The Spaces of Appearance | Nicholas Mirzoeff | Tuesday, 01.11.2016

MAGA Masculinity, Scary Clowns and the Souls of White Folk

During the revolutionary upheavals of 2011 from Tahrir Square to Occupy Wall Street, a transformation of real conditions of lived existence seemed at hand. In 1958, philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the phrase ‘the space of appearance’ to convey her sense of where politics takes place. This space, derived from the ancient Greek city-state, was constituted by exclusion of women, children, enslaved human beings and non-Greeks.
What emerged in 2011, as it does from time to time, was a space of appearance constituted by the intersection of what Judith Butler has called the ‘right to appear’ and my own formula of ‘the right to look.’ The right to look is always granted by me to the other person, whom I allow to ‘invent’ me. As we appear together, it is incumbent on me to wait and listen to you, even and especially when you do not speak, so as not to impose my naming on you.
In these posts, I’ll be exploring how this space of appearance works in present-day and historical contexts and what happens in the space of representation that is its counter. Representation is a doubled category of depiction and political hierarchy that has sustained the colonial order since Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651).
Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). Photo: DC Comics
In 2012 queer activist and writer Jack Halberstam called what was happening in the new space of appearance ‘Gaga feminism,’ a new dada for a time of permanent war and financial crisis. Gaga feminism today is confronted by MAGA masculinity. #MAGA is the acronym for Donald Trump’s slogan Make America Great Again, used widely across the internet. If Gaga has her ‘little monsters,’ as her fans call themselves, Trump has united the ‘deplorables,’ his fans who co-opt Hillary Clinton’s description of them.
I will discuss the new masculinity in terms of Trump and the US but it could and should be extended to the Alternative for Germany, Brexit, France’s Front National and so on. What’s happening in the US is not only about the election itself but about reconstituting a self-avowedly white masculinity for the digital era.
MAGA masculinity deploys an array of projection, appropriation and mirror reversal. Consider Trump’s declaration of candidacy. He accused Mexican immigrants of being “rapists,” an outburst that must now be understood as a defensive projection. In other words, Trump projected his own long history of sexual assault onto others.
On other occasions, he simply reverses what is said to him. When Clinton called him Putin’s puppet, he said “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet.” In turn, this childlike phrase has rebounded on Trump as a meme across the internet.
So it was not surprising that even Trump’s most loyal base, his 12.8 million Twitter followers, hesitated after the third presidential debate on October 19, 2016. His retweets and likes fell to between a quarter and a half of their usual levels, going as low as 5,000. Contrary to popular belief, the internet does forget and his base is back, liking and retweeting, especially anything hostile to immigrants. This resurgence preceded the renewed email scandal that has pushed the election result into Brexit territory: don’t trust the polls.
Being White Again
MAGA masculinity is all about barriers and protection, especially The Wall, which is not so much physical as psychical. There already are hundreds of miles of what is euphemistically termed ‘fence’ at the US-Mexico border and more will serve no purpose. The psychic reinforcement of imagining a ‘beautiful’ (as Trump puts it) physical color line did not simply rally white men. It was designed to make being a white man ‘great again.’
W.E.B. Du Bois in 1918. Photo: Library of Congress
MAGA masculinity has put on display what I would call ‘the souls of white folk,’ in homage to W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1926 essay of that title, for the internet era. Du Bois had shown how the ‘wages of whiteness,’ paid in such currency as admission to segregated public space, allowed for a first such valorization during the Jim Crow era (1877–1954). The end of segregation, culminating in the election of an African American president in 2008, marked the devaluation of these wages. Today’s color line defends what it takes to be ‘normal’ against its others by imagining itself to be defeated or losing, an affect comprised of anger, mourning and nostalgia.
Shifting Lines
The gendered (color) line is shifting, sometimes invisible. This instability is marked by a growing interchange between the space of representation and the space of appearance. Gaga feminism is all about fluidity of gender and other roles. Maggie Nelson’s transformative novel of gender fluidity The Argonauts (2015) is also a memoir, set in real places, and with an acknowledgement to Jack Halberstam. Compare it to Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), the classic text of gender performance, and it seems like a new way to live and experience gender theory.
Even in the space of representation, this fluidity is both happening and very much denied. One oddity of the current presidential election is that all the leading candidates – Clinton, Sanders, Trump – are over retirement age. It’s as if having experimented with a young, African American family, the default (white) response is to jump back a generation.
In this family romance, Trump is the scary patriarch, whose mood can never be relied on. Sanders was the cranky but loveable grandparent. For all her efforts to claim the role of grandmother, Clinton has been excluded from this patriarchal role-play by men who revel in screaming “bitch” and “cunt” at the mention of her name. Trump even let it be known that he doesn’t find her attractive.
