This is a guest post from Cynthia Weber, who is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. Cindy is the author, most recently, of Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Power which was the subject of a symposium hosted by The Disorder of Things.
The US satirical website The Onion recently ran a fake testimonial video featuring a remorseful Donald Trump supporter. The 2-minute clip is entitled ‘Trump Voter Feels Betrayed By President After Reading 800 Pages of Queer Feminist Theory’. The video features the character ‘Mike Bridger, Former Trump Supporter’, a middle-aged, working class, cishet white male from a small steel town in Pennsylvania. The balding Mike is shot in documentary talking-head style. Mike sits facing the camera, both so that his truthfulness can be evaluated by viewers and so that what US Americans will recognize as his iconic working-class garb is fully in view – dark tan zip-up jacket, olive-green button-down shirt open at the collar, white t-shirt visible underneath. Accompanied by slow music which sets a troubled, post-catastrophe tone, Mike tells his story.
‘I voted for Donald Trump,’ Mike tells us. ‘I voted for Trump because I thought he’d create a better America for everyone. But after reading 800 or so pages on queer feminist theory, I realize now just how much I’ve been duped.’
Thanks to his reading of ‘foundational texts on intersectional theory’ and his attendance at ‘a gender-fluid, non-binary poetry slam at Swarthmore [College]’ Mike became convinced that the Trump campaign lied to him about Hillary Clinton being ‘the enemy’. As Mike explains, ‘it’s clear now that the true enemy is a patriarchal capitalist society that maintains its ascendance by making powerful and ambitious women appear threatening, only to protect my status in a system purposefully designed to benefit cishet white men like myself.’
After spouting another paragraph-long sentence of complex queer feminist theory, Mike homes in on his betrayer and his redeemer. He puts it like this, ‘I like Trump because I thought he tells it like it is. But you know who really tells it like it is? Judith Butler.’
Mike holds up a dog-eared copy of Butler’s Gender Trouble, complete with pink post-it notes marking key pages. Donning his reading classes, Mike recites this passage from the book, ‘Gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which “sexed nature” or “a natural sex” is produced and established as prediscursive, prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts’.
After his reading, Mike turns his head slowly from the book to the camera, which lingers on Mike’s smug expression. Mike continues, ‘If I had just known that back in November, I would have never voted for Trump. God. How could I have been so stupid?’, Mike asks his exacerbated self. Mike looks away from the camera, as if he cannot bear the truth of his own testimony. The video cuts to The Onion logo, as the music resolves with a muffled drum boom.
This video quickly went round the Twittersphere, generating some 14K retweets and 23K likes. While a few viewers unfamiliar with The Onion mistook ‘Mike’s testimony’ as genuine, most viewers got the joke, although they found the joke funny for different reasons. What allows viewers to enjoy the joke differently is how the video is an (ironic) wink and nod to (queer feminist) intellectuals that is structured in relation to two sets of ideas that inform wider US debates. Those ideas are right-wing populism and anti-genderism.
If right-wing populism is ‘the great resentment’ of ‘the culturally homogenous ordinary people’ against those defined as ethnic, national and/or religious ‘others’ and against establishment politicians and cultural elites who favor ‘them’ over ‘the people’, then anti-genderism is a specific form of that ‘great resentment’. Anti-genderism mobilizes resentment against ‘gender ideologues’ for their promotion of pluralist politics and ‘political correctness’, which their critics claim advance the interests of women, queers, people of color, people with disabilities, and migrants at the expense of ‘the common interests’ of ‘the culturally homogenous ordinary people’.
Playing off of right-wing populism and anti-genderism, The Onion video does more than make fun of Mike Bridger’s intellectual and political enlightenment through his reading of queer feminist theory. It enables anti-genderism to be employed as a ‘specific psycho-social defense mechanism’ against queer feminist critiques of right-wing populism. The result is to leave intact right-wing populist constructions of ‘the people’ that valorize right-wing political agendas, while de-authorizing alternative understandings and enactments of the popular will by alliances of queer feminists, anti-racists and anti-Fascists that demand political and economic justice for all US citizens. This is how the video works.
