Presidentialism, or, “Who’s Your Daddy?”: Discourse! October 2020
Podcast with Hina Muneeruddin and Leslie Dorrough Smith (26 October 2020).
Interviewed by Andie Alexander
Transcribed by Andie Alexander
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/presidentialism-or-whos-your-daddy-discourse-october-2020/
Religion and Politics, 2020 Presidential Election, Nationalism, Spectacle, COVID, Masculinity, Gender, Fear, Religious Rhetoric, Lauren Berlant, Trauma, Presidentialism, Absent Authority, Craig Martin
Andie Alexander (AA) 00:00
Welcome to The Religious Studies Project 2020 October edition of Discourse!, which is our critical take on the category of religion in current events. I’m your host today—I’m Andie Alexander. I’m based in Atlanta, Georgia at Emory University, where I am currently working on my PhD. Joining me today are two wonderful guests, Hina Muneeruddin and Leslie Dorrough Smith. Hina is a newcomer to The Religious Studies Project. Welcome, Hina! Thank you for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hina Muneeruddin (HM) 00:35
Yeah. Hi. I’m so happy to be here this morning. I am Hina, and I’m in the religious studies PhD program at UNC Chapel Hill. I focus on the everyday scenes of Muslim gender becoming through spoken word and ritual performance in the US context.
Excellent. And also here with us today is a longtime friend and contributor to The Religious Studies Project, Leslie Dorrough Smith. Leslie, we’re happy to have you back here with us. Can you tell us a little bit about your work and where you are?
Leslie Dorrough Smith (LDS) 01:10
You betcha. Thanks for having me. Um, so I am a professor of religious studies and director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program and Avila University in Kansas City, Missouri. And I, you know, my research has focused on a number of different things, but generally, it’s all kind of grouped under the heading of evangelicalism in the United States and gender and rhetoric. So that’s just a wee bit of what I do.
Excellent. I think that, given your interest, both will make for a wonderful discussion today. Since we are coming up on the 2020 US presidential election very soon here in the United States, we decided to dedicate this month’s episode of Discourse! to the election coverage and conversations around the campaigns of the candidates running, of course, we have Donald Trump and Mike Pence running for the Republican Party and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, who are running for the Democratic Party. We just had the second presidential debate last night, we’ve had now had one vice presidential debate, I feel like there’s just there’s been so much in the past few weeks, let alone the sort of campaign trail leading up to this point that we can discuss. I thought that we could really bridge your interests with a lot of what’s happening in the election coverage, looking at issues of race, religion, gender shock, power, with regard to a few sort of events that we’ve seen in this, that tie together to create a certain…. what would you call it…?
Recipe for a culture.
Exactly. Perfect. To dive in and to kick us off, we’re gonna start looking at the sort of shock and affect in relation to much of what Trump has been saying recently, during this campaign and at these debates. So Hina, will you give us a little background here and, and get our conversation going?
Yeah, of course! The election… How do I get started…? Well, I guess before we get into the nitty gritty of the affect of politics of this election, I think it is just appropriate that I ask y’all, how are you feeling about this election? Did any of y’all get a chance to watch any of the two debates so far?
Yeah, um, you know, I think that one of the things that’s really fascinating, and I’ll talk about this later on, but fascinating about American culture is the degree to which that we affectively align ourselves with our politicians in certain ways.
And so, this reminds me a lot of how, basically, like toddlers behave. When—no, no, really like that, when or I don’t know, also, it reminds me sometimes of how, like, you know, my cats behave—that when there’s a certain degree of stress in the house, everyone knows it. Right?
And, and not to liken the American people, to children, toddlers, or cats, but I think I just did that. I mean, I think I think the gist is that it’s really hard not to be impacted by—by what feels like a really unstable cultural climate at the moment. And if there weren’t a pandemic going on, I’m sure that maybe we’d all feel a little bit better. But that’s not the case. And, and it’s also important to remember that that’s also the environment in which our politicians now must respond to us as a public. And if one of their professional tasks is producing rhetoric, which, you know, that’s one way to think about political life—it’s been really fascinating to watch the messages that have emerged out of both American parties regarding how we should digest the pandemic and how we should approach it and what it means to be an American or to have kind of a what’s considered to be kind of a, quote unquote, “normal life” in the midst of this environment, which is anything but normal for a very wide number of reasons. (laughs)
Yeah, yeah. And the interesting thing about the pandemic is that it’s bringing a lot of these issues to the fore, right? Not only do you see the reemergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, but you also see the reemergence of the healthcare crisis and actual white supremacy, truly—all these things are reemerging. And I guess my question to both of you—and Andie, please participate in the conversation as well. You don’t have to be the host only! But how, how does the—how did these things make you feel? And like, what, what, what does it feel like to be a part of this election cycle and this circumstance in this pandemic, and a lot of these things are going on?
