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'For Trump's supporters, his appeal lies in transgressing norms.’ | Interview met dr. Lisa Gaufman en dr. Bharath Ganesh

Dr. Lisa Gaufman and dr. Bharath Ganesh present their new book 'The Trump Carnival'
26 February 2024
Interview: Jelle Posthuma
Dr. Lisa Gaufman in academic lead of research group Populism & Extremism of the Rudolf Agricola School for Sustainable Development

In ' The Trump Carnival ', which will be officially presented at the University of Groningen's Academy Building on 29 February, researchers Lisa Gaufman and Bharath Ganesh draw a comparison between Trump and the medieval carnival. During carnival, 'the people' seized power, but for many minorities it was a cruel celebration, the scholars argue in their book.

Recently, Trump suggested at a campaign rally that he would encourage Russia to ‘do whatever the hell they want’ to any NATO country that doesn’t pay enough. According to a correspondent of a Dutch newspaper, US citizens reacted resignedly. 'Americans who do not like Trump are numb to his statements. As a result, they take him less seriously and extreme statements like this become normal. That is very worrying.’

The Trump Carnaval

The Trump Carnival - Populism, Transgression and the Far Right calls attention to this normalisation. In their book, researchers dr. Lisa Gaufman (RUG) en dr. Bharath Ganesh (UvA) take stock: what has Trump said and done in recent years, and how have Trump's statements become normalised in US political discourse? ''

For Trump's supporters, his appeal lies in transgressing norms that have held liberal democracies together since World War II,' Ganesh explains. 'The comment about NATO countries was yet another example of this transgression.'

dr. Bharath Ganesh (UvA) en dr. Lisa Gaufman (RUG)
dr. Bharath Ganesh (UvA) and dr. Lisa Gaufman (RUG)
dr. Lisa Gaufman is an Assistant Professor of Russian Discourse and Politics at the University of Groningen (UG). Her research is situated on the intersection of political theory, international relations, media and cultural studies.

dr. Bharath Ganesh is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). His research focusses on disinformation, extremism, and technology.

Gaufman and Ganesh describe Trump's statements as "carnivalesque". 'He uses very informal and aggressive language, and passes off his statements as a joke,' Ganesh says. 'His inconsistency is also carnivalesque. Trump says: NATO countries should pay, while he himself is infamous for trying to get out of paying invoices.'

Medieval carnival

The theoretical framework of The Trump Carnival originates from Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian literary critic. In his dissertation, Bakhtin looks at texts by the French humanist Rabelais, which focus on medieval carnival. During carnival, the population temporarily seized power and the rules of the church no longer applied, says Gaufman. 'In his work, Bakhtin looks in particular at the people's 'culture of laughter': how ordinary people make jokes during carnival, reverse roles and temporarily ridicule the ruling power.'

Bakhtin is very much inspired by the way 'common people' managed to seize power during carnival. According to Gaufman and Ganesh, however, Bakhtin had a very idealised view of the medieval festival. 'Carnival also created space for degrading minority groups, such as the Jewish population,' Gaufman says. 'Several critics additionally point to the misogynistic manifestations during carnival. For example, women were blamed for spreading venereal diseases. For many minorities, carnival was above all a cruel occasion.'

In their book, the two researchers draw a comparison between the medieval carnival and the Trump movement. 'With Trump, too, a dominant culture makes jokes at the expense of minorities,' Gaufman knows. 'That's what makes it so dangerous. If a politician makes a joke about Mexicans, it is not harmless. It contributes to the normalisation of far-right political discourse.'

'Fascist transgression’

Transgression is at the heart of the book. 'During carnival, breaking norms is temporarily accepted,' Ganesh explains. ‘It offers a space where all normal rules no longer apply. In recent history, transgression led to positive developments, like the civil rights movement in the 1960s. We certainly are not against transgressing norms; what matters is which norms are being transgressed. With Trump, transgression is not about equality, it is about cruelty, superiority and power.'

The rise of Trump and similar politicians worldwide is often described by political scientists as populism. 'The term populism suggests that a majority of the population is behind such populists,' says Ganesh. 'This is not the case. A majority of Americans are against Trump. In our view, populism is more about creating an image of a 'down-to-earth' outsider who transgresses the norms of the establishment. Trump has successfully created that image for himself.'

During Trump's carnival, Gaufman and Ganesh argue that it is about 'fascist transgression'. 'Trump recently said that immigrants are 'poisoning the blood of our country'. These inhumane statements were completely unacceptable in liberal democracies, but Trump has normalised this form of transgression.' Gaufman stresses that the 'carnival mob' can just as easily turn against supporters. 'Look at ex-vice president Mike Pence, a Trump supporter, during the storming of the Capitol. They wanted to hang him.'

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Digital carnival square

The use of social media was a substantial factor in Trump's rise to power and the transgression that followed, the two researchers know. Trump was an active tweeter, putting him in direct contact with his audience. Again, Ganesh and Gaufman draw a comparison with the carnival. 'The medieval carnival took place in a square, where people interacted with each other. The interactions in this square were much more informal, because fixed norms no longer applied during carnival.'

The same thing happens on social media, Gaufman continues. 'It's a digital carnival square, where people can meet and pretend to be someone else.' Companies behind the social media platforms hardly intervene in the digital square, making the threshold for transgressing norms very low, the two researchers argue. Moreover, digital media ended the temporality of carnival. 'A carnivalesque tweet lasts forever,' says Ganesh.

In the Netherlands, Gaufman sees carnivalesque politics particularly in the Forum voor Democratie party. 'Thierry Baudet's rhetoric was also normalised by the Dutch media. The news focused on his fashion choice and piano,' the researcher sighs. According to Ganesh, Trump's carnivalesque is unique. However, the transgression of democratic norms is not, he knows. 'In coalition negotiations, it is about whether Geert Wilders wants to guarantee the constitution and fundamental human rights; I think that says enough.'

Defending democratic values calls for a backbone, Ganesh continues. The researcher argues that the media has done a poor job in recent years. 'Journalists are so focused on objectivity and balance that they give voice to people who don't care about these things at all.' Gaufman joins him: 'Newspapers describe the possible new coalition with the PVV as centre-right, but that is not correct. Name it as it is: it's far-right.'

Book Launch

The book launch of The Trump Carnival, hosted by the Rudolf Agricola School for Sustainable Development, will take place on 29 February at 4pm in the Academy Building. Registration is open via this form .

Download The Trump Carnival

The book is fully open access .

Last modified:26 March 2024 2.22 p.m.
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