The Art of the Bait
From the Series: Lessons for Liberalism from the “Illiberal East”
Shortly after Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican primaries of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, many Bosnians and Bosnian-Americans started to voice their shock and concern over the candidacy of a man who seemed to openly advocate xenophobic nationalism, as well as anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric. They offered lessons about the dangers of a politics that harnesses and even produces such sentiments, warning of the violence that might be unleashed if the liberal commitment to tolerance were to be abandoned entirely.
Yet instead of providing insightful critique, such warnings conscripted regional histories in order to affirm ideals proper to the post-1989 liberal consensus (even if not exactly of liberal politics or practice). These messages reiterated both the normative narratives (yes, racism is bad!) and the predictable, though flat responses to what would eventually become a Trump presidency (i.e., commitment to liberal ideals, democratic transfer of power, and love that trumps hate).
Just like efforts to mine the Balkan crises for cautionary tales about the dangers of xenophobia, these lines of critique illuminate the poverty of liberalism when it comes to mounting a political response to the Trump phenomenon, particularly at the domestic level. After the initial wave of soul-searching following Hillary Clinton’s loss, the juicy story about Russian interference, which conveniently externalizes responsibility for the electoral outcome (and offers hope for an eventual impeachment) has all but eliminated the need for greater self-reflection among those who count themselves as the opposition. At the same time, the obsessive rhythms and repetitive structure of mainstream media discourse leaves one with the impression that political life of the United States is caught in a hopeless loop, within which critique rests on the perpetual proclamation that this administration and its supporters are incompetent, corrupt, and cruel. How does one break out of this increasingly circular structure of political discourse in Trump’s America? What political and critical tools might be necessary amid this impasse?
Like liberal Americans, the progressive activists in Bosnia among whom I conduct research have also been struggling to stage a response to a multifaceted political impasse that has characterized the postwar period. As in the United States, this deadlock has been both institutional and discursive, and it has been detrimental to political action, critique and sanity at large. On the one hand, the impasse is perpetuated by ethnonationalist politics which, in addition to authorizing war, helped make a country with 4.5 million people and a territory the size of Kentucky into a state with fourteen parliaments, thirteen constitutions, and three official constitutive peoples speaking their own “unique” languages. On the other hand, efforts to mount a challenge to this politics seem captured by the ossified and delegitimized rhetoric of democracy promotion, advanced by the international community since the 1995 Dayton peace accords.
This double siege of domestic political life has led my interlocutors to become especially attentive to the discursive conditions for activist work. Crucial to their concerns has been the question of whether a particular intervention would take (da li će se primiti?)—that is, find fertile soil within the overdetermined postwar political context. If not, then any political act risked being a nonevent.
This tactical question of whether a political act would take conjures the idea of the bait. In fact, my interlocutors were well aware of the seductive capacities of certain narrative frames and the dangers they represented, for they could lead citizens to accept the official version of events or to be conscripted into the defense of redundant, absurd, or pointless causes. To be “baited” by a narrative would mean to unwittingly pursue a mode of action that either acts as a distraction or keeps one in an endless and senseless loop.
Awareness of the seductive power of political baits also made my interlocutors conscious of the need to generate their own “hooks”—to do the baiting, rather than to be baited. This meant recognizing that just because a form of critique or a political argument is true does not mean that it is effective as a tool of persuasion or mobilization.
Awareness of the seductive power of political baits also made my interlocutors conscious of the need to generate their own “hooks”—to do the baiting, rather than to be baited. This meant recognizing that just because a form of critique or a political argument is true does not mean that it is effective as a tool of persuasion or mobilization. Whether and how a form of critique takes depends on the historical, political, social, and economic context within which certain things come to ring true. Baits work because they reaffirm what we already perceive as true or at least, find convincing—they are tools of ideology, for they project a normative view of the world.
This dynamic has evidently been at play in the case of “click bait,” sensationalist headlines that played an enormous role in the 2016 U.S. elections. The weakness for this genre is not solely the purview of the alt-right, either. It is very much a part of the liberal public sphere and the discursive space occupied by its familiar beacons (the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and so on). The spectacular political acts of the current American president also prey on this baiting dynamic, as they repeatedly mobilize the same hot-button issues that fuel the American culture wars: attacks on access to abortion, gay marriage, and responses to climate change (serious issues in their own right) do not just pander to the base, but actively seek to reproduce U.S. liberals as the baby-killing, gay-loving, tree-hugging idiots that the Right already sees them as.
To think and do politics—otherwise—the opposition first needs to become self-aware of the ideological play at hand and, importantly, the ways in which its rhythms deplete the opposition’s energies and impoverish its own political imagination. Subsequently, we need to put this newfound awareness into practice by mastering the art of the bait—in order to unsettle, rather than be unsettled. The counterbait would help us to set the terms of the conversation, rather than be held captive by an already absurd set of propositions. Recognizing the power of articulation—rather than lamenting the end of realism in American politics—might better equip us to speak to those outside of our comfort zones and to deal with “alternative facts,” provocateur figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, and, indeed, the Trump administration at large.