Everything is political. Everything is performance. This has not always been as obvious as it stands with today’s GOP, which operates solely as a performative political body. There is no entrenched ideology, no academic political theory, and certainly no legitimate populist policy. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s paid attention to local elections in past decades, which is one reason Democrats were so ill prepared for Trump. Today’s Democrats are stuck in a time when political symbolism was pushed aside for actual political policy measures. They’re losing a game they aren’t aware they’re even playing.
Politics has of course always required performance. From the local to federal level there has always been an understood set of visual qualifications to hold office. For most of our history, white and male were the clear top qualifiers. Tough guys were the sheriffs and businessmen were the mayors. The federal level has plenty of obvious examples, most notably when FDR refused to be photographed with a wheelchair to project an image of strength.
To his credit, Ronald Reagan was the best performative politician in recent memory. He was the first TV president. An actor by trade that deftly used the tricks of the trade to ensure he was in control of the populace’s perception. His most famous move was a meeting with Soviet leader Gorbachev, in which Reagan met Gorbachev in freezing temperatures wearing just a suit while the Soviet Premiere was bundled up. Subtle by today’s standards, but at the time an obvious and successful power move.
It is Reagan’s performance politics that Democrats continue to mire through hoping to unlock the secrets that made him the glowing symbol of a party. Joe Biden is certainly doing his best to show strength through confidence, kindness through humility, and openness through his cabinet appointments. Biden unfortunately, is trying to play Scrabble against a group that struggles with Go-Fish. Trump has helped strip political symbolism down to its most shallow and obvious form. If you can’t put it on a flag, bumper sticker, or meme then you’ve already lost.
President Barack Obama, particularly his blackness, served as the anti-symbol for today’s GOP. Many of the young tea-partiers turned Q goons began their career running for local office 12 years ago with a message that they would “Fight Obama.” At the time, many sane voters laughed at the absurdity of a county commissioner fighting the President. Yet these people won elections. Then more elections. Always quick to jump on a bandwagon, it was Trump’s birtherism that catapulted him into the political world.
Further weaponizing the anti-symbol of a black president, Trump was able to bridge the gap from every defeat into a simplistic symbol of conspiracy. If the Democrats had taken the time or effort to really compete locally, perhaps they could have been better prepared. Hillary tried to stick to the old game and lost the election. It took responses from previously unknown corners of Democratic leadership, the deep south, to combat the Trumpist model. Stacy Abrams set a model in how to combine symbolism with honor, not that the Democrats have fully adopted those techniques.
Performance politics led to the Q movement taking over the Republican base. Until there is an actual policy cornerstone supporting the party, it will continue to fall into whoever can provide the most emotionally charged symbols. There’s a reason Republican’s still have no plan to replace Obamacare. Their sole purpose is to project their victimization onto brash symbols and to rally a mob behind them. There is no populism to be found here. What’s more, it is insulting to generations of populists that the media continues to refer to them as such.
There have been few symbols to come out of Biden’s first few weeks in office. Grumpy Bernie hardly commands political attention. Amanda Gorman’s red headband will be a fashion icon, as it should. A symbol of art, strength, and passion for young women of color. Gorman’s style will be far more meaningful than a flag with a blue stripe or a red hat, but will it be as powerful politically? I am not advocating for the Democrats to sink to the meme-ification of the Right, but I would like to know if they plan to address the most powerful weapon of their enemy.