Mike Bridger: Trump Supporter and ‘Real US American’
The Onion video figures ‘Mike Bridger, Trump Supporter’ as emblematic of that US demographic that is popularly (and wrongly) understood to have swung the election for Trump – rural, working class, cishet, white men. These are the markers of identity that Mike claims for himself. A US audience would also assume that Mike is able-bodied, Christian, and of European dissent. As queer-feminist-enlightened Mike acknowledges, this locates him squarely within hegemonic US patriarchal masculinity. It also locates Mike squarely within ‘Real US Americanness’ as it was defined by Trump in his presidential campaign and in his inaugural address.
‘Real US Americanness’ roots Mike not just in hegemonic identity categories but in a proper relationship to three US imaginaries: the American Dream, the Melting Pot Myth and US Patriotism.
The American Dream tells US citizens that they can become sovereign over their own destinies through individualistic wealth creation, which is as good for them as individuals as it is good for the collective US sovereign state’s capitalist project as a whole. Mike’s age and occupation mark him as a man who has felt the terms of his employment and his grip on the American Dream deteriorate through his lifetime. It is not that Mike has given up on the American Dream; the American Dream has given up on Mike.
Donald Trump offered guys like Mike a clear explanation for why this happened. The American Dream was stolen from ‘ordinary people’ by their enemies, who are recent immigrants, Muslims, Mexican Americans, African Americans, and anyone else who was getting an unfair advantage from the politically-correct, rigged system (some women, some of ‘the gays’), or anyone who was channeling those unfair advantages to undeserving groups. In the Trump narrative, ‘corrupt politicians’ like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were culpable for policies that favored ‘America’s enemies’. More damningly, Obama and the Clintons championed these policies because they are out of touch with ‘Real US Americans’ like Mike. In contrast, the Trump campaign portrayed Donald Trump as an average guy who had achieved his American Dream and had the business know-how to help fellow ‘Real US Americans’ like Mike achieve their American Dreams.
By identifying some US citizens as enemies of ‘ordinary people’, the Trump campaign tapped into and hardened prejudices about who is and is not a ‘meltable US American’. First-wave, white or whitened, European Christian immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Poland – in other words, people like Mike – are meltable; everyone else – ‘the black’, ‘the Hispanics’, ‘the radical Islamic terrorists’ – are not (necessarily). This is how the Trump campaign rewrote the US Melting Pot myth.
The Trump campaign justified the fear and anger Trump supporters felt toward these ‘unmeltable US Americans’, not just because unmeltable Americans denied Mike the American Dream. Mike could chant ‘Lock her up’ about Hillary or ‘Build the wall’ on the US-Mexico border or support a total ban on Muslims in the US because none of the affected people are ‘Real US Americans’ in Trump’s terms. They are threats to ‘Real US Americans’ – economically, culturally and politically. This goes a long way toward explaining how Trump made right-wing nationalism the standard of patriotism for ‘Real US Americans’ like Mike.
It is Mike’s ‘Real US Americanness’ as much as his race, class, religion, ability, gender and sexuality that figure him as an ‘ordinary American’. Mike’s ‘Real US Americanness’ is what allows the video to establish the political question of the Trump age as ‘Who can provide effective leadership for “Real US Americans”?’ For ‘Real US Americans’, the electoral choice was not really between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. It was between a populist candidate like Trump who speaks for ‘Real US Americans’ and intellectual elites like Butler who are hopelessly out of touch with ‘Real US Americans’. So when Mike earnestly (and ironically) confesses, ‘I voted for Trump because I thought he’d create a better America for everyone’, what he is actually saying is ‘I had no choice but to vote for Trump because intellectual elites cannot provide effective leadership for ‘everyone’. And when Mike speaks of ‘everyone’, he means every ‘Real US American’ like himself, not undeserving ‘others’ like unwanted immigrants, Muslims, minorities (especially Blacks) and feminist women.
