In the academic community, the equivalent to ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ is ‘peer-review or it doesn’t count’. That’s why I decided to wait until I get some validation on the hypothesis about the Trump win that I was working on. The full paper is coming out in International Relations journal and this a (relatively) short teaser. Don’t worry, there is a Russian angle, just probably not the one you would expect.
In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidential election victory, considerable blame was passed around by pundits and politicians alike, wondering how the Republican nominee managed to secure the presidency. Facebook, the Democratic National Committee, the FBI, gerrymandering and angry white men appeared among the suspects, while numerous voices blamed Russian hackers and Putin personally for interfering with the elections in Trump’s favor. I argue that it is a Russian analytical paradigm that can help explain the ‘blue-collar billionaire’s’ success. Even though his work has been applied to international relations theory, Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of carnival culture is fruitful avenue to analyze the success of the ‘populist Zeitgeist’.
Bakhtin developed the concept of carnival while analyzing François Rabelais’s work and its connection to the popular laughing culture of the Renaissance. Carnival culture’s idea of ‘transgression of cultural norms and values by subaltern groups, [is] the ideal critical tool for approaching all kinds of social and material interactions’. Even though Donald Trump, as a white, straight, rich male could hardly be seen as a subaltern voice, he nevertheless managed to galvanize a substantial amount of support among the American population that perceived themselves as subaltern, in marketing himself as an anti-establishment figure by using elements of the carnival culture. The carnival ethos stood in opposition to the ‘official’ and ‘serious’ church sanctioned and feudal culture, by bringing out folklore and different forms of folk laughter that Bakhtin calls carnival. This type of culture challenges the official buttoned-up discourse and is characterized by coarseness and vulgarity, and is distinguished by its anti-ideology and anti-authority themes. In other words, anti-establishment.
I am not the first to apply Bakhtin’s framework to the study of politics and Donald Trump is not the first ‘carnival fool’ to succeeded in politics: one of the most prominent examples is Beppe Grillo, an Italian comedian and blogger who managed to launch a very successful political career. James Janack studied Russia’s own Vladimir Zhrinovsky (a Russian version of Trump, according to late night comedienne Samantha Bee), as well as Jesse Ventura’s successful campaign for the governorship in Minnesota, in large part due to his ‘carnival fool’s role of protesting against the prevailing political system’. As Trump’s campaign took up the anti-establishment battle-cry, it came to epitomize dissent as a means of rallying voters against his opponent, who was portrayed as mainstream and experienced – part of the ‘Washington DC swamp’.
At the same time, carnival’s potential for political rebellion is limited – but that could also be inferred from Bakhtin as well, as carnival by its nature is a temporary phenomenon, of which its participants are well aware. In Trump’s case this temporality was particularly well taken up by his electorate: his supporters consistently stated that Trump’s most outlandish statements and actions were not for real, and that he would be a different, ‘more presidential’ person when in office.
Firstly, and most importantly, Trump styled himself as an anti-establishment candidate, a Washington ‘outsider’, a ‘blue-collar billionaire’, someone, who would ‘drain the swamp’ of corruption in Washington DC. Trump himself used the hashtag #DrainTheSwamp repeatedly, referring to the eradication of Washington DC’s establishment. Trump’s children, who also acted as surrogates, tried to perpetuate this narrative through a political ad that argued that elections were ‘about an insider vs. an outsider’. This framing speaks to the anti-ideology and anti-authority features of carnival: by switching his affiliations between Democratic, Republican, and Independence parties, Trump fashioned a candidate who is supposed to break down the traditional system, which is what carnival is supposed to do. Subversion of hierarchy was also visible when Trump boasted that politicians used to come to him for donations, which was useful for him as a businessman. By presenting himself as not part of the elite, Trump also tapped into the essence of populism and appealed to the sense of disenfranchisement among certain groups of voters in the US, which could be conceived as giving voice to the part of the population that perceived itself as subaltern in the American context.
The laughing culture of carnival was also an important factor. Even though traditional mass media were not taking Donald Trump seriously, they were still reporting about him. This was especially true for late night shows that have become a staple part of the American political landscape. The general levity with which Trump’s campaign was reported and his antics, presented as a carnival fool’s performance, sustained the atmosphere of carnival and failed to warn the public of Trump’s non-existent qualifications, serial lying, and rampant xenophobia. Serious journalism and Hillary Clinton herself who prepared for the debates instead of winging them were seen as the main enemies of carnival freedom – one of the worst positions in carnival culture, which could also be connected to the tendency for anti-intellectualism in the US already observed by Richard Hofstadter.
