Alberto Nanni | 20 February 2017
Politics have always been full of buffoons and this is no news. In America currently, being allegedly rich and charismatically outrageous seem more important than intelligence and integrity for political success. But is this something new? The newly elected president of the United States is not an isolated case. As an Italian expat, I can’t help but think that Trump has at least one renowned precursor: Silvio Berlusconi. And I don’t just limit their similarities to their orange complexion.
Sadly, the pair have both allowed the rhetoric of xenophobia and sexism into their politics and, therefore, have furthered the existence of such rhetoric in the media. These men embody a set of values with roots in the notion of the Carnivalesque, which I see as newly permeating a large portion of the population. Bakhtin defines the Carnivalesque as the “spectacular feast of inversion and parody of high culture” traditionally associated with the Feast of Fools (275). While Bakhtin emphasizes the ways in which the Carnivalesque upends hierarchies and breaks down ideologies, it is important to recognize that, even according to Bakhtin, any social practice previously considered as the norm is turned upside down during Carnival: the fool crowned wise king, and the evidently wrong may be upheld as right. Although a more skeptical take on the Carnivalesque, it is possible to use this theory to explain the modern normalisation of openly offensive behaviours seen in the politics of people like Trump and Berlusconi. What problematic and fundamentally elitist version of Carnival are we seeing in such politics, where the working classes see Trump as one of their own? Since when did we stop laughing at these two clowns and start considering them trustworthy enough to be presidents?
In this regard, it is absolutely unsurprising that a number of people committed to this version of a Carnivalesque politics, like Michael Gove, are decrying experts and their expert opinions. The value of expertise is turned into a demerit in the face of the new Carnivalesque hierarchy of values. Likewise, if we are witnessing the rise of a Carnival, we must ask: is building the wall between Mexico and the US a sign of leadership and the way to “make America great again,” or is it the materialisation of a “spectacular feast” upon which the fearful have been encouraged to gorge?
In the same fashion, under this problematic manifestation of a Carnival logic, it cannot be surprising if Trump as a pussy-grabber publicly declares to be a “gentleman” during the second presidential debate, especially when it is remembered that another “gentleman” named Berlusconi admited to organising erotic gatherings with members of his political party, which included the exploitation of an underage girl. These seemingly irreconcilable traits of a gentleman and a sexist abuser of women are allowed to coexist in the Carnival of Trump and Berlusconi. After all, a great feast is taking place! And the grotesque sexualisation of political spheres, rampant in our time, can resonate with the notion of Carnival. “The lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs” described by Bakhtin appear indeed to play a fundamental role in a society such as ours, so evidently obsessed with any “act of . . . copulation” (21). If we are living in an upended Carnivalesque time, politicians are bound to reflect this tendency and to be the embodiments of their voters’ unleashed perversions.
Carnival fever has generated behaviours that were previously caged within the realm of absurdity. But what can we do? First, remember that Carnivals are not everlasting. On the contrary, they are bound to end, as the very essence of the Carnival is located in its finite duration. Whether it is a matter of a few days or a few years, any Carnival, even the most disturbing, must conclude. Our duty is thus to bring it to a close sooner rather than later. And a reconsideration of our own beliefs might constitute the right step towards a future free of Carnivals such as these.
Alberto Nanni is currently studying for his MSc in Comparative Literature at the University of Edinburgh, via Bologna, Tours and Cork. He’s into monsters, Joyce and other scary Italian stuff.
Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World. Trans. by Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press (1984).