I think that one of the interesting things that I see happening a lot, that I have written about quite extensively, as you know, is this thing called “chaos rhetoric,” where there’s just a general sense, and in order to motivate the public to do particular things, that there’s not only you know, like a heavy injection of fear rhetoric going on right now. (Smith 2014: 11)
But at the same time, there is the sense that each, or actually, I think, you know, the fear rhetoric is, perhaps, most prominently coming from the Republican side at the moment with the threat of election tampering. And, you know, and all of the questions that presently exist over whether, you know, mail in ballots are legitimate way to hold an election, you know, a number of different things. Also, I think that have to do if you’re an observer of the election at the moment that have to do with just the dynamic we were talking about, as we were beginning, you know, Hina, you mentioned that you had to stand in a really long line for early voting, and we’re seeing that across the country.
So, I think that that, you know, there is, there is already apprehension about the election because of the different nature of the candidates. And, you know, I saw yard sign the other day. It was a, it was a Biden yard sign, but it said, “It hasn’t been great.” It’s like the quote, right? It was, and it was kind of, it was you had mimics Donald Trump’s…
Leslie Dorrough Smith 07:36
… “It hasn’t been great.” And I think that that is a really good way to encompass the affect that I think you know, much of the country, no matter what side you’re on, if you even align with a side, let’s put it that way. I think much of the country agrees that there is at least a sense of divisiveness—now, whether that divisiveness has always been there, and we’re just, you know, kind of making light of it now more right, or it’s coming to light, I should say, that’s another matter entirely, I guess. But there’s no doubt that most Americans are in agreement that we are in a place of division and tension that we were not, you know, let’s say five or six years ago, or if those tensions were in existence then, which I think it’s very fair to say that they were, they now have a public forum that they previously did not have. So the topic of what it feels like to be in this election, and this is kind of one of those moments where I wish people could see my face because the look on my face, it’s like, “Agghhhh,” that’s what it is! (laughs) Maybe that noise did it. Did that noise do it for you?
I relate to that noise. It makes sense. In how just watching the debates, right? I have had the great “pleasure” of sitting through all of these debates. And it’s, on the one hand, I feel like I have to sort of check the assumptions I bring sometimes, specifically with the first debate, where, you know, we weren’t five minutes into it, everybody’s cutting everyone off, talking over everyone, and my first thought is, “this is so unpresidential. What? Like this is this is a presidential debate for a ‘world power,’ right?” And I see better debates, from novice, you know, debate kids in high school, who can at least like argue a point. So to go from these kids who are just learning the rules of debate, to seeing folks who are well versed and trained in this process, making the entire nation kind of look like a fool at just in it by the way of handling these conversations, and I guess what, what was so weird to me was, you know, they’re not really talking about much of anything because they’re just trying to, “well, this is what he said…” “Well, this is what he did.” “Well, this is…,” and so we never actually get to a point of conversation, any sort of real issues for the voter, because then they get undermined by the back and forth between Biden and Trump. And it just on the one hand, I want to be like, what, what is happening here? Like, what is this world where this is even acceptable? And on the other hand, I remember who it is that is engaging these debates, and I realize, well, we’ve, kind of, set it up for ourselves in this way, by nature of Trump being involved. And so, you know, at least they were managing the mics in the last debate—that did help. But it they weren’t suddenly now like getting into the nitty gritty about their own plans or ideas for tackling issues as much as just trying to throw each other under the bus. So yeah, I feel like that sound really does sum it up for me in a lot of ways.
(laughs) I’m so glad I can make it… You know, I think you’re getting at something that that we really need not to ignore. I mean, two things come to mind in regard to that. The first is that the reason why they don’t spend a ton of time I think talking um, you know, we should we should be honest about the function of debates, I think at the outset.
Debates are spectacles that are intended to serve, in my mind, at least a variety of different social functions and educating the public is not necessarily one of them.
So when we watch the spectacle of the debate, one of the things that occurs to me is that it is a type of you know—Andie, you and I have talked about this before—this idea of certain spectacles being a type of cultural theater (Smith 2019: 6). Right? And it’s intended to put people on display in certain ways. And this is why, you know, as we know, that the first debate did not probably significantly hurt Donald Trump, at the same time that it didn’t significantly help him despite the fact that as you mentioned, his behavior was, was, you know, he could be outflanked in a debate by an eighth grade, you know, novice debater any day of the week, because that eighth grader presumably could follow some rules and you know, had, you know, knew when it was time to stop talking, and when it was time to start. So that though, to me, is, kind of, beside the point, I guess. Because on the one hand, I share that frustration, thinking “What is this? This is supposed to be, you know, this is supposed to be a moment where we learn these things and where we see how people respond under pressure.” But, but the more that I think about it, I’m not sure that, that that’s what debates are, I do think that there are public spectacles that are designed to highlight a politician in a very specific sort of way, and that they are much more about the affect of how the politician carries her or himself, I guess, himself in this case. I don’t think we can forget that Donald Trump did in the 2016 election—we can’t forget the fact that he roamed over into Hillary Clinton’s personal space, right?
As that debate went on, and those are not accidents now, you know, on. Okay, sorry, another caveat. I haven’t even gotten to point B, but.. (laughs)
… um, but this is how this is how I ramble. Um, you know, a lot of people talk about Donald Trump on the one hand as being entirely incompetent. And then a lot of people talk about him as a person who, quote unquote, “knows” what he’s doing. Right? This is planned.
