If the US presidential candidate is just playing a part, then here’s how to understand his brand of theatre, writes Mark Chou.
In April, one of Donald Trump’s top aides made news with revelations that his candidate had been “projecting an image” during the early phases of the election campaign. The “part that he’s been playing” wasn’t real, said Paul Manafort, named Trump’s campaign chairman in May.
The person that Americans have gotten to know so far is just “an act.” Come the general election, the country should expect to see a more “presidential” figure.
It is tempting to dismiss as superficial the many ways in which candidates engage in stage-managed performances. But in our research, we argue that performance plays a crucial role in elections.
Trump’s presidential persona is that of an anti-politician and Washington outsider who swears and hurls insults. But this may be less an accurate depiction of who Trump really is than what his supporters want to see in him.
So how should we understand Trump’s “act”? Two theatrical concepts may offer some helpful hints.
The first comes from the work of the sociologist Erving Goffman. According to Goffman, we must be able to distinguish what he calls a “primary” frame from a “keyed” frame. A primary frame denotes what is actually real, but a keyed frame denotes what only appears to be real.
The difference may be subtle, but competent social observers must be able to recognise a keyed frame for what it is—a game of deception, mimicry and manipulation. And when actors endeavor to deceive, distract, or manipulate, they tend to employ theatrical skills like playfulness, irony and exaggeration.
No other candidate in this year’s election has been more playful and hyperbolic than the Republican nominee. In any number of rallies or victory speeches, Trump has been seen mocking opponents, exaggerating threats and mimicking politicians. His “Miller” and “Baron” ruses and “performance art” has left many asking “Is this Trump, or Trump’s TV character?”
The second idea from theatre that might help us better understand Trump is melodrama—a theatrical genre known for its overly dramatic portrayals of good and evil as well as its appeals made to our emotions through stirring images, music, and gestures. According to the political theorist Elisabeth Anker, “Trump’s melodramatic promise is this: you may feel weak and injured now, but my state policies will soon overcome terrifying villains and allow you to experience your rightful, and unbound, power.”
But Trump’s use of melodrama only complements his message. Melodrama offers a black-and-white universe, where moral and political discrepancies are often hyperbolised for dramatic effect. This is what his “Make America Great Again” campaign has been all about. Building the wall, keeping Muslims out, demonising China, championing the rights of everyday Americans—all these are policies which would fit perfectly within a melodramatic paradigm.
These are the theatrical techniques that Trump has used as he attempts to win the votes of people that he actually couldn’t be any more different from. Should Trump begin acting more presidential now, he’d of course out himself as a pretender. But he’ll already have secured the Republican nomination and the support of millions of Americans.
Mark Chou is an associate professor in politics in the Faculty of Education and Arts at ACU.