The Politics of Grotesquery

According to Alexis de Tocqueville, “when inequality is the common law of a society, the strongest inequalities do not strike the eye; when everything is nearly on a level, the least of them wound it. That is why the desire for equality always becomes more insatiable as equality is greater.”

A subtle moral psychologist, de Tocqueville knew there is much more to equality than equality under law and equal opportunity. People want to matter in the eyes of others, and since it is inevitably a comparative process, the desire for recognition produces a lot of resentment and envy. Hence the tireless bean counters who, whether it’s the Harvard Philosophy Department, the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Academy Awards, or whatever, are forever complaining about the number of “underrepresented” minorities, women, gays, and so forth. Such phenomena may seem strange, but if de Tocqueville is right, they follow from the “insatiable” perspective that characterizes the democratic age, in contrast to the aristocratic one.

Given people’s unequal abilities, freedom not only produces inequality; it depends on inequality: You cannot have a free people if the government won’t let them be the unequal creatures they are, but rather intervenes in their affairs in order to “correct” these for equality’s sake. Still, in the democratic age, the desire for equality trumps all other values, including freedom. So it happens that people come, in de Tocqueville’s arresting phrase, to prefer “equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.” Neither of you is free, but at least your neighbor doesn’t seem superior to you!

It is the goal of the Democratic Party to bring about this wretched condition. But of course, like virtually everyone else in our marketing culture, the Democrats have to sell themselves. This, then, leads to the politics of grotesquery—the myriad absurd, ridiculous, vulgar, and shameless efforts of politicians to win over voters.

Consider some examples.

“Do they think most people actually buy their BS?”

Having recently learned that she has alopecia—a condition in which hair is lost from some or all areas of the body—Rep. Ayanna Pressley decided to shave her head bald. Then, with characteristic narcissism and opportunism, she took to Twitter:

As a Black woman, the personal is political. My hair story is no exception. Sharing a very personal story today to create space for others…. Black girls are pushed out of the classroom for how they wear their hair. I have colleagues who have been pressured…not to allow their hair to go gray, colleagues who have been told that they should straighten their hair…Hair is political. My twists have become such a synonymous & a conflated part of not only my personal identity & how I show up in the world, but my political brand. And that’s why I think it’s important that I’m transparent about this new normal & living with alopecia.

Her hair, her morning breath, her acne, her backaches—for the unimaginative Pressley, anything will do when it comes to advancing her victimist agenda. And this task is easy since it can be accomplished by means of what is most important to her and what she knows best—herself. After all, one has only to look at this miserable figure, with her constant sneer and resting bitter face, to divine that complaint is the very mode of her existence, so that talk about her “oppression” is for her a most familiar and effortless endeavor.

Pressley speaks of “her political brand,” a phrase which betrays that she is very much for sale. Pressley apparently didn’t realize, however, that the grammatical subject of the first sentence quoted above is “the personal,” not “as a black woman.” She thus implied that “the personal” is a “black woman.” Yet surely not even Pressley’s formidable narcissism is that powerful.

Tom Steyer has dropped out of the 2020 presidential race after a third-place finish in the South Carolina primary. But the man still managed to make a fool of himself on March 28 at a rally at historically black Allen University in Columbia. Steyer appeared on stage with the rapper Juvenile and, while the latter’s classy song “Back That Azz Up” played, Steyer danced and gestured toward the crowd in a manner that recalled one of Eddie Murphy’s old imitations of white people dancing badly. Later Steyer went on CNN and, after offering the obligatory cant about income inequality and some vague remarks about discrimination, told America what a fun time he’d had.

The day before Steyer’s performance, President Trump held a White House roundtable celebrating Black History Month. Present were grifters Diamond and Silk, Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece Alveda King, and other “black leaders.” Said former NFL safety Jack Brewer (now an ordained minister), “Mr. President, I don’t mean to interrupt, but I’ve got to say this because it’s Black History Month: Man, you the first black president.”

Comedian Terrence K. Williams, who sat next to Trump during the roundtable, called him “the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln.”

The president’s “spiritual adviser,” a woman named Paula White, agreed. “[Y]ou are the greatest president and you will go down in history as you create history for all Americans,” she declared.

“You’ve been seeing the polls, the polls have been incredible…. I won’t be satisfied until I get 100% [of black voters] because nobody is doing more for black people. Nobody has done more,” said the president, pleased with himself as ever.

At the end, everybody laid their hands on the Donald and prayed. Watching video of the spectacle, I thought that somebody might start up speaking in tongues.

Despite his pandering to them, Trump’s approval among blacks has been consistent at about 1 in 10 over the course of his presidency. A Pew Research Center analysis has found that Trump won just 6 percent of black voters in 2016. It is unlikely that Trump will fare much better among blacks in 2020.

Indeed, Trump’s voting base remains the white working class. To it Trump can boast of an improved economy. As for foreign policy, well, only a fool or ideologue could believe that Trump, the most Zionist of American presidents by far, wants to disentangle the U.S. from its conflicts in and commitments to the Middle East. Moreover, Trump’s policies and repeated calls for record levels of legal immigration reveal that he is not really for the white working class, whose interests are not served by flooding the workforce with more foreign labor, even if that labor does not get here illegally.

In short, for those who didn’t want a more or less typical Republican president, Trump has been a disappointment. Nevertheless, the Democrats are now so loony that Trump inevitably seems preferable by comparison. And certainly, the same bores who rant on social media day after day about “socialism” can be relied on to vote for Trump in droves. All Trump has to do is to ape the blowhard Sebastian Gorka—“they want your hamburgers!”—and his many idolaters will cheer themselves happy.

Trump will of course continue lying to the white working class, and it is a testament to the politics of grotesquery that, at present, Trump is about as good as it gets for a politician in America.

For me, the main interest of figures like Trump, Pressley, and Steyer is psychological. So obviously fake are they, one has to wonder about what they think of how others perceive them. Do they think most people actually buy their BS? Are they so accustomed to being fake that, losing sight of reality itself, they become oblivious to their own transparency? Or do they just see themselves as being in on a game that, since everybody knows it’s a game, need not seem plausible or genuine?

This week, as I followed the news about the coronavirus, in my cynicism, I imagined a politician who, in order to demonstrate his bona fides, contracts the virus from a minority. There is an outbreak of coronavirus in a housing project, but the great leader, who loves nothing so much as equality, goes there anyway in order to give a speech to those who have been “left behind.” That this scenario is not altogether unbelievable does not bode well for the future of what Thomas Jefferson called “the Democratic experiment.”



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