Discussions about the presidential debates have been less about the content of the policies proposed by both candidates focusing on their behavior, e.g. Trump’s ‘hovering’ over Hillary Clinton was commented on frequently.
Trump’s style of politics resembles his style in television shows such as The Apprentice, screaming loudly: you’re fired! Dramatic effect is added by camera’s but originate from Trump’s demeanor. His theatrical hovering over Clinton implies: I am the dominant one here, you are not fit to rule this country. The words ‘theatre’ and ‘theatrical’ here are intended negatively: they describe behavior which is not real, overly dramatic and imbued with emotions, fear in these particular cases, as dominance is what Trump seems to be intending to convey. Hillary Clinton also is playing a role: she tries to come across as a competent leader, a woman who can face ‘a men’s world’. And at times she tries to be nice and likeable, although apparently falling head first into her car when sick was her best shot at coming across as human.
As a theatre researcher I am intrigued by the fact that terms from theatre are used widely to describe these clearly non-theatrical events. And that apparently their theatrical aspects are key in how we think about this election campaign. We know what theatre making is: people pretending to be someone (or something) they are not in front of others. It is not real, it is disconnected or distinct from our lives. In arts theory we call this distance: autonomy. Doing and seeing theatre is claiming to be different than the rest, to be a different or other person engaging in a particular activity in society. When the lights dim in the auditorium, the magic of theatre starts occurring: audience members and actors are complicit in playing ‘the game of theatre’.
Sociological theory argues that autonomy is provided by social fields, social spaces dedicated to a particular kind of activity, where particular rules apply which are not relevant in the rest of society. In this campaign Clinton and Trump are applying the rules of the theatrical while engaging in the political field. I cannot say whether this is conscious although it seems fair to say that at least their campaign managers will be very aware of both the theatrical and political implications when Trump and Clinton are portraying the ‘alpha dog’ and the ‘competent yet likable woman’. Which prompts the question whether the ‘intrusion’ of theatricals in politics should be regarded as a sign of the emptiness of the latter field.
I’m sure you have also seen Lucky TV’s take on the presidential debate, a testimony that collisions of fields – in this case the political and musical fields – can be hilarious.
Quirijn van den Hoogen
University Lecturer Arts Sociology and Arts Policy
University of Groningen
(he recently wrote a book on theatrical autonomy which will appear at Amsterdam University Press in Spring 2017)