I’m not sure that it matters at all, whether he does or does not know what he’s doing. I think all that matters is the fact that he bears a sort of persona, and a set of behaviors that accompany that, that are that that to his supporters indicate a degree of irreverence for political process, which is attractive to them, and that also demonstrates a type of white masculinity that they believe is tied to American ideals. So having said that, I guess what I want to say back to that kind of spectacle idea is that while a debate is perhaps not a setting that is actually designed to share a lot of information, right, if you wanted the policy information, you could have gone to the webpage months ago. I think that that now the American public has created a discourse about Donald Trump’s discourse.
If that makes sense. Like debates have now become sort of—and just really the conversation surrounding Trump—like a second layer discourse. So for a while, I think back in 2016, we were saying things like, “Can you believe that, you know, he said this?” And now we spend time talking, as you know, I know is a point of interest for, for us as a group. We’ve been talking a lot about how shocked we are. You know, “Can you believe he still says this?” But, but we don’t recognize that our discourse continues to reflect those very same themes. Right? We can’t stop talking about him. But now we’re talking about how he talks. (laughs)
So we’ve produced we’ve produced a second tier phenomenon.
I think I think you’re spot on. Yeah, go ahead, Hina.
No, I was just gonna say, going back to Andie, your first comment about debates feeling unpresidential. And then I think that also goes to how he speaks and interacts and his, as Leslie, you mentioned, his complete irreverence for any sort of rule or way of doing things. And I think that that shock of like, “How could he say that?” Like, “How could he do that?” “How could he XYZ..?” I think that definitely plays a role in how we are perceiving him or, or that like, judge him or not. Yeah, that shock, I feel like never goes away.
I think you’re right, because we—both, both in our responses, our shock to how all of this is being handled the shock in pretty much all of the news media coverage, following the debates: “Oh, my god, can you believe that he said…?”, “Can you believe that he didn’t condemn white supremacists?”, “Can you believe…?”, “Can you believe…?” We have this every time. It’s whenever he says anything, whenever he tweets anything. And, and I think you’re right, we, we reinforce this, this same discourse that shocks us by holding it to certain standards that we think and that we assume should be upheld. And ultimately, at least in the sense of our response to Trump, I suspect is, is largely ineffective, because it allows him to keep shocking.
Right. I think it’s important to note as well, that, you know, I tend to think about religion and rhetoric both very functionally. So I’m always thinking like—well, that’s because I tend to think of religion as rhetoric. So anyway, hand you know, hand is displayed on the table. Okay. So, but, but I mentioned that because there is not, there is not unanimity regarding the shock across American culture. So I guess the question, the second tier question that I’m asking about our second tier rhetoric—all the tiers, all the levels!—is, you know, think about who is shocked. Not everyone is shocked. In fact, I think one of the things that you find from Trump supporters is that many of them will say something akin to, “He says some things I don’t like,” or “he presents himself in a way that I find undesirable.” “Nevertheless, I like A, B, and C.” Right? So, the, the degree of shock is probably an indication of the expectations of the person who is shocked, if that makes sense. And that, to me, is a signal that those who experience shock, imagine that the president should not behave in such a way. Or they imagined that the political system is something that it is not.
So in my mind, at least constantly talking about, you know, when, when the shock-subculture and you know, I’m going to presume the three of us are members of the shock-subculture since we’ve, we’ve all been saying that, you know, the members of this shock-subculture are, I suspect, you know, what’s the function of talking about your shock all the time? I suspect the function of that is to reiterate that this is not normal. So the more that I can say to you know, someone in you know, to my neighbor, “Can you believe?”, “Did you watch?”, the more that we can reinforce our sense of the boundaries have been broken. So, from like, a very basic, you know, social analysis, you know, if we were to imagine ourselves flying aerially above the debates, right? Then what I see going on with this conversation about, about the outrageousness of this or that political display is really much more about us wanting the political display not to be that way and, and trying to establish boundaries for what a degree of normalcy feels like, which back to the topic of affect. I don’t know about you, but I’m dying for some normal these days in any shape that I can get it right. So I, I sort of wonder, you know, I don’t have any data about this, but I sort of wonder if our sense or our desire for normalcy has heightened even the shock rhetoric regarding the debate. I don’t know, you know, I just it’s just like an idea that occurs to me that in a time of social stress, could it be that cultures call for normalcy or, you know, express other forms of it in shock rhetoric, that they wouldn’t if things were otherwise you know, a little bit more mundane for them. Just an idea.
And I think Andie brought this up in, in our conversation last week about some, some populations like, marginalized populations never have access to that shock.
Leslie Dorrough Smith 20:11
They—they’ve never felt normalcy, they’ve never had any expectations for the American political system. And so, for them, they’re like, “Oh, yeah, he told the Proud Boys to stand by. Yeah, I’m not surprised.” Or, or that comment—apparently, there’s a comment that was made yesterday at the debate where Trump apparently said “good” to 500 children at the border who lost her children. He’s like, “What do you have to say for that?” And apparently, he said, “Good.”
Yeah. So, I’ve read two things. Some folks say he said, “Good.” And then some folks he said, “Go ahead,” or something like this, where he was trying to move the conversation along so he could dodge the question.
But it’s also really interesting that a bunch of people heard him say, “Good,” I mean, that is in itself…
That’s data in itself. Right?
