The Demagogue Takes the Stage

The 45th president of the United States rose to power using the stage, the props and scenery, of white nationalist patriarchy. To build democracy, we must disassemble the stage.

Donald Trump speaking on the final night of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
[Associated Press]

We live today in an artwork that follows the principle of reality television, which is not that it depicts reality, but that it becomes reality. As if watching in slow motion, we see this happening as it happens. The artifice entailed, the conceit, the ruse — all are on full display. Forthright disclosure, intercut with meta-commentary by the participants, adds a mocking twist to the old avant-garde technique of breaching the “fourth wall” separating audience and actors. What results is not awakening but rather sociopathic dissociation. For if reality is what comes afterwards rather than before, then whatever remains of the distinction between art and everything else melts into air. In the all-encompassing artwork, all facts are “alternative facts” subject to the free play of imaginative association, and all truth is “fake” before its deadly blow is felt.

The production of the unequivocally real artwork is tied to the consecration of the national territory as sacred ground, which is an unspoken basis for the self-conscious nationalisms that now encircle the globe. Contrary to the assumption that nationalism is opposed to capitalist globalization, however, the two go hand-in-hand; they are kindred spirits feeding off and supplying the twin enchantments of property and homeland. In this light the border walls and the travel bans are acts of consecration — techniques for securing the nation symbolically both as property, like a fence around a yard or a “No Trespassing” sign, and as homeland, like a racially and religiously restricted family gathering.

The artifice entailed, the conceit, the ruse — all are on full display. What results is sociopathic dissociation.

What is more difficult to comprehend is that these are fundamentally artistic techniques; by which I mean that they establish the nation as an ambiguously meaningful entity, the semantic insecurity of which demands further acts of consecration. And these acts, which are forms of ritualized violence, themselves depend upon the sanctity of art rather than on its profanation. In the United States today, this sanctity is maintained not by high culture but by a substrate of governing instruments, or media, that shape a public sphere. For even in its most vulgar forms, the consecration of the nation as property and as homeland requires an a priori theater of power, where some and not others are positioned to perform the requisite act while reflexively showing how it’s done, like on television.

This is the position of the patriarch, as artist. His weapon is the performative utterance, or the statement that enacts what it says. Uttered under the right conditions by a speaker so empowered, the statement “you’re fired” is a speech act that has the immediate effect of terminating the employment of its addressee. Uttered as reality television, it affirms the speaker’s dual status as an actor, in the sense of both play-acting and enacting (for real). The performative is the very form of executive power; it affirms the capacity to produce a material effect without apparent mediation, while simultaneously recognizing that mediation is all there is. It is also the very form of an authoritarian populism in which “the people,” defined by exclusion, speak when and only when this power speaks, and never otherwise.

In order to function properly, this power must stand on ground that has been made sacred as a stage. In today’s United States, this is the ground of white nationalist patriarchy, or what its stage managers euphemistically call “economic nationalism.” Its jargon includes “alt-right” code words like “tradition” and “neo-traditionalism,” often accompanied by qualifiers like “Judeo-Christian” or “European.” This is the nativist jargon of a pseudo-philosophy peddled by self-promoting, anti-intellectual imposters. As such it fortifies a mythic, white “people” against their imagined enemies, both political and economic, and implies a gendered division of labor where men produce and women reproduce. As toxic common sense, this jargon helps to construct a socio-technical theater of power that authorizes and enables patriarchal, demagogic speech acts in the first place.

The nativist jargon of the alt-right fortifies a mythic, white ‘people’ against their imagined enemies, both political and economic.

This theater works by setting the stage. Its props and scenery, its machinery, are multifarious, and the stage in some sense covers all the world. It is always already there, ahead of the performers, preparing the ground, laying things out, positioning speakers and addressees and establishing the basis for the reality that they will enact together. The stage is the political rally before the speech, the executive office awaiting an occupant, the pulpit awaiting a preacher, the table awaiting a head. Thinking about things this way allows us to get underneath the speech acts of executive power and explore the all-encompassing artwork that makes them possible.

