I really didn’t want to do this, but I think I can’t help myself. The last thing I want to do is add to the cacophony of analysis surrounding Donald Trump and the 2016 US election. But I need to get this idea into the open. (Sorry.)
As noted by James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II in Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, we are living in cultural moment in late-capitalist societies where we have a profound desire for authenticity. This authenticity manifests in our desire for organic and locally-grown foods, for vintage clothing, for knitting, for DIY anything, for microbreweries, for customized anything, for artisanal cheese, for natural childbirth…The list goes on. It is hard to remember that these are not absolute values of things that are “better.” My grandmother, born in 1915, would never understand why anyone would want an old thing, when you can have a new thing; why would you want to make your own, when you could buy a shiny mass-produced one. In her world, you made your own only if you had no other choice. This was a marker of poverty. If you had the means, then store-bought was best. Now her world is turned upside down. Authenticity is an elite commodity, accessed by people with time and money to care about these things. Gilmore and Pine in their book provide specific entrepreneurial strategies for selling authenticity in Nike pop-up stores and Hard Rock Café restaurants.
But just as authenticity rebels against mass-production, it also rebels against collective artificial social veneers. In the same way that mass commodified goods and services can render experience homogenous so can dominant social codes that control behaviour. This can be seen in popular reactions to Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump in the most recent US election campaign. There are too many examples to choose from but I will restrict myself to one: the Al Smith Dinner fundraiser for the Catholic charities of the Archdiocese of New York.
The premise of the dinner is that each of the presidential candidates is invited to speak and to deliver (mostly) light-hearted jabs both at themselves and at their opponent. Hilary Clinton spoke first and she adhered to the expected social script, drawing laughs from the crowd composed of New York social elites and members of the media. She isn’t a comedian and her delivery was forced but she got through it. For the most part, her jokes landed as “burns” but the content was ‘light’ — Trump’s propensity for late night tweeting, the Miss Universe pageant (Donald looks at the Statue of Liberty and sees a ‘4.’). Donald Trump also started out in a similar vein. His most successful joke came at the expense of his wife for copying Michelle Obama’s speech at the RNC convention. However, as the speech wore on, Trump seemed to forget that the point was to tell jokes and make people laugh. His delivery sagged and became serious. He accused Clinton of deceiving the public by having two sets of policies, one public and one private. The ‘punchline’ to this joke was that she here tonight pretending not to hate Catholics. The latter part of his speech was punctuated by boos and even some heckling from the crowd. I don’t think the partisan (likely mostly urban progressive) audience is the only reason for this reaction.
What I observed is that at the end of his speech Trump overstepped the bounds of the game. He stopped telling jokes and began to recite digs and complaints. He stopped pausing for the laughter. He lost the delivery pattern of telling a joke. The content became bitter. For the live audience this was not acceptable and so they expressed their disapproval. What is telling I think is the reaction from Trump’s supporters on social media. For this group, Trump was speaking truth to power. He rejected the faux social graces of the ‘roast’ and took the opportunity not only to attack Clinton but also to implicitly communicate to the rarefied elites who set up the event that this archly codified way of speaking was silliness and fakery. (The Capitol of Panem in The Hunger Games, anyone?) Whereas Clinton was polished, delivering crafted jokes, Trump was ‘real’ and raw. The same effect was seen at other points in the campaign but most notably in the debates. Where on the one hand, Clinton’s delivery came off for some as prepared and capable, for others it felt ‘canned’ and ‘fake.’ Trump’s wandering, discontinuous, ad lib responses, although not good articulations of policy, felt ‘real’ and ‘unvarnished.’ And this is what people want.
As my colleague Laura Levin has so articulately argued in her work on Justin Trudeau and Rob Ford this is tied up with an anti-theatrical bias, particularly attached to politicians and performance. The electorate is very acutely attuned to authenticity as a desirable quality in a leader. Although this is hardly the last word on the election, I can’t deny that I believe that the desire for the real was a significant factor.
Questions: What are we sacrificing in our pursuit of the real or the raw? As Brecht points out, the exposure of the mechanism of constructedness in art is tied up with exposing political ideologies that are also revealed to be contingent constructions. But the ‘real’ (the feeling of real-ness) that lies behind the construction can also be co-opted for ideological (fascist?) ends.