Hina, I think you’re totally right, that shock is also a sign of privilege, right?
To be shocked means that you were living in a world where previously things were, at least to us stable.
Right, and exactly.
And that also tells us a lot about who is experiencing what, what type of emotions in the midst of all of this. I’ve thought about this quite a lot as it pertains to COVID in my job, for instance. So, as a person who teaches, my job has been turned upside down. There are lots of people who don’t have the luxury of teaching from home or who don’t have the luxury of working from home. Whose lives are certainly different. But in many ways, still, at least in terms of physically showing up in places and doing certain sorts of things. They haven’t changed all that much. So what strikes me as shock is actually a sign of some of the, the cushioning and the comforts that I have, as a result of, you know, some of the class privilege I’ve got, you know, being in the line of work that I’m in. So, there’s lots and lots of layers to who, I just totally agree with what you said, lots of layers. Who feels shock and why?
Yeah, I agree. That’s, that was sort of my response. And seeing just on social media, the range of responses from people I know, regarding Trump’s comments to Proud Boys and him saying that because I felt like, predominantly, I saw white people who were just shocked. “Oh, my god! oh, my god, I can’t believe he didn’t say this!” Whereas people of color had very different responses. It wasn’t shock. There was frustration, there was anger. But there was a continuing thread of a number of issues that we’ve seen return to prevalent topic, where it’s like, No, we still need to address these issues. And I think that I, I feel is very representative of what we’re seeing here in terms of privilege, because for so many white people, and they’re now experiencing a type of reaction to what’s happening in the government, especially in light of COVID, that is not new for the majority of marginalized groups in the United States. And so just the range of those responses, I thought was very telling. And I don’t fault them. I’m not saying that, but rather, it does demonstrate our privilege, and what we’re accustomed to, and then why, of course, some people are so just dismayed at what’s happening. When on a surface level, I feel like it’s, kind of, obvious in a lot of ways, right? Yes, he says these things. We know he says these things. And he has been since he was running for president back in 2016—I almost said 2012.
It’s been so long!
It’s been a long four years… And so I do think that that is, is really one of the main issues and, and I feel like for a lot of people, depending on race or class, those privileges are now being challenged in ways that we’re just not really accustomed to.
You know, Lauren Berlant, you know, critical theorist, has a really interesting idea that I used in some of my last book on sex scandals. And I, I’m just totally into this idea. And I want to throw it out here and see if it’s useful for the conversation we’re having now. She argues that part of American identity is claiming to be traumatized. And so, so let me let me flesh it out because there’s more to say. So her last concept is that there are folks on the one hand who have in sort of a more objective way—and I’m thinking when I say objective way, I’m thinking here about the way that scholar Marilyn Frye, feminist theorist, talks about oppression, right? Just because you say you’re oppressed doesn’t mean you are there are some definable moments that you can point to that that most everyone logs as oppression. So as far as trauma goes Berlant’s argument is that there are you know, on the one hand Americans who have as, as classes or groups of people experienced actual types of trauma as a result of their of their underprivileged, result of being less frequently represented or having their voices, you know, again, not heard often. And then there are other people who tend to be folks with quite a lot of privilege, who experience the exposure of their privilege as a type of trauma in itself. So she’s, you know, she’s over simplistically—and she, you know, I think totally, you know, agrees to this—but is, you know, talks about kind of the two Americas where on the one hand, you have people who, because of their lack of privilege, who do experience real discrimination and real oppression and poverty and incredible shrinking of the middle class that we’ve seen, you know, happening over the past couple of decades. On the other hand, you have a group of people who, because of the rise of many of the first group, and because of the vocalization of many in the first group are now for the first time aware that they have privilege at all. And that’s uncomfortable, and the language and the rhetoric that they have to describe their discomfort that they’re exposed to privilege is trauma. So, everyone—isn’t that an interesting idea? It’s like everyone comes out talking about themselves as traumatized. And the argument that she basically makes is she, she goes on to argue that Americans act like and this is her phrase, infantile citizens, so like a bunch of infants. And that we are easily traumatized by many things. Some of us have just experienced flat out trauma, but others of us those with, with greater privilege have become so sensitive, sensitive. I mean, it’s really the opposite of the snowflake argument, if we’re being quite honest about it.
That to be a privileged person in the United States tends to mean that you are sensitive and fragile about most everything that, you know, obviously gets back to some of the shock thing that we’ve been talking about. I think it also explains why it is that Trump is an attractive political leader to a lot of people, you know, the trope of the white masculine politician who is aggressive and who will defend us. I mean, this plays right into Berlant’s notion that if Americans see their politicians as almost like father-figures—I mean, not to, not to bring the question, “Who’s your daddy?” into it, but yeah! (laughs) If Americans understand politicians in this sort of fatherly way, and there’s a bunch of scholars who talk about this, and one of the terms that I like to use to describe it is “presidentialism” (Smith 2019: 42-46). But if, if you see your political leader as a father type figure, then you’re going to expect different things from him—and I am using I’m using male pronouns intentionally now—you’re going to expect different things from him than you would if you understand him as something different. If you understand him as a bureaucratic arm of a government, that’s going to feel different affectively than thinking of this politician as a father sort of figure. And this is also why, you know, lots of interesting literature exists out there about what female politicians have to go through just to get elected. This is also one of the reasons why women have a difficult time even being elected to big national offices, it’s because they don’t come off as father figures. Right? So there’s a really prominent role that gender plays here in part of that affect. There’s a lot of emotions going on. But I really am intrigued with this idea that Americans, you know, function as a bunch of children, and that one of the ways that they get hurt in the public sphere is by claiming trauma. Again, Berlant says some of it legitimate, and some of it not. But it’s a it’s a fascinating idea, at least as far as I’m concerned, and thinking about how we get our voices heard politically, and who we wish to elect.
