Trump as Ubu Roi
On the charismatic appeal of vulgarity
Many are the analogies for the current President of the United States. Such analogies always contain within them theoretical debates about the nature of Trump’s appeal, the prospects for his rule, and how the coterie around him will conduct themselves in relation to Trump, in relation to each other, and in relationship to the state apparatus they now helm (or wish to deconstruct). Certainly, there is much to be gained via these considerations. However, one note often sounded in the discussions of whether and how Trump is a fascist, authoritarian, demagogue, etc. strikes me as, usually, rather soft in its reasoning: The warning from history that the leaders of these anti-democratic movements often have a “buffoonish” or “seemingly humorous” character, and the requisite citations of persons, famous and intelligent, who did not take the rise of Adolf Hitler seriously. Given that the analogy to the rise of Hitler is an analogy, and thus features at least an implicit recognition of the radical differences in historical circumstances and political norms then and now, what are we really talking about when we talk about buffoonery, if we are not just crediting ourselves with historical consciousness? I’d like to take this analogic intellectual strategy in a different direction.The best analogy for Trump is the fictional character “Père Ubu” at the center of Alfred Jarry’s famous play Ubu Roi, as a was adumbrated in a 2013 rendering of the play, later picked up by the former mayor of Sonoma.
Ubu Roi opened (and closed) in Paris on December 10, 1896. Pandemonium ensued, and no less than William Butler Yeats, in attendance, had insults to hurl at the author. After the riotous fist-shaking of the shocked audience caused the play to be shut down, the theater critics threw shade as well. After a hiatus of two years, Jarry was able to have it performed again — but only via marionettes. Why the fuss?
As a play, Ubu Roi involved copious and highly creative swearing (think of the first Bad Santa movie, if the writers of that flick had a taste for the absurd and for politics), scatological humor, ribald references to sex between the main character and his “exceptionally ugly” wife, and repeated, casual references to disturbing violence. The plot, which is at times obscure (there are 19 different locations in a play that is quite short), is a patched together parody of the plots of Hamlet and Macbeth as they might be recounted by a 9th grader who was only interested in the parts about murder and ghosts, and liked disgusting humor more than humanist meditation on the meaning of existence. (And indeed, the play had started in Jarry’s schoolboy years as a parody of his hated physics teacher).
At the center of the plot was the main character, Père Ubu, an inveterate coward who stages a putsch to become King of Poland. In his new position he enriches himself by getting rid of all the nobles, marches on and (almost by accident) defeats Russian troops, is almost killed by a bear but saved by underlings who fight in his place, and eventually escapes with his wife to Paris upon being deposed.
Père Ubu is, indeed, like Trump in his contradictory assertions, combination of supreme verbal cruelty and self-regarding cowardice, imperious manner, and vulgar meditations on women. But what is perhaps more instructive is what the play as speech act did (and still does). The first impression the main character makes is what Keith Beaumont called “Ubu’s unashamed vulgarity.” This taps into a kind of affection, developed in the audience, for Ubu’s childlike nature, which in the modern world inclines the watcher to presume his innocence. Ubu — whose very name comes across as a babbling of syllables — demands, what he demands, in the moment. This is in fact the key to Ubu’s comic appeal. The laziness in Ubu, and his impulsive responses to situations, are recognized by the audience as something to which all human beings are perhaps inclined.
Ubu Roi was massively disruptive of the naturalism and realism of the French theater of the 19th century. As such, it drew outrage from “respectable” people — what was then the French bourgeois and would be today the Clintonite, exceedingly well-educated professional. But it is also important to understand that the play was luminous in its disruption of the norms of settled middle class life in a complicated way. As Beaumont makes clear in his study, Ubu Roi is not a straight satire of bourgeois existence. Neither is Trump — if he were, he would not have found so many suburban voters on his side.
To be sure, there are moments where the grasping for money by Père Ubu would appear to target the grasping middle and upper-middle classes of fin-de-siècle Paris; and, needless to say, Trump attacks professionals relentlessly. But Ubu Roi presented an extraordinarily dim view of the “common man” as well — both as embodied in Père Ubu himself, and in the easily fooled populace that showers adoration upon Ubu as he prepares to rob Poland blind. Ubu Roi parodies “the people” as well. Indeed, that is the key to its appeal — Père Ubu is both easily recognizable (we all would eat more, and take money from the treasury, if we could), and radically foreign in his utter nihilism.
As those who study election discourse and civil society have shown, nothing is more sacred qua signifier in the media coverage of politics than “the people,” who, when they speak, are never wrong. I suspect that Trump, subtly, yet divisively and commandingly, overturned this republican conception of “the people” as the ultimate location of reason as well. And he did so by being a comic, a vulgar figure of deep appeal (for some). His message, then, was not only “Make America Great Again,” but also “Nobody’s perfect, and by the way, isn’t all this morality and reason annoying and boring, anyway?”
I suspect that we will not understand Trump’s victory until we grasp the charismatic appeal of his vulgarity. Alfred Jarry was onto something, more than a century before our recent election. Like the New York Times, the French theater critics could not abide the way Ubu Roi did not follow proper grammar. But, as the writers of the theater of the absurd came to understand, such objections simply became part of the performance.