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The Presidency as Performance Art

Why govern when you can pose?
June 16, 2020
The Presidency as Performance Art
(Shutterstock / GettyImages)

Donald Trump is a real president, though mostly he seems to enjoy playing the role of “President Trump” on Twitter (and TV). His recent stunt, using force to clear Lafayette Square of peaceful protesters so he could snap a photo of himself in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church holding a Bible, is only the most grotesque example of his performance art.

Using the Bible as a prop, not a book of wisdom or instruction that might offer illumination or healing, is altogether consistent with his presidency. And if you listen to him talk about the Bible, it’s clear he has no idea what’s inside. (Ditto the Constitution.)

It’s been that way since he descended from the gold escalator at Trump Tower to announce he was running for president, where he blathered on about all manner of nonsense. He knew nothing about anything. A month later, he insisted John McCain wasn’t a war hero because, you know, war heroes don’t get captured. What did that statement even mean? It was ignorant of history, the lawful rules of combat, and how war actually works—not to mention moral sense, human empathy, and patriotism.

But meaning wasn’t really the point. The point was the performative act of saying something outrageous. Like generations of avant-garde artistes before him, the point of Trump’s art is not to make an argument or do something constructive. It’s to épater la bourgeoisie.

And so it has been for the last four years—which only seems like since time immemorial.

This style—politics as performance art—is the hallmark of the Trump aesthetic, embraced by MAGA world intellects, citizens, and politicians.

The Flight 93 Election? The idea was preposterous on its face: An intellectually preening essay, dressed up with citations to political philosophy. It was not a proposal, but a pose.

The idea that the banal Hillary Clinton was an existential threat to the American constitutional experiment was, even then, pathetically silly. The idea that stopping her required the intervention of the deeply illiberal, ignorant, and inexperienced Donald Trump even sillier. Worse, large swaths of the essay were devoted to an illiberal political understanding completely at odds with American constitutionalism. From the overwrought metaphor, we already get a sense of an executive that owes more to Carl Schmitt than Alexander Hamilton. Let forth the forces of illiberalism to save America’s liberal constitutional order?

Again: This isn’t a treatise. It’s performance art.

The groundlings are in on the act, too. Witness the Trump supporters who play army dress-up at rallies and protests. Their long guns aren’t tools for protection. They’re stage props that enable the MAGA-heads to play-act at being saviors of the Republic.

Just a few weeks ago, armed protesters in Michigan gathered at the capitol building in Lansing, protesting Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order. They chanted “Lock her up!”

“Lock her up” was originally used by Trump supporters as a rallying cry demanding that Hillary Clinton be sent to prison for various alleged criminal acts. In the case of Whitmer, there were no alleged criminal acts. It was like the cosplay militia were simply staging a revue of Trump’s greatest hits—like some sad, off, off, off-Broadway jukebox musical.

Others chanted “Let us in!” and made vague attempts to force their way onto the floor of the state legislature, where Michigan’s elected legislators were debating whether or not to extend Governor Whitmer’s order.

Ask yourself this: What would these people have done if they had forced their way through the police?

Point their rifles at the legislators and demand repeal of the governor’s executive order? Shoot the legislators if they didn’t? Hold the governor hostage?

But of course, the answer is: None of these things. That’s why they only pretended to try to force their way in and were happy to be turned away. This was nothing more than play-acting as revolutionaries. And why only play-acting? Because these people understand as well as you and I do that they have the right to peacefully protest. They can vote. They can file lawsuits. In other words, they have all of the tools of our constitutional republic available to them in order to get redress for their grievances and they would have had these tools even if they had stayed at home.

The weapons, like the confederate flags and nooses, were all just part of a performance.

It’s curious that Sen. Tom Cotton had nothing to say about the armed Michigan protesters who literally went inside the state’s capitol.

You may recall that Sen. Cotton has been eager to show force against any sign of “insurrection,” even going so far to call for the deployment of the military in American cities.

Yet that call only materialized after the men with guns had left the Michigan statehouse. Cotton’s call for “no quarter” for protesters was only for the unarmed protesters on the public streets of Washington, D.C.

So we are to believe that Cotton had no fears of an “insurrection” against these protesters:

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

But against these protesters, he wanted to call in the 101st Airborne, offering “no quarter”—that is, killing rather than taking prisoners.

(Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Using American soldiers to kill looters and arsonists would be ridiculous if Cotton had been serious. But he wasn’t. As an aspiring heir to Trumpism, he was merely engaged in a masterful piece of performance art. Though, to be fair to Cotton, his intended audience was not the bourgeoisie, but the Trumpenproletariat, who remain suspicious that he might, after all, not be one of them.

It’s a sad state of affairs where a man like Cotton—genuinely brave and genuinely smart—must stage kabuki exhibitions in order to convince his would-be supporters that he is something else.

But this is where we are. Trump has invited a postmodern play into our politics. He doesn’t care about values, truth, or justice. Republicans and conservative intellectuals play along—indeed, the truly virtuous of MAGA world actually egg him on. Even as he encourages extralegal violence.

Our real president who prefers being a pretend president has unleashed a deeply illiberal and undemocratic strand of politics and thinking into the American theater.

And the sophisticates laughed, thinking that it was all a game.

Until people got hurt.

George Thomas

George Thomas is the Wohlford Professor of American Political Institutions at Claremont McKenna College and the author of The (Un)Written Constitution and The Founders and the Idea of a National University. Twitter: @GeorgeT_cmc.