Beware the Clowns: Fascism, Postmodernism, and Buffoonery
Updated: Feb 1
This is not an article. This is a place for me to drop some references and ideas that will one day become an article, I hope. In fact, I have only read a few of these referenced articles so far; think of them as bookmarked.
I've been thinking a lot lately about the political value of buffoonery and how that applies to the recent political climate and events in America. It seems apparent that clownishness is a sometimes deliberate and sometimes incidental strategy used by extreme-right individuals and groups. I think that the increasingly postmodern nature of our culture and public discourse makes us particularly vulnerable to this strategy. We need to on the lookout for this as we move forward into what will undoubtedly be turbulent times.
By "buffoonery" or "clownishness," I mean speech and behaviour that provokes outrage, flummox, and/or incredularity, but is framed as humour or incompetence. The audience is left angry, mystified and amazed, a condition that leads to discussions about the legitimacy or seriousness of the behaviour rather than the underlying motivations and goals.
While Trump is the very definition of this phenomenon, we see it also in groups/movements such as QAnon and the Boogaloo Boys.
Header graphic by me, of course. Based on a photograph by Gage Skidmore.
***Edit Jan 26:
I just found this article, "Strange costumes of Capitol rioters echo the early days of the Ku Klux Klan - before the white sheets" (Kenneth Ladenburg, The Conversation, January 25, 2021), which absolutely nails a lot of what I'm thinking about, although the author focuses more on costume and spectacle as a strategy.
Extreme right-wing and/or white supremacist movements/organizations in America have a tradition of using perceived buffoonery, ridiculousness, and theatricality as a political strategy. This strategy works towards two goals, The first is to gain attention and occupy media space, as Ladenburg notes in the above article. The second is to pollute the media and culture with distraction, incredulity, and discussions about whether or not to take it seriously. I'm proposing that this second goal is particularly well-served by the postmodern style of our shared cultural spaces, dominated as they are by social media and the attendant world of memes.
This approach was developed by the Ku Klux Klan's second wave, starting in the 1920s. Currently, it is embodied by the QAnon movement (unconsciously?) and the Bugaloo Boys/Bois (very consciously). This Wiki article about the movement is very good.
On the latest episode of Knowledge Fight (which I am listening to right now), Jan 28: Mike Dunn, a prominent figure in the Boogaloo Boys, was "interviewed" by Alex Jones on Infowars. Dunn said of their history, "Bugaloo started as a meme, a joke, back in like 2012. It was just an online joke. And then in 2019, several people started to make it a little more public and actually turn it into an ideology or belief that liberty is for all and we're done being tread on." This historical association with memes is well-established.
There is an article at Vice about Mike Dunn and the Boogaloo boys: The Making of a Boogaloo Boi, 6.8.20
"Postmodernism didn’t cause Trump. It explains him." Washington Post, August 31, 2018.
And don't forget "The Dead Zone," by Stephen King.
Memes and Postmodernism
Fascism and Buffoonery
The KKK and Buffoonery
"often capitalized: a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition" Merriam-Webster
- "Fascism is a movement that promotes the idea of a forcibly monolithic, regimented nation under the control of an autocratic ruler. The word fascism comes from fascio, the Italian word for bundle, which in this case represents bundles of people. Its origins go back to Ancient Rome, when the fasces was a bundle of wood with an ax head, carried by leaders." What to Know About the Origins of Fascism’s Brutal Ideology, Time
- This list is Wiki's summary of Eco's fascism checklist. At least I assume it is their summary as I haven't read the original yet):
"The Cult of Tradition", characterized by cultural syncretism, even at the risk of internal contradiction. When all truth has already been revealed by Tradition, no new learning can occur, only further interpretation and refinement.
"The Rejection of modernism", which views the rationalistic development of Western culture since the Enlightenment as a descent into depravity. Eco distinguishes this from a rejection of superficial technological advancement, as many fascist regimes cite their industrial potency as proof of the vitality of their system.
"The Cult of Action for Action's Sake", which dictates that action is of value in itself, and should be taken without intellectual reflection. This, says Eco, is connected with anti-intellectualism and irrationalism, and often manifests in attacks on modern culture and science.
"Disagreement Is Treason" – Fascism devalues intellectual discourse and critical reasoning as barriers to action, as well as out of fear that such analysis will expose the contradictions embodied in a syncretistic faith.
"Fear of Difference", which fascism seeks to exploit and exacerbate, often in the form of racism or an appeal against foreigners and immigrants.
"Appeal to a Frustrated Middle Class", fearing economic pressure from the demands and aspirations of lower social groups.
"Obsession with a Plot" and the hyping-up of an enemy threat. This often combines an appeal to xenophobia with a fear of disloyalty and sabotage from marginalized groups living within the society (such as the German elite's 'fear' of the 1930s Jewish populace's businesses and well-doings; see also anti-Semitism). Eco also cites Pat Robertson's book The New World Order as a prominent example of a plot obsession.
