Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Anti-theatricality + politics - Grand Finale!

The revelation that Trump is an obsessive fan of Sunset Boulevard almost buggers belief.

 From Olivia Nuzzi's New York magazine glimpse into the Final Campaign 

"He had wanted to be in the movie business. It’s important to never forget this about him. He watches Sunset Boulevard, “one of the greatest of all time,” again and again and again. A silent-picture star sidelined by the talkies, driven to madness, in denial over her faded celebrity. When he was a businessman, he showed it to guests aboard his 727. When he was president, he held screenings of it for White House staff at Camp David.

"He once showed it to his press secretary Stephanie Grisham, who later described how “the president, who could never sit still for anything without talking on the phone, sending a tweet, or flipping through TV channels, sat enthralled.” And he once showed it to Tim O’Brien, the biographer, who wrote that when Norma Desmond cried, “Those idiot producers. Those imbeciles! Haven’t they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them. I’ll be up there again, so help me!,” Trump leaned over O’Brien’s shoulder and whispered, “Is this an incredible scene or what? Just incredible.”

The first thing that stirs incredulity is that it is evidence of taste, a capacity to be engaged by art.

Then there's the apparent fact that he identifies with the diva . Who lives in delusion, a bubble maintained by a flunky who secretly fabricates fake fan mail and gives it to her, so she'll believe she's still adored and not forgotten (as is actually the case). Identifies with the deranged diva without realising that she's the bad guy in the story,  or at best, an object of apalled pity. 

It's all just a bit too on the nose to be believable. 

Nuzzi returns to the Billy Wilder movie for a closing twist of the knife: 

"Do you remember how Sunset Boulevard ends? Norma Desmond shoots and kills the writer, a fraudster who has fallen under the spell of her charisma, just as he summons the courage to walk away. Her sycophantic butler flips. There are no enablers left to protect her. A final fantasy, a fake movie set, is staged in the mansion’s entryway. The lights go on, and she is lured before the cameras, where the police are waiting to haul her away."


Although it would make for a climactic ending - it's unlikely ever to be topped - this probably won't in fact be the last ever anti-theatricality round-up. Tropes based around the stage and showbiz are sure to continue cropping up in political reporting and commentary. 

Still this is possibly a good pause point to unpack what my angle is....

It's double-pronged, the prongs pointing in different directions, or even towards each other, in a self-cancelling thrust

On one hand, like any sane and pragmatic "let's get stuff done" person who votes Democrat and would vote for Labour if still able to remotely,  I'm aghast at the extent to which political theatre has displaced governance and policy for one entire half of the political spectrum. I anticipate being nauseated by the string of stunts and photo ops that the new House of Representative majority will be staging for the next two years, rather than fixing problems and making people's lives marginally better.  Same for the vindictive theatrics unfurled by various Republican governors simply to play to their sado-populist base via the TV. 

On the other hand, it's not that I imagine that there is or ever could be a form of politics purified of the theatrical or the image-based, that could decontaminate itself from the realm of appearances and spectacle and soberly base itself around truth, expertise, facts and policy. 

Democrats are beguiled by their own favored brand of wish-fulfilment entertainment, it's just that it's the Sorkin sort, or harking back further still,  the civics fantasy fare of Jimmy Stewart / Frank Capra / Mr Smith Goes To Washington, also all those films about newspapers investigating and exposing corruption etc. Not as bombastic and pageantry-oriented as the right wing's ever more openly fascistic theatrics, for sure. Tad more tasteful and restrained -  but still corny, still peddling heartwarming happy endings. The Jan.6 committee hearings, for instance, were nothing if not great TV -  a brilliant sustained feat of narrative structuring and story telling. 


After the mid-term elections were settled, my intention was to tune out Trump-related news coverage (and as much of the antics and theatrics of the Republicans in the House as I could manage)  on the grounds that

 A/ it takes up too much of my mental bandwidth 

B/ staying  "informed" about this stuff serves no purpose ( other than sickening me and pumping me full of anxiety), given that there's nothing I can do about it...  

I have to assume the Democrats have got contingency plans and the hard-ball will to manage and sidestep as much of the barrage of nonstop evil nonsense as is possible...  what happens to Trump  depends on internal Republican Party maneuvring, on the seething id-driven impulses of their voting base, and on the activities of various attorney generals and prosecutors.... 

