Please Don’t Clap: Audience, White Supremacy, and the Hegemonic ‘We’

There are literally so many other worthy things I am supposed to do with my intellect and time today.

I am supposed to be absorbing two millennia of theatre history and theory for my comprehensive doctoral exams in the fall (wish me luck!). I am supposed to be writing an article about a public figure who actually does amazing and interesting things for our society. I am supposed to be raising money for this really awesome musical, which is in part a gleeful romp for environmentalists who are otherwise pretty sad for good reason.

Instead, as is so often the case these days, I am thinking (and writing … sigh …) about President Donald J. Trump, who does not deserve my attention or my detailed analysis. But, he has it and that is precisely my problem.

Despite the protestations of many, Mr. Trump has an uncanny ability to captivate large crowds through admiration, disgust, or some combination thereof. As a scholar of theatre and performance, I always feel compelled to use my qualifications in “theatre science” to understand how one comes to captivate an audience. What makes the President a particularly important subject to understand in this regard is that his captive audience frequently feel compelled to insult, hurt, and even kill.

I write this short essay as a means of addressing this common rebuttal: “But, no one can say something that can make someone do something they weren’t going to do anyway! [INSERT MOST RECENT TRAGEDY] could not possibly be the President’s fault and to argue so is beyond reason.” My response is that this is both true and untrue in ways that require a more complex conversation than can normally be had on the internet. And by the end, I hope to demonstrate that this complex conversation is at the very heart of how America (supposedly) legislates free speech and whether our professed concept of “free speech” was ever designed to prevail as written.

A case study is always useful to walk us through such complex content. I wish that such a fruitful case study were not so easily available.

31 people were killed over the weekend in two mass shooting events; one of which was in my beloved home state of Texas. As you are already likely aware of the full bevvy of political discourse on said events – thanks infinite, inescapable media machine! – it seems hardly necessary to condescend by explaining this context to you.

Scrolling through my social media – as I often do after the weekly national tragedy and/or scandal – I was struck by tweet from Representative Jim McGovern:

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I was initially struck by the literally dramatic form of this tweet. McGovern outlines a clear dialogue between Trump and his audience – including his then unseen audience member, the El Paso shooter. Because one of the basic skills I can contribute to the world is the analysis of dialogue and theatrical texts, I noticed more than a few things from the footage to which McGovern refers that exemplify how Mr. Trump captivates an audience. Or, at least, part of an audience. And, I have to warn you, none of them are good or flattering or particularly neutral, so if you’re looking for that kind of analysis the exit is at the upper right corner of your screen.

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My observations take the form of an accumulating list. You might even call it “How to Captivate Audiences and Incite People in Six Easy Steps.”

