Nov. 7 is voting day. It’s not the big show, it’s an off-off-Broadway run not worth paying attention to, just a couple of southern governorships and abortion access in Ohio. However, those in Mississippi might want to take a look because Brandon Presley is running for governor, and he is related to Elvis Presley! Now that brings the required entertainment into politics.
If the world is a stage, the political show has been wildly entertaining over the last decade, but deadly for running the country. This is partially due to some very bad actors. More specifically, actors who are political performative narcissists. Let’s break it down: political, only delivering what you think people want to hear; performative, only showing how you want to be seen by others; narcissist, only serving the ego.
The MAGA group is particularly good at cultivating the stars for their shows. Trump provides daily master classes, but others such as Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, Marjorie Taylor Green and Vivek Ramaswamy are vying to outshine their leader. (Sadly, Ron DeSantis isn’t a part of this group, his smile is all wrong… and let’s not fault Presley just because.).
Referring to Ramaswamy in the first Republican debate, Molly Jong-Fast writes in Vanity Fair, about “…how susceptible our political and media ecosystem is to a charismatic phony … it seems clear from his polling that Republican voters are way more fixated on personality over policy and seem to long for another smooth-talking showman.” This hearkens back to the infamous film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” in which a character says about the utterly self-absorbed Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), “She is a phony, but she’s a real phony.”
The problem today is real phonies are running the country. Reality shows have become reality. Trump cultivated his performative skills in “The Apprentice,” creating a modern day narcissistic charlatan similar to the fast-talking bible-thumping Elmer Gantry. Unfortunately a vast amount of we the voters have been trained in the art of the theater by reality and game shows—we swoon over tantalizing body parts on “Naked and Afraid;” the egotistical scandals of the Kardashians and the improvisational zaniness of “Cash Cab.” Now, that’s entertainment!
Balance the budget? Develop policies on unemployment, immigration or gun violence? What a downer! Facts are boring and policies are intellectually draining. It all gets in the way of the adrenalin, the rush one feels when we are sailing in the make believe.
Elizabeth Warren is so out of fashion these days and although Joe Biden can be a savvy performer, he is too ensconced in his values, such a yesterday idea. He can still artfully throw a punch or two, but he lacks the bravado, the egotistical nonsense that makes us laugh when the bully wins.
Like it or not, we have all become addicts of “the show.” Liberals find comfort in their righteous indignation; conservatives resonate with stories of victimhood and meanwhile the media is making mega-bucks. When has politics ever been this much fun?
As a performer, let me illuminate the difference between the artist and the con-artist. Anyone trained in the art of performing learns to masterfully engage with their audience. A smile dazzles, the eyes delight. Excellent performers conjure up empathy and make us laugh at our bumbling inadequacies.
But these are just surface skills. In order to gain the trust of an audience, actions and gestures must be connected to something deeper. Truth is stored in our visceral memories—all our stories are true to our lived experiences. But not all our stories are true. Performers understand this difference, performative narcissists do not.
Brilliant performers—such as Viola Davis, who delivers a heart-breaking monologue in August Wilson’s “Fences,” or dancer Pina Bausch, who blindly stumbles through chairs in her signature work “Café Müller”—dig deeply into the content of their character in order to offer insight into the human condition, inspiring our better angels to collectively participate in the ongoing challenges of life. We, the audience, are given the space to discover, connect and expand our thinking.
Performative narcissists have learned to authentically connect to the story they want us to hear and the story they themselves want to believe. Actors such as John Wayne, Ye/Kanye West or Madonna (sadly one of my early students) are hyper-focused on getting their audience to love them. Adulation validates the story they want to believe.
Through smoke screens and magic tricks, the con-artist, swindler, huckster and snake oil salesman appeal to our worst nature not our better angels. The intention of the narcissist is to manipulate. Righteous anger is real, fear of people that don’t look like us is valid and wacky ideas that don’t have an ounce of truth are believable. Cult leaders such as Charles Manson, James Jones and David Koresh convinced thousands of people to believe the stories of their suffering, not the realities of their responsibilities. With no moral compass, they can shape shift into whatever people want them to be. Their followers will follow them anywhere, including off a cliff.
We Americans should avoid jumping off the cliff. Let’s recognize the difference between we, the audience and we, the voters. If we want to be entertained, let’s go to a show (hopefully with good actors). If we want to get things done, let’s show up on every voting day and vote for gloriously boring, political wonks.
Jan Erkert was a professor and the head of the Department of Dance at the University of Illinois, 2006- 2022. She is the author of “Harnessing the Wind,” and is currently writing “Every Body has a Body full of Wisdom, Stories of Leadership and Life.” She is a Fulbright Scholar, a Public Voices Fellow with the National OpEd Project and Director of the University of Illinois’ Alumni OpEd Project.