A “Performative” Republic

Woe, prescriptive grammarians! Woe to the interjection’s extent!

The word “performative” has been commandeered by that indomitable blob of assimilation known as internet lingo. What used to be a descriptive term for actionable verbs is now a synonym for play-acting; to be specific, charading moral indignation.

If you bust out the Webster’s—or to keep things modish, load up dictionary.com on your mobile browser—the word is no longer accompanied by a sketch of a marriage kiss (I do) or two interlocking pinky fingers (I promise). No, what performative has become is a byword for the U.S. Congress, our great gassy schauspielhaus of public life.

Last month’s farcical siege of the Capitol was not a failed insurrection, despite the grasping media headlines. It wasn’t even an insurrection. Or an uprising. Or a treasonous reproduction of Fort Sumter. It was a gaggle of delusional Facebook conservatives in Carharts and New Balances illegally cavorting through Congress’s vaulted halls, some scrumming with police. The affirmation of the Electoral College vote was never in danger. The Biden presidency, never in question. The revolution was televised because it wasn’t a revolution. The QAnon Shaman, despite his fennel-based, kale-trimmed diet, was no Guevarista; the Pelois dais bandit was no Defarge.

The whole episode was found wanting, to put it mildly. But the left, peopled by many former theater kids, won’t accept its bathetic final act lying down. Nor will they be out-dramaturged.

If the MAGA troupe is going to put on a putsch play, then liberals, their heads buzzing with “Hamilton” lyrics and the fortissimo “Les Misérables” entr’acte, must outperform a bunch of uncouth knuckle-draggers whose idea of high melodrama is “The Fast and the Furious.” So they’ve punched out the gaffer and redirected the limelight on themselves. The drama-club acting chops that failed to nab them the role of Romeo or Juliet their senior year are now being deployed in a far greater tragedy.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went full Florence Foster Jenkins, auditioning full tilt for the Oscar for best actress. Analogizing herself to rape victims and Fallejuah veterans, she feigned survivor status, claiming that on faux-seige day, “I had a very close encounter where I thought I was going to die” and “I did not know if I was going to make it to the end of that day alive.”

Survey says, errrrrrrrrrr. Rep. Fabulist was never in the Capitol building when it was overrun with Trumpers. She was bunkered a block away, in the Cannon House Office Building. She did experience a harrowing moment when an unannounced Capitol police officer brusquely entered her office to squire her to safety—perhaps an understandably tense reaction when comparing cops to stormtroopers is a key plank in your campaign. Otherwise, Jackie Coackley from the block had little to fear.

Her comrade in contrivance, Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, is taking the same acting cues. After exaggerating her conviction to go down “banging ‘til the end” if MAGA marauders infiltrated her office (they never did, and Bush didn’t have firearms to “bang” would-be trespassers), she claimed Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene (R-QAnon) verbally accosted her in a hallway. Ex-post video provided by Greene proved that was a lie: Bush was the acoster, not acostee. But a lack of probity never detracts from a good performance. Bush has since vowed to up-sticks her congressional office to a different building to avoid Greene. Two households, both alike in indignity.

Then there is the Trump impeachment sequel, a primetime spectacle that just so happens to broadcast during normal office hours. (The unprecedented impeachment of a non-sitting president apparently can’t compete in viewership with the nth episode of “Law & Order: SVU” and the “Roseanne” reboot sans Roseanne.) There will be no suspense to the episode, no lurking coup de théâtre. The conclusion is foregone. The premise is nonsensical. But the players are in place, acting out the entire eye-crusting processual show trial, including the mock-solemn cortège.

The Trump show must go on, even if the leonine ringleader is rubbishing his own team’s rendition. Campaign coffers must be filled.

This behavior—these affectations of responsible statecraft—is what sadly passes for democratic deliberation. A Fox News hit here, an MSNBC spot there, a CNN screaming match, a few hate tweets in between, and taking a curtain call at a $10k-a-plate fundraiser to cap off the day—this is what modern governance entails. Matthew Walther sums up the motions of our phony polity into these deportments: “performative outrage, the relentless scandalmongering, the instantly devised and selectively applied litmus tests, the hysterically fideistic declarations of belief in whatever the latest consensus of the two apparent ‘sides’ happens to be.”

Every political pronouncement is overegged, its very function to “drown the stage with tears/and cleave the general ear with horrid speech.” And they’re applauded widely by thousands of Meryl Streeps in social-media comment sections.

The upshot of drama overload is that the rare attempts at compromise come off as goofy pratfalls or gaggish breakings of the fourth wall. The outrages aren’t just a crutch for keeping the bitter fundraising trains running, but a dodge of the unpleasant business of, to quote Reagan, handling conflict by peaceful means.

Our capitol city is filled with thespians, not statesmen. Is it any wonder that we put a reality-TV star in the Oval?

All the world’s a stage, and Washington, D.C., is in the round. Heaven help us if a real crisis comes to our shores; say, a fatal pandemic requiring a collective response. We may get performative advice about wearing mask sandwiches. Bah, there’s that word again!

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Taylor Lewis

Taylor Lewis writes from Virginia.

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