… or why Brexiters, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump succeeded with the very same story
Yes, I do believe, that, if you break the narratives of the Brexiters, Putin and Trump down to their core, they basically tell the very same story.
In its most simple form, their story goes like that:
In former times everything was better, and now we have to get up and fight, to get our lost glory back.
With “former times”, the Brexiters mean the Great British Empire, Putin means the Great Soviet Empire, and Donald Trump means, well, something glorious in the American past before all the non-white immigrants and deranged liberals spoiled the party.
The Brexiters, Putin, and Trump the also cleverly named the antagonists of their stories: for the Brexiters it is the EU, labour migrants, and home-grown communists, for Putin it is the USA, the West, and the fascists in the Ukraine, and for Trump it is criminal Mexicans, Muslims, and the liberals in New York and Hollywood (and pretty much everybody else who doesn’t agree with him).
Simple story structures are effective
And exactly this is how effective storytelling works: you identify the protagonist (The British, Russian, American common people), you define a clear goal (bringing back lost glory), and you make sure that there is plenty of mean villains and a lot of conflict on the heroic journey to overcome. Easy.
So, from a story-structure perspective, the stories of Brexiters, Putin and Trump work perfectly. And, whether you like them or not, they struck a chord with their target audience. That they are factually wrong in most parts… who cares? They worked.
The Nostalgia Story
The interesting thing about their stories is that they all hinted at great things from the past that were lost and now must be regained. Why exactly are stories about nostalgia so effective?
Well, look at the archetypical stories of the modern day: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones, to name a few. They all tell stories about a lost paradise: once people lived happily together in a peaceful world, and everything just worked well. But then the villains came along, Voldemort or Sauron or the Lannisters, and destroyed paradise. Now, the world is out of balance and order must be restored.
This is exactly the archetypical story people love: A world out of balance, that urgently needs heroic forces to restore peace and harmony.
Of course, the Brexiters, Putin and Trump, told an oversimplified version of this story and cut out all unwanted complexity. But it worked.
I’m not saying that everybody who voted Brexit or for Trump hates immigrants and liberals. And I definitely don’t think that many Russians want the Ukraine destroyed. No, of course not. But there is a high likelihood that they all bought into the story of a broken and endangered society that urgently needs to be reinstated to long lost glory.
The Original Sin of storytelling
The strength of storytelling, making the abstract concrete and the complex simple, is also its inherit danger. Storytelling can be therefore abused by populists and nationalists to form simple narratives that create an alluring pull; and exactly those simplified narratives ultimately shape the identities of their “tribes”. To paraphrase Terry Pratchett: stories are not shaped by people; it is the other way round.
Those “tribal stories” were coined the “original sin” by some storytelling scholars. Why? Because they simplify complex issues to a point where all critical facts and ambiguities are removed until they only leave room for the storyteller’s (biased) worldview, and on top the opposing tribe is cast as the villain in their stories; and exactly this is where it can get messy as we have recently seen on the streets of Washington DC.
So, what is a way out? How, can we not fall for simple narratives? Sounds almost too easy but the best we can do is: Ask questions a lot, look at facts, be open to other people’s opinions, read sources that represent other viewpoints, and always always be wary of the confirmation bias, which is in all of us.
As a left-leaning centrist, I myself, am guilty of not listening enough to the “other side”. Looking up and down my Social Media feeds, I cannot spot any pro-Brexit or pro-Trump posts. I live in my very own cosy left-liberal echo chamber.
However, I believe that only listening and being empathic about other people’s stories and viewpoints can heal the divisions in society, which got all too prevalent in recent years.
So, Breitbart, Breaking Point and Fox News it is for me for the next three weeks. See ya at the other end of the tunnel! Maybe my worldview will have been transformed. Who knows.
Plato bans Storytellers
The Greek philosopher Plato once suggested to his teacher Socrates to ban storytellers from Athens, because he was all too aware of the power of storytelling and that it can lead people in unwanted directions. (Ironically, Plato was a brilliant storyteller himself)
Of course, I would never suggest imposing an outright ban on storytelling, but I want it to be used in a responsible way. Ultimately stories are the most powerful and beautiful thing we have.
And, maybe, just maybe, we will be blessed with some beautiful stories soon, that heal the division in our society, instead of widening the gap further.
So, all you storytellers, go out now and tell those stories!