Fascist societies rhetorically cast their enemies as "at the same time too strong and too weak." On the one hand, fascists play up the power of certain disfavored elites to encourage in their followers a sense of grievance and humiliation. On the other hand, fascist leaders point to the decadence of those elites as proof of their ultimate feebleness in the face of an overwhelming popular will.
"Pacifism is Trafficking with the Enemy" because "Life is Permanent Warfare" – there must always be an enemy to fight. Both fascist Germany under Hitler and Italy under Mussolini worked first to organize and clean up their respective countries and then build the war machines that they later intended to and did use, despite Germany being under restrictions of the Versailles treaty to not build a military force. This principle leads to a fundamental contradiction within fascism: the incompatibility of ultimate triumph with perpetual war.
"Contempt for the Weak", which is uncomfortably married to a chauvinistic popular elitism, in which every member of society is superior to outsiders by virtue of belonging to the in-group. Eco sees in these attitudes the root of a deep tension in the fundamentally hierarchical structure of fascist polities, as they encourage leaders to despise their underlings, up to the ultimate Leader who holds the whole country in contempt for having allowed him to overtake it by force.
"Everybody is Educated to Become a Hero", which leads to the embrace of a cult of death. As Eco observes, "[t]he Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death."
"Machismo", which sublimates the difficult work of permanent war and heroism into the sexual sphere. Fascists thus hold "both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality."
"Selective Populism" – The People, conceived monolithically, have a Common Will, distinct from and superior to the viewpoint of any individual. As no mass of people can ever be truly unanimous, the Leader holds himself out as the interpreter of the popular will (though truly he dictates it). Fascists use this concept to delegitimize democratic institutions they accuse of "no longer represent[ing] the Voice of the People."
"Newspeak" – Fascism employs and promotes an impoverished vocabulary in order to limit critical reasoning. Definitions of fascism, Wiki
In the broadest sense, totalitarianism is characterized by strong central rule that attempts to control and direct all aspects of individual life through coercion and repression. ...
Totalitarianism is often distinguished from dictatorship, despotism, or tyranny by its supplanting of all political institutions with new ones and its sweeping away of all legal, social, and political traditions. The totalitarian state pursues some special goal, such as industrialization or conquest, to the exclusion of all others. All resources are directed toward its attainment, regardless of the cost. Whatever might further the goal is supported; whatever might foil the goal is rejected. This obsession spawns an ideology that explains everything in terms of the goal, rationalizing all obstacles that may arise and all forces that may contend with the state. The resulting popular support permits the state the widest latitude of action of any form of government. Any dissent is branded evil, and internal political differences are not permitted. Because pursuit of the goal is the only ideological foundation for the totalitarian state, achievement of the goal can never be acknowledged. ...
Under totalitarian rule, traditional social institutions and organizations are discouraged and suppressed. Thus, the social fabric is weakened and people become more amenable to absorption into a single, unified movement. Participation in approved public organizations is at first encouraged and then required. Old religious and social ties are supplanted by artificial ties to the state and its ideology. As pluralism and individualism diminish, most of the people embrace the totalitarian state’s ideology. The infinite diversity among individuals blurs, replaced by a mass conformity (or at least acquiescence) to the beliefs and behaviour sanctioned by the state ...
Large-scale organized violence becomes permissible and sometimes necessary under totalitarian rule, justified by the overriding commitment to the state ideology and pursuit of the state’s goal. ...
Police operations within a totalitarian state often appear similar to those within a police state, but one important difference distinguishes them. In a police state, the police operate according to known and consistent procedures. In a totalitarian state, the police operate outside the constraints of laws and regulations, and their actions are purposefully unpredictable." Britannica
- "...in Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power." Britannica
- "Postmodernism is generally defined by an attitude of skepticism, irony, or rejection toward what it describes as the grand narratives and ideologies associated with modernism, often criticizing Enlightenment rationality and focusing on the role of ideology in maintaining political or economic power. Postmodern thinkers frequently describe knowledge claims and value systems as contingent or socially-conditioned, framing them as products of political, historical, or cultural discourses and hierarchies. Common targets of postmodern criticism include universalist ideas of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, science, language, and social progress. Accordingly, postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to self-consciousness, self-referentiality, epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, and irreverence." Wiki
"... a buffoon is someone who provides amusement through inappropriate appearance or behavior. Originally the term was used to describe a ridiculous but amusing person. The term is now frequently used in a derogatory sense to describe someone considered foolish, or someone displaying inappropriately vulgar, bumbling or ridiculous behavior that is a source of general amusement. The term originates from the old Italian "buffare", meaning to puff out one's cheeks that also applies to bouffon. Wiki
Hmmmm. Lots to think about.