For a psycho-social analysis of the Trump election, see W. J. T. MItchell’s lecture, “American Psychosis,” delivered at the University of Geneva on January 18, 2017.
Category Archives: 2016 election
As if swept up by a sinister, laughing wind, the characters of Aristophanes scattered across the American election. Sophists, sycophants, demagogues, and tyrants—all Greek figures employed by the Athenian “Father of Comedy”—blew across the political and media landscape. Swap Donald Trump and his caballing acolytes with the pseudopopulist heroes and villains of Aristophanes and few would notice. “The Theatre,” Trump declared, “must always be a safe and special place”: if only he knew the Aristophanic arsenal amassed for ridiculing his “ancient Trumps” like Cleon and Alcibiades. The comedian coined demagogue and devised its comic archetype, an eel-fisher who catches nothing in clear waters but reaps bounties by stirring slime. Thus if Trump never existed, Aristophanes would be forced to invent him. Mere decades after democracy’s inception in Athens, the playwright yoked it to comedy; when democracy mires itself in the mud, we spot him on the scene. From carnivalesque populism to debates over political correctness, Aristophanes whispers his stage directions to the political order. No one else so effortlessly captures the careening hypocrisies of born elites who pursue populism. No one else understood that the populist farce, in the repetitions of history, comes before the tragedy—the reverse quip of Karl Marx. The winds blow Aristophanic.
Peisetaerus of Birds becomes the best backbone for Trumpian flesh. A bombastic sophist, fancying himself a developer for the tremendous new city of Cloudcuckooland—to be surrounded by a great wall—Peisetaerus means “persuader of his comrades” in Greek. Disillusioned with Athenian (American) life, he quarrels with the gods (Washington elites) after pitching his increasingly grandiose schemes to the birds (American people). Peisetaerus bests the Olympians (Rubio, Bush, Kasich), eventually being crowned tyrannos: a buffoonish sophist-god-tyrant. The apotheosis of Peisetaerus—god of the gods—marks the finale of Birds, ending its prophecy for 2016.
There was no sequel, but a great many Trumpian motifs: a scam university in Clouds, an assault on the judiciary in Wasps, a meat salesman’s campaign for power in Knights (sausages, not steaks). Right out of Trump supporters’ nightmares, Praxagora of Assemblywomen wins the election and encourages her fellow women to implement a socialist regime. Yet Aristophanes was no Marx; intractable ironies stifle these political programs. The quasi-feminist sex strike in Lysistrata leaves critics wondering whether Aristophanes—like Trump says of himself—“is the best for women” or simply practices classic Athenian misogyny. Aristophanes believed in democracy more strongly than Trump, but in both we find a kind of comedic realpolitik. Winning the Dionysia festival, like winning business or votes, was paramount. “Vote for us,” cry the titular creatures of Birds, “or we’ll shit on you.” Scholars interrogate the playwright’s politics as the Aristophanic question par excellence; now its uncertainty is itself Trumpian.
Aristophanes’ cornucopia of churlish wit belongs mostly to the left these days, but electing a “pussy-grabber” represents a dubious right-wing victory against “political correctness”—of all political terms, the most incoherent. Though often used against left identity politics, this linguistic policing classically belonged to the right, protecting authority and the state. Its logic is patriotism; civil language was civic. Even the irreverent Aristophanes offered a “safe space” for certain conservative elements in Athens. Classical Greek obscenity did not recognize tainted words, argues Jeffrey Henderson, only a concept of bringing shame (crucial in Trumpian rhetoric). In Henderson’s fine translation—the first unexpurgated one in English— Peisetaerus decrees that if the gods trespass (through the fabled wall) “then clap a seal on their boners, so they can’t fuck those women anymore.” Yet obscene language in Aristophanes and Trump conceals reactionary political prohibition. The first “politically incorrect” comedian was sometimes a hypocrite, a term whose meaning was aptly embroidered by ancient drama, whose mantle robes Trump so extravagantly today.
