by Allan Branstiter
About a week ago I joined others who were drawing connections between Donald Trump’s campaign performances and the spectacle of professional wrestling. While I still think that notion of kayfabe—the ability of a wrestler to portray staged events as real—and wrestling’s ability to appeal directly to the audiences emotions explains quite a lot about Trump’s popularity, I think another form of “low-brow” popular spectacle can help us understand the Donald. Simply put, Donald Trump is the queen of right-wing drag.
This idea crossed my mind as I was reading Jonathan Chait’s recent post about the current schism within the Republican Party. Chait argues that the Trump vs. #NeverTrump divide does not follow the long-standing traditional ideological differences between the GOP’s ideological center and fringe—nor is a geographic division between northeastern Rockefeller Republicans and the Solid South. “Instead,” Chait writes, “the divide runs high-low, splitting conservatism as an idea from conservatism as an instinct.” So what does this have to do with drag?
At the risk of turning to one person for an understanding of drag culture, I’m going to rely heavily on an artist I admire very much, RuPaul. I’m a huge fan of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and I’ve found a lot of inspiration in what she’s during various interviews (Ru’s appearance on Marc Maron’s podcast is phenomenal). Gushing aside, RuPaul has characterized drag as the exploitation of mainstream culture, and endeavor to mock the superficiality of the “normal” while asserting control of one’s own identity. Thus the power of drag exists not only in its cultural irreverence, but in its celebration of audacious and empowered individuality.
In order to understand power of the Trump campaign as drag, you must first begin with the rhetoric and ideology of mainstream Republican politics. Chait argues that the mainstream conservative movement has construct an ideology based on racial resentment, nationalism, and authoritarianism that justified regressive approaches to foreign policy, welfare, crime, taxes, and sex. They’ve also created “certain forms of nonsense” (or “truths”) that “all Republicans must believe (or leave unchallenged)” such as “Ronald Reagan brought down communism by telling Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall; global warming is fake or overrated; the Bush tax cuts did not cause a deficit problem, etc.”
Despite their adherence to mainstream Republicanism, white working- and middle-class have endured decades of regressive policy outcomes. By 2010, they were primed for something or someone that would unite, move, and validate their pain. By 2015, they had Donald Trump.
Like a skilled drag performer Trump exposed mainstream Republicanism—an ideology based on subtle identity politics and soft authoritarianism—as a farce by taking it to it’s rational extreme. As Chait points out:
“Trump has introduced an entirely new category of nonsense that is unrelated to the Republican program, and mostly pertains to Trump himself. He lies about things like his polling, his businesses, whether he has said the things he has actually said, whether Mitt Romney is even Mormon. The premise of Trump’s candidacy is that his supporters have to buy into a cult of personality so total they will accept even his most preposterous or obnoxious statement. That Trump, and Trump alone, can make Mexico fund a massive border wall is his most famous campaign promise and a symbol of the suspension of disbelief that is the heart of Trumpism. . . . Trump has made a mockery of this whole process, substituting boundless faith in his personality for a policy architecture constructed over generations.
Trump is a buffoonish caricature of the American populist Right. While many observers believes that this would have disqualified him from any serious consideration, The Donald’s theatrics both to mock elite Republicanism and vindicates the anger felt by marginalized conservatives—which is not exclusively white or male (Hillary Clinton, beware).
While it seems unlikely and irrational that a man who inherited millions of dollars would become the paragon of modern conservative populism, the drag elements of Trump’s campaign performances have earned him a loyal following among the Republican base.
First, Trump promises his supporters more than policy solutions, he also offers them a chance to survive culturally and economically. In a recent interview with Vulture, RuPaul pointed out that drag offers its performers an artistic outlet and a means to survive. Pointing to the popularity of her show, RuPaul explains that:
Each of those kids were little boys, sometimes in small towns, who were alienated and ostracized. And even in the face of such adversity, they prevailed and shine today. So it’s a story of strength. That’s what the appeal is for the audience. Here are these people who have prevailed and succeeded against insurmountable odds.”
Trump supporters seem to have one thing in common: an embattled sense of cultural and economic marginalization. It isn’t hard to find their references to the “oppressive political correctness,” “gay totalitarianism,” or how “Christians are the new persecuted class” on television, radio, or internet. Trump has positioned himself as the queen of seeing through the political correctness, the millionaire who built an empire by exploiting the corruption of the political system, and the man who is bringing the establishment to its knees. The world he offers isn’t simply a wall. It’s a Norman Rockwell world of economic prosperity, respect, and virtue. It’s an American made great again. Trump is an orange-faced Dorothy who has seen the wizard and is now liberating those who have been held back by globalization, political correctness, secularism, and multiculturalism. Or as Ru says:
It’s like when Dorothy looks behind the curtain. Like, “Wait a minute. You’re the wizard?” And you figure out the hoax. That this is all an illusion. There’s only a few areas you can go. First, you get angry that you’ve been hoaxed and you get bitter. But then, take more steps beyond the bitterness and you realize, “Oh, I get it. Let’s have fun with it. It’s all a joke. You mean I don’t have to stick with one look or one whatever? I can shape-shift? Great.” That’s when you can save lives because otherwise the mediocrity and the hypocrisy is so mundane, it’s better to just not do it. I’m not going to say “end it all.” But that’s why it saves lives. Because for people who are highly sensitive and super-intelligent, it tickles the brain. It gives them something to live for. It’s the irreverence.
It’s not the plausibility, the rationality, or the respectability. It’s the irreverence and the promise of survival.
Second, Trump’s theatrics offer his supporters a sense of community. Like drag, membership in the community of Trump will never be mainstream because it is defined largely by its opposition to the mainstream. Trumpism doesn’t conform, it exaggerates, bends, and conquers. For all of his talk about the “Art of the Deal,” Trump and his supporters have little desire to negotiate. Unlike Ted Cruz, they aren’t bound to a set ideology that can be hemmed in and contained. Instead, their beliefs are more ethereal and malleable. It can be both progressive and conservative, like their rejection of free-trade and disdain for labor unions. And it’s this strange sense of nonconformity that gives their community definition and unity.
Trump’s theatrics have also offered his supporters a language of their own. Attn: recently began exploring the strange world of Trump linguistics—a combinations of catchphrases, inside jokes, and memes. While the world of drag has adjectives like “fishy” and verbs like “read,” Trump circles are full of “nimble navigators” who urge people to “take a coat.” RuPaul argues that drag has historically relied on alternative languages to create belonging:
It’s almost like an encrypted message. For young gay people before the 1990s, and forever, we had to speak in code. We had to speak so that we couldn’t be found out. And a lot of that came in the form of references, pictures, one-liners, a twist of phrase. And that’s the tradition of the young outsider — your tribe finds you once you send out these messages.
For all of the media attention they garner, Trump supporters remain an minority within American society, and no one is more aware than this than themselves. Trump has given them an alternative language as a means to build support and community. Taken together, the drag show that is the Trump campaign has created a loyal following of irreverent and rebellious—but ultimately rational—supporters.
And here the comparisons end. While drag bends toward inclusiveness, Trumpish draws stark lines between those who belong and those who should not. Drag is ideologically hostile towards conformity and bigotry, while Trumpism feeds on hatred and is physically hostile towards those who do not conform to their worldview. While both drag and Trumpism use the simplicity of spectacle to convey complex ideas and emotions in easily accessible ways, their messages could not be any more different. Just as we should never underestimate the revolutionary and transformative power of drag, we should not understate the subversive and destructive power of Trumpism.