7 Nov 2016

Politicians and authenticity

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 2:41 pm on 7 November 2016

The perceived “authenticity” of Donald Trump has been a large part of his popularity in this year’s highly unusual US presidential election. And according to commentators, authenticity is the new political "It” Factor.

But what is it to be ‘authentic’? And can authenticity be faked?

Jesse Mulligan asks Fiona Kennedy of the NZ Leadership Institute and the University of Auckland Business School.

John Key

John Key Photo: AFP / FILE

Kennedy says the original (late-19th century) concept of authenticity was of a person committed to being themselves in the face of external and oppressive  – at that time bourgeois  – forces.

Alongside that developed the belief that finding out who you are (becoming authentic) entails blocking out the noise of a world that’s telling you how to be.

Kennedy says that when Trump declares ‘I got no time for political correcetedness’ he’s echoing – and seemingly nailing -  a concept of authenticity that’s been commonly held for a long time.

“You’ve got political correctness over here and authenticity over here – and they’re kind of set in opposition to each other.”

It’s unfortunate that Trump seems to think a refusal of political correctness comes with a free pass to be nasty, she says.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump Photo: AFP

Would she attribute John Key’s political appeal to a perception of authenticity?

“I do think John Key works that space quite well… in terms of saying ‘I’m one of you guys’.”

Yet she doesn’t see him using authenticity in his leadership.

“He can be 'I’m one of you guys’ on Rock FM or whatever it’s called, but he doesn’t actually take that any further… There’s opportunities to really crank up the leadership once you’ve created that space with people. I’m not sure that he does that.”

Kennedy says that when it comes to politicians, we can do a lot worse than faked authenticity.

“I think what is more troublesome is the dogmatic ‘I am what I am and I’ll do as I please’ which is what you’re seeing from Trump.”

And how does she feel about the future of politics, given who is currently prospering in the name of authenticity?

“I am worried. But in any of these situations there’s so much that happens, there’s so much that you learn, there’s so much that you can see that you couldn’t see… so I think it’s also a really fruitful space to have our eyes on.”

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