The spirit of 2016 was a carnival of sinister comedy rejecting policy-politics-polis as serious inquiry. Mikhail Bakhtin understood carnivalesque literature as turning the world upside down; each play of Aristophanes indeed turns Athens inside out. Bakhtin wed the carnivalesque with the grotesque: the openings and protrusions of the body, elements that are “disgusting”— Trump’s favourite word. Trump injected the grotesque into politics in an Aristophanic throwback. He made politics bodily again: about menstruation (Megyn Kelly), his small, germophobic hands (the “short-fingered vulgarian”), and his histrionic hair (Aristophanes, famously bald, lacked Trumpian technologies). The penile exchange between Trump and Marco Rubio was ripped right out of Birds with its cocks of many feathers. If Straussians fancy robing naked power with decorum, then Trumpians dress it in the costumes of old comedy, padded outfits affixed with giant leather phalluses.
The notion that jesting statements are harmless first ran aground when Aristophanes lampooned Socrates in Clouds, influencing the jurors who later sentenced him to death. This literary-political relationship haunts G. W. F. Hegel, Søren Kierkegaard, and Leo Strauss. Aristophanes’ engagement with the real inhabitants of Athens, however, is inseparable from his rhapsodic imaginings of the polis undergoing sexual and socialist revolutions. His comedies are neither utopias nor dystopias, yet each reveals the contingency of the political order. Some escape Athens, others return to an older Athens, each rips through the status quo like the thunderous flatulence in Clouds—the “winds” of revolution and deviance. Already recognized as the “prince” of comedy, he should be hailed as patron of dissent and political imagination.
Western democracies claim and clamour over their Greek heritage. Yet they repressed Aristophanes—who insists he is among the greatest comedians of all time—and now his spirit returns, demanding exaltation. If greatness demands relevance, then Trump vindicates Aristophanes. A superlative satirist before satire even had a name, Aristophanes coined spoudaiogeloion, or the seriocomic. Tragedy seems apt for the terrifying state of the world today, but hearing the raucous, knowing laughter of Aristophanes, we must study how comedy arms and disarms; laughter can be both virtuous and vicious. Post-truth may be the word of year, but we are not postcomedy—as dire as this seriocomedy proves to be. Trump claims the world is “laughing at us”: as always, the questions are who to laugh with, who to laugh at, and when there must be no laughter at all.
Working between rhetoric and philosophy, Jonathan Doering studies the reception and presence of classical and modern rhetoric in French thought, and examines sophists both ancient and modern. He is finishing his PhD at the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism in London, Ontario.
W. J. T. Mitchell
Can I just say that I am sick and tired of hearing liberals and leftists beating their breasts about how they failed to empathize sufficiently with the white working class in this country? How terrible that we failed to feel their pain, to go out into their dying towns and promise to bring their lives back along with their dead-end jobs mining coal. Shouldn’t Hillary have spent more time in the white suburbs of Milwaukee? Shouldn’t we all give up our city jobs and take up farming or automobile maintenance? Shouldn’t we have nominated a man who feels the pain of hunters and sportsmen deprived of their assault weapons? Why can’t we seem to empathize with evangelists whose flexible moral code includes a tolerance for pussy-grabbing, race-baiting bigotry and xenophobia (sorry for the big word), as long as it includes the sacred right to invade a woman’s body to save a potential American citizen? Could this be why we are so annoyed by pants suits?
Everyone who looks at the electoral map notes one striking pattern. This is about the country versus the city. How many cities (and the universities in them) are now declaring themselves “sanctuaries” for the ten million illegal immigrants who will, if Trump keeps his most fundamental promise, soon be rounded up by federal authorities, with the cooperation of local law enforcement? Sheriff Arpaio of Arizona, voted out of office in his home state, but soon to play a role in the Trump administration, has showed how local police can be used to enforce immigration laws with racial profiling and stop and frisk tactics. We have known about the danger of “driving while black” for some time. Soon we will find out what happens to those who are driving while Latino/a. And if cities like New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Chicago refuse to enlist their police forces in the immigrant roundup, Trump and his minions have threatened to cut off federal aid to cities. Suppose the cities defy this move, bite the bullet of a budget shortfall, and open up refugee camps for immigrants? What is Trump’s next move? As the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, he will find it perfectly logical to call in federal marshals or even the National Guard to enforce the law. At this point the wounded white folks out in the sticks will turn off their television sets so as not to witness the crowds of women and children, housemaids and students, teachers and carpenters, fruit pickers and restaurant workers being loaded onto busses. I presume the Trump team will have the good taste not to put them in cattle cars on trains heading for “temporary” detention camps. The imagery might not play well in rural sports bars when the NFL game is interrupted by an annoying news bulletin.
