by Guy Walker
Now that the G20 summit has come and gone, everyone returns to their chronic tedium back home, either proud and spritely of their own performance, or disheartened that international politics are in a state of seemingly permanent gridlock. Donald Trump shuffles away with his head slouched, his fingers impulsively clasping at the squalid air, anxious to tweet brazen threats again behind the comfort of locked doors. Angela Merkel simply sighs as she stares into empty space; to her, the whole world looks like a huge school project that’s barely held together with Elmer’s glue and Scotch tape. Protestors return to their chic flats and coffee shops; they untie their black hankies, throw their anti-capitalist banners away, and begin sipping green tea lattes from oversized mugs. Everyone feels the same faint confusion: what actually happened? and what was it all for?
The summit and accompanying protests were both nonevents not just because they lacked any substantive content or messaging, but also because of the way they were covered by the press—by the way we demand they be covered. All people want is something to gossip about. We want our leaders to either steal the show through charisma and desirability, or to trip and roll down the stairs. Justin Trudeau can just stand there, and do nothing but smile his gorgeous glistening smile, and his approval ratings climb ever upward. In the United States, however, people only pay attention to Trump now because they want to see him actually bodyslam a reporter. There’s no middle ground. Nobody cares about diplomacy anymore—we just need a tabloid headline to blather over.
Political commentators and body language experts spent endless collective hours analyzing the position and angle of the Putin-Trump handshake. It was like the wild-eyed frenzy of sports analysts drawing arrows and X’s all over the still frames of a last second, game-winning shot. Did Angela Merkel just roll her eyes at Putin’s mansplaining? Why did Trump just walk up to Narendra Modi for an impromptu chat? When Putin and Trump sat down for the press, Putin had his hand partially covering his chest, while Trump’s hand was partially covering his pelvis—or was it the other way around—who’s dominant?
It’s true: the world’s great leaders are actually this weary and dull. The sheer pedantry of such summits must be gut-wrenching to actually attend: regarding climate change and the Paris Accords for example, other nations agreed they wouldn’t go so far as endorsing Trump’s language of including fossil fuels, but they would recognize it. These types of semantic compromises are the cornerstone of political atrophy—they degrade men into shuttering relics of themselves, as journalists scribble furiously, and anarchists’ scrawny pale arms chuck rocks at anything that moves.
If you search online for news about this year’s G20 summit, you’re offered a banquet of tepid reports that have nothing to do with international affairs or trade policy. Sure, most of what is discussed amongst the nations’ leaders is done so without the press present, and so we’re left to gawk at their orgiastic meet-and-greets; but nevertheless, what the press does cover and emphasize inspires little more than a fart-drenched cynicism. It’s lo-fi drama, cheapened with the dull bromidic fuckery of men and women shuffling around like penguins, trying to position themselves in the best place for a photograph.
It’s why Donald Trump got elected in the first place—everyone was either resentful against establishment politics, or they were so wretchedly bored by politics-as-usual. And as much of a mad despotic clown that Trump is, he has enlivened politics for everybody. He gave our feverishly short attention spans something to latch onto, like staring at some grotesque baggy mass that consumes everything around it and swells and morphs like cold beef gelatin—we can’t stop watching the thing amass weight and disease. Trump might have record low ratings, but he’s the most popular man in the world—he’s the excuse kids use when they just want to throw a chair through a window.
The lack of spectacle and excitement at a G20 summit used to be acceptable. That’s what politics was—old, tired men (and a woman or two) sitting in rooms, discussing the fate of the world. Donald Trump changed that for everybody, and there’s no going back to the way things used to be. I don’t know if it was the Republican National Convention in July of last year that permanently shifted everything for the worse, but it stands out as a pivotal moment of masturbatory ennui, as the cowboy’s triumphant scream into the void of human dignity. It was a pageant from hell, full of ornate hats and body glitter, grown men twerking because it seemed patriotic in the moment. It ignited a newfound appreciation for whorish theater, a huge party at which to say, “You seem reasonable. Here, take the codes that can blow up the world!”
There’s no recovering from that. We want the next thousand years to be a Jerry Springer episode—it’ll be good for ratings, fuck diplomacy.
The protests were equally prosaic. By now, we expect our leaders to be as predictable as motorized bobbleheads, nodding and shaking hands in a performance of masked propriety; but even the angriest of the demonstrations around this year’s summit were as banal as a kid from Brentwood’s temper tantrum. Yes, in their wake, protestors left burned vehicles and looted stores; they took selfies in front of burning heaps on the street; they chanted anti-globalist idioms, and consequently got hosed down with pepper spray and water cannons. But in the end, it amounted to very little—perhaps a glorified, cathartic version of giving your Facebook profile pic a positively-themed filter. But this sort of feel-good activism that lets you feel like you made your voice heard and that you are part of something larger than yourself is tenuous at best.
The problem isn’t so much that the protestors were weak at protesting, but rather that it was the same predictable thing as before. These self-styled marches don’t work the same way that they used to. They worked in the 60’s. Even the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle quantified a historic level of popular mobilization against the colluding elites. But the WTO protests were historic for another reason: it was the first major modern example of the beginnings of a mass movement that went nowhere. It had all the right ingredients: unwarranted police brutality, the unification of blue-collar workers and indigenous peoples, the relatively focused messaging of something specific within their anti-globalist agenda. But it fizzled out to a few distant croaks of dissent.
Our present generation has adopted this legacy of expecting failure. The Occupy movement could have developed into something significant, but white dudes with dreads and girls with blue armpit hair just wanted to dance. The left always loses because they relish in their own failure. When Jon Ossoff lost the special election in Georgia’s 6th congressional district, the Democrat’s response essentially was, “we may have lost, but we barely lost,” as if that was worth celebrating.
From the press coverage, to the protests, to the summit itself, the G20 as a whole knows politics-as-we-once-knew-it is over. It was a last gasp of diplomacy, a relatively civil weigh-in before an epoch of Wrestlmania. After all, The Rock says he’s going to run for president.