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All The World Is (Not) A Stage

11/11/2016 12:34

Born and raised in Michigan and having cast my vote, I write this from the land of Shakespeare. All the world's a stage, we are told, and the American voters have given Donald Trump his hour upon it.

Erving Goffman offered his own twist to Shakespeare's line: "All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn't are not easy to specify." Apologies to the great sociologist, but the point has resonance for our present predicament.

Who, we might ask, is Trump, this player who struts and frets before us? And how do we disentangle what is real and what is staged? What should we now expect? Take just one example: the wall. Since the election, we have seen numerous interviews in which hapless journalists attempt to extract a reliable statement of Trump's intentions. Will he build a wall along the border with Mexico or was that just another bullish line from the Trump playbook? Does it matter if it is the latter? Do his baying mobs care about the material fact of a wall? Or is it the performance they crave, Trump's performance and their own, the catharsis of ten thousand voices chanting "Build the wall" and fixing upon a scapegoat.

I have now seen numerous Republican commentators chide journalists for asking about the wall. Apparently they took it all too literally. They failed to grasp that Trump is more player than politician. Importantly, this means that his lies are not the lies of an ordinary politician. They are the lines of a play. Trump was never a candidate in the ordinary sense of the word. He was the performance of a candidate. And his presidency too, will be a performance.

But when we speak hatred, we set it loose in the world. Trump's pronouncements enable racism and misogyny, religious hatred and homophobia. This is a man who, during the course of the campaign, regularly incited violence at his rallies, threatened to jail his opponent, muzzle the press, deport thousands, build a wall, and deny entry to a single religious group. This is a man who has denied climate change, bragged about sexual assault, mocked disability and disadvantage in others, celebrated tax avoidance.

So to those who would accuse us of taking Trump too literally, I say Goffman was right. The differences between world and stage are not easy to specify. In a chilling interview with Jon Snow, conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan was asked, "Will he actually do all the things he said he'd do... wasn't a lot of it pantomime, macabre though it may have been?" To which, Sullivan replied, "Yes, let's hope!"

Is this what we are now reduced to - hoping that a Trump presidency is more theatre than reality? Sullivan clearly believes there is grave danger in such a position. "When you've revved up half the country... when you've made explicit promises to deport 11 million people, to build a wall... to discriminate and subject American Muslims to extra surveillance, how do you go back on that? He's as much a creature now of the mob as they are of him!"

So here we are, days after the election, minor players in the coming storm of a Trump presidency. It is shocking to see how quickly the dramaturgical rules came into play, how easily the election of a demagogue can be normalized. Trump delivered an acceptance speech described by the mainstream media outlets as "gracious." So too, Clinton's concession speech. Obama promised cooperation in the transition of power. These were single scenes, fleeting situational performances, to borrow again from Goffman. These were also failed performances because we know who Trump is. The long campaign revealed him to us. The question now concerns who we will be.

Under Trump's government, people are going to get hurt. Badly. For no other reason than that they belong to a group or community targeted by Trump and his followers. As citizen-players, we face stark choices. Goffman once said, "Choose your self-presentation carefully, for what starts out as a mask may become your face." If we put on the mask of appeasement, that is what we will become. Or we can choose to resist, refuse to normalize hatred.

Time to leave the safety of the theatre and join those already stating clearly and bravely, "Not my president."

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