So please, all you liberals, leftists, hipsters, intellectuals, progressives, school teachers, and people who read something besides Twitter feeds, and watch something besides Fox News, stop apologizing for losing this election. Please remember that in fact Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. She was clearly over-qualified for the job and failed to bring her message down to the level that P. T. Barnum had in mind when he said that there’s a sucker born every minute. Before you assemble in a circular firing squad to put the blame on yourselves, take a moment to assign the blame where it belongs: on the idiots who voted for this man, and the hypocrites who are now kissing his ass and encouraging the rest of us to look in the mirror. Instead of the mirror, I recommend a panopticon of critical inquiry, led by a rebirth of vigilant investigative journalism, a mobilization of historical and cultural memory, and frequent reminders that the Constitution has other things in it besides the Second Amendment.
W. J. T. Mitchell
“History is a Nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” –James Joyce, Ulysses
“Insanity in individuals is somewhat rare. But in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.” –Nietzsche
“A single Athenian is a wily fox. A group of Athenians is a flock of sheep.” –Solon
“Every man, seen as an individual, is tolerably shrewd and sensible, see them in corpore, and you will instantly find a fool.” Schiller
“No one ever went broke underestimating the American public.” -P.T. Barnum
“You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” –Abraham Lincoln.
What Lincoln failed to add is, those are pretty good odds for the success of a determined and skilled con artist in the short run.
“We Palestinians love Trump because he is pure Americana. He shows the true face of the American character, and we feel it is important for the world to see that truth for what it is.”
–Conversations with Palestinians in the West Bank, May, 2016.
To which I replied: “That is easy for you to say in the safety of Palestine.”
The shocking election of Donald Trump reminds us that the real location of mental illness, whether it takes the form of anger or a melancholic sense of wounding and resentment, is primarily in the group, not the individual. We sometimes think that the paradigm of madness is to be found in the individual case. Nothing could be further from the truth. Paranoia is most effective when it is shared with others; nurtured in isolation, it shrivels up and dies. It is a long standing commonplace that human reason of the practical sort, the kind that involves the management of one’s own affairs generally prevails at the individual level. Even the famously psychotic Judge Schreber could perform complex feats of legal reasoning, and convince a court that he was capable of managing his own affairs. Reason also operates quite efficiently at the level of tactics and strategy, never more relentlessly than in warfare, the most dramatic form of collective madness known to our species. In politics, the supposedly peaceful sublimation of war, reason moves from the manipulation of weapons and destruction to the skillful manipulation of unreason; it deploys the ancient lessons of rhetoric as opposed to logic, of instrumental, egoistic reason as contrasted with wisdom or Kantian Enlightenment. Calculated appeals to emotion trump (you will forgive the pun) those of reason. The heart has reasons of its own, and it is the chief exercise of cynical, manipulative reason to understand the triggers that set off collective madness in the mass. See Kelly Ann Conway, Trump’s brilliant campaign manager, who showed us the power and “reasonableness” of wiliness, cunning, and clever rhetorical agility.
Trump’s campaign capitalized on all the dark forces in the electorate that lay below the threshold of opinion polls and their data bases, unreachable by rational arguments about policy solutions to shared problems, unembarrassed by transparent lies and demagoguery. Racism, misogyny, xenophobia, anxiety, resentment, paranoia, and a generalized hatred of elites, experts, and established institutions were all mobilized to produce a wave of collective passion seen in the crowds that chanted “lock her up,” and threatened violent revolution if the “rigged” election went against them.
Now that the election, and the frenzy that has swept the American public for the last 18 months, has passed over us, a strange, ambiguous calm will settle over the country. Everyone will urge us to “come together as a nation,” and to heal the wounds that have been opened. Even Trump will remind us that, at heart, he is just a negotiator who has no principles except “the art of the deal” that favors his perception of national interest. The madness, however, has simply gone underground, the wounds festering, leaving the American dream as always, only the blink of an eye removed from the nightmare of our history.