The age of misinformation presented Trump with a unique opportunity to leverage the power of social networks to his advantage. Even though the role of mass media in populist ascent to power was underlined a great deal ahead of Facebook or Twitter, multidirectional discourse, a hallmark of carnival culture that does not necessarily distinguish between fact, opinion or even feelings, created an atmosphere where carnival replaced normal politics. As numerous studies have noted, the Trump campaign benefitted from the social networks’ propensity to spread misinformation. Given that social networks are conducive to the spread of conspiracy theories, fake photos, rumors about cough-preventing machines and the like, misinformation blossomed on the internet, which hurt the chances of Hillary Clinton – already seen as an untrustworthy person. Moreover, social networks, with its ability to bring closer people around the world, e.g., to tweet directly at politicians and journalists, created the illusion of the carnival town square and its closeness, leveling the playfield with familiarity. At the same time, Trump’s name calling of his opponents, i.e. ‘little Marco,’ ‘lyin’ Ted’ or ‘crooked Hillary’, was particularly emblematic of carnival: it is the time when ‘Ivan Ivanovich turns into Vanya or Van’ka’. Donald Trump’s insistence to constantly call Secretary Clinton by her first name also displayed the carnivalesque intimacy. Social networks also played into the ‘multidirectional discourse’ environment that is supposed to ‘debase, renew, reveal, hide, sell and entertain’.
Numerous neo-Nazi voices on Twitter, which have euphemistically been termed ‘alt-right’, attacks on journalists critical of Trump, and (Russian) trolls, created a multi-directionality hardly ever seen before in the presidential campaign. One just needs to remember that one of Trump’s major announcements about his birther convictions was turned into a presentation of his new Washington DC hotel that mass media dutifully reported on for hours. Moreover, most newscasters and reporters agreed that Trump received an exorbitant amount of air time because his campaign was ‘entertaining’. As a Wired article puts it, ‘this election blurred the already blurry line between politics and entertainment, in large part because this year a reality star was running for president’. The ‘reality show’ aspect was also poignant as carnival itself is a game and without the public participation in it, it does not work, everyone has to be engaged. And everyone was.
As the US population is increasingly turning to social networks for news, the public is susceptible to misinformation spreading on social media. Carnival’s core principle of reversal was also momentous in the way news stories were consumed by the public. The main antithesis to quality journalism is conspiracy theories that normally remain on the fringes of public discourse. However, with Trump’s presidential campaign and his own affinity to retweeting or talking about things that are ‘on the Internet’, including race-baiting conspiracies, John F. Kennedy murder conspiracy, climate change hoax conspiracy, Mexican rapist conspiracy, not to mention the birther conspiracy that Trump fueled for years conspiracy theories became a substantial part of his presidential bid. Thus, the Trump campaign signified a carnival reversal from the mainstream journalism narrative to a conspiratorial discourse that bubbled to the surface and was actively championed by the republican presidential candidate.
Another crucial point in the Trump campaign was his self-styling as person free from political correctness. Freedom is the core value of carnival and ‘telling it like it is’ without a semblance of politesse and etiquette created an illusion of a supposedly real world town square clashing with the world dominated and mapped out by elites. Coarse and raw [ploshchadnyi] language is supposed to define the carnival square. Stripping the daily interaction of political correctness can be seen as an act against ideology and hierarchy – i.e., exactly what carnival is supposed to do. Moreover, Trump’s ‘nasty woman’ comment towards Hillary Clinton could also be interpreted through and traced back to European Medieval popular culture where a ‘wicked woman’ was a common trope in the carnival plays, not to mention tapping into the more recent 90s discourse of ‘castrating first ladies’. The Trump campaign frequently engaged in anti-Semitic discourse, whereby he or his surrogates implied that Hillary Clinton had some mysterious ties with ‘Jewish capital’, such as the poster ‘History made’ with money and a star of David, and his last campaign ad, which was universally condemned as anti-Semitic. Needless to say, that physical and moral abuse of Jews was a staple part of carnival entertainment. No wonder that Trump’s candidacy was endorsed by the KKK, the American Nazi Party and other fringe nationalist groups.