‘The Queer Feminist’ of Anti-Genderism
Enter Judith Butler. Or, rather, do not enter Judith Butler. For the figure of Butler presented in The Onion video is of the absent, unintelligible guru who is the originator of the unchanging word. The queer feminist word is materialized through Butler’s unlikely orator and keeper of the book, Mike Bridger. Stripped of any other materiality, this figuration of Butler easily conforms to the stereotypes of those ‘cultural establishment elites’– queer, female-identified, not or not-quite white, non-Christian, feminist intellectuals – that belittle and threaten ‘Real US Americans’ like Mike. And they’re smug. Their smugness is perfectly performed by Mike, who is the humble everyman until he reads from the book of Judith and is transformed into a highbrow, haughty intellectual.
Juxtaposed to the video’s portrayal of ‘ordinary Mike’ as ‘the Real US American’ up to this point, Mike’s reading of and reaction to Gender Trouble tells us that ‘ordinary Americans’ who voted for Trump are of the world and ‘queer feminists’ are of the self-serving text. It supports the idea that ‘the Trump Supporter’ understands and moves with the political times, while the politics of ‘the queer feminist’ is only meaningful to politically stagnant ivory tower attendees of a ‘gender-fluid, non-binary poetry slam’. It justifies why Mike had no choice but to vote for Trump.
For ‘Real US Americans’, this makes the politics of ‘the queer feminist’ comical, so long as it is limited to the absurd celebration of the absurd text. But since the gender theory of ‘gender ideologues’ broke through the barricades of Gender and Queer Studies Departments, it is said to pose a threat to the family, the nation, and humanity itself. No one embodies this threat more acutely than the archetypal hate figure of anti-genderism Judith Butler.
Butler’s book Gender Trouble was critiqued in the theological writings of Cardinal Ratzinger, heavily implied in his 2008 address to the Roman Curia once he became Pope Benedict XVI, and lingers in Pope Francis’s concerns about ‘gender indoctrination’. It was the Vatican that coined the term ‘gender ideology’ back in 2000. Since then, ‘genderism’, ‘genderization’, ‘gender-terror’, and even ‘gender mainstreaming’ have been attacked by a range of conservative, right-wing populist and neo-Nazi groups. As Eva von Redecker points out, ‘Anti-genderism is of unique importance to a right-wing hegemonic project….It gives [different reactionary camps] a common default while they differ diametrically on questions such as religion, social policy and the role of the state. It also creates a shared ground on which the racist and anti-immigrant propaganda of those various groups is situated in such a way that the most extreme positions do not seem isolated and absurd but are taken to reflect nothing more than the ultimate point of a perceived continuum’. And it offers them a ‘psycho-social defense mechanism’ to combat critiques of their prejudices and phobias.
The Onion video not only illustrates how humor is another defense mechanism in the arsenal of anti-genderism, as another way to protest against ‘too much intellectual “meddling” with the established foundations of patriarchal hierarchy’. The video itself can be taken up as part of that arsenal. Even if the nuanced references of the joke – to Butler, Gender Trouble and academic-facing queer feminism more generally – are intended to be (ironically) enjoyed by in-the-know (left-wing) academics and intellectuals who laugh with The Onion at queer feminist style not queer feminist substance, the joke is less likely to mobilize these constituencies politically than it is to shame them for their presumed political retreat into academic smugness. Yet anti-genderism would not exist if queer feminists were not having real-world political impacts. This is why the video requires the book of Judith to stand in for Judith Butler herself, who isn’t just politically active in ways that make tangible differences in the world but is also self-deprecatingly funny.
