According to Bakhtin, the power of carnival comes from the way it subverts the rules of everyday life, reverses power dynamics and sweeps people up in its transgressive fervour. Certainly the Trump movement ticks a surprising number of Bakhtin’s boxes, including (increasingly) the tricky notion of ‘heteroglossia’, a word Bakhtin made up to describe not just the multitude of voices in carnival, by the variety among them.
By Bridget Storrie*
Donald Trump is on his throne. Will he soon be taken off?
As the dust settles on Super Tuesday, it has become clear that as a group, Donald Trump’s supporters are diverse, unexpected, and sometimes baffling. As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama (both Trump endorsers) have pointed out, this is a movement, not a campaign, and it is one that is towing a surprising constituency in its wake.
But what sort of movement is it? Now, more than ever, it seems, Trump’s topsy-turvy and grotesque campaign, with its easy lobbing of metaphorical coconuts at sacred truths, its vulgarity, its vast and noisy appropriation of public space (both real and virtual) and the bizarre and cult-ish invulnerability of Trump himself has commentators scratching their heads.
There is one way of looking at it, though, which might prove useful.
Mikhail Bakhtin was a Soviet-era philosopher and literary critic, most famous for the fact that he honed in detail a theory of carnival as an expression of social and political rebellion.
According to Bakhtin, the power of carnival comes from the way it subverts the rules of everyday life, reverses power dynamics and sweeps people up in its transgressive fervour. It mocks authority, pokes fun at church leaders, and rejoices in all the things we would rather keep private; notably our orifices and everything that comes out of them. It is an irreverent, bawdy, offensive, highly public, grotesque yet funny challenge to the status quo. Sound familiar?
Certainly the Trump movement ticks a surprising number of Bakhtin’s boxes, including (increasingly) the tricky notion of ‘heteroglossia’, a word Bakhtin made up to describe not just the multitude of voices in carnival, by the variety among them.
This is important, because Bakhtin thought the real power of carnival comes not from the carnival itself, but from the freedom it gives to put all these different voices together in dialogue. The point of the irreverence, the bawdiness, the offensiveness and the humour is to break down barriers and get people talking on a profound level; about who they are, where they’ve come from, and where they want to go. For Bakhtin, carnival opened the door onto a future that was full of possibility.
While Trump’s movement has all the energy and trappings of carnival, this door, it seems, is shut. But as Frank Bruni points out in The New York Times, Trump is the people’s protest vote. ‘They’re protesting foreign wars, free trade and the coddling of corporations, and some of Trump’s apostasies are precisely what draw them to him.’ At what point then, will the disparate people following Trump realize they are back where many of them started; unheard, unrepresented, misunderstood and powerless? And what will they do?
For one answer we can go a little further down the trajectory of Bakhtin’s thinking.
Among the many upside-down, transgressive rituals of carnival, the most important by far – the core of carnival – is the public, symbolic crowning and subsequent (and absolutely inevitable) decrowning of the carnival king. It’s the ultimate expression of the people’s power.
The first has happened. For many in the Republican party, the second can’t come quickly enough.
*Bridget Storrie is a conflict specialist, based in Belgrade, Serbia. She trained as a mediator with the Justice Institute of British Columbia, is completing a Masters degree in peace-building and reconciliation and has worked as a broadcast journalist in Russia, Bosnia and the UK.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.