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.
When cultural practices and performances become obsolete, they rarely simply collapse into exhausted redundancy. Rather, they linger as grotesque parodies, displaying with uncontrollable intensity the very reasons for their implausibility.
The embarrassing spectacle of the hack comedian whose tasteless jokes and predictable routines generate audience cringe rather than mirth stands as a warning that performative repertoires do not come with sell-by dates. You find out your act is outmoded when the audience start to ask for their money back.
Political leaders are beginning to resemble seaside comics who have failed to recognise that the deckchairs are empty. Repertoires that had them rolling in the aisles in the era of Churchill and Roosevelt – or even Nixon and Wilson – now look like mediocre impersonations.
Not only are political speeches replete with linguistically risk-averse clichés borrowed from middle management – “facing important challenges”, “we’re listening very carefully”, “moving forward”, “all in it together”, “people who do the right thing” – but the semiotic production has been reduced to a constant replay of metaphors designed for idiots.
Politicians wear hard-hats and orange protective jackets, as if to prove they thrive on the shop floor. Leaders have a routine habit of making speeches surrounded by “ordinary people” who look like involuntary participants in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.
The surprise is surely not that whole sections of the population are turned off by these preposterous rituals, but that some people are still paying any attention.
Popular distrust of politicians is not a new phenomenon. Apart from a brief period in the mid-20th century when people trusted Churchill because he wasn’t Hitler and then trusted Attlee because he wasn’t Churchill, political leaders have always been accepted on sufferance.
That isn’t a bad thing. The fantasy of perfect political trust evaporated when people stopped believing in the divine right of kings. Democracy can only work well when representatives are held accountable to those they claim to speak for.
The problem of contemporary democracies is not that citizens trust politicians less than they did in the past, but that leaders’ attempts to make themselves appear accountable have become increasingly implausible. Their scripts are stale; their gestures ritualistic; their evasions transparent; their artlessness palpable.
Technology transforms image-making
Contemporary political distrust focuses on form as much as content. In the past, leaders were distant and, when it suited them, invisible. They had considerable control over their public images.
Technologies of public mediation have changed that. Television in particular places political actors under unprecedented levels of scrutiny. This has driven party machines to excesses of performance management that cast politicians as mere functionaries delivering approved lines to median voters.
Politicians are caught between a relentless chase for mass-mediated publicity and a permanent anxiety about the risks of unwanted visibility. Now that most people carry smartphones that can capture pictures and sound with a click, political impression management is a losing battle. Politicians continue to perform as if they are on stage (in Goffmanesque terms), but it is the blurry zone between on and offstage that they now occupy, never immune from public judgement.
They are tested by their capacity to conform – literally, to subscribe to a performative form that is readable as “acting like a leader”. But it is a form that is becoming increasingly degraded and obsolete. The new political balancing act entails conforming sufficiently to legitimise the performance, while breaking the formal boundaries with a view to displaying a degree of authenticity that cannot be contained within the bounds of form.
Trump, the performer
Enter Donald Trump: so unbalanced in his affair with political form that he permanently teeters between a mesmerising dance of solipsistic decadence and staggering off the stage.
Following a long line of populist form-busters, from Silvio Berlusconi to Viktor Orban, Trump performs as if he had just seen Peter Handke’s 1960s production, Offending the Audience, and concluded that every performance before it had misunderstood what audiences were for.
Handke said that he aimed to do “something onstage against the stage, using the theatre to protest against the theatre of the moment”. This is precisely what Trump does well; he uses the political stage to denounce the political stage. He enters the temple, but only to blow away its walls.
Speaking at a rally before the New Hampshire Republican primary, Trump said what he thought of politicians:
These people – I’d like to use really foul language. I won’t do it. I was going to say they’re really full of shit. I won’t say that. No, it’s true. It’s true. I won’t say it. I won’t say it. But they are.
What is going on here? On the face of it, here is a leader wrestling with the conventions of political form. He simply can’t use certain words. Who knows what might happen to him if he let out what he really thinks? But his frothing authenticity gets the better of him. “I won’t say it. I won’t say it.”
He’s like a character in a Victorian novel who wants to press the hand of the girl he fancies, but is paralysed by propriety. But not quite paralysed; not quite propriety: his authentic self erupts, leaking its proscribed thoughts into the minds of followers who have already bathed in the same forbidden waters.
