This is a guest post by Maria Brock. Maria is about to commence a postdoctoral fellowship at the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies and the School of Cultural and Critical Theory at Södertörn University (Stockholm). She has a PhD in Psychosocial Studies from Birkbeck and has perviously published on the role of negative affect in reactions to the case of Pussy Riot, and the status of memory objects and ‘museums of the everyday’ in the proliferation of post-socialist nostalgia.
In July 2016 – more than 15 years into his time in office – Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s approval rating was at 82%, a figure made all the more remarkable by the fact that the country is experiencing a palpable and lengthy economic downturn. Some commentators have favoured an explanation that treats this as proof that a larger-than-life president is more in line with ‘what Russians want’, as Putin “satisfied a yearning for a strong leader who could make the Russian family proud”. However, concretising a Russian ‘national desire’ is less than helpful if we seek to understand the reasons behind Putin’s continued popularity. Equating a historical past with an inherent propensity to follow strong-men is an exercise in oversimplification, as it treats nations and groups as essentially static, prone to repeat the same historical patterns over and over again. Similarly, a focus on the more overt parallels with the earlier ‘Cults of Personality’ neglects the fact that the underlying ‘conditions of possibility’ that produced the two phenomena are different. Such comparisons also fail to explain the appeal of similarly larger-than-life politicians in countries with a longer democratic tradition. Clearly, an emphasis on national psychological propensities is not productive. Instead, an analysis of the appeal of such leader figures that taps into less conscious mechanisms is worthwhile. By simultaneously looking at the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s remarkable rise, a number of parallels pertaining to the creation of their public personae become apparent. In fact, such an analysis can serve to illuminate overarching principles structuring the successful creation of their outsized public personae.
The popular support these politicians attract demonstrates that they hold a kind of libidinal appeal that should not be underestimated, lest we render a large part, if not the majority, of a country’s population politically incompetent. While one cannot discount the real inequalities, as well as the real and imagined grievances that opened up the space for less established political figures to gain support, it is nevertheveless worthwhile to examine why these particular kinds of candidates hold such appeal. Their reliance on spectacle and well-orchestrated exploits which combine the hypermasculine with the hyperreal enabled them to set in motion processes of identification that transcend the need for a coherent, well articulated political agenda. Instead, while seeming unsubtle to the point of being crass, they simultaneously operate on a more subliminal level, remaining oblique enough to become conduits for the electorate’s personal hopes and grievances. While this piece centres on the representational mechanisms employed by Vladimir Putin and his team of PR advisers, it is possible to identify a number of parallels with other contemporary leader figures – chief among them Donald Trump – each of whom appears to rely on a kind of hypermasculine charisma to suture a political field that is otherwise characterised by cynicism towards established politics.