Yeah, I mean, that is very interesting to consider. And in a way I can see where she’s coming from. It’s not something that I’ve put a lot of thought into, but I feel like what we’re seeing in the conversations between Biden supporters, Trump supporters now there’s this squabbling and a lot of ways where ultimately, I feel in terms of whether it’s like health care or education, there are a lot of things where people might actually be more or less on the same page. But one thing that did stand out to me, and though it didn’t hold much water in the debate last night, but that did stand out was a brief moment, early on, when Trump was trying to talk about the COVID response and blue states versus red states and how in New York, they had all of these issues. And he was making a claim about this is what happens when you… Well, he didn’t really say much, but he was sort of blaming New York for not handling it well. And Biden almost had a great response because he responded saying, “Well, that’s the difference here because I don’t see them as red states and blue states. I see them as the United States.” Then immediately was like, “But the COVID problems are in the red states.” So close, but I feel like there’s this sort of like pitting everybody against one another, which this election has brought to the fore the level of divisiveness that we are seeing that it was there on some level, but it is absolutely the past few years. A lot of the rhetoric coming from Trump has certainly incited those divisions, I think to increase and we see this sort of like furthering gap.
Yeah, I wanted to actually get back to Leslie’s comment on the debates being theater for what I think is the debates are—and not only the debates, but the campaign in general—is a theater for displaying masculinity. And the fact that we don’t get much policy information during these debates, but we kind of get like this, this performance of masculinity, the Trump always tries to overwhelm Biden, I mean, and also, Leslie you mentioned earlier, he tried to physically overwhelm Hillary. And so that also plays out in the campaign overall, where you’ve seen stories about Biden, who was wearing a mask to protect himself from COVID. Obviously, everyone should be doing that, by the way, where they were trying to feminize him wearing that mask, they’re like, “Oh, he’s not tough. That’s why he’s wearing a mask.” Or I think there was a comment by some Republican news person who was saying, it’s so effeminate of Biden to wear a mask and public, our presidents not like that, etc., etc. And you also see, I feel like there was a huge, it would not, it was a huge story that Biden actually loves his son, or like, gives him care and attention. And that, obviously, we associate care work with femininity and with women. And so that would seem to be this huge story where most liberal people were like, “I, we see nothing wrong with that. It’s great that he loves his son.” And then the other side of this story, the more conservative take on that was that “Oh, look, he loves his son, look at him hugging, that’s not normal. Look at him hugging his son. That’s not normal behavior.” Kind of ultra-feminizing him in that way to kind of discredit him. And I think that’s this is an interesting point that you bring up, Leslie, in terms of masculinity.
Yeah, I think, you know, one of the things that’s really interesting about political life in general is—and I’m talking here about American political life—but I mean, I know that these you know, these ideas translate other places, as well. At least, you know, over the past few decades, and definitely since the Reagan era, I mean, I think there’s been a sense that the way that you win elections is by, is through a rhetoric of fear. And now there’s lots and lots of data, you know, across the 20th century of—I’m not trying to say, this is like a new thing with Reagan, you know. Political elections have probably always been to some degree about fear. But I’m just thinking really, even from Nixon forward, let me let’s just let’s go back that far about a type of rhetoric that indicates that there is a threat, and that the politician is the solution to the threat.
And so while the the question over whether you know, any one random person can quote unquote, “fight off a virus,” right? These might seem to be ridiculous types of things to say, since you know, viruses, as least as far as I know, don’t like show up for fistfights. But the idea here is not so much about a physical ability to to punch something or stab something or shoot something, right. The idea is fear. And so a lot of the rhetoric that surrounds COVID that we’ve that we’ve heard coming from some subcultures has been, yes, it’s a bad thing. But I’m not afraid of it, I’m not going to live in fear. So the way that the message of weakness, at least, you know, from what I’ve been seeing has transmitted, or has been transmitted is really regarding whether the person in question, whether the person who might potentially get COVID is or is not afraid of it. And that that is the signal and that the mask is the emblem of their fear, if that makes sense. So that’s one really fascinating thing, you know, too, I think that it dovetails so nicely with so many of the other things we know about the ways that political contests have worked for the past several decades in the US, which does say a lot about…
Well, let me, I mean, let me just, sort of, cut to the chase. I’m thinking about the work that I’ve done on you know, what happens to a politician in the midst of a sex scandal—a male politician, I should add, if you’re a female politician just quit right now, for, for an entirely different set of reasons we can talk about some other time. But actually, it’s the same reasons we’re talking about. We assume that masculinity and virility are signs of leadership, and…
Leslie Dorrough Smith 34:04
… and these ideas are very strongly endorsed by religious groups are really prominent in the US. So these ideas circulate so readily in our rhetoric, and, you know, at least in my research, if you have broken all the moral rules, there is still an out for you, so long as you come across as a strong sort of defender figure. And more to the point, if the public is afraid of something and you seem to be the guy—masculine word intended—if you seem to be the guy who can rescue the public from that thing, then you can do almost anything you want, you know, in in a very sort of practical way with and have very few consequences. So I think this is why you know, when we’re trying to think about why masks suddenly became a what we would call a “political thing,” right or why, common sense medical intervention would suddenly take on epic proportions, symbolically, it’s very much about understanding that displays of fear have long been understood as signs of weakness in politics, no matter how common sense a display, you know, I don’t know about you, I am afraid of COVID. I’m not paralyzed by COVID. But I certainly think that I should be afraid of it. And, and that admission, right, that admission is not something that certain people in certain political positions can say, and still remain large… retain, sorry, large sectors of the American public support.
