Trump’s Bakhtinian Moment – OpEd


The January 6 assault on US Congress by a legion of pro-Trump supporters has riled the nation and sparked a tsunami of bi-partisan condemnation in a bitterly-divided house that is today’s American politics — that is in the throe of a massive post-election turbulence transpiring against the backdrop of a national health emergency exacting a heavy toll on the American population and the economy. 

Described as a “dark moment” in American history by the president-elect Joe Biden, the temporary occupation of Congress was an act of collective disruption aimed at disrupting the final seal of approval on Biden’s victory, tantamount to a death certificate for Trump’s presidency, but by all account it was a death fraught with a new birth.  

For here was the chief instigator a few blocks away, satiating his bruised ego by the vile images of his bete noire Nancy Pelosi’s office invaded and his political opponents ducking for cover, literally, hours before he finally issued his one minute directive to his die-hard supporters to “go home,” which they did instantly, reflecting a surrealist moment in Trumpian cult of personality.  It was followed by the mayor of capital city declaring a state of emergency by imposing a curfew from 8 PM to 6 AM, citing the numerous weapons and pipe bombs discovered across the city, i.e., a definite sign that the heavily-armed pro-Trump groups are still capable of instigating further mischief. 

Trump, who in his presidential debate had given a stand down order, had sounded his dog whistle with his “be wild” signal, yet the chaotic scenes at Congress resembled less an act of “insurrection” or coup d’etat” and more a political circus or carnival featuring biker gangs and protesters waving huge multi-color flags with painted faces and, in some cases, dressed as barbarians, more interested in taking selfies as they marched through the ‘sacred’ halls than in anything else, simultaneously representing a cathartic moment for the thousands if not millions of Trump supporters who are convinced by their leader of a stolen election.    

This ‘event’, considered landmark and a significant turning point in the annals of American democracy, denoting its fragile nature, of course lends itself to multiple interpretations.  A big question is whether or not it will be followed by other, and more extreme, acts of transgression, in which case the ‘threat analysis’ would need to go into overdrive, or simply the apex of a post-election turbulence?  Another related question is if this will be interpreted as, among other things, an act of inter-party civil war, pitting the Trump loyalists against the Republican traditionalists? For after all, despite the serious Trumpian transgression, only a dozen representatives opted out of Trumpian ship of ‘stolen election’ and close to 140 Republicans cast their votes against the certification of Biden’s presidency, compared to a handful in the Senate.

Irrespective of how in the weeks and months to come, the growing split in the Republican Party will impact the fate of Trump loyalists, who are increasingly behaving like a de facto third party, there is no doubt that the Trump phenomenon, considered a curse on American politics by some, will not evaporate and, chances are, will find fertile ground in the conspiracy-minded, populist mass psychology of Trump supporters who are tuned into his cult of personality.  Already, a post-Fox News attempts at forming an alternative media empire, perhaps as a precursor to an independent Trumpist party, are taking shape, and, with another round of national elections only two years away, Trumpian ‘revenge politics’ agains the ‘traitors’ who turned their backs on Trump and abandoned the ship, such as several Senate Republicans, is in the offing.  The coming internecine warfare is to some extent a generational as well as class warfare, given the relative autonomy of Republican senators backed by corporate America. 

Meanwhile, the extent of political, symbolic, and both short and long-term significance of Congress’s breach by the unruly pro-Trump mob deserves further reflections.  A useful reference is the writings of Russian Mikhail Bakhtin, who used the word carnivalesque to signify a subversive literally mode that operates through humor and chaos to undermine the prevailing assumptions of the dominant style.  For Bakhtin, the carnivalization of literature is symbolically-mediated and often involves acts of ‘profonation’ whereby the official notions of the ‘sacred’ are stripped of their power. 

Following Bakhtin, the Trumpian theatrical rallies and the seducement of his incessant combative style interlaced with humor (and banality) recalls what Bakhtin wrote about the carnival as it “travesties, it crowns and uncrowns, inverts rank, exchanges roles, makes sense from nonsense and nonsense of sense.”  Once transposed on the political level, it signifies a carnivalesque perception and even identity that operates beyond the pale of mere reason and rationality and trades with facility perceptions and misperceptions unencumbered by reality. 

In terms of Trumpian carnivalesque, this means that the mob attack on Congress is understood differently, and certainly not congruent with the official denunciations in the mainstream media.  A symbolic act of defiance for sure, but at the same time a reservoir of meaning and signification for a Gramscian ‘mass of maneuver’ glued tribal-like to the chief gambler under siege in the White House. 

Trump’s and his followers’ transgression will undoubtedly deepen the rift in the Republican Party and prove costly to him, in light of the defection of some White House employees and Congressional members, yet it is far from certain that the short and long-term implications coincide. As the dust of the ‘mega-event’ on January 6 begins to settle, what is certain however is that the eccentric provocations of Trump have now reached a new turning point that simultaneously reinforce and undermine this highly unorthodox political phenomenon. 

From the point of view of Trump’s many supporters, this event does not correspond with its negative impression in the mainstream media, but rather is widely interpreted as an act of “patriotism,” although without doubt some also view it as extreme, unwarranted as well as “unAmerican.”  The varying, and contradictory, interpretations “combine but are not merged in the unity of the event,” to paraphrase Bakhtin. 

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D. is an Iranian-American political scientist and author specializing in Iran’s foreign and nuclear affairs, and author of several books.

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