No, there's absolutely zero point in me "keeping up" with things; the next time I'll be of any use is as a presidential election volunteer in the summer of 2024, when the identity of the enemy will be known.  So why not have a break for now, pay attention to the many other interesting and important things in the world? 

Certainly I do not need to read yet another in-depth psychological portrait of the dictator-diva fantasist.  His internal mechanisms and churnings are thoroughly known. It's still my New Year's Resolution to cut down the intake drastically and free up the bandwidth for otherstuff.

But I couldn't help myself, had to read the Nuzzi piece. Regrettably it remains a compelling if interminable saga, and in these (hopefully penultimate) narrative throes there is a grotesque drama of decline and decay, every bit as mesmerizing as Gloria Swanson descending the staircase in Sunset Boulevard.   


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thoughts:

    - Republicans. If follow a libertarian, Nozickian Night Watchman State view of the world then you believe that it is the role of government to do as little as possible outside the protection of property rights. You don't actually want to get anything done. And the best way of achieving that is thru empty spectacle.

    - Have you read Weber's Politics As Vocation? http://fs2.american.edu/dfagel/www/class%20readings/weber/politicsasavocation.pdf
    It is probably the best examination of the contradictory nature of being a political practitioner. Weber would find the notion of an anti-theatrical politics pointless. The effective politician must meld idealism, expediency and performance into a relatively coherent whole for their public. To be a politician is to act in public view in the city (polis). To lead is necessarily to perform in some way.

    - Another handy volume is this: https://press.princeton.edu/books/paperback/9780691180854/political-hypocrisy (the root of the word "hypocrite" is the Greek for a mask-wearing actor).

    1. I haven't read that Weber essay but I have gleaned that he believed that charisma was essential for power structures to work... the essentially irrational factor of personal magnetism in a leader, a form of star power.... Any kind of discourse that involves oratory is going to contain redundant gestural and theatrical elements that works through extra-rational word-magic and cadence.... and on the level of content, there's always a fable being spun.

  3. Looking at the wasteland cities that the Democrats have administered for decades (Detroit, Flint, Philadelphia etc.) I don't really see much evidence that the Democrats want to change anything or get things done, which is what gives populists like Trump purchase in the first place.

    I agree that politics has become more theatrical, and less focused on competent delivery, but I think this is systemic rather than being the result of "bad faith" on the part of the right. I think the malaise is deeper in that the old hierarchical top-down system of political organisation just doesn't work in societies that are less regimented, less disciplined, have more fragmented values and lifestyles etc. The theatricalism is a by-product of impotence. This is why I have personally tuned out of politics - it simply doesn't work any more, at least at the scale we have previously been used to.

    The likes of Trump and Boris Johnson are the classic morbid symptoms of political systems that are obsolescent and decaying. And as the embryonic emergent political systems that will replace them are invisible to political insiders and commentators, all the present system will produce is ugly noise.

    1. Phil - We need to be careful about sampling and causality here. California and New York are dynamic, wealthy, and Democrat-governed. The states with the lowest GDP per capita are Mississippi, Arkansas and West Virginia - noted Democratic strongholds all.

      It's not as simple as Democrats-Good, Republicans-Bad (Texas and Florida are also huge, econonomically growing states, North Dakota has a higher GDP per capita than California). Rather it indicates that politicians mostly influence things at the margins - esp. in the vetocratic structures that are common in the US. Personally I think it is clear that the radicalisation in US politics has been asymmetrically skewed to the Right.

      As for politics becoming more theatrical - well, on a visit to Versailles, I stepped into Louis XIV's bedroom - where he performed kingship (meals, getting dressed) for his people as long as the sun was shining. I simply do not buy that politics is more theatrical that it was in some mythic golden age. The nature of that theatre may have changed - but as Weber argued, politics is inherently theatrical.

      The focus on delivery. This is a very Blairite topic - hence the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit. You can decide how effective that was. But it should be noted that Blair was also a consummate theatrical politician. Delivery without Theatre doesn't work (just as vice versa - which we will come to in a moment). You have be seen and felt to succeed as much as you actually succeed.

