Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1984) concept of the carnivalesque provides insight into Trump’s ability to subvert dominant political conventions through humor and chaos, maximizing entertainment value as he flouts presidential norms. But this concept alone cannot do full justice to explaining the ongoing, day-to-day spectacle of Trump’s presidency. To better understand the Trump phenomenon, I suggest we borrow a concept from the world of professional wrestling where hyperreality converges with spectacle to produce the same strange amalgamation of bravado, hyperbole, and exaggeration (and outright lies) that marks Trumpian politics. That concept is kayfabe.
In American vernacular of the day, bully (as an adjective) meant “very good; first-rate.” Combined with pulpit, or a speaking platform, Theodore Roosevelt used the term to refer to the power that the presidency gave him to speak and be heard on vital issues facing the nation, from labor rights to political corruption to consumer food and drug safety. But under the presidency of Donald J. Trump, that advocacy-oriented bully pulpit as originally conceived by Roosevelt has morphed into a crude platform to engage in bullying behavior.