No one I know of has foreseen an America like the one we live in today. No one (except perhaps the acidic H. L. Mencken, who famously described American democracy as “the worship of jackals by jackasses”) could have imagined that the 21st-century catastrophe to befall the U.S.A., the most debasing of disasters, would appear not, say, in the terrifying guise of an Orwellian Big Brother but in the ominously ridiculous commedia dell’arte figure of the boastful buffoon. —Philip Roth, New York Times (1/16/2018)
On January 8, 1975, in the first lecture Michel Foucault presented in that year’s series for the College de France he briefly introduced—and then set aside—a remarkable idea: grotesque sovereignty.
For Foucault, grotesque sovereignty can be thought of as “the maximization of the effects of power on the basis of the disqualification of the one who produces them.” He did not consider this phenomenon to be an exception to the usual exercise of power, but to be inherent within its mechanisms. “Political power,” he claimed, “at least in some societies, and anyway in our society, can give itself, and has actually given itself, the possibility of conveying its effects and, even more, finding their source, in a place that is manifestly, explicitly, and readily discredited as odious, despicable, or ridiculous.” He goes on to suggest that, “The grotesque is one of the essential processes of arbitrary sovereignty. But you know also that the grotesque is a process inherent to assiduous bureaucracy.”
Foucault understood grotesque sovereignty not to be a ritualistic exercise of power through the humiliation and abjection of the ruler, as in archaic societies. “Rather, it seems to me to be a way of giving striking form of expression to the unavoidability, the inevitability of power, which can function in its full rigor and at the extreme point of rationality even when in the hands of someone who is effectively discredited.”
In a strange, almost uncanny observation concerning this grotesque sovereignty at work, he noted, “But once again, from Nero, perhaps the founding figure of the despicable sovereign, down to the little man with trembling hands crowned with forty million deaths who, from deep in his bunker, asks for two things, that everything else above him be destroyed and that he be given chocolate cakes until he bursts, you have the whole outrageous functioning of the despicable sovereign.”
Foucault immediately dropped the subject, though not without regret, saying, “I have neither the strength, not the courage, nor the time to devote this year’s course to such a theme.” (One wonders whether which—or possibly all—of the examples he had before him—of the then quite recent resignation of the American president Richard Nixon, and the more general passing through history of the decrepit Mao of China, the decrepit Brezhnev of the USSR, and the absurd clinging to power of the ancient fascist Franco in Spain—were his models for the grotesque at the time he wrote.) Were he still with us, he may have had more to contribute to our current understanding of the recrudescence of the grotesque in our time in the form of the presidency of Donald Trump, a man well acquainted with chocolate cake.
Indeed, to pick up on Foucault’s insight now is to reflect upon the crisis of sovereign power in the era of late neoliberalism. In this sense, Trump’s election and the subsequent attack on democratic institutions, culture and social life by the Christian conservative Right, combined with the increasingly overt power of dark money—the recent national tax cut and “reform” was openly admitted by Republican members of Congress to be the result of a threat by such luminaries as the Koch brothers to withhold financial support should a tax cut not become law—can be understood as the culmination of a long march to the right. It began with the formation of the Moral Majority in the 1970s and the revolt against the post-New Deal domestic consensus in the wake of the 1960s civil rights movement.
Foucault briefly mentioned the buffoonery of Mussolini as being essential to this way of enforcing power. We can see a similar buffoonery in Donald Trump. His grandiose expressions of the superlative character of everything he does, his extreme self-pity, his vulgarity, his sprayed-on suntan, his hair, his “why-does- everyone-laugh-at-my-mighty-sword” red ties, his exaggerated claims of accomplishments, his obvious lies, his denigration of his opponents, especially the press, as enemies of the people, his history of sexual assault and braggadocio about that history—and any sentient adult human being in the United States who has failed to avoid the bombardment of Trumpisms and Trumpian moments over the first year of his administration can add to this list—all operate, in their very clumsiness, to advance the project of grotesque sovereignty.
Earlier in his administration, some tried to claim that Trump is artful, clever, playing three-dimensional chess, fooling his opponents into thinking he is preparing some sort of trap for them. After all, the claim is, he did win the American presidency. But this claim is mistaken. The phenomenon of grotesque sovereignty does not depend upon the skills of the subject assuming power, but is inherent in the exercise of power under conditions of disqualification. That is, when the dysfunctionality of the system of power and administration reaches a certain point—we might call it a point when its operation is no longer competent, as measured by a variety of factors—the possibility, indeed, one might argue, the likelihood of grotesque sovereignty arises. This is when there is a disqualification of the system itself. This is a moment when a disqualified power continues to operate while the operator becomes an object of ridicule. Read Part Two here.
THOMAS DUMM is the William H. Hastie '25 Professor of Political Science and the Chair of Political Science at Amherst College.