He is telling them what they know to be true. They trust him in the same way that they are seduced by their own shadow.
This is why Trump’s speech-making never sounds like oratory, but an inner conversation. He is seeking to convince his echo to stay faithful to the original rant.
Manufacturing belief in anything
Contemporary politicians have a trust problem, but Trump is different. It is not a crisis of distrust that Trump symbolises, but an excess of trust. While contributing to a general feeling that “they’re really full of shit”, he uses the pronoun to distance both himself and his followers from the smell. They are politicians. He is a man who happened to stumble on to the stage.
Trump embodies the crudest fantasies of the American dream. He can be trusted because, by his account, he is self-made – except for the estimated US$200 million trust fund given to him by his father, which rather skews the narrative.
Because he is perceived as a man who made his own fortune, he is seen as a leader who owes nothing to anyone. Why vote for a politician who’s in the pocket of shady billionaires when you could vote for a shady billionaire?
The logic is perverse, but it is the foundation of a form of projection that allows the following to be accepted as strategic thinking:
Now, we have to build a fence. And it’s got to be a beauty. Who can build better than Trump? I build; it’s what I do. I build; I build nice fences, but I build great buildings. Fences are easy, believe me.
I saw the other day on television people just walking across the border. They’re walking. The military is standing there holding guns and people are just walking right in front, coming into our country. It is so terrible. It is so unfair. It is so incompetent.
And we don’t have the best coming in. We have people that are criminals, we have people that are crooks. You can certainly have terrorists. You can certainly have Islamic terrorists. You can have anything coming across the border. We don’t do anything about it. So I would say that if I run and if I win, I would certainly start by building a very, very powerful border.
This image of a man who builds nice fences, great buildings and beautiful walls can only be understood from the perspective of biblical metaphor. The politicians droning on about “cutting the deficit” as they pretend to blend in on the factory floor are mere theatrical extras compared to Trump, on stage and in flow, so hard and tall and foreigner-resistant that his audience purrs collectively in claustrophobic bliss.
G.K. Chesterton reminded us that when people stop believing in something, they do not believe in nothing, but are more likely to believe in anything. Trump is a vessel for the deposit of American disbelief. He is the “anything” that occupies the space that would otherwise be “nothing”.
Can democratic politics re-invent itself?
Here lies the lesson for democratic politics. Just as obsolete forms atrophy slowly, lingering until the last drop of affective vitality evaporates, so new political forms often emerge as prefigurative contortions, only discernible through the trace lines of oddity.
Trump might not be the New Normal, but neither can his performance be dismissed as the Old Crazy. He is a spectre of things to come: of political performance in an age of projection rather than representation.
To represent is to stand in for those who must be absent. To represent democratically is to diminish the consequences of the electorate’s absence from the sphere of everyday decision-making by remaining accountable to their interests, preferences and values.
Political projection is representation in reverse. The dummy produces a ventriloquist that is in its own image. Citizens are not re-presented, but offered a fantasy of presence through the demagogic persona of a leader. They, the shit-filled politicians, cannot be trusted because you, the hollow public, should not be trusted.
Trump, on the other hand, provides a receptacle for indiscriminate trust – in him, in yourself, in anything, but never something.
The faultlines in democratic politics are clearly marked. On the one side is a system of representation that is bad at making people feel represented. On the other is a process of projection that satisfies a visceral desire to be affectively registered, but amounts to little more than an incontinent protest against conventional political form.
Obsolete modes of representation are unlikely to defeat Trump – as the US Republican contest has shown. A key question for contemporary democracies is whether they can reinvent practices of democratic representation that allow people to communicate in ways that build commitment to something rather than surrender to anything. Such practices must amount to more than participatory tokenism or technological gimmickry.
Obsolete forms of representation as a distant relationship, ritually reaffirmed by periodic elections, cannot be resuscitated by simply putting them online, encouraging politicians to expose their inner feelings on TV chat shows, or changing the voting system. Clogged up with prejudices, resentments and semi-articulated desires, the political atmosphere surrounding prevailing relations of representation generates default disappointment.
The fast-growing cast of anti-politicians who seem drunk on cheap trust (for Trump is by no means alone) will surely thrive and expand unless a more meaningful form of representation is established.
Rather than devoting huge energy pointing to the absurdity or toxicity of this new populism, democracies would be better served by beginning a debate about what it means to represent and be represented; what form democratic representation might take in an era of instantaneous communication.