Well, and I wonder to how much of this also ties into certain perceptions of what it means to be an American, because I feel like this, this does kind of go back and link to ideas, both of American exceptionalism but just who Americans are in the world, because we do have this sort of narrative of being I mean, we have manifest destiny, right? We’re conquering everything. Americans are always depicted as the strong sort of people who come in and save the day. And so the idea of being afraid, though, however logical it is, of a virus, thus, Trump making fun of Biden, during the first debate for wearing a mask is very emblematic of a certain masculine narrative of America and American identity, that we have to be strong, we cannot show fear or weakness, even though protecting yourself and protecting others you would think would come across as like helpful and wanting to do what you can to keep things moving. Right? So, I think that that’s, that’s evident, even in whether it’s the masks being politicized, or just the conversations in the debates, that these issues, kind of, present themselves. And we can see the ways in which those ideas, however loosely, are assumed by a number of people within the United States.
I think this is a great example of what you’ve just said, is a great example of some of the things that you can find all over social media today, as people attempt to use religion to talk about the political climate today. And, you know, on the one hand, I think you can find it, and I’ll just talk about it from, you know, the perspective of the evangelicals that I study. But on the one hand, you can find a lot of evangelical voices, talking about how Trump might be undesirable in some ways, but that because of, you know, what they perceive to be his anti-abortion stance, or what they perceive to be a number of other issues pertaining to morality, you know, that there is a there is a justification for supporting him. On the other hand, I think you have a lot of folks—some who identify as evangelical Christian, some who don’t—who want to make the argument that, you know, taking common sense medical precautions and caring for immigrants and the poor and caring, you know, that these are actually closer to what “religion” quote unquote, should be. Right. That, to me is a great example of the flexibility of this term religion as it operates right in in our current political climate, where it is an umbrella term that can be used and manipulated flexibly by whatever group needs it to me and whatever they needed to mean at that at that moment. And that’s, that’s just a very mundane social fact, right? That almost any powerful authority like religion will be used to, you know, kind of like a lump of Play-Doh, you know, you squish it into whatever form you need it to be in order to get across, you know, your particular point or agenda or that of your group.
But I think one of the things that that so many of us don’t recognize is that even you know, at least how I think about religion, is that if it’s a type of rhetorical power, kind of like, as Bruce Lincoln says that you can’t—it’s power comes from the fact that you can’t readily critique it, right? There is there is no, you know, way if someone says that God told them to do something, there’s no way to say well prove it, right. There’s, there’s no litmus test in the way that we can, we can turn to other types of proofs in order to test the claim. And so many of our national ideas about exceptionalism about this, you know, manifest destiny notion about even the qualities that comprise a proper leader—so many of these ideas are very much rooted in, even if we would not call the ideas themselves religious, you know, they often fall into the realm of politics, but, but they are un-critiquable, let’s put it that way. And so they hover sort of as this—I’m thinking aerially, again, I’m not sure where I’m thinking, you know, from the sky—but they hover in this space above us. You know, Craig Martin calls these “absent authorities,” where, because you can’t ask for the authority itself, or because the person who wrote the text is dead, or you know, for any number of reasons, the the authority needs a spokesperson—let’s put it that way. And it is the spokesperson’s job then when we think functionally about this, to read on to the authority, their own subgroup’s desires and wants and wishes. So I think that’s exactly why—to kind of bring this full circle—that’s exactly why we see so many of the dynamics regarding the debates that we did.
It’s why some people are shocked and some aren’t right? When you are speaking, not just for Donald Trump or about Donald Trump, but when you are speaking about these ideals, about what America “should be,” those function in a very religious way as un-critiquable ideas that sort of seem to hover in the atmosphere. And so what that means is that any number of individuals step in as the spokespersons to log their emotion and to log their response, and to have these debates in the absence of any sort of firm boundary line, which seem all that much more affectively shocking, when the boundary lines that we used to know are gone. But that the claim that there is an absent authority always necessitates a spokesperson. And the spokesperson will become the mouthpiece then for the group and their interests getting back to Durkheim’s whole notion that when you know, a society talks about religion, it is the society talking about itself, right. So there’s always that element of projection that’s going on. So that’s why I, you know, this, the conversation about the debate, and about the presidential election, and really about sort of governmental politics in general, is never to me, not about religious ideas and functions, even if we’re not talking explicitly about deities, and such, because it is always about the reification of the nation-state, and the types of authority moves that people engage in to be the spokesperson for what the nation means. And that, to me, is why this conversation may appear on the surface not to be about religion, if you think that religion is about a group of certain doctrines, right? And a text here and there. But if we think about religion more as a rhetorical mechanism by which people claim to speak for absent authorities, then every form of nationalism is almost by definition, one that we could speak about in this way.
