Wales was not in fact considering a curfew on men.

But even if the bien-pensant world has agreed to pretend that Trump never happened, there’s something startlingly Trumpian about seeing elected UK politicians floating obviously absurd policy proposals. As the former President’s enemies never tired of pointing out, his utterances often bore only a glancing relation to reality. His detractors were infuriated by this, as well as by the way his supporters didn’t seem to care. But it’s possible that they were missing the point, because communication is by no means always about reality.

Many everyday exchanges are what linguistics experts call “phatic communication”. This is better known as small talk: utterances that don’t convey factual information, such as “the milk is in the fridge”, but rather establish a mood. Utterances such as “Good morning” or “Lovely weather we’ve been having” are less about the morning or the weather than about conveying the message “I’m here and I’m friendly”.

Trump’s distinctive contribution to modern politics was his expert deployment of something like phatic communication in a political context. That is, statements that delivered a kind of mood music, with some relation to policy issues, but which usually did little to alter the facts on the ground.

For example, consider his assertion on February 28, 2020 that “one day, it’s like a miracle – [Covid] will disappear.” More than a year (and a new President) later, this hasn’t happened; the assertion only makes sense if understood as a piece of wishful thinking, aimed at conjuring a feeling of positivity about reality reordering itself in accordance with Trump’s desires. I think of this as “phatic politics”: a kind of willingness, despite the reality, to say whatever will convey a mood that feels appropriate, or is likely to achieve the desired effect, in a given moment — regardless of the facts on the ground.

In January last year, just before Covid struck, Eitan Hirsh drew a distinction between politics and “political hobbyists”. Politics, in Hirsh’s formulation, is about making things happen, such as the Suffragettes’s campaign for the female franchise, or a local group fundraising for a new community centre. Hirsh characterises political hobbyists, on the other hand, as predominantly white male graduates, who consume politics as a form of entertainment without themselves being involved in any concrete effort to bring about substantive change.

The style of phatic politics I’ve just described was Trump’s signature presidential style, but it’s typical of all hobbyist consumers of politics — because it implies that there is no real connection between what you say about real life and life itself. In Trump’s case, the slippery relationship between utterance and reality was complicated by his actually being the US President; but for most political hobbyists, there really isn’t much connection between the policies they advocate and those which are adopted by governments. This frees hobbyists to treat policy as a vehicle for self-expression. It means you can call for paedo-hanging or male curfews with impunity, as a way of conveying how strongly you feel about a subject — for the simple reason that your ideas will never be implemented.

Over the last year, this style of politics has become so widespread that we’re now witnessing its group manifestation: phatic protest. That is, public demonstrations that often convey deeply felt emotion, but without a specific policy aim in mind.

Both the death of George Floyd and that of Sarah Everard have triggered such inchoate responses. Both events were, of course, deplorable. They both implicated police officers — precisely the citizens charged with ensuring public order and safety — and prompted a sense that the very structures of social order are institutionally hostile to a particular identity group. And in both cases, horror at an unjust death has fed a groundswell of public anger at this perceived injustice.

But also, in both cases, the outcry has been as formless as it has been sincere. After all, it’s all too easy to agree that the world treats specific groups unjustly, and feel deep anger about this, while remaining unsure what specifically we should do about it. And in the absence of any consensus on what we should do, we’ve seen the rise of phatic protest; that is, political engagement oriented more toward expressing a feeling than demanding policy change.

In the vacuum left by this uncertainty over what exactly we can do about something as endemic as violence against women, or the seemingly intractable issue of racial injustice, we’ve seen huge sums of money raised seemingly overnight by crowdfunding websites. Black Lives Matter raised more than $90 million in 2020, while Reclaim These Streets raised over £500,000 in just a few days, despite providing little information about fundraisers’s identities or how the money will be spent.

I have no reason to suspect that the motives of Reclaim These Streets are anything but decent. But it is still startling to see half a million pounds raised in a matter of days by people who don’t even put their names on the crowdfunding website. And this sense of powerful grassroots energy in search of an organisational focus points to the most troubling feature of phatic protest: how vulnerable it is to being hijacked.

The initial outrage at racialised police brutality last summer rapidly became a vector for activists seeking to abolish prisons, capitalism and the nuclear family. Similarly, while Reclaim These Streets seems to be organised by local councillors and other women local to the Clapham area, rumours are swirling about Antifa infiltrating at the Clapham Common vigil.

It’s hard to be sure, but it’s at least possible that someone who takes an “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards) placard to a candlelit vigil for a recent murder victim didn’t have mourning a horrible death uppermost on their mind. The next day, a protest was organised by Sisters Uncut, an existing group affiliated with broadly the same political agenda as the one which has colonised BLM — that is, to abolish prisons, undermine capitalism and so on. (I call this the Dismantle Everything lobby.)

By its leaderless, heavily emotional and agenda-less nature, then, phatic protest attracts would-be revolutionary vanguards who do have specific policies they want to bring about — even if these are at odds with whatever has prompted the mass outbreak of public feeling. It is not obvious, for example, how defunding the police would improve women’s safety in public; but as night follows day, Dismantle Everything has already suggested that doing so would be a helpful response to the Sarah Everard vigil.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that our politics has come so adrift from any sense that we might actually effect political change through activism. After all, we’ve spent the last year cut off from social contact, on the receiving end of unprecedented and authoritarian public laws, wondering what our distant leaders will foist on us next. It’s no wonder, then, that so many of us have given up on political agency in favour of political hobbyism, and that political activism over the last year has focused more on emotion and symbolic action — taking a knee, clapping for carers, leaving flowers — rather than substantive change. For if there’s a unifying subtext to phatic policy, it’s a sense of powerlessness: wishful thinking as a substitute for action.

But if we’re to recover a sense of political agency and democratic participation, that’s going to mean weaning ourselves off political hobbyism. In other words, less clicktivism, less arguing over Westminster court politics and instead grounding ourselves in reality. If you’re horrified by women’s lack of safety, you would do better to join the council to push for better street lighting, or help out at a local women’s refuge, than to pretend that wildly authoritarian policy kite-flying by C-list politicians is an adequate response to profound systemic issues.

Until we make this adjustment, we’ll continue to only stir ourselves from our online torpor for diffuse, emotive public protests over intractable problems. And as long as this remains true, mass politics will achieve nothing more constructive than rolling out the red carpet for Dismantle Everything.