Ground Zero, 9/11 Memorial, New York City.
Ground Zero, 9/11 Memorial, New York City. [Sobekhotep]

The Oculus, at the World Trade Center Transportation Hub.
The Oculus, World Trade Center Transportation Hub. [Mike Boening Photography]

Access to the stage, to the aesthetic substrate of politics, is inherently partial and limited. Among the various entry points, that portion of the American stage called “Ground Zero,” the site of the former World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, affords an especially revealing prospect. It is no secret that 9/11 radicalized many self-defined conservatives, as well as some centrists and liberals. A good number of these neo-radicals found bloodthirsty (though temporary) satisfaction in the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which both displaced and focused their inchoate fears. The displacement was complemented by the financial crisis of 2008 and with it the rise of the Republican Tea Party, which mixed austerity politics with pious xenophobia. These two events are usually construed as two distinct sources for right-wing radicalization, with 9/11 amplifying or reinforcing existing ethno-nationalist tendencies, and the 2008 crisis emanating from the economic contradictions of financialization. But at Ground Zero the two are brought onstage together and shown to belong to one and the same process, which also helps to explain how a real estate developer from New York was able to lay claim, culturally as well as politically, to the white patriarchy enshrined in a capitalism haunted by an imaginary “spirit.”

To access this process, we must approach Ground Zero through its most sacred building. This is not the 9/11 National Memorial, which shrunk the “sacred ground” of commemoration to a bare minimum so that profit could be maximized, or the adjacent 9/11 National Museum, which relegated public memory to a series of underground exhibition spaces; rather it is the shopping mall, or “the Oculus,” that rises above the adjacent commuter subway station. Designed by Santiago Calatrava for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Westfield Corporation, the Oculus synthesizes secular-religious tensions by honoring its Gothic sources in the breach. Its massive, top-lit nave with a see-through structural ribcage barely sublimates the architecture of the Gothic cathedral — and with it crusading Christian piety — in an orgy of consumerist branding. This apotheosis of kitsch reveals the aesthetic and political program for the entire site, which is to generate a surfeit of theological “meaning” in order that business might proceed as usual, including the business of developing real estate and the business of securing the homeland.

The massive, top-lit nave barely sublimates the architecture of the Gothic cathedral — and crusading Christian piety — in an orgy of consumerist branding.

Of course this has never been the official project of Ground Zero’s numerous public and private patrons, investors, community representatives, expert consultants, or designers. Nevertheless, for over a decade and a half, the site has been the object of many of the era’s most virulent cultural memes. Consider that in 2009, well before the completion of the Oculus-cathedral, a group of developers proposed building an Islamic community center, including a prayer space, on Park Place, two blocks north of the World Trade Center site. This proposal unleashed a hysterical, nationwide torrent of Islamophobic vitriol that foreshadowed Muslim bans to come. At the time, a real estate developer and reality television personality from Queens offered to buy out one of the lead investors, the Egyptian-born Hisham Elzanaty, on the condition that no future “mosque” be built within five blocks of Ground Zero. Others, including then-mayor Michael Bloomberg, took care to avoid the tabloid designation of the proposal as a “Ground Zero mosque.” This designation nevertheless spoke a perverse truth in its acknowledgment that the dominant template through which the area and its rebuilding were to be viewed was, from the American perspective, theological if not explicitly religious in character.

First widely circulated by The New York Post, the term “Ground Zero mosque” was soon echoed by small town and regional newspapers around the country, whether or not their editorialists approved of the proposal. It’s thus notable that the usual distinctions, between rural/small town cultures and urban ones, don’t apply here. On the contrary, the whole episode undermines the facile urban-rural, blue-red schema that is all too often projected onto national political discourse. By conjuring a nonexistent “Ground Zero mosque,” these news outlets — all of them — converted their subject into a theatrical prop freighted with symbolic meaning that served to unite city, town, and country in the metaphysical pathos of a nation defined as a quasi-religious sect. The depth and durability of this pathos are measured by its apparent capacity to sustain the nationalist bond as a form of aesthetic experience. That remains the ultimate significance of the Ground Zero rebuilding process. Don’t forget that in the days and weeks following September 11, 2001, the cries rang out: “We are all New Yorkers.”

The proposal for a ‘Ground Zero mosque’ unleashed a nationwide torrent of Islamophobic vitriol that foreshadowed Muslim bans to come.