Right. And I think that kind of does, in a way get down to what might be the crux of the issue for maybe this campaign? I don’t know. But just what you’ve said, made me think this, because when you see, on the one hand, liberals, for lack of better word, fighting for, marching for reproductive rights, women’s healthcare. And then you see on the other hand, people who would identify as conservative saying that they will they refuse to wear a mask, because it’s infringing on their rights. I think that in a way, we have two competing ideas of nationalism, ultimately, and, and we’re drawing on this idea of rights. This idea of drawing on our rights and our freedoms, as is not a new one. And it’s, sort of, one of the main ways in which Americans work to assert power. But what’s interesting in this moment, especially in the use of “my body, my choice” slogans to protest wearing masks, I think is a very interesting moment both of demonstrating power, then thinking maybe to what you were saying about Berlant in terms of arguing that what is happening is oppression, but also delegitimizing the other groups claims both of identity, of rights, of nationalism, because in a way, we have different ideas of what American nationalism looks like, based on what these groups are saying.
I think that there are a few things going on in that use of the abortion rights slogan, and I think they’re really important to note. It, that’s an agitating thing to hear for a lot of people. Because, you know, it feels “Hey, you can’t say that.” Okay, so it’s a turf war. Right. And I think that’s one of the reasons why some anti-mask folks used it, right is to, I mean, it was meant as ammunition, let’s just be like really clear about that. Right? There’s so there’s that level, back to levels and tiers. Here I go. Um, so there’s that. But there’s also another element that I think is very important to note, and this is, this is one of my least favorite parts of rhetoric. But it’s the I think, one of the most important ones to remember in studying it. I think we have the idea that people are consistent in their in their argumentation. And we want people to be consistent, and people rarely are. And this is why virtually every time we engage in a debate with someone or we’re talking about kind of the political landscape, it seems like the go to form of ammunition is to point out someone’s in consistencies. And you know, if you if you believe that, that that our reality is generally logical, and that we should hold each other to those standards, then that’s a very attractive move to make. And when I say, “If you believe that things are logical…” I’m not just speaking here, I’m not just saying that that liberals are that way or conservatives are that way. I think that all people think that they are—not all people—most people believe themselves to be logical. And I know I’m making like absolute logical statements here. (laughs) But I think a more nuanced perspective is that we use those sorts of logical arguments when they suit us. So thinking about that ways that we understand rights, thinking about the, the notion even that a mask is an assault on someone’s rights that we can liken to abortion as an assault on fetal rights—or can we? Right, that’s, that’s a lot of how the, the abortion logo, you know, or slogan, sorry, being applied to the question of masking. If we expect that humans are consistent in their rhetoric, then we’re going to be really confused all the time.
But if we recognize, I think that rhetoric is a tool that gets thrown out here and there used in certain situations to build up affective whatever type or another and then discarded at another point, and that only a thin veneer of logic has to exist in order to, to kind of drive whatever political machine it is forward. And I think it’s a little bit easier to understand why we have such in consistencies why a person against a mask, who also may very well claim to be, you know, anti-abortion can at the same time use an abortion rights slogan to defend their anti-masking position. Gosh, that that just to me, I mean, that’s, that’s again, I think it’s talking in a very religious way. It’s it’s appealing to these to these notions of rights and values as these absolute things that you can appeal to, to defend whatever you want.
And, you know, I know that there’s been a number of commentators who have tried to point out—particularly to those who are against masking—a number of commentators have said, “Well, you don’t have a right to everything. Did you not take civics class?” Okay, well, I get that I get the frustration, but that, again, is, is speaking to the public as if individuals act in logical ways and are entirely consistent and again, we know that they don’t—us included. So what we’re left with often is this category of rights as this again, it’s, it’s an amorphous authoritative blob, and so long because it functions you know, a right—”We have rights!”—that itself, in my mind, at least to us kind of Martin’s definition of it that functions as its own absent authority, there will always be a spokesperson who will appear to tell you that they have the right to do whatever they want. And they will always have a you know, have a legitimizing strategy in their rhetoric to explain why they have this right. I think what is so shaking about this, not just this election, but just even the candidacy of Trump is that while we’ve all understood that rhetoric is an inherently flexible medium, it used to at least feel like, for certain subcultures, that there were some boundaries in place in which the rhetoric could move. And it now appears, to me at least, that there are fewer boundaries. And so even if people before we’re not entirely consistent, there were at least some I don’t know, I’m thinking of like bumper bowling, right? They’re really some bumpers down the lanes to keep the ball from going in the gutter. And I’m not so sure. I mean, not, you know, not to like reduce this entire podcast to bumper bowling. I’m not, I’m not sure that that we’re at that place anymore, because I do think it feels like the rhetoric. If you know, if the rhetoric is our bowling ball, I do feel like I could throw it down on someone else’s lane, and it would still be considered legitimate rhetoric, it would still receive—in terms of authority from the audience—it would still receive a hearing. You know, maybe I could, could bowl a strike on someone else’s lane is what I’m trying to say, to take this metaphor way too far.