Rather than mobilizing the left, The Onion video can be a powerful tool for further mobilizing the right. The conservative think tank The David Horowitz Freedom Center, whose mission is to ‘Identify the enemy’ and ‘Devise ways to defeat him’, shared the video on its truthrevolt.org website under this comment: ‘…once in a while the left-leaning satirical website The Onion throws the right a bone…’. In the comments thread for the post, Joatmoaf calls the video ‘THE best FemiNazi Troll videos I’ve ever seen’. This resonates with Trubuchet’s claim that ‘mockery is the best way to attack the leftists, because they are utterly humorless and think far too highly of themselves’. Bhushan Sayye agrees, adding that this is a lesson the right is learning from right-wing Trump supporter Milo Yiannopoulos.
Whether it was intended to or not, The Onion video complements the far right agenda of ‘weaponizing humor’ to take down their enemies while deflecting charges of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and anti-genderism. Its humor plays better than the other anti-genderism defense mechanisms von Redecker identifies, whether these are a ‘masculinity turned hysterically violent at the threat of its own instability’ or ‘the obsessive paranoia of those who try to secure the “purity” of a natural gender…’. Most worryingly, The Onion video enables right-wing populists and others along the spectrum of ‘hatred fuelling anti-genderism’ to shield themselves behind the perfect alibi: ‘It’s just a joke. And it’s a joke even queer feminists found funny’.
Of course queer feminists get the joke. Queer feminists have been making jokes like this about themselves for decades. But if The Onion’s joke on queer feminists challenges them to articulate their political critiques in more accessible ways, the joke also allows those on the right to laugh away queer feminist critiques, even as they ‘[target and weaken] exactly that body of critical knowledge which would promise insightful diagnoses of what [the US] is faced with politically at the moment: the mutual reinforcement of racism and sexism, the acceleration of political polarization driven by sexualized fantasies, the ideological construction of pure and homogenous societies by part of the population, and the diversion of attention from many important political problems by a pseudo-pornographic focus on a few disconnected issues’ (my brackets).
Because it relies upon right-wing populism to inform its caricatures of ‘the queer feminist’ and ‘the Real US American’, The Onion video not only lays the blame for the unbridgeable gap it constructs between ‘cultural elites’ and ‘the people’ squarely at the feet of queer feminists. More troublingly, it encourages the idea that to reject anti-genderism is to reject the genuine concerns of ‘the people’. This is nonsense. But it is a powerful nonsense that fuels a variety of populisms, especially right-wing populisms. This nonsense willfully ignores how – at least since the dawn of popular sovereignty – one of the most important political acts has been to decide who amongst the citizenry counts as ‘the people’ and who does not.
‘We The People’
In the age of Trump, the stakes of The Onion video and its various uses are much higher than who is laughing and why. The stakes are about how the video leaves uncontested a particular right-wing-populist-informed construction of ‘the people’ as the popular will, while enabling the de-authorization of political alternatives proposed by queer feminists.
Yet even as it licenses those on the right to dismiss queer feminists, The Onion video does recognize that queer feminists imagine ‘the people’ differently than do right-wing populists. That’s why queer feminists are such a threat to right-wing populists. Queer feminists oppose right-wing populist attempts to define ‘the US people’ as ‘Real US Americans’ who must be set against ‘others’ including immigrants, Muslims, women, and minorities. This leads many queer feminists to ally themselves with anti-racists and anti-Fascists in support of more complicated expressions and enactments of a popular will that foreground demands for political, economic and social justice nationally and globally. These demands might still be made in the name of ‘the people’, without necessarily being made in the name of populism. For if populism tries to erase the political work that goes into claims to speak on behalf of ‘the people’, these queer feminists reject the assumption that ‘the people’ preexist political acts that call them into existence, without shirking from their political responsibility to support anti-racist and anti-Fascist enactments of ‘the people’.
Not so long ago, one of them put it like this: ‘We stand and sit and move as the popular will that electoral politics has forgotten and abandoned. But we are here, time and again, persistent, enacting the phrase “We the people”.’
Who said that? Judith Butler.