With the inauguration of the Biden-Harris team, today we can look forward to a new, calmer, more authentic administration — one in which people with actual experience and credentials will fill government roles, replacing the legions of unqualified family members and sycophants who populated the Trump administration. This era is going to look very different from the last four interminable years. But America loves spectacle, indulgence, glitter, and costume. We love pomp, pageantry and celebrity — even in politics. The Biden team knows this: Lady Gaga, the quintessence of big-scale spectacle, is slated to perform at the inauguration.
I’ve been thinking more than ever about how our country expresses the impulse toward dressing up since watching the January 6 attack on the Capitol, when grown men carried spears and ran around in fur hats, warpaint, tights, capes, and animal pelts. One man dressed as Uncle Sam; a woman was Lady Liberty. Someone wore a bald-eagle mask. Others just wore casual weekend wear (T- shirts, MAGA caps) but added elaborate face paint. And some used props to convey their message: Many carried flags on long poles (which got repurposed as weapons), including “Trump nation” flags. One of these featured Donald Trump with jacked muscles, a wife-beater T, and the headband Stallone wore in his Rambo movies. Trump has often tweeted just such doctored images of himself, replacing his spongy real physique and giant suits with the cut torso and muscle-wear of cinema strongmen. It’s what you might call “Rambo drag.”
Drag is more than just men dressing as women or vice versa. Drag happens anytime someone borrows an obviously new identity in order to celebrate, role-play, critique, ironize, or appropriate that identity. By those standards, January 6 was in fact a vast drag performance — and not just because of the obvious costumes.
Sometimes drag can be created through an environment, a backdrop. Consider the infamous photograph of the now-arrested Richard Barnett sitting in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. Dressed in jeans, work boots, and baseball cap, Barnett sits back in Pelosi’s desk chair, one leg defiantly propped up on her desk. This image went viral because it was so deeply disturbing, but why? Because of the incongruity. With one glance, the viewer understands that Barnett, in his weekend wear and smug expression, does not belong in this august space. He is an interloper, an intruder. His relaxed position, with a leg up on the desk, mimics the classic image of a male executive from an earlier era.
By invading Pelosi’s office and photographing himself luxuriating in it, Barnett attempts to assume her identity and “correct” it, replacing woman with man, liberal Democrat with Trumpist. It’s defilement via appropriation.
This spectacle did not surge out of nowhere. The events of January 6 are perfectly in keeping with the entire four years of the Trump administration, which has itself been one long, heavily costumed spectacle, even a kind of drag show, which invited followers to participate. Believers could even enter more fully into Trump-world by purchasing items from the enormous array of Trump-branded products: sportswear, bed linens, skin care, golf equipment, chocolates, perfume, even jewelry (including “Breathe,” a scented-fabric bracelet that promises — implausibly — to induce “calm relaxation”).
To buy, wear, or use these Trump products is to embody the promise of acquiring glamour, wealth, power, or identity via osmosis. (In this, Trump borrowed heavily from the fascists, who also created a shareable iconography to signal insider status. In the 1930s and ’40s, Nazis and their sympathizers could buy swastika-emblazoned nightgowns, wristwatches, earrings, and toasters to show their support.)
Even the character of Trump himself was shareable drag: Some participants at Trump rallies have turned up in orange wigs, bronze makeup, T-shirts printed with long red ties, or Trump masks — sharing in the theatrical excess of his persona. Women could play too. The “Trumpettes,” a group of Palm Beach dowagers who dress up as beauty-pageant contestants (in keeping with Trump’s well-known admiration for this category of woman), wore crossbody sashes and tiaras.
In its most heightened state, then, Trumpism granted license to followers to indulge desires most adults are compelled to hold in check — the desire to live a fantasy, to be “presidential” in a cinematic, superhero way. For right-wing, conservative men, such freedom is rare indeed. How many (straight) Republican men permit themselves furs, feathers, tights, and capes in public?
Trump has long made such cosplay seem acceptable. The warpaint designs sported by some seditionists were just versions of Donald Trump’s own daily mask of makeup. But the love of such things is not limited to Trumpists or crazed seditionists. Americans of all stripes admire superheroes and masquerade. And long after Trump helicopters away, the zeal for such fantasy and role-play will remain.
Arnold Schwarzenegger knows this. In the wake of the insurrection, the former California governor and movie star released a video that sums it all up almost comically. Schwarzenegger is a prominent “reasonable” (non-Trumpian) Republican, related to Democratic royalty as the former husband of Kennedy cousin Maria Shriver. His video, which went viral, called upon both his political and his cinematic careers. He spoke of democracy and the need to combat fascism. He drew movingly from his experience growing up in postwar Austria with an angry, self-loathing ex-Nazi for a father, of being an immigrant. His remarks felt eloquent and timely. As he spoke though, viewers could intermittently see that he was grasping something large, lying across his desk. Then, two-thirds of the way into the video, Schwarzenegger raised what turned out to be an enormous sword, pointing it upward at an angle from his body. “This is the Conan sword … The more you temper a sword, the stronger it becomes,” he said. He went on to compare the sword to democracy, which he declared would only grow stronger for the tempering travails it was undergoing now.
It was a moment astonishing in its lack of self-awareness. As an antidote to the violent insurrectionists in superhero costumes, carrying gigantic spears and poles, Schwarzenegger invoked … a costumed superhero he’d played in the movies and brandished a gigantic sword. Claiming the sword as a metaphor for democracy did little to mitigate the tone-deafness.
But perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger — who may well see an opening for his own brand of centrist Republicanism going forward — was aware of the irony. Perhaps he was not so much trying to debunk the insurrectionists as beat them at their own game. “Remember me? I am Conan,” he seemed to be saying. “You can find all the drag-superhero-masculinity you need right here — Look! I even have a giant, phallic sword.”