Donald Trump, Rob Ford, and the Performance of Seriousness, Part 2

In part 1 of this post, I wrote about the similarities between Donald Trump and Rob Ford, and particularly their appeal to people who had been or are politically disengaged. In the meantime, Sarah Palin has endorsed Donald Trump (transcript of her speech, which is a remarkable mix of Whitmanesque ode and surrealist word salad, is here), among other things affirming his claim to be a political outsider – neither a Beltway insider, nor part of the GOP establishment – and saying that despite being a multi-billionaire, Trump is “not an elitist.”

With the exception of Trump’s racism, it is remarkable how closely his message tracks with Ford’s, in its appeal to people who feel alienated both politically (the political establishment isn’t listening to the concerns of people like me) and economically (increasing insecurity, struggling to make ends meet). And for both Trump and Ford, that alienation is expressed almost exclusively as a problem of the corruption of the governmental system. This is hardly a new way of framing the problem. Indeed there is a long tradition, in the US especially, of positing government (and the federal government in particular) as the source of ordinary people’s woes. The anti-government content of Trumpism is important, although it is also worth underscoring that Trump is very far from the most libertarian (or anti-government) candidate in the GOP field. I will come back to that as I set up a theoretical frame for understanding it.

Also in the “Part 1” post, I mentioned the importance of a political psychology that would help us to understand this kind of political phenomenon, and name-checked Adorno et al’s study of “The Authoritarian Personality.” Since then, well, this piece came out. Just saying.

But I think there is more than just resurgent authoritarianism going on here, and it has to do with the specific content of the message. The support for Trump and Ford can be put in the context of what political theorist Ingolfur Blühdorn calls the “performance of seriousness” and the problem of “sustaining the unsustainable.” Blühdorn develops these concepts in thinking about the politics of environmental (un)sustainability, but also sees them as broadly applicable to the politics of the “late modern” (contemporary) era. Blühdorn’s article is written for an academic audience (I’ve assigned it to senior undergraduate/graduate seminars, and those students have found it tough going.) But a potted summary goes something like this:

Politicians often engage in “symbolic action,” which doesn’t address real (or material) causes of problems. People are often frustrated with (merely) symbolic actions, and demand that politicians “get serious” or address problems in a real (not merely symbolic) sense. At the same time, really addressing problems of unsustainability would mean ending the privileges that unsustainable systems produce. Environmentally unsustainable modes of living, for example, allow us to consume beyond our (real) means, so really addressing this problem would mean an end to overconsumption. The same goes for fiscally unsustainable modes of living (governments, societies, or households borrowing and spending beyond their means), or any of a number of other problems. To the extent that people enjoy overconsumption, and want to keep doing it, there is also an interest in “sustaining the unsustainable.” This creates a conflict – a simultaneous desire for 1) unsustainability to be really (not just symbolically) addressed, and 2) the privileges that come with unsustainability to be maintained. The solution to this conflict is what Bluhdorn calls “the performance of seriousness”:

This is a seemingly schizophrenic condition where citizens want politics to be no more than symbolic, but still complain about democratic deficits and ‘merely symbolic’ politics.

We thus have a distinctive form of political communication that is all about “societal self-deception“:

political communication that… articulates demands which are not supposed to be taken seriously and implemented, but which are nevertheless constantly rearticulated with politicians being criticised – as part of the performance – for not implementing them.

More than anyone, the reality TV star understands that politics is about performance.

Donald Trump’s appeal – as Jeet Heer has noted, the feature that makes him appear “strong” in comparison to the rest of the Republican field – is his refusal to play by the (largely unspoken) rules of contemporary US/Republican politics. Most prominently, he has refused to use the codes of dog-whistle politics to talk about issues like race, a rule that has been followed by Republican candidates since the Civil Rights era. Unlike the others, Trump is willing to talk openly about the “problem” of Mexican rapists or Muslim terrorists, and in doing so positions himself as the candidate who gives the best performance of seriousness.

But particularly in the current cultural context, where ubiquitous surveillance in a sense makes all of us reality TV stars waiting to be discovered, “performance” can’t be easily distinguished from reality. And what I said about Adorno and the authoritarian personality, also applies to Kurt Vonnegut’s novel about fascist performance.) “Performance,” and “acting,” has the double meaning of both pretending to do something, and actually doing it. If something really is unsustainable, then “societal self-deception” can’t sustain it indefinitely.

The need for someone as “serious” as Trump did not emerge overnight. As mentioned above, US politics is notable for its anti-(federal) government streak. Before Trump it was the Tea Party. Before the Tea Party, Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution. Reaganism. Nixon’s “silent majority.” And on back it goes. Conservatives’ frustrations fit Blühdorn’s diagnosis of symbolic politics: they keep electing outsiders who promise to “clean up Washington” and “shrink the size of government.” (Really this time! Not like those previous RINOs!) Only to have those people turn into insiders who watch government continue to grow. Why? At least in part because many anti-government conservatives want to “keep government out of my medicare,” maintain a strong military, renegotiated trade deals to end the offshoring of jobs, and in various other ways want the benefits that come with sustaining a strong national government.

But if Blühdorn is right, this kind of cognitive dissonance, or strategic, collective self-deception, is far from being unique to Trump supporters. It is simply how politics works today. To suggest that it is a function of their lack of educational credentials is as wrong-headed as suggesting that Trumpism could have been avoided if only formal education had paid more attention to white people’s problems. Rather, Trumpism is a product of a system that functionally produces economic insecurity and political disenfranchisement (in the broadest sense), intersecting with a culture where that alienation can only be understood and expressed as a broken governmental system, and nostalgic longing (“make America great again”). Of course Trump’s “solutions” won’t solve the “problems” he identifies, much less the more generalized insecurity and disenfranchisement of his supporters. But the performance of seriousness might serve to sustain a system that is in many ways straining at the seams, at least for a little longer.

Most of the time, we (and by “we” I mean the people that Trump and Ford supporters sneer at) tend to fetishize voter participation as the measure of political engagement, and thus of the health of our democratic system. And yet we are frustrated when people like Trump and Ford have the ability to activate politically disengaged people in legitimate political institutions. I don’t want to unduly fetishize this kind of political participation (Darin Barney has a great piece on thinking about youth political disengagement, in particular). For better or worse, we’ve reached the point where we need to ask whether this kind of engagement with legitimate political institutions, however framed by the performed seriousness of authoritarianism, is better than the attempt to assert self-government through the armed takeover of public property.




One thought on “Donald Trump, Rob Ford, and the Performance of Seriousness, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Donald Trump, Rob Ford, and the Performance of Seriousness, Part 1 | andrewbiro

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