  1. Establish and enforce the norms of audience reception. As an entertainer, Mr. Trump knows precisely how to create the theatrical mise en scene necessary to generate not only norms of audience response, but how to create new norms for audience response. A political rally is what Diana Taylor would call a scenarioa moment of social drama with a clear and well-rehearsed script in which we already know our role, our blocking, and our lines. When audience enters the arena, they know from the tone of the speakers voice when they should clap, laugh, holler, etc. A speaker like Mr. Trump can control the reactions of the audience by using certain tones of voice to cue the proper response for this scenario. What’s unique about Trump is that he has created his own Trump rally scenario, in which audiences are not expected to be as formal as in the broadly traditional political rally scenario. Mr. Trump has written a new social drama in which audiences can shout back, for instance, and he will react favorably. With enough repetition, this becomes a norm. With enough repetition, audience is compelled to participate in this way.
  2. Create a sense of relateability and charisma. Once the Trump rally scenario norms are established, Mr. Trump can more easily compel the audience to participate instinctively through an illusion of relateability. While both the political rally scenario and the Trump rally scenario require a magnanimous center speaker who is necessarily apart from the audience, that speaker is especially successful when they appear to allude the scenario. “I’m not a regular politician, I’m a cool politician.” This is more dangerous than you might think. Trump uses the scenario to create an illusion that there is no scenario; that this is simply an organic meeting of like minds in a well lit, filmed, and decorated arena. This relateability illusion allows Trump to compel audiences while insisting that no political persuasion is taking place.
  3. Flatter or otherwise seduce audience. As part of the relateability illusion, Mr. Trump can flatter the audience into a sense of exclusivity and intimacy. “I only say this because it’s just us and I value you. Don’t you value me?” Like the whisper of a close friend or even a lover, Mr. Trump reassures the audience that they are getting the insight of his deepest thoughts because he trusts them and assures that he can be trusted in return. This, too, is an illusion; one the audience is aware of, but cannot resist because it would break the norms of audience reception. “Please clap.”
  4. Use a sense of shared virtue or common cause to create a common obstacle to overcome. This is where we can get to a close reading of the footage to which Rep. McGovern refers. Mr. Trump – either through improvisation, limited vocabulary, or tactical choice – very rarely uses proper nouns to begin his sentences. At his rallies, nearly every thought begins with “I,” “You,” or “We.” This emerges naturally from seduction of the audience, but it also does a different kind of work that Bruce A. McConachie calls establishing a “hegemonic ‘we.'”  Having already established a sense of exclusive intimacy with the audience, when Mr. Trump says “When you have 15,000 people marching up and you have hundreds and hundreds of people and you have Border Security people who are brave and great … ” the audience receives this as about them specifically. The people in the arena. You. You who are here. You who are my people. In turn, when Mr. Trump says “But, how do you stop these people?” he establishes a clear diving line: you who are here, you who are my people as opposed to these people, who are not us and who are not mine. In doing so, the “we” that Trump creates through these words is culturally hegemonic, which is to say that it reinforces an ideology through creating an in-group: we who are here together are about Donald Trump, we are not these people, and these people need to be stopped.
  5. Present the audience with a call to action without an explicit demand or outcome. “But, how do you stop these people?” This is Mr. Trump’s key line in this speech and it must be heard as he delivers it in order to understand what it does. There are a number of ways to intone a question mark in American English. There is the flat inflection implying a rhetorical question with no desired answer. There is the famous upward, Valley Girl inflection that implies an infinitive rhetorical. And then there is the true questioning tone, which can even be accompanied by exasperation. This is the tone Mr. Trump uses when he asks “But, how do you stop these people?” after he laments being unable to arm Border Patrol agents with guns and not being willing to do so. Having established a norm of audience response, informal intimacy, and common cause, it is no wonder why the audience responded in the way that it did.
  6. Allow the audience to provide an answer to that call to action for themselves. Out from the crowd, someone immediately yells out “Shoot them!” Despite what you may think, this is not actually where I think the audience is allowed to provide themselves with an answer to Mr. Trump’s “But, how do you stop these people?” I think that comes after the shout of “Shoot them!” It comes in how such a wildly violent and incisive call to action is received. Because, as I’ve established, the audience does not set the ideological norms in this scenario, Mr. Trump does. So, breath is bated waiting for his approval or disapproval of this contribution to the shared common cause. Mr Trump laughs. Pauses for more laughter. “Only in the Panhandle. Only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement.” Pause for applause. Adjust the tie. Pause for more applause. “Only in the Panhandle.” But, this is, of course, not a dismissal. In fact, the language only reinforces the intimacy of Mr. Trump’s hegemonic “we.” Only in the Panhandle can you get away with that … and we are in the Panhandle … aren’t we? Only when you are mine can you get away with that. And you are mine. Pause for laughter and applause.

Though, of course, a review of the footage will show you that the audience did not all belong in the hands of Trump. As is so often the case at all political functions, there are sprinkled behind Mr. Trump the expressive faces of a few people of color. Just over the President’s right shoulder is a woman with brown skin and just above his left there are two young black children with their mother. When the audience member shouts “Shoot them!” you can see as the woman with brown skin grits her teeth and shakes her head silently as the white people all around her throw their hands in the air, clapping and whistling. The mother of the young black children sways with one in her arms, whispering something in their ears. The young child most visible crosses her arms and sticks her tongue so hard into her cheek that it looks like it hurts. The two older white women in front of her cheer and clap with wide smiles.

