Emotions, Politcs, and Performance: fear and messianism

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about emotion, politics and performance–as the conventions these past weeks have showcased all three at deafeningly high decibel levels. The most potent of these–the one that is both most prominently on display and in dire need of diffusion is, of course, fear. This is an especially effective strategy this year because it taps into what, for me at least, has been a very real and nearly paralyzing anxiety about the state of the world–between the police violence/brutality, racism, terrorism, authoritarianism, and generally inexplicable psychopathy that seem to be unceasingly on display this summer. Rather than create the space to consider how to tangibly confront each of these complex and at times interrelated issues, fear indiscriminately bundles these events into a general wash of apocalypticism into which no party platform, no actionable solutions, can intervene. The answer, in the face of such fear, can only be a messianic figure–which Donald Trump is happy to cast himself as. It’s a familiar figuration–an outsider, with innate gifts, upending the rules, bringing in swaths of people who felt previously unrepresented, who can act as their surrogate: “I am your voice.” Donald Trump’s so-called “dark” convention speech–which was light on policy and high on emotion–was constructed in order to cast himself as messiah–a role that justifies itself by its exceptionalism and therefore renders irrelevant traditional qualifications such as expertise in areas of public service, foreign policy or governance. Furthermore, fear and messianism work together to erase the need for, and even possibility of, debate, nuance, and reflection. Fear and messianism are in fact, antithetical to deliberatory democracy–critique, resistance and debate are all shamed and cast out (as in the treatment of Ted Cruz, or calls to jail Hillary Clinton) as the messiah/fear construction casts the situation as an either/or binary (already latent in the U.S.’s two-party system)–either fear (death, destruction) or total consensus in support of the messianic figure.

Fear’s all consuming vagueness makes it hard to resist or counter–and because Trump’s convention cast the campaign in these terms–and because the fear is, well, very real–the Democratic response has played into this in toxic ways. This is present in the Clinton campaign’s overwhelmingly negative campaigning—rhetoric that is itself a kind of acknowledgement of his messianic positioning–and desperation to forge consensus, as in the shaming of those still holding onto Bernie Sanders’ campaign. The Clinton campaign has also tried its hand at messianism as well, particularly in its rhetoric of feminist triumphalism. Though of course here messianism meets misogyny and this strategy does not seem to be as effective for HRC as it is for Trump (or Bernie, for that matter). Trump’s behavior is excused by exceptionalism, whereas Hillary is granted no exceptions and scandals prove themselves very sticky. Female messiahs are, after all, rare. That, I think, would be of great benefit for politics—as it creates the space for political engagement and dissent.

So while I acknowledge that I am deeply susceptible to the fear of Donald Trump, I take serious issue with the Clinton’ campaign’s negative campaigning and cooption of the rhetoric of fear. It allows Trump to cast and dominate the terms of the election. And I’d like to think that Hillary’s wonkiness, listening tours, willingness to “evolve” on positions (not a liability in my estimation) indicate that she is better–or at least more complex–than that. Furthermore, the DNC should not be shutting out protestors because of fear, but instead endeavor to hear, respond, embrace and champion them as vital participants in a democratic process. And though fear has taken center stage for real reasons, we must acknowledge that there is room for the machinations of politics to operate in other emotional registers that invoke alternative values—as we’ve seen speakers such as Michelle Obama try to (very effectively) do. And we, as participants in our political system, ought to be very conscious of the way emotions—in particular fear—are performed, manipulated, and harnessed to constrain democracy and preclude debate.

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