These comments open a chasm into the id of MAGA masculinity. I learned recently from reading, of all things, The New Yorkerthat one of the most popular search terms on porn sites in the US is “mom and son” and other purported incestual relations. Because of this transgressive fantasy world – not to mention the successes of LGBTQ activism – the usual ‘culture wars’ moral panics, about transgender bathrooms for example, have notably failed to have political traction in 2016.
Unfortunately, it works the other way too. In the online pornographic world that the philosopher Nancy Bauer has called ‘pornutopia’:
“Serendipitously, as it always turns out, to gratify yourself sexually by imposing your desires on another person is automatically to gratify that person as well.”
So to “grab them by the pussy” (to quote Trump in the leaked 2005 Access Hollywood video) is to act out the logic of the (porn) star, just as Trump said it was. In a culture where some 37% of people believe that they are or will be in the top 1%, the result is, as we have seen, a persistent drum beat of revelations of sexual abuse and harassment.
Abuse is not new. The coincidence of bringing it into the space of representation with a female-identified candidate has made it differently visible. Perhaps that is one reason why patriarchy resisted female candidates for so long and so hard. Ironically, it’s the prosecution of another abuser, the appalling Anthony Weiner, that has let Trump back into the race.
In this imaginary, it is not surprising that the standard attack ad, with black-and-white slow motion visuals and a deep baritone voiceover, no longer cuts it. There have been no memorable or politically significant ads, other than one showing a Democratic Senate candidate assembling an assault rifle blindfold. Instead, we have scary clowns.
Scary (White) Clowns
From a first report in South Carolina in August, there have now been sightings of the widely-reported clowns in 40 states, as well as in the UK, Germany and Australia. For all the moral panic, the result has been a mere 19 arrests, including one arrest for wearing a mask in a public place under old laws against highway robbery. These laws were last used against anarchists wearing V for Vendetta masks on Occupy marches.
The clowns have been discussed by the New York Timesand are all over the internet. Some people see them as simply depictions of Trump – he’s a clown, he has silly hair, he’s scary. True: but there’s more. In the 1970s, when the cultural agenda was set by the mass circulation newspaper, moral panics about mugging in Britain were produced by the tabloids to intended political effect against immigrants and minorities.
Today, people respond to internet memes in decentralized and apparently spontaneous ways that nonetheless have a cumulative effect. With his visible inability to control his emotions and responses, Trump is not driving this panic – rather, he’s its most obvious symptom.
In keeping with the MAGA masculine, the clowns are a reverse appropriation of anti-establishment popular culture designed to create a desire for order. The panic first appeared in South Carolina, a state on the sharp edge of the color line from Black Reconstruction in 1865–77 – hailed by Du Bois as the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ – to the 2015 mass shooting in Charleston AME church.
When we note that police in the village of Herkimer, NY, actually went so far as to report that a clown made eye contact, we hear the echo of the ‘reckless eyeballing’ charge of Jim Crow. That charge purported to defend ‘white womanhood’ against the ‘reckless’ sexuality of African American men. Today it’s whiteness itself, especially its masculine form, that constructs itself as being under assault.
The best-known scary clowns are the Insane Clown Posse, the anti-racist, anti-pedophile pro-Detroit (white) hip-hop duo. Rapper Violent J denied they were the source of the Scary Clowns in Time:
“America has turned into something far more terrifying than Insane Clown Posse’s Dark Carnival …. Today’s reality is scarier than anything you’ll ever hear on one of our albums.”
Another possible source for the clowns is the DC comic character Harley Quinn, described by writer Abraham Reisman as: “Jewish, queer, morally questionable, deeply imperfect, and beloved” – and, yes, you’d be forgiven for not getting any of that from her appearance in Suicide Squad (2016), played by Margot Robbie. The affect of Robbie’s performance was ‘damaged girl,’ the kind beloved by Trump and Howard Stern for their supposed sexual adventurousness.
Rolling Stone writer David Fear regretted that the “cracked person who expresses herself in chaos” hinted at in Robbie’s performance of Harley Quinn was submerged by the overall awfulness of the film. That can’t be allowed because it might scare away the target demographic: 14–18 year old boys and the men who think like them. Who turn out to be the majority of white men in the US. Who turn to the space of representation for reassurance.
The clowns embody whiteness’ fear that it is under attack and then actualize it. By appropriating the counter-cultural clown and making it seem like a widespread phenomenon, MAGA masculinity justifies its own existence through these masked and disassociated actions. To be clear: there is no clown conspiracy. The very fluidity of internet era popular culture – from comic books to movies, music and politics, all mediated online – enables the clown wave, just as it will quickly erase it in the aftermath of the election.
What will be left is a masculinity that, if Trump loses, can now point to a visible defeat in the space of representation and which will have failed to make America white again. It if wins … It could very well get a lot worse from here.