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. Thinking about elections as theater helps make us better observers – not just of elections, but of human beings. By watching actors on stage, we become better at analyzing actors offstage, argues the theater scholar Paul Woodruff. We become better at seeing when and how something is framed, staged, and obscured for dramatic effect.
Trump’s presidential persona is that of an anti-politician and Washington outsider who swears and hurls insults. He entertains even as he seeks to reassure his supporters — especially white working-class men, a demographic which, having lost out to “globalization, low-wage immigrant labor, and free trade,” is fearful and angry at what the future holds. David Brooks has described Trump’s style is all “bashing and pummeling.”
But all this may be less an accurate depiction of who Trump really is than what his supporters want to see in him. At least some Trump supporters see in “the say-anything billionaire an image of their aspirations,” as George Packer put it in the New Yorker. Trump has obliged, and this appears to be the “part” that Manafort was referring to.
How should we understand Trump’s “act”? People have attempted to explain Trump using no end of tools — social psychology, behavioral economics, and so on. But to study a performance, we can draw on something different: theater. In particular, we can make more sense of Trump using two theatrical concepts.
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 — as when we are trying to distinguish two people who are fighting from two people who are merely “play” fighting. But competent social observers must be able to recognize 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, such as playfulness, irony and exaggeration.
Keyed frames have long been part of politics. Consider George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech, which he delivered on the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003. Or John Kerry “reporting for duty” at the 2004 Democratic convention.
But Trump’s campaign has taken this to another level. 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?” Even his response to claims by his own aide that he had been putting on an act was characteristically comedic. Ever the performer, his message to a rally in Waterbury, Conn., was clear: “If I acted presidential, I can guarantee you this morning, I wouldn’t be here.”
The second idea from theater 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 directed 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.”
Trump’s melodrama includes flamboyant facial expressions and striking body movements set to musical accompaniment. Some observers have also noted Trump’s “splenetic” gestures and his “battery of shrugs, hand jive, and staccato phrase blurts.”
But Trump’s use of melodrama only complements his message. Melodrama offers a black-and-white universe, where moral and political discrepancies are often hyperbolized for dramatic effect. This is what his “Make America Great Again” campaign has been all about. Building the wall, keeping Muslims out, demonizing 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 — deliberately or not — as he attempts to win the votes of people who 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, an associate professor of politics at the Australian Catholic University, most recently published Democracy Against Itself (Edinburgh University Press). Roland Bleiker is a professor of international relations at the University of Queensland, whose most recent book is Aesthetics and World Politics (Palgrave). Nilanjana Premaratna recently completed her PhD, Theatre for Peacebuilding, at the University of Queensland.