Saturday, January 14, 2023

"Send in the clowns" / "performance politicians" - antitheatricality + politics - the Comeback!

A not-wholly unexpected resurgence of anti-theatrical tropesm with special emphasis on the circus, has erupted within political commentary, triggered by last week's GOP clown show of the House Speaker selection process in Congress, which occasioned much talk of how the new breed of MAGA congresspersons are "performance artists" as opposed to people interested in legislation or policy, and whose only concern is to appear on right-wing TV. 

For instance here is a bit from The Atlantic's newsletter:

The Ringmaster

Now controlled by its most unhinged members, the Republican Party has returned to power in the People’s House. Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the ringmaster of this circus, is happily paying off his debts by engaging in petty payback, conjuring up inane committees, threatening to crash the U.S. economy, and protecting a walking monument to fraud named George Santos, who may or may not actually be named “George Santos.”

In the enduring words of Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends….

Kevin McCarthy will be fine with all of it, as long as he gets to wear the top hat and red tails while indulging in the fantasy that he is in control of the clowns and wild animals, and not the other way around.

Or this column from the Washington Post by Dana Milbank which invokes the  "bread and circuses" idea

Speaker McCarthy needs to stop ‘bread and circuses’ in Congress and start governing for a change,” [Republican Victoria] Spartz said in a statement objecting to the “charade” of kicking members off their committees.

It was an apt invocation of the Roman writer Juvenal’s lament 2,000 years ago that the people had abdicated their duties as citizens of the Republic in favor of “bread and circuses” provided by their imperial rulers.

... In truth, the new majority doesn’t have much bread to dole out (aside from the free doughnuts and Chick-fil-A that Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) offered reporters this week in lieu of answers about his fabricated life story). But it has more clown acts than could fill the Circus Maximus.... 

[spare you the details on the nonsense and chaos, stuff about Republican congresstwats shoehorning 
Taylor Swift and Marvin Gaye lyrics into speeches etc etc] 

"With so many committees overloaded with loons, it’s but a matter of time until things blow up. In an embrace of mayhem, the National Republican Campaign Committee adopted as its new slogan “bring the tiger,” Politico’s Olivia Beavers reports. That’s a reference to a mock lip-reading video of McCarthy’s famous fight on the House floor this month with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) in which McCarthy says “I brought the tiger.”

Yep. He brought the tiger, and now he must ride it. This is life in the circus."

A neat concept - or turn of phrase at least - in this Jennifer Rubin column about the fizzling out of the GOP's promised investigations a.k.a. show trials (itself an anti-theatrical term)

"The GOP’s conspiracy theories and unhinged accusations work best when Republicans are in the minority, when they can throw out half-baked accusations and make leaps of logic with little consequence. 
When they are in the majority, however, they must show their cards about supposed Democratic scandals. And that is already proving to be a problem for right-wing performance politicians for four reasons."

One question is when this "theatrical turn" started its rot within the GOP in particular and politics in general. 

Charles M. Blow, in the New York Times, traces it back to Sarah Palin

"Palin exposed a dangerous reality about the Republican base: that it was starving for disruption and spectacle, that it would cheer for anyone who annoyed liberals, that performance was far more important than competence.

Later Republicans "learned a lesson born during the Palin years: Spectacle produced fame, which produced power, which produced influence and possibly control...."

The person who exploited the new situation to the utmost was the person who already thought like Palin, who understood the power of image and projection instinctively: Trump. 

Then came the mini-Trumps. 

"During the Trump era, the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the party became rock stars among the base, even if they were jokes among their colleagues."

Talking of politicians as rock stars... 

In a bit of a reach, National Review's Jim Geraghty pens an op-ed for Washington Post, blaming it all on MTV's Rock the Vote campaign and its promotion of the notion that politicians needed to be "cool" and entertaining. 

"Everyone has a theory about why American politics today is so awful.

"I blame MTV.

"More specifically, I blame the music channel’s “Rock the Vote” campaign in the early 1990s. That’s the moment when the tastemakers of popular culture decided the widespread perception that politics isn’t cool was a problem to be solved. Politics had to be made cool. And therefore not boring.

"Call today’s politics whatever you like, but it isn’t boring. I can hear the defenses of “Rock the Vote”: That’s unfair! Politics and entertainment have long overlapped — even Richard M. Nixon was on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” in 1968 saying “Sock it to me?”

"But there’s a difference between politicians trying to be entertaining and politicians seeing their role as primarily being an entertainer."

"... It wasn’t hard to discern MTV’s preference among the presidential options of the 68-year-old World War II vet incumbent, the nutty billionaire Texan with the charts, and the cool guy in dark sunglasses who played the saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show.