Yeah, I think the I think what, what ties to that is this whole “fake news” rhetoric that has emerged where anything goes. And then also, and also free speech—the free speech card, I should say—works in the same way where now I feel like we like free speech, we hears free speech, and we automatically attach it to like someone who wants to express their white supremacist views, and then anything that goes against whatever agenda, whatever red agenda, I guess we can say, because becomes this fake news. So you know, nothing is real or nothing can be said against them, or against any nothing can be said against Trump.
Yeah, I mean, thinking back to the litmus test, basically, that Leslie was saying earlier, that where we would normally put a lot more stock in, in verifying certain issues or claims or ideas is not something that really matters for a lot of people, it seems now. Either it’s like this is the be all end all or no, that’s just it’s fake news. It’s a conspiracy. It’s, we’ve now shifted away from that entirely. And that’s not to say that liberals aren’t doing it also, there, there is a total rejection of anything…
… that Republicans say, as fact. And while there’s obviously precedent for that much more common now to see just across the political spectrum, that automatic dismissal of the other side’s claim, regardless of the facts either disproving or supporting it.
I don’t know that the election is going to solve this, no matter who wins.
I think you’re right.
I was just thinking about something Hina said earlier, when we were talking about how privilege can mitigate your shock at what’s going on, it has always been the case that marginalized groups have been subjected to the inconsistencies and whims of more powerful groups. And that’s, that’s, again, how powerful rhetoric works. If there are, sort of, absent claims, a spokesperson steps in speaks for the needs of the subculture at the moment, and, and so long as that person is of sufficient authority and power, you know, that’s how the social rules get created. Sometimes I’m willing to take out the crystal ball and talk about, you know, what might happen. I feel really unsure at the moment about what results…
… the election will serve up. If Trump wins, I think that we’ll continue to see some of the same—I don’t think anything is going to change, fundamentally. I think we’ll still see some of the same unrest. Do you think it will be interesting to see you know, how Congress goes, I think that you know, what the congressional makeup ends up looking like could very much change a sense of empowerment?
Do you think things will get worse? Like more high end anxiety?
Yeah, no, no, I think that’s entirely possible. And I think, but this is why maybe, maybe I feel less likely to pull out the crystal ball on this because of COVID. To be honest, I think there’s already a high level anxious buzz throughout American culture, and it’s very and a lot of anger at how one lives under these types of constraints. You know, think about like this crazy stuff lately, going on with schemes to kidnap governors and, you know, even, even here in, you know, I live on the Kansas side of Kansas City, like there was a scheme to kill the mayor of Wichita, over his mask, yeah…
… over his mask mandate, I have a good friend, too, who works in public health, who has made the remark that, you know, basically, kind of the numbers of public health servants who are receiving death threats or threats of some sort is extraordinarily high right now. Is it just about COVID? Well, probably not. I, you know, again, I think, as we said, at the top of the, at the top of our recording together, that it’s hard to know how to account for anxiety when you’ve got multiple instabilities functioning at once. But this is a great case to me, you know, back to kind of Durkheim, again, you know, thinking about, you know, anomie, of what it means when the norms that you thought were in place are no longer there, what it means to live in a world that’s missing its structures. And when the structures when the structures are missing for everyone, which they are with COVID at the moment, right? I’m not talking just about, you know, political anxieties on the part of liberals. But when the structures are missing for everyone, everyone’s going to experience tension from that. But this is why I don’t think that even you know, even if there were to be some sort of political settling in the next few months, that our our fears over COVID would, I think, absolutely take take political form and shape because I think that, you know, realms of authority are where we are, you know, we use the language from politics and religion, for instance, to talk about, you know, the other sorts of tensions and conflicts that go on in our lives. Yeah, that’s not a happy note to end. But I think, but I think maybe it’s where we are.
It’s a very 2020 way to end, I think…
“It’s a very 2020 way to end.” I like that—that’s, that’s very fitting. Well, I want to say thank you to both of you for taking the time to join me here today. We’ve had a fascinating conversation. And I think if there’s one parting idea I want to share with our listeners in the US it’s, regardless of what side you fall on, please vote. Go vote, vote early. Go vote now. Polls are open in most places. So please vote. And we’ll just have to stay tuned to see what happens in the election in the coming days.
And thank you. Thank you, Andie, for hosting and inviting us!
Yes, thank you! Such a pleasure.
Yes, it’s been a pleasure talking to you!
Smith, Leslie Dorrough, Hina Muneeruddin, and Andie Alexander. 2020. “Presidentialism, or, ‘Who’s Your Daddy?’: Discourse! October 2020”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 26 October 2020. Transcribed by Andie Alexander. Version 1.0, 26 October 2020. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/presidentialism-or-whos-your-daddy-discourse-october-2020/
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