Accusing someone of performative politics is almost always used as a pejorative in today’s commentary. This reflects a deep misunderstanding about what performativity means and how populist authoritarians use it to grab the public’s attention.
Conservatives and extreme-rightwing politicians, such as the leader of Reform UK Richard Tice, are often accused of ‘performative’ acts of cruelty. Performative in this context is used to mean the politics of spectacle: unserious, showy, emotive, bereft of ideas or higher purpose. A politics emanating from the gut not the head. The basest form of communication unworthy of critical engagement.
After experiencing the Brexit wars, the grotesque circus of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the chaos and corruption of the Boris Johnson administration, it is incredibly concerning that the media still does not understand how the extreme right communicate through performance.
Much of the media continue to labor under the illusion that figures like Trump, Nigel Farage, and Suella Braverman are interested in persuading the public using cogent arguments. Their power derives from their ability to stir high emotions. Performativity is a potent important weapon for the extreme-right. It is vitally important journalists find new ways to interpret it and explain how it operates to the public.
Origins of performativity
The British philosopher J.L. Austin coined the word ‘performativity’ in his 1962 book How to Do Things With Words. Austin argues that the performativity of language describes the physical effects words have in the world. A famous example of performative language is marriage where the words ‘I do’ create a new relationship between two individuals with tangible legal implications.
Judith Butler’s seminal books Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993) developed theories of the politics of performativity in relation to gender. Uttering the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ acts as a method of citing certain forms of expression (blue for boys, pink for girls being an obvious example). The relationship between the word and the appearance of an individual is strengthened by constant repetition (the more one sees girls and women wearing pink clothes the more one associates the colour with one gender).
Performative politics succeeds when a set of slogans and motifs begin circulating of their own accord and become a way for people to express their political identity. ‘Make America Great Again’ is therefore the most successful use of performative language this century.
Identifying with power
Butler’s key insight is that performativity allows people to identify with certain ways of speaking and forms of appearance. This kind of identification is not intellectually grounded in political or media discourse. People know it when they see it and hear it. Successful populists create strong emotional bonds between themselves and their supporters by embodying radical societal change.
The footage of a shirtless Putin riding a horse in the Russian countryside or winning Judo tournaments is a perfect example of how politicians can turn their identities into performative expressions of power and status. This is more than a superficial image of power. Performativity can determine how extreme ideology is practiced in everyday politics.
We can see this in Donald Trump’s role in the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) storyline Battle of the Billionaires in 2007. Trump was able to create a one-sided social relationship with an audience of millions through ostentatious performances of wealth and masculinity.
Trump became identifiable as a billionaire tycoon able to bend reality through his will. This was not accomplished by making political speeches or running campaigns, but through the performative effects of his presence in a semi-fictional sports tournament.
Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s description of pro-Palestinian protests as ‘hate marches,’ homelessness as a ‘lifestyle choice’ and human rights as ‘luxury beliefs’ were widely criticized as crass provocations.
The mistake was treating Braverman’s statements as shallow (albeit deliberately callous and incendiary) arguments. The outrage she courted was intended to gain maximum attention on herself as a potential future leader of the Conservative party. Her strategy is to use language to communicate a style of politics that is relentlessly confrontational and disrespectful of conventional discourse.
Braverman’s statements are designed to create the kind of brutish political culture she and the extreme right figures wish to make a reality. The meaning of the language used by authoritarian populists is secondary to their effect on public debate.
Nigel Farage is a master at this game. At a leaders’ debate during the 2015 election, he accused foreigners with HIV of ‘health tourism’ before tweeting that the NHS is not an ‘international health service’.
For his opponents, these statements are racist. For his supporters, they signal Farage’s patriotism. His words are bereft of any serious intellectual content. But they are not intended to communicate an argument. They act as performative tools to signify Farage’s commitment to rehabilitating racism. He is highly effective at using performative language to project an identity of a man whose extreme views on race and immigration represent mainstream British opinion.
Farage also understands the power of appearance to enhance his identity as an ordinary bloke. He was often seen wearing a flat cap and camel skin coat with fur trimmed collar when he was leader of UKIP. The outfit puts one in mind of someone you would see at the horse races or an antique fair. Wealthy but homely. In other words, a quintessentially British man who looked and sounded utterly familiar.
The former leader of UKIP Paul Nuttall tried to pull the same performative trick during the 2017 general election by wearing the exact same outfit. But it was not convincing. Nuttall’s appearance did not cohere with his performance as a working class Liverpudlian. He was not able to perform a version of Britishness the public could identify with.
Nigel Farage is a successful performative politician because he is able to draw on a deep reservoir of cultural references associated with ‘authentic’ Britishness: pints of ale, flat caps, a love of fishing.
The coming general election will see if Richard Tice can emulate the performativity of working-class identity Nigel Farage succeeds at projecting. So far, the signs are not looking good for the multimillionaire, who mouths the same populist platitudes and prejudices but doesn’t successfully embody them.
Suella Braverman is trying something new in her performative embrace of knee-jerk xenophobia against foreigners. As a descendant of migrants, she is attempting to use performative language to create an identity of the assimilated foreigner who ‘belongs’ in Britain because she hates the right people. There are no major precedents for this kind of performative politics. Conventional political analysis will not help us understand its long-term implications.