"A few years later, John F. Kennedy Jr. came along with George magazine, “a lifestyle magazine with politics at its core,” giving political figures (Gerald Ford, Madeleine Albright, Pat Schroeder) the Hollywood treatment — when it wasn’t doing the same for actual celebrities (Kate Moss, George Clooney, Madonna — her again). Almost every page and profile and article screamed at readers: Hey, Americans! We know you think politics is boring, but look how cool and fashionable and fascinating these people are!

"With celebrities dressed up on the cover as Betsy Ross (Barbra Streisand) or Abraham Lincoln (Harrison Ford), and the inside relatively devoid of discussions of government policy, George offered a version of politics for Americans who weren’t that interested in politics. Lots of sweet frosting, almost no cake."

Despite closing in 2001, "from today’s perspective, George was just ahead of its time."

He says people expect instant gratification and total satisfaction from their political-consumer choices in the way that they do from their entertainment-consumer choices. 

"Legislation isn’t like that. You’re going to have to compromise and get a bunch of stuff you don’t want. This hard fact of life is very much at odds with our on-demand consumer culture. Your music playlist, online reading list and video streaming options can be completely customized to your tastes, shaped by an algorithm. Legislation passed for the entire country or an entire state can’t."

And to keep people engaged, everything has to be dramatic, in both the eye-catching, shape-throwing (or shit-throwing) sense and the "all is doomed / all is saved" hype senses. 

"Maintaining people’s interest in politics week after week, month after month, requires convincing them that the stakes are always huge, inescapable and irreversible: This is the most important election of our lifetime! If we get this one wrong, there’s no coming back!

"The circus of politics means there’s never a shortage of doom-scrolling material on your phone. There’s always some new outrageous comment, some idiot state legislator you’ve never heard of proposing something ridiculous and blatantly unconstitutional. Every day, you can find some evidence to convince yourself that the inmates are now running the asylum, and that you, commonsense-blessed citizen, are an endangered minority."

Biden tried to go back to normal - a President who doesn't need to be in the people's faces all the time. (Only to get complaints that he was keeping too low a profile, wasn't communicating enough with the electorate). 

"The implicit promise of Joe Biden’s presidential run was that he’d work to make politics boring again, as he had for half a century. Didn’t happen. But that was the right idea."

"... This isn’t a call for not voting, for not paying attention during times of crises such as the Great Recession or the pandemic — or for yawning and shrugging off bad behavior by elected leaders or candidates for public office. This is just a plea — for politicians and the electorate — to stop regarding the federal government and 50 state governments as a stage for a giant, inescapable, never-ending reality show."

Forgotten what inspired this Molly Jong-Fast tweet, but it seems indicative: 

I saw the best (ish) minds of my generation destroyed by main character syndrome, starving hysterical naked, whatever ….

The concept of "main character syndrome" or "main character energy" - and related theatrical-ish tropes ("hero ingredient" as heard on the British Bake-off show)  seem related to this creeping cos-play superhero / videogame-atizing thing that seems to be at work with a lot of contemporary stuff (conspiracy theory that puts you in the role of code-breaker, investigator, researcher....   the yearning to be a figure of destiny, a savior, a rebel against the Dark Forces). C.f. Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death and the lure of "hero projects" as a refusal to come to terms with one's insignificance.  

Rounding things up, an opinion piece at WaPo by David Von Drehle that argues that the Biden-secret-papers-in-the-garage embarrassment-induced collapse of the Classified Papers at Mar-A-Lago potential indictment of Trump would actually be a good thing, depriving the attention-craving ex-Prez of the media prominence he needs to recharge his dwindled reelection prospects by amping up his presence on the national stage. 

"But it can’t be noted often enough: Only one person has occupied both the Oval Office and the world wrestling hall of fame. He got there by turning conflict into celebrity and celebrity into votes. Rather than reboot the old show as a courtroom drama, we must call off the conflict that feeds the beast."

1 comment:

  1. Well actually, I think you can track back the current theatricality of Reps to the end of the Cold War. The modern, fusionist conservative movement came into being in opposition to Communism. Once the Soviet Union fell, it kinda lost its way (it was briefly revived by the threat of Islamic terror). Whilst Reagan was a literal former actor, he had an actual, external enemy to posture against. Newt Gingrich was really the first of the post-Cold War performatively conservative politicians. Geraghty is right on the timing but wrong on the cause. He also neglects the fact that Clinton wasn't just a dude in sunglasses but was also a total policy wonk.

    Some good reflections here:


"bored with the mundane"

  "Boys Keep Swinging"-echoing provocations from Tricky Kid and Martina T-B