The nationalist bond operates at several scales. In the greater New York region, for example, there is something called “the city.” For many in the region, this expression simply signifies the antithesis to suburban, exurban, or rural life. “The city” can just as easily be a place of work, a locus of exotic fascination, or a source of unspecified, though often racially coded, fear. It can also suggest a gathering of strangers from near and far whose presence threatens a sovereign body defined, through a series of filters including anti-Semitism, by race and religion. Upon its appearance, then, the figure of the “Ground Zero mosque” joined “the city” in the media channels in which the metaphysics of nationhood is regularly refreshed. These were the same channels through which, in 2015, the present occupant of the White House circulated the fiction that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims (“Arabs”) had cheered the attacks on the World Trade Center from across the Hudson River in Jersey City. The ultimate racially and religiously coded horror implied by this false claim derived less from the nonexistent cheering than from the recognition that Muslims lived in New Jersey. The old racist fear of miscegenation was thus revived when it became clear that “the city” had overspilled its bounds long ago and mixed with everything that it was allegedly not. Conversely, the symbolic economy surrounding the “Ground Zero mosque” spoke a language of desecration that could only be applied to ground that had been removed from “the city,” sanctified and relocated to the nation, an imagined community defined by fear of attack from within by cheering “Arabs,” job-seeking immigrants, or, for that matter, “urban” African-Americans.

The Oculus, reflected in the 9/11 Memorial Museum at Ground Zero.
The Oculus, reflected in the 9/11 Memorial Museum. [nrg_crisis]

The stage was set, then, well before the demagogue took the lectern. But that is only half the story. It’s said that when visiting New York in 1904, the sociologist Max Weber stood transfixed on the Brooklyn Bridge watching the stream of commuters headed to work in the morning, a sight not possible in his native Germany. The following year Weber famously argued, in The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism, that industrial capitalism had internalized Protestant asceticism as a response to a higher “calling” focused on the workplace. For Weber, capital’s archetypal subject was a northern European or American Protestant called to work each day by a sense of moral duty, for whom the aphorism “time is money” took the place of scripture. In Weber’s larger schema, this ambivalent secularization of the “Protestant ethic” brought disenchantment, where the price of monetary gain was a soullessness, or metaphysical poverty, that is often said to be the hallmark of modernity.

The “economic nationalism” now emanating from the White House attempts to compensate for this perceived disenchantment by calling forth capitalism’s sublimated “spirit,” or soul. That is the function of the presidential tweet or executive order as performative speech act: to reaffirm the sanctity of the homeland and, in the process, to secure the role of the master builder who restores meaning to the desolate landscapes of imperial decline. Preeminently, neoliberalism — understood as an economic, political, and cultural system — assigns this role to the real estate developer. At Ground Zero, it was the lessee of the World Trade Center, Larry Silverstein, a relatively minor New York player whose unrelenting effort to turn tragedy into profit by “rebuilding” a sacred site was recast as an epic struggle with public authorities, insurance companies, and potential tenants. On the national stage, it was another minor player in New York real estate who cast himself as an artist — or better, an architect — charged with rebuilding the nation as sacred ground: “Make America Great Again.”

In large part, the business culture of New York real estate is dominated by a handful of powerful dynasties; in this sense it remains “all in the family” — an expression that also names a biting television satire from the 1970s centered on an insecure patriarch from Queens, an all-purpose bigot and representative of the white working class whose everyday common sense expertly combined self-pity, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. It is not difficult to imagine the slogan and see the connection: “Archie Bunker for President.” What’s more difficult is to track its translation, during these same years, to the dinner table of a Queens real estate family notoriously accused of profiting from whites-only housing developments. How was the class divide between Archie and Donald bridged? By the all-encompassing artwork we have been following, centered on a real and imagined economy of sacred ground.

Developers of property — real estate developers — are conjurers, makers of meaning; they are capitalism’s shamans, priests, rabbis, imams.

