This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
It was yet another twist in a US presidential race overflowing with the unexpected and the unbelievable. Donald Trump headed into the Iowa caucus as the clear Republican frontrunner, but left defeated though not – in his mind – humiliated. He admitted that “we could have used a better ground game, a term I wasn’t familiar with”.
Trump’s contrition was typically short-lived. Taking to Twitter, he accused Ted Cruz of committing electoral fraud to win in Iowa.
Cruz branded the outburst the latest in a string of #Trumpertantrums.
This episode in the reality drama of US politics has reaffirmed two things.
First, it’s incredibly difficult to pin Trump down as a character. He remains highly unpredictable and almost impossible to categorise. Now he’s embroiled himself in fresh scandal by saying he’d bring back a “hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”.
As a leading man, Trump fascinates and infuriates. Branded a performance artist by many, he demands an audience. And he’s got one – millions of spellbound Americans.
Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott observed:
Watch Trump on the televised stump or during debates with the sound off (your blood pressure will thank you) and observe how he grips the lectern, employing a battery of shrugs, hand jive and staccato phrase blurts – it’s like being teleported back to an old Dean Martin roast, those medieval days of yore when Foster Brooks hiccupped through his drunk act, Phyllis Diller cackled, or Orson Welles shook from underground rumbles of Falstaffian mirth.
Trump gets under your skin. No other politician (at least in the West) comes close to matching his cult of personality. Aside from maybe Sarah Palin, with whom Trump recently teamed up, there’s no one else quite like him.
The second observation coming out of Iowa is that we had better get used to unexpected plot twists this election season. Trump confounds commentators who stake their professional credibility on predicting electoral outcomes. Yet he has the rest of us hooked: there’s no telling what will happen next. It’s good drama even if it’s bad politics.
Applying the tricks of the reality TV trade
This research suggests electoral battles are now no different to theatrical entertainment. If their policies aren’t to fall flat, the candidates must learn the tricks of the showbiz trade.
Theatre is all important when political popularity is pegged not only to policies but also to the performances one gives. Mediated by “camera angles and online producers”, politics is now all about creating the right kinds of “narrative trajectories” to unite and divide the masses.
During election campaigns, political performances have to go a step further and entertain the people as well. As Charles Guggenheim, former campaign adviser to Robert Kennedy, once observed:
The people expect drama, pathos, intrigue, conflict, and they expect it to hang together as a dramatic package.
Those capable of ticking all these boxes, of putting on a good show, are more likely to draw a crowd. To see Trump as the mercurial lead in a Republican drama may help us understand why this unlikely candidate has won such widespread support.
More than most, Trump knows how to exploit theatrical tropes. He’s done it for years on his reality TV show, The Apprentice. With his characteristic “You’re fired”, Trump has won more than ratings battles. He’s won a loyal following.
Commentators have noted that the presidential race, particularly on the Republican side, is playing out like a reality TV drama. Election watchers are given “what they love, the chance to see recognisable human beings sweat it out for the big stakes”.
Even longtime Survivor host Jeff Probst commented:
This year does seem to be unique … at times, it does feel as though we’re watching a reality show and not a presidential campaign, and I don’t ever remember feeling that way.
People who aren’t “super interested in changing our country”, Probst said, are drawn in by the “promise of the great story that’s about to be told to us, the public spectacle we’re going to witness”.
As a long-time master of the theatrical arts, Trump has turned the presidential race into his own mediated spectacle. He knows that if he gets his presidential narrative right he can – to paraphrase JFK – manipulate, exploit and seize on the public’s emotion, prejudice and ignorance.
As for the things he can’t control – the twists and turns on the campaign trail – they also work to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. When things are too predictable, they become boring and people lose interest.
A Trumpertantrum every now and then can do wonders for ratings. Losing a caucus most expected him to win only adds to the intrigue.
Should we keep watching?
As the primary season heads from New Hampshire to Nevada and South Carolina, some question whether we should watch the political coverage at all. Given that it’s all a show, purposely mediated to draw us in, aren’t we better off tuning out for something a little more substantive?
Our response is the same as the one New York Times columnist Rob Walker has offered. For him, it’s a fantasy to think elections would all of a sudden become more “high-minded” if we got rid of the “reality-showbiz fireworks”. Getting rid of the theatrical is not only impossible, it also wouldn’t make Americans and their presidential candidates any more willing to take part in rational debate that’s backed by verified evidence.
No. Elections-as-entertainment do not detract from policy substance at all, as Walker sees it. What they do distract from “is who won The X Factor, the deeper meaning of Tim Tebow’s quarterback rating and whatever Zeppo Kardashian is up to this week”. That is “the reality of the situation”, and he’s all for it.
We agree with Walker, though we’d add one point. Precisely because contemporary elections are mediated spectacles that can entertain and deceive, it’s important for citizens to become more aware of the tropes and techniques used in showbiz to pull an audience. To go from passive observers to active spectators, we must know what to watch out for.
For this reason, more space needs to be provided this election season for theatre and performance experts to educate the rest of us about the drama of electoral politics.
Luckily, there are theatre scholars who are keen to do this work, including Princeton-based Jill Dolan. Her point is that those “trained to look critically at performance, to study its links to ideology and culture” can offer themselves as:
… experts who study the election and the debates through a performative lens – not one that stresses entertainment value, but one that looks at gesture, narrative manipulations, contexts and ‘spin’ with an eye toward the politics they convey.
We need this sort of coverage in the coming weeks and months. We might then just get to the bottom of this twisted electoral tale.