      Where I agree is that Johnson and Trump push the focus on theatre too far - and that has undone them. You can BS for a long time but eventually reality comes knocking. However the theatrical incompetence of Brown, Truss & May did for them as much as their policy missteps.

      Where we agree is that societies have changed much since 1945 and the political systems forged in that world are no longer wholly fit for purpose. But, to use a Reynoldsism, we face a world of Roots and Future. New political forms will emerge alongside our existing ones.

      Phil - What are the "embryonic emergent political systems" that excite you the most?

    2. Hi Matt,

      That's a very erudite reply which I will try to address without going into essay mode. So briefly, I'm not sure that the American right really has radicalised as liberals tend to assume, because there is nothing about Trump that wasn't already visible when, say, Douglas Hofstadter wrote "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" in 1964. Equally, there was no new politically radical turn in the overturning of Roe vs. Wade because American conservatives have wanted to overturn that particular ruling for decades. All it possibly marked was an increase in their competence at legal campaigning.

      So I don't think we are seeing anything ideologically new, because e.g. anti-abortionism, gun rights etc. have been conservative staples for a long, long, time now. What is happening is that Republican elites are finding it more and more difficult to manage down the expectations of their grassroots. I think this is due to the interconnected influences of social media and the more transactional approach to relationships and daily life that is engendered by neoliberalism. Hence ordinary people are developing a transactional approach to politics where if a party won't give them exactly what they want, they won't take "no" for an answer and will try any political innovation in order to get it.

      To an extent I think that American liberals have been living in a fools' paradise as they have mistaken the ability of Republican elites to manage down their voters' expectations as buy-in to the great liberal progressive project. So when someone like Trump comes along and pulls away the curtain to reveal the scale, depth and stridency of actual American conservatism, it functions as a kind of "return of the repressed" moment for liberals.

      I think the ability of the old broad church, consensus-orientated parties to contain these impulses is eroding, but I am not "excited" or enthusiastic about what the consequences will be. However I would guess that in the future we will see many more attempted grassroots takeovers of mainstream parties, more parties-within--parties, more single issue pop-up parties, more localist parties with devolutionary agendas etc.

    3. Thank you for your reply Phil. I too am strenuously avoiding essay mode. So let me start with where I agree with you. I agree that Trump does not represent a radical departure for American Conservatives. And this is acknowledged as much by both centrist liberals like Jonathan Chait and democratic socialists like Sam Adler-Bell and Matthew Sitman. The group most stridently arguing that Trump is different are the Republican Never Trumpers and their liberal mates in the media.

      However, Republican politicians in Congress are more extreme than they were 50 years ago - and this difference is x4 more than the change among Democratic politicians: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/03/10/the-polarization-in-todays-congress-has-roots-that-go-back-decades/

      I will write a follow up to your comments on the broader structural changes in politics soon.

  4. "I think the ability of the old broad church, consensus-orientated parties to contain these impulses is eroding, but I am not "excited" or enthusiastic about what the consequences will be. However I would guess that in the future we will see many more attempted grassroots takeovers of mainstream parties, more parties-within--parties, more single issue pop-up parties, more localist parties with devolutionary agendas etc."

    The high point of Western, broad-church party politics was probably 1945-1970. In most countries (esp. Europe), you had leftish parties with their roots in the unions and rightish parties with their roots in the church. They existed alongside other society-wide collective institutions. And the decline of the broadbased political party can be aligned to the decline of the unions and the churches. You can say the cause of this was "neoliberalism" - and you wouldn't be wholly wrong.

    Additionally politics became remote from the public because it wasn't something they needed to worry about. Administrations were mostly competent (or perhaps not catastrophically incompetent). We had the luxury of apathy.

    The political process also became professionalised."Beruf" has 2 meanings in German - vocation and career - and these have become disconnected in modern politicians. We need representatives not technocrats or demagogues. We need politicians who can combine the vocational and careerist elements of the role.

    1. Cheers Matt - I largely agree with that, although I think the new breed of politicians will have to arise within new structures - I suspect more localised, more provisional and less dualistic ones.

    2. Strong agree for that here.


Disco Rock

One of the things I discovered during my research on  Shock and Awe  was that the teenybop end of glam 'n' glitter was synonymous wi...