Because, of course, while Donald Trump may even believe that all the people who come to his rallies are part of his hegemonic “we,” the ideology that ultimately holds that “we” together is white supremacy. And from an audience studies perspective, this is not at all surprising. I am not at all interested in what the President believes in his heart. In fact, as a matter of editorial commentary, I am not convinced he has a personal moral compass beyond “Skipper, steer us in the direction of attention and affluence!” As such, he lives for the applause and will pursue the greatest pleasures of the crowd no matter what those pleasures may be.

The pleasure of the crowd is to feel needed, to feel important, to feel powerful and safe. The pleasure of the crowd is to feel in and not out. To feel understood and valued. The pleasure of the crowd is to just feel better than other people. There is no easier, cheaper, or more quick way to satisfy those pleasures in a majority white country than through white supremacy. And as a white person in this majority white country, I can say that I would like to think I would never be caught up in such a maelstrom, in incessant flattery, and even the slightest hint that maybe I am just a little bit better than those people. But, I could be and I would be without constant vigilance. Because white supremacy is not a white hood or a racist meme or even shouting at a rally that immigrants should be shot. Those are just tendrils of a systemic monster that can only be quelled when it can be seen in total, when we are willing to pull the curtain away from the small man sitting behind it.

I once wrote in a play of mine this satirical line: “Never, ever clap along. That is how fascism starts. Do you want fascism?” I was trying to make a witty observation about theatre. I fear I was writing a warning to my own future.

But, I have strayed from my purpose: did Donald Trump convince the El Paso shooter to do something he otherwise would not have done?

I close out my exploration of this question with a parallel example in history. In 1170, King Henry II famously stated in exasperation about his political rival Thomas Becket, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” While not an order or even explicitly stated to anyone in particular, nonetheless four of the King’s knights traveled to Canterbury and murdered Becket as he performed that evening’s vespers. In the eye of history, Henry did not intend for the knights to murder Becket – the King even did public penance for his words – but nonetheless Becket was murdered on his word because he was the King and his word was not only believed to be the law, but the divine word of God.

While Trump has not reached Godlike influence yet (unless you traffic the despicable r/TheDonald), the lesson is that someone with a profoundly captivated audience can convince their followers of truly heinous action without having to ask them outright. Did Donald Trump specifically convince the El Paso shooter to kill? The simple answer is that he didn’t have to. When you are a king or a president, your words have power as a speech act: you bring the law of the land, the ethos of the country, and the moral standard of common decency into being. And thereby, you are responsible for what actions you make possible within your ideological kingdom, whether that’s murdering a bishop in a church or mowing down two dozen people in a Wal-Mart.

Finally, that brings me to our very concept of “free speech.” Funnily enough, our contemporary standard for acceptable free speech is based on a theatrical metaphor. In the 1919 Supreme Court case Schenck v. United States , Justice Holmes famously argued that the limit of free speech was “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” The implication of this is that speech in the United States is protected, given that it is not false and dangerous. Unfortunately, we generally find both of these terms to be ambiguous and political: can I call something false if I disagree with it? Can I honestly call words dangerous? Who gets to decide what is true and what is dangerous?

If it were as simple as evaluating something as false and dangerous, Mr. Trump’s speech in the Panhandle would be a perfect example of falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. He falsely says that 15,000 (or, is it hundreds and hundreds?) immigrants are storming our borders and incites a panic about his inability to do something about it. And yet, there are no consequences for Donald Trump for this speech act; there are only consequences for the 22 dead in El Paso and the dozens wounded. But, that, unfortunately, is business as usual. Historically, free speech, so-called, has legally valued the speech of those who speak out against harmful realities or oppressive political regimes as equal to those who use language as a weapon to foster or incite violence, crowded theatre be damned.

Donald Trump, it seems, has just as much right to stand on the stage and scream “Fire!,” laughing as the crowd tramples each other to the exits as I do to shout “The President facilitated a threat of violence against immigrants at the border and then someone drove 10 hours to specifically kill immigrants on the border! Fire! Fire! Fire!” Is that speech really free, or simply a free-for-all?

I almost ended this essay with a joke about a “turbulent President,” but on second thought, I actually understand the consequences of inciting violence against another person. And, I’m not that hungry for digital laughter or applause.

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