Across cultures, fools, clowns, and court jesters are powerful critics of any existing order. But what happens when they take power? Thanks to Donald Trump, this is a reality we now face – and one that anthropology can help us to navigate.
The president of the US makes a strange sort of jester, not least given how unfunny he often is. Recall the 2016 Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, an American election tradition during which the two major party candidates engage in good-natured mockery. Trump’s inability to self-deprecate and lack of self-awareness made his performance practically unwatchable, as did his failure to draw a line between slander and satire.
So it’s easy to write Trump off as a failed, inept clown rather than a deft lampooner of his enemies. But his lack of self-awareness is largely irrelevant, and to simply proclaim him an idiot gets it wrong. His particular brand of foolery is in fact proving highly effective – and destructive.
On the surface, a court jester’s job is to conspicuously cross boundaries and use humour and mockery to ridicule and violate the norms their onlookers live by. The effect is ultimately conservative: the fool’s ludicrous failures contrast with the seriousness of his powerful audience, confirming they’re strong enough to withstand mockery and thereby cementing their status.
An example of how this works is the Hopi Tribe of Arizona’s summer-solstice ritual, niman, in which a central plaza is occupied by “kachina” deities, then invaded and taken over by yelling clowns. The clowns proceed to eat gluttonously, drink urine and perform burlesque acts. Warned by a lone deity that they must act moderately or perish, the clowns instead mistreat him and boast of their power. The kachina deities then return with whips and weapons, and retake the plaza to restore order and complete the ritual.
Similar processes play out at carnivals and mardi gras, where rules of behaviour and power structures are temporarily upended, only to come back into force more strongly. It’s also what happens at Washington’s storied White House Correspondents’ Dinner, an annual event where the most powerful leader in the world “officially” acts the clown, delivering a joke-laden monologue and enduring caustic jibes thrown their way. (Having famously been humiliated by Obama at the 2011 dinner, Trump declined to take part this year.)
But if the whole point of temporarily suspending normality to let fools run the show is to strengthen authority, not weaken it, the Trump administration is something very different.
When a political joker like Trump actually takes control, they duly subvert the norms of their political roles with their ludicrous behaviour – but instead of strengthening those norms, they weaken them, ultimately lowering the expectations to which all leaders are subject.
Trump’s presidency will hardly feel like a temporary suspension of normality if it lasts for its full term, and not if he is able to achieve even a few of his policy goals. This will not be a comic interlude at the end of which things cleanly return to normal; it will have real and enduring implications for millions of people’s lives.
Beyond that, the participants in this particular ritual drama do not agree on what status quo their fool should actually target. Is it the supposedly po-faced “liberal establishment” and those they defend, or the moneyed hegemony of Wall Street and those it favours? Sometimes Trump seems to think the answer is both, making him an interesting phenomenon: anyone’s fool.
The carnival is over
Broadly speaking, critics of Trump can respond to his foolery in one of two ways. They can attack the kind of fool Trump is – one who targets minorities, women, and immigrants – or they can attack the idea that foolishness is a viable substitute for governance. The idea that building a giant wall across the Mexican border is a policy, not a joke. The idea that peddling conspiracies about Obama’s birth certificate is an acceptable way to enter political life. The idea that ranting on Twitter at 3am is presidential.
While they may seem cruel and desperately unfunny, some of Trump’s pronouncements and blunders are perfect examples of what anthropologists call “hegemonic humour”: the use of humour to root out and emphasise difference. Making Mexico pay for a wall is politically (and probably financially) impossible, but many of Trump’s supporters seem willing to let it slide, suggesting his dogged commitment to it was more a farcical gesture to his audience than a statement of policy.
What obsessing over making Mexico pay really did was mark Trump out as a person who “gets it”, as opposed to a member of the “elite” – a cabal of people stupid enough to take a joke at face value.
A joker in charge is very difficult to challenge. Allow him to rile you up, and he wins; laugh with him, and you reinforce his nihilistic agenda. If the president’s opponents want his presidency to reinforce the US’s norms and institutions rather than destroy them, they can only respond one way: concentrate on achievable, serious goals, and refuse to get distracted by the absurd, surreal personality show with which their president is mocking them.
This means putting faith in politicians who treat their office and their role with dignity and respect, and not in just any fool who happens to come along. It is very citizen’s job to ignore fools and instead to deal in details.
Anthony Pickles receives funding from The British Academy. He is a member of the Labour Party.