Some years ago I listened to a radio documentary presented by the stand-up comedian Stewart Lee, which informed me that once a year in Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, there is a day when the clowns come to town. Half-naked, covered in black-and-white striped makeup so that they look like cartoon burglars, the clowns emerge from the landscape whooping hellishly, ready to violate every ostensibly stable social norm. In a performance as threatening as it is ridiculous, the clowns drink urine, eat mud, attempt to copulate with the elderly, and throw small children in the river. Everything is turned into its opposite: every safe certainty is transgressed, and everything holy is profaned. And then, at sunset, the clowns leave, and the small, adobe town is returned to normal again.
What most struck me in this documentary, the findings of which I lack either the experience or the expertise to really confirm, were the anthropological accounts claiming that the Pueblo clowns’ unsettling performance has an essentially sacred function. According to these academics, the clowns preserve social order by giving people an image of how cruel and offensive society would be if all the unspoken norms holding it together were overturned. A child thrown into the river by a Pueblo clown receives a very direct lesson in how not to behave: you have to respect all these rules, or society will collapse. The clown becomes a cop.
Clowns are not only fundamental to our social institutions, as critics and cops are; they’re literally in charge of them.
But it also struck me that the clowns are doing something deeper than just setting an example via negativa. By giving people an image of what society would look like if every norm were transgressed, the clowns act, as it were, to delineate the scope of critical inquiry. Laughter happens at the bounds of sense, beyond there yawns an abyss. Perhaps this is why babies are always laughing: lacking object-permanence, the abyss, for them, lies everywhere. The clowns give people a complete image of a world at its extremes. By doing what we would never dream of doing, the clown gives us a map of what we might do. The Pueblo clown is thus a kind of social commentator.
The idea that clowning can be a sort of social commentary is one that clown theorists are, unsurprisingly, very keen on. The joke shows us something: an impossible possibility, perhaps, or a possible impossibility. The “bouffon” genre of clowning, pioneered by Jacques Lecoq and Philippe Gaulier, considers the purpose of the clown to be to mock society by representing the powerful in an exaggerated, distorted way—provoking both laughter and outrage toward the fundamental institutions that structure our world. Indeed, just as with the Pueblo clowns, for the bouffon the audience is also fair game: the bouffon aspires to make the audience members aware of their own complicity in the power structures being parodied. Some practitioners, I am told, even aim to push this to the point that their audience will leave the show contemplating suicide.
Even so, it seems hard to sustain the idea that clowns play anything like the sort of fundamental role in most of Western society that they do in Taos Pueblo. While in media the clown is still typically painted as threatening, even evil—Pennywise from It; the Joker; the clown dentists from BoJack Horseman; last year’s widely reported “killer clown” craze—in truth, encountered in real life, most clowns would, I think, strike us as rather pathetic. “Who’s this clown?” as the saying goes. Answer: probably just some guy who gets infrequent gigs performing at children’s birthday parties, where all the little brats despise him and push him around.
But with just a slight shift of perspective, it becomes easy to see that the clowns are not only fundamental to our social institutions, as critics and cops are; they’re literally in charge of them. It takes no great insight to note that today’s right-wing politicians happen to present with clownish exteriors. Understood on this level, President Trump is a ridiculous, raucous parody of American success, his 24/7 performance every bit as exaggerated as that of the urine-drinking Pueblo clowns.
The Trump-clown loses huge amounts of money on all of his many business ventures, even on a casino.
An anthropologist would no doubt describe the Trump-clown as a performer clad in a hideously ugly costume designed to resemble a businessman’s “suit” and oversized “tie,” which serves to distort his face and body into what is intended to stand as a grave insult to human form. Wearing a crown sculpted from thin stands of straw made to look like an aging businessman’s thinning hair, the Trump-clown begins his performance—which has a deep ceremonial significance for the onlookers—swaggering around the American community braying hateful, ignorant nonsense, and losing huge amounts of money on all of his many business ventures, even on a casino. Despite this, the Trump-clown acts as if he is not only an incredibly able businessman, but also the wisest man in the world—if any member of the community fails to receive the Trump-clown in this way, the performer will put on a show of being induced into an almighty rage. Toward the end of the ceremony, the Trump-clown’s belligerence results in his being inaugurated as “President,” in which role he is given complete control over the community. His performance often ends with the Trump-clown starting a “nuclear war.”
