A colleague captured a crazy video yesterday. Irate crows on the road outside our office attacking a fox who had one of them in its mouth. Murder is the collective noun, we established in the Whatsapp group. Makes sense. They looked terrifying. Murder of crows. The fox got away.
I need to write that piece, I thought. The half-baked idea I have about how base instinct is the defining feature of our political age.
It occurred to me first when I was watching Tiger King in the early weeks of lockdown. Why, I asked myself, are psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists so drawn to big cats?
Kindred spirits, I concluded, munching on a homemade oatcake. Joe Exotic, the mulleted zookeeper protagonist, had political aspirations before his ambitions were thwarted by a 22-year prison sentence for plotting to kill fellow big cat afficionado Carole Baskin. In the end, they got him on a technicality.
But as others destined for high office have done in the past, Joe Exotic capitalized on his reality TV star credentials. On the back of the program’s runaway success, US President Donald Trump said he was looking into the possibility of a pardon.
Yes, he may have been joking. But in an era where strongmen like Putin, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Xi and Orban are cheerfully eroding the institutions designed to keep them in check, anything seems possible. All the more so during a global pandemic with effects far-reaching enough to be worthy of dystopian fiction.
To make sense of how base instinct continues to triumph over cool reason, it’s worth considering the work of philosopher Alain de Botton, who has written extensively on how Romanticism took over from Classical thought in Western societies.
In an especially illuminating passage in “The School of Life” he writes:
“The Romantic rebels against the ordinary. They are keen on the exotic and the rare. They like things which the mass of the population won’t yet know about. The fact that something is popular will always be a mark against it.”
Not long ago, the idea of a casino operator with no political experience leading the most powerful country in the world seemed comically absurd. “President Trump,” my father said ironically on the phone once. “Oh, would you stop,” I said. The very thought.
Those who did believe in such a possibility were at one time as rare and exotic as Joe’s big cats. Unlike the masses, these mavericks seized upon a notion so radical that is has changed the global political landscape, perhaps forever.
What if, they growled to anyone who would listen, the assumption held by the establishment – that a leader should be dignified, truthful and well-informed – could be treated as a mark against it?
What if, they asked – roaring now – a man whose sole credential was a basic instinct for self-enrichment could mobilize the masses?
What if – they tweeted – we returned to the wild?
Instinct has a lot to recommend it. It is the impulse we have to protect our own. What drives us to eat. The prowess we display in a fight.
It is uncomplicated, unfiltered and immune to the possibilities of education.
In short, it has all the hallmarks of Donald Trump.
As Alain de Botton writes:
“The Romantic is dismayed by compromise. They are drawn to either wholehearted endorsement or total rejection. Ideally partners should love everything about each other. A political party should be admirable at every turn. A philanthropist should draw no personal benefit from the acts of charity.”
Romanticism, is for better or for worse, totalitarian in nature. It is the dizzy highs and crushing lows of Marianne and Connell’s relationship in Normal People, which like Tiger King, has proven to be another essential shared viewing experience during the pandemic.
We need these extremes to escape from the boredom of everyday life. A series of achingly dull compromises doesn’t make good TV.
But it does characterize a well-functioning democracy, which like the fox outside of my office, currently finds itself under attack.
An attack orchestrated by those united in the romantic belief that they are the victims of a cunning elite.