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Why Politics is Becoming Personality-Driven

Right-wing leaders understand emotions without the ability to feel them. As they know how we feel, they get the power to project themselves as saviours.

Trump, Bolsonaro and Modi undermine institutions, bolster the cult of personality in their respective countries and celebrate majoritarianism. But aside from these traits, what other most dominant attribute do all three leaders share? The kind of consent and identification they have enjoyed so far is explained by an ongoing global transition in how human feelings, emotions and experiences are seen and interpreted.

If the twentieth century was the Age of Revolutions, the twenty-first century will be known as the Age of Emotions. In a world driven by speedy and ephemeral technocracy-led concerns, a historic transition is on, marked by a people in emotional crisis or confusion as they try to negotiate reality in search of legitimate spaces for experiences.

Two parallel patterns seem to be emerging simultaneously in the realm of emotions. One, there is a sanction for expressing emotions and feelings without guilt or without having to confront the tyranny of political correctness. Two, there is a certain resistance to the lack of control and unpredictability that come with experiencing complex feelings and emotions.

Emotions are derived from one’s internal circumstances, moods and relations that cannot be constrained by external reason or rationality. But in a technocratic world we also aim to calculate emotions—we try to make them controlled and predictable so that they can better serve the consumer. Yet, as we control emotions, we also wish for more space for individual and collective public expressions of feelings. The dissonance caused by this contradiction reflects in the constant shifting of claims and manipulation in technology-assisted interpersonal relationships, which are a microcosm of our wider political relationships.

The contradictory impulses—wanting to express and yet negating the “excess” or complexity of emotions—is creating a new kind of leadership personality across the world. There is greater acceptance of leaders who are able to decipher and intensify our dissonance. Such leaders are manipulating and manifesting their own feelings in the public arena, including their anger, anxieties and hate. Yet they are able to appear as if they have control over their emotions and are not falling victim to spontaneity.

Such leaders hold on to a script of emotion without necessarily being emotional themselves. They are breaking down people’s emotions and relations into an algorithmic reading and then regulating public feelings through their deceptive use of technology. They openly display their knowledge of emotions and their control over them, which highlights their enviably larger-than-life personalities.

In other words, a personality-driven leader has external knowledge of emotions without the ability to internally feel emotions. Such leaders come across as a strong non-negotiators and long-awaited saviours. In the way they operate and in the desires they arouse in others, they seem to understand emotions clinically. But since they are not vulnerable to emotions themselves, they are only deploying their knowledge about feelings strategically, as another factor that legitimises their political goals.

The ability to understand emotions without experiencing them seems to have found resonance among people during the current social transition, in which technological changes are making primordial emotions increasingly difficult to experience. People are being pushed away from reality into a world constructed out of technological realism. The underlying emotional dissonance in terms of the inability to connect with one’s own self or with the external world is co-existing with the modern urge to domesticate and fully exhibit all ones social experiences. But how can we control our emotions and yet experience them spontaneously?

The new personality-driven global leadership coming from the authoritarian Right is successfully demonstrating this possibility. Its leaders express emotion, but in a simulated rather than spontaneous manner. This is evident in the emotions deployed and displayed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in public, which are more in the order of a script rather than spontaneous expressions. There is at least some genuine confusion with regard to how he manages a picture-perfect execution of emotions. Perfection does not seem to rob these emotions of their spontaneous value, for instance when Modi broke down while expressing gratitude to his party, which he compared with a “mother figure”, or when he broke down during public rallies while recalling his sacrifices of family life in the national interest.

The role of emotion is understood so well by these leaders that they can strategically trigger them in order to hide or dodge facts. All this is done without their necessarily having to go through the emotions they display, or dealing with their consequences. It is this unique personality trait that seems to be the source of immense public trust and confidence in them.

Politics is about the performance of emotions, intentions, and a trust which is manoeuvrable in different directions, depending on the intended goal. Leaders who display authentic emotions are difficult to trust because expressing feelings can make one look vulnerable during adverse situations. Without fail, India’s right-wing leaders keep drawing people’s attention towards Gandhi and Nehru as two glaring and undesirable historical representations of failure due to emotional vulnerabilities. It is constantly played and replayed before the public that authentic emotions made Gandhi compromise India’s case during Partition and made Nehru to blindly trust China in the 1962 debacle.

It is a double-edged desire: to want to overcome modernity and secularised spaces by letting emotions flow unabashedly while wanting to evade vulnerability and the constraints of emotions in a highly-competitive global atmosphere in which grandstanding superpowers are promoting ultra-nationalism. To cater to this urge we are collectively producing a personality cult of leadership which is critical of the civility that secular spaces “impose” but does not hesitate to externally mirror emotional, spontaneous reactions (like most of Trump’s press conferences).

These three leaders project uncivil, aggressive and politically incorrect behaviour, and yet they are not vulnerable to emotions and protected by a Teflon coat of culturally-internalised and glorified masculine imageries—Modi’s “56-inch chest”, Bolsonaro’s training as an army man, Trump’s ruthless, perhaps unscrupulous, becoming a billionaire.

Fact and fiction, moral and immoral/pragmatic, emotions and cosmetic strategisation collapse to produce new personalities that seem to resonate with the contradictory pulls of the current social and political moment: people want to express emotions without guilt and yet want a vice-like grip over their feelings.

This category of leaders are triggering negative emotions to their advantage to the extent that they can even deceive artificial intelligence: as researchers have found, even artificial intelligence struggles to detect hate speech algorithms. These developments make it imperative to inculcate a habit of looking inward to make better sense of one’s emotional reality instead of looking outward with a desire for external validation.

Ajay Gudavarthy is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU and Tarushikha Sarvesh is assistant professor, sociology, Centre for Women’s Studies, Aligarh Muslim University. The views are personal.

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