One seemingly odd thing about the far right in America is that they often seem to be buffoons engaging in absurd behavior. One good example is the fascist organization Proud Boys. While this is a domestic terrorist group known for violence, it is also known for its wacky rules and rituals. They have a strict rule about masturbation and one of their rituals involves punching a member while they shout out the names of breakfast cereals. They also seem to LARP by dressing up to get a Call of Duty look and have an order of “Alt Knights.” As such, they can seem like a bunch of loonies. Dangerous loonies.
As a second example, Trump puts on a masterful show of buffoonery. He maintains an odd orange skin tone which has led to speculation that it is a spray on tan. His COVID press conferences were master performances in absurdity—bizarre claims made in front of the cameras. His bumbling of basic language and expression of ignorance about basic facts relevant to his job are also an impressive performance of buffoonery.
As a third example, Rudy Giuliani rivals his master in his buffoonery. He crazily advances unsupported conspiracy theories, files unfounded lawsuits with typos, held a press conference at a landscaping business, and in a brilliant stroke of foolery held a press conference with what might be mascara (rather than hair dye) running down the sides of his face. Comedians are hard pressed to parody the right for they are already parodies of humanity. While it is tempting to dismiss this buffoonery as a natural result of their defects as human beings, it is worth considering that buffoonery is being employed as a strategy—perhaps not by the buffoons themselves but by competent fascists and authoritarians behind the buffoons. So, what are possible advantages of buffoonery as a political tool?
One clear advantage is that ridiculous behavior can make a group or person seem less dangerous or even harmless. Take, for example, the Proud Boys. Their breakfast cereal beating and “no wank” rules make them seem silly—and how could such silly people be domestic terrorists? In the case of Rudy and his ilk, their incompetent buffoonery makes them seem silly. How could some crazy guy with mascara running down his face from his sideburns be damaging American democracy? The defense against this is to realize that even buffoons can be dangerous—especially when their buffoonery is directed by non-buffoons and used as a cover.
A second advantage of buffoonery is that it distracts people from serious matters. Trumps constant buffoonery draws attention away from the harmful and corrupt things that have and are occurring within his administration. As many have said, Trump sucks up all the oxygen and dominates the news cycle—thus important stories get little or no attention. In the case of the Proud Boys, their buffoonery distracts from their acts of violence—and the acts of violence by other domestic terrorist groups. In the case of Rudy and his ilk, their buffoonery distracts from the deeper stories of what is being done to undermine American democracy in favor of authoritarianism—to the cheers of authoritarian Trump supporters who cannot wait for American democracy to finally be defeated by fascism. This tactic is analogous to that used by pickpockets and magicians: they often use an assistant to distract the target so that they can accomplish their goal. The defense is to resist the lure of the buffoonery—but this is hard for most of the media.
A third advantage is that buffoonery makes it harder for the opponents of the far right to convince others that these people are a dangerous threat. This idea is nicely laid out in the X-Files episode José Chung’s From Outer Space. In this episode, Mulder and Scully run into the Men in Black. Alex Trebek plays one of them—but he is supposed to just look like Alek Trebek rather than be Alex Trebek. That is, he is playing someone who is playing him. This sort of things is done because the Men in Black are supposed to appear ridiculous so that any story told about them will seem absurd and unbelievable. To use the Proud Boys as an example, if someone tries to explain that this “no wank” group of breakfast cereal name shouters is a real threat, they might seem a bit crazy.
Folks on the right also use coded language, dog-whistles, and euphemisms to produce a similar effect. Because of these terms attempting to describe the truth about right to “normies” can make a person seem a bit crazy. Phrases and terms like “bad hombres”, “law and order”, “inner cities”, “suburban housewives”, “America First”, “international bankers”, and such seem to be normal language to those ignorant of the code and the context. For example, trying to explain that when Trump talks about “law and order” in the “inner cities” he is usually talking about using the police to oppress black Americans. When a right-wing group talks about “international bankers” and “Soros” they are usually engaging in antisemitism. As I can attest to from my own experience, trying to explain dog whistles and coded language to “normies” tends to result in incredulous stares—which is exactly what the right intends. Overcoming this is challenging, especially since the right adapts when their dog whistles and coded language become understood for what they area. But this is something that needs to be done and one hopes that more people become aware of what the right is trying to do and are able to decode their language even when the right adapts.
Karl Young says
That reminds me of a comment religious scholar Diana Pasulka made while describing the religious aspect of the UFO moment. She noted that most religions start out as seemingly pretty ridiculous (they eat their savior !?) which allows them to grow while still under the radar. The frightening rapidity with which QAnon is growing seems an example of this, as well as an example of your description of the far right (though who knows what will happen, now that their messiah is down for the count, at least for the moment).
Michael LaBossiere says
Appearing silly as camouflage does seem to often be an effective strategy.