The fact that Trump’s win also led to a serious uptick in racially motivated harassment and crime (especially anti-Semitic ones) is another evidence that groups that serve as focus for ‘displaced abjection’ during carnival season – in this case, Muslims, Mexicans, and Jews – suffer consequences after the carnival is over as well. Trump’s not even coded xenophobic language, while often regarded as the core factor of his appeal, has been a staple part of the GOP rhetoric for years and did not change the further marginalization and degrading tendency inherent to carnival. In other words, while carnival prides itself in reversing the existing hierarchy, it still has a certain hierarchy within that is not reversed that is usually exemplified with the anti-Semitic ‘rituals of degradation’. In that regard, carnival does give voice to the ‘silent majority’, but that majority, both in the Middle Ages and in a 2016 America, is a white one.
Finally, carnival’s emphasis on material and not spiritual life was particularly prominent in the Trump campaign. It was especially true for the focus on body that had massive repercussions on the types of resistance to the Trump candidacy (and, subsequently, his presidency) and general level of political discourse in the US, which is traditionally famous for its Puritan and sterile qualities. It was probably the first time in an American election that the size of a presidential candidate’s penis actually came up during the debate . One can argue that physical features of presidential candidates have become increasingly important with the advent of TV and the visualization of politics, but none of the previous presidential campaigns were so extensively covered by news media and especially social media. Hardly any comedic segment on CBS, NBC, HBO or Comedy Central failed to mention the size of Trump’s allegedly small hands, his hair or the color of his skin (e.g., ‘orange Hitler’), which is ridiculous in a political debate, but yet normal in a carnival setting.
What also played into carnival culture was Trump’s bragging about sexually assaulting women, by ‘grabbing them by the pussy’ and his philandering. Even though the Hollywood Access tape admission happened before the campaign, the incident was quickly dismissed by Trump himself and his surrogates as ‘boys’ or ‘locker room’ talk, i.e., something all (real) men do anyway. This factor was particularly galling for the traditional importance of moral character for the president of the United States and showed that the 2016 election campaign genuinely signified a complete reversal from politics as usual. The (perhaps not so) surprising high voter support among white evangelical Christian voters for Trump can also be primarily explained by carnival culture. Given that carnival is a temporary phenomenon and it represents another life that one can live until repenting the sins, many Trump voters stressed that they did not take Trump literally and admitted that his campaign was a way of winning the office and did not reflect his true attitudes.
Apart from the carnivalesque obsession with sex and body parts, carnival culture is also permissive to promiscuity and adultery, given the anonymity, familiarity and close physical contact. Even modern carnivals are infamous for numerous incidents of sexual assault. An invitation to check out an alleged ‘sex tape’ of former Miss Universe was yet another sign of the carnivalesque obsession with coitus. Especially prominent of carnival culture was Trump’s comment about FOX News moderator Megyn Kelly that ‘blood was coming out of her wherever’. Later, Trump qualified in a Tweet that he meant Kelly’s nose, but it still showed an incredible fixation with body and bodily functions that also echoed the usual anti-feminist trope about ‘hormonal’ women being irrational, which some of Trump’s supporters repeated as well. This factor showed that carnival’s obsession with bodily functions, which are usually taboo in everyday official communication and especially political discourse, came to the surface.
The public followed suit: another issue in the presidential campaign was the obsession with both presidential candidates’ health and statements from their doctors. In Hillary Clinton’s case, it went so far as to suggest that she had a body double and fueled conspiracy theories about her having Parkinson’s disease or other conditions that would make her unfit to be President. At the same time, Donald Trump masterfully avoided his own health conspiracy by appearing in a TV talk show with a pseudoscience promoting doctor. It is also notable that Donald Trump’s naked statues with small genitals that popped up across American cities showed the carnivalesque elements were picked up by his opponents as well where they tried to represent him as a less masculine entity. This type of resistance, again, focused on his body and not political issues, which reflected even the opposition’s inclusion in the carnival setting.
A more general and sinister consequence of a long-lasting carnival is related to governance. As noted above, carnival is supposed to temporary suspend the normative order, but a permanent carnival leads to norm decay and erosion of liberal-republican institutions both within the US as well as outside that will have long-lasting effect on the American republic. While many pundits had hoped that Trump would become more presidential, his year in office has shown that a long-term carnivalesque reversal is detrimental to the foundational principles of democracy.