Tuesday 23 July 2024

“This is not a TV series” – are you sure about that?

(Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

This column first appeared in Malta Today

The show of support whipped up for Joseph Muscat outside the law courts on Tuesday morning resulted in the usual, predictable, knee jerk reactions. (And let us make no mistake, the crowds were there specifically and exclusively for him, because that was the message which was blared out by the usual suspects).

The demographics of those who showed up was also quite easy to predict. Who is free on a weekday morning after all, if not pensioners and stay-at-home housewives of a certain age? This is also the age group which gets its news from the radio and Facebook (where their algorithms feed them news from like-minded people and Labour media). The younger age groups migrated to Instagram and TikTok long ago, and in any case 20 – 40 somethings are more likely to be invested and passionate about Love Island.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that those under 50 have checked out from engaging in political activism for various reasons: either because they are too busy and stressed with their own family commitments (this is the middle of the exam season after all), or they have lost interest because they find it all too complicated, tedious and boring, or they have simply given up that anything will change, no matter how much they protest. Just look at any recent political demonstration and the demographics are the same – the majority are aged over 55.

But back to the Labour crowd cheering for their hero Muscat. I don’t think it is a coincidence that this age group is the same cohort that used to worship that previous Labour Prime Minister who was likewise elevated to god-like status, Dom Mintoff. In the 80s they were in their 20s and 30s, now they are in their 60s and 70s. There is the same cult-like devotion, the same refusal to believe he did anything wrong, and the same blind acceptance of everything they are told to think. As invariably happens, they repeat verbatim certain phrases, arguments and buzz words churned out by partisan propaganda. More crucially, there still lingers the same deep-seated visceral hatred of anything the Nationalists say or do (which, let’s face it, is mutual). This is something which staunch PN supporters repeatedly fail to understand: that the blinkered loyalty of such crowds that we saw on Tuesday has as much (or more) to do with their life-long antagonism towards the Nationalist Party as it does with their allegiance to their own party.

Whoever coined the phrase “jew magħna jew kontra tagħna” (and if I am not mistaken it was Mintoff himself) had a shrewd knowledge of the Maltese psyche, which absolutely thrives and downright relishes tribalism. Without a clear “enemy” the whole thing is no fun at all – which is why there is a certain type of person who comes alive and positively buzzes any time there is an election. It’s thrilling, it gets their blood flowing and their adrenaline pumping – it is all about the win. But if I am reading the zeitgeist correctly, this obsession with “my party right or wrong” is becoming increasingly relegated to specific segments of the Maltese population: those who were raised on a diet of political propaganda at their mother’s knee and who will show up just because Manuel Cuschieri (or Jason Azzopardi) told them to.

The other side of the divide, who are no less polarised in their own way, launched their jibes from behind a keyboard, mocking and sniggering at the hapless senior citizens who had a microphone shoved in their face and asked the type of questions which, in the classic Pavlov tradition, elicited the expected response. These men and women were easy targets being set up for sound bites and video clips destined to go viral. In an age when few read the actual article, the choice of headlines was also significant. In contrast, there were some observers who felt sorry and even protective of these supporters who were used not once, but twice, first by their own party and then by the Opposition for their respective ends. I felt the same way. It was a cheap attempt to zero in on people who, with just a slight tap on the buttons which the reporters knew just how to push, reinforced the stereotype and fit the narrative.

Inside the court room, one lawyer from the Attorney General’s office pointed out that this was turning into a trial by media and asked for the accused not to be allowed to make any more public comments. “Those comments are more appropriate to some TV series,” he said. I think it’s a bit too late for this, as the proceedings are already unfolding like a cross between a courtroom drama and a reality show which is viewed on demand accompanied by the obligatory memes.

As it continues to be played out, we are regaled with the usual slurs and insults directed at those who are still, despite everything, supporting Muscat & co. This tactic has always intrigued me – haven’t we learned by now that insulting the diehard Labour faction will never work and that it never did? They will simply harden their resolve and hearts against the PN and dig their heels in even more (not that they need much encouragement).

I cannot help but compare what is happening here to the events which occurred this week across the Atlantic with (former US President) Donald Trump. The parallels are too uncanny. He has not only been criminally charged but was found guilty of 34 felonies. Yet because there is nothing in the US Constitution which prevents a convicted felon from running for office, he is still, at the time of writing, the official Republican nominee for the Presidential elections. According to media reports, support for him among his staunchest supporters remains unabated and even as the mainstream media tries to portray Trump supporters as stupid, uneducated rednecks, they remain entrenched in the spiel that rightwing news outlets have been pedalling for months.

On CNN one supporter was quoted as saying, “Just an abuse of the justice system. Biden and Democrats can’t win the 2024 election in the polls, so they use prosecution of Trump to try to keep him out of office. This verdict will not hold up through appeals,” he added, repeating Trump’s false claims about President Joe Biden being behind the New York prosecution.

Now we can decry and sneer at these type of single-minded supporters until the cows come home, but unless we delve into the psychology behind what is happening both here and in the US, it will be an exercise in futility. Trump might just be re-elected once again, and here, Labour is still comfortably ahead in the polls.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University historian who studies authoritarian propaganda has pointed out that:

“For years Trump has told his supporters that elections can’t be trusted and that he is a victim of a corrupt persecution by the government and media. With that narrative endorsed by conservative news outlets and amplified on social media, it’s only natural that many of Trump’s supporters will accept it. He’s set up the idea since 2016 that elections themselves are corrupt … This is seven years now of this narrative. Trump is one of the most superb propagandists of the 21st century. He has created this seamless world, where to his followers, everything just confirms his victimhood.”

If that sounds eerily familiar, that is because it is. In the US, some liberal pundits such as Bill Maher have tried to take a moderate approach and keep the channels of communication open, rather than take shots at those who stubbornly persist in supporting Trump. As the 2016 election showed us, derision and ridicule had the diametrically opposite effect because, whether we like it or not, everyone has a vote. The same can be said for the local political landscape. If PN exponents continue down this same path of bashing the supporters, it will not make one iota of difference to the electoral outcome.

It also has to be said that Tuesday’s display did not do Labour any favours at all in the eyes of those who are left-wing but are not fanatics. Despite the attempt to tar everyone with the same brush, not every Labour supporter is a corrupt crook and not every PN supporter is as pure as the driven snow. Let’s just leave the halos for the saints please, because you get all types across the board. I have met plenty of people from both parties whose concept of what is legally, morally and ethically right or wrong is so blurred and hazy that they can justify anything. Likewise, there are those from both sides who are as straight as an arrow. The Nationalists do not have and have never had a monopoly on righteousness (otherwise how come so many were so easily bought off?).

As for Labour, I have long pointed out that with his massive majority and grip on power, Muscat ensured that it has lost its soul and its very raison d’etre. Will it ever get it back? Maybe, but it will take years and someone very formidable whose methods and leadership are beyond reproach.

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