Real estate is never mere property. Or to put it the other way around, property is never a mere profanity. Under capitalism, property is the most enchanted thing there is. In this light developers of property — real estate developers — are conjurers, makers of meaning; they are neoliberal capitalism’s shamans, priests, rabbis, imams. This special role arises out of the ground; first comes the land to be conquered in order for property to rule, and then comes what architects and real estate agents call space, or the empty shell of habitation. Over and over again, this ground must be made into a homeland, and the shell made into a home. In Max Weber’s Germany, the two had already been conflated in the term Heimat, or home/homeland, which refers both to the national soil and to the locus of dwelling. Architects may remember the associated style, Heimatstil, and the associated heritage movement, Heimatschutz, meaning “homeland protection” or “homeland security.” But they might immediately object that such nostalgia for Germanic “tradition” as an antidote to modernity’s deracinating abstraction is at odds with both the flamboyance of today’s “developer architecture” and the minimalist sobriety on display at Ground Zero.

That is because there are many ways of conjuring spirits. Tradition, in today’s America, refers both to the cultural accoutrements of white, Protestant Europe and to the “spirit” of capitalism,” which, contrary to Weber’s misplaced if still poignant thesis, are not the same thing. Calling commuters to work, Ground Zero’s Oculus-cathedral speaks the language of transcendence while sinking neo-Gothic roots into the ground, even as the glowing signs wrapping its shopping concourse speak the language of licensing and branding. The Oculus, like the rhetorically silent 9/11 memorial and the disingenuously mute office towers that surround it, thereby re-enacts an “architecture parlante,” or a speaking architecture. In the Oculus, the metaphysics of homeland security and of marketing are united. What matters is not what the building says, or that its semantics seem to conflict, but that it appears to say anything at all. That appearance is not illusory; it is the very real effect of the artwork that precedes the building-as-artwork: the re-enchanted stage of property and politics, the ground zero on which performative speech occurs.

Ground Zero Memorial, North Pool.
The North Pool of the 9/11 Memorial. [Carlos Bustamente Restrepo]

“Say something,” says the sacred ground. The demagogue responds with speech acts that fill a void by speaking for “the people.” At Ground Zero, that void begins with the two footprints where towers once stood, into which rushed an entire nation, first to reconstruct them as sunken memorial-pools and then to wash their oil-stained walls with a cleansing stream of baptismal water. Often it is said that the deaths of thousands made these voids sacred. Before this they were mere property. But it would be more precise to say that after 9/11 the absent towers, like Ground Zero itself, became a sacred stage on which two ways of imagining the nation, as property and as homeland, converged. Speech acts uttered upon this stage secure its sanctity even as that sanctity secures those acts, in a circle of performativity.

Modern fascism aimed to build a murderous utopia; postmodern fascism builds a murderous hall of mirrors.

This circle is a version of art for art’s sake. Today, it draws the outline of a neo-fascism, or fascism for its own sake. Despite the evident affinities, the current performers do not bear all the markings of their forebears. But the stage that they are building does, in altered form. Modern fascism aimed to build a murderous utopia; postmodern fascism builds a murderous hall of mirrors. It does so ubiquitously, on countless little screens rather than on one big one. Rather than the mass media of cinema and radio favored by their predecessors, today’s pretenders to the throne do their work on Twitter and Facebook, syndicated talk radio and cable television, relying more on recirculation than on rapture. With all the talk of “rebuilding,” of return to a triumphal state of nature where America is American, and where all ground, all property, is sacred “again,” it is easy to miss the difference. What matters in the new theater of power is not (yet) the half-hearted apocalyptic finale, but unending repetition. The show must go on at all costs.

This circle, the call-and-response of executive speech acts performed upon an enchanted stage, cannot be broken simply by revealing the actors for who they are or by turning off the cameras. The stage itself must be disassembled and rebuilt in a democratic fashion. Doing so becomes even more urgent, and more difficult, when the scene before us threatens to dismantle the very institutions of constitutional democracy. Defend these institutions unconditionally. But do not be drawn into a political-economic theology where nation-as-home and nation-as-property form an insidious feedback loop. Instead, study the ground on which a speaker speaks. Understand the ruthless “spirit” that calls actors to the stage to fill history’s voids with meaning. Get underneath that ground to know power at its source and halt its barbaric advance.

Reinhold Martin, “The Demagogue Takes the Stage,” Places Journal, March 2017. Accessed 03 Oct 2023.

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