In the U.K., Tory leadership contenders (and potential next-Prime Ministers) Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are analogous to Trump: they embody a specifically British image of success, also exaggerated to comic proportions—both are weird pseudo-aristocrats who seem to have self-consciously molded their personalities to appear as if they’ve just stepped out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Rees-Mogg—a man whose entire shtick can be summed up by the phrase “once took his nanny with him on the campaign trail”—is also like Trump for being a political outsider who’s never held a cabinet position, and having views well to the right of even the right-wing party he represents.
I remember how in Britain, the idea that Boris Johnson could become Prime Minister first started out precisely as a joke. When he first came to public prominence in the early 2000s with his performances as a guest on the popular current affairs panel show Have I Got News for You, viewers could scarcely believe that this doddering posho was an MP. But over time, the joke somehow got more and more serious, and for years he was perceived as David Cameron’s most likely successor. Likewise after the Tories lost their majority at the recent general election people started joking that Rees-Mogg—notorious for having supplanted Johnson as the most ridiculous toff on Have I Got News for You and in parliament—might make a good successor to Theresa May. But over time, the semi-ironic “Ready for Rees-Mogg” memes started to seem like sincere endorsements, and he is now easily the candidate-of-choice of the grass-roots, culturally conservative Tory right. The idea that Trump could even win the Republican nomination used to reduce whole television newsrooms to hysterics. Until, of course, it didn’t.
For one thing, the clownishness of these politicians has clearly helped them rise to prominence: just as bad currency will always displace good, the media will always prefer to give airtime to a colorful buffoon, no matter how reckless and dumb their ideas are. (This needn’t be taken to imply that most or even any mainstream grey political suits are saying things that are, in the proper sense of the word, “sensible”—but you know.)
If you give the voters a joke option, it will always win.
But on top of that, cultivating an air of clownishness seems to offer these politicians a sort of protection. Trump and Rees-Mogg have been able to hide their hard-right views in plain sight: people know that they hold them, but the media doesn’t respond as though they’ll ever be given the power to implement them. Rees-Mogg got a lot of criticism for declaring on a morning news show that he was opposed to abortion in all cases, including rape. But even this criticism was tempered with a sense that this guy will never really be in a position to remove or water-down abortion rights. Well, just you wait. Trump, Brexit and Boaty McBoatface reveal to us what anyone who has ever posted a Twitter poll knows to be true: if you give the voters a joke option, it will always win.
The example of Trump shows us how clownishness might help protect politicians once they’ve achieved office as well. Imagine if in Taos Pueblo one year, the clowns had come to town and done their usual thing, but then this time, at sunset, they just didn’t go away. That instead they remained, continuing to impose their urine-drinking, elderly-molesting, child-dunking rites on the rest of the town. How would the townsfolk respond? Well, certainly they’d likely obey the clowns, who are wilder, more dangerous, and stronger than they are. But they’d probably also do so while holding on to a sense of the unreality of the clowns, that no matter how permanent their regime in fact was, it was never really the real government, it was always just about to go away, to be replaced by the next act.
So it is with Trump. His clownishness makes it hard for people to accept that he can possibly be the president in reality—the real power, they reason, must in truth lie with Steve Bannon (RIP) or Vladimir Putin; Trump must always be just about to get impeached or resign. For every speech he gives declaring a mass immigration ban, Trump gives another in which he revels at length about how much he likes his daughter to call him “daddy.” For every tweet he fires off threatening war with North Korea, he sends another moaning about “the constant negative press covfefe.” How can a man really have the power of life and death over all human things if he’s tweeted the word “covfefe”? This is the sort of thing the human mind struggles to parse.
But today, if the abyss is not going to swallow us up, we’d better wake up to the reality of the situation we’re experiencing: that these clowns are deadly serious, that there is nothing politically “exceptional” about them, and that they’re not going to go away by themselves.