A Fox News clip from May featuring Libertarian presidential candidate Vermin Supreme made the rounds of social media recently with reactions ranging from enthusiastic support to utter disdain of Supreme being associated in any fashion with the Libertarian Party. One comment stated “Seriously maybe we ought not to back a cartoon character for POTUS. Not good for the party” and another claimed, “The LP really needs to reconsider professionalism as an alternative to the stereotypical Libertarian’s arrogantly pubescent troglodyte image.”
The primary concern appears to be that Vermin Supreme would turn voters away because of his lack of “seriousness” and his free-ponies-for-all-required-teeth-brushing performance art being taken as a representative of the entire movement. Some Party members expressed that Supreme’s potential candidacy would harm local candidates who need all of the help that they can get. However, this rhetoric blatantly ignores how the winning campaigns recently have been those that are outside of the norm.
Ukraine elected comedian Volodomyr Zelensky as their president in a landslide victory against an incumbent despite him having no political experience, beyond playing the president on television, and registering his political party this year. He promised to end the corruption in the government and to bring peace to a nation divided by separatists and teetering Russian relations.
Since his election, Zelensky has dissolved parliament to hold new elections in July, and has refused to have a presidential portrait made of himself claiming “the President is not an icon, not an idol, the President is not a portrait.” This is the image he has continued to portray: one of being outside the norm of a politician.
The world saw a similar story in 2017 when Emanuel Macron was elected France’s president on his first run for public office, and having started his political party the year prior to his election. It’s a trend that is being witnessed worldwide; many unlikely candidates are winning elections against the supposed idea of the “serious” candidates.
As stated previously Zelensky is an entertainer and won. Emmanuel Macron had an affair at age 15 with his teacher, whom he later married and still won. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was elected despite his sexist rhetoric, and seeming admiration for authoritarians, and of course the United States elected real estate mogul and reality show host Donald J. Trump.
All of these men have emerged victorious against the typical suit-and-tie-good-boy image of a politician. Since this is the case, why does Vermin Supreme still receive the ire of the masses for not being professional or tame? To me, the underlying issue lies in a lack of understanding of the shift in politics and what I will call the “political spectacle.”
The town halls, the debates, the “I’m just like you” political ads; these are all a part of the ceremony and rituals of the political spectacle where citizens slowly convince themselves that these politicians genuinely want what is best for their citizens and not just a vote. Wisecrack, the YouTube channel that discusses movies, philosophy and the broader cultural context of entertainment media, likens this spectacle to a concept in World Wrestling Entertainment called kayfabe.
Kayfabe involves using storylines, costuming, and other theatrical techniques to sell the performance of the match as being real, but the audience is still aware that it is fake. People viewing allow themselves to be fooled into belief in order to be entertained. Wisecrack notes how Kayfabe can be a tool to better understand politics and how they create storylines in order to create truth, but where I believe they went wrong was claiming that Donald Trump was the first president to really embrace it in his campaign.
I would argue that after President Theodore Roosevelt, every president has sought the same image. That of a clean-cut gentleman who women would love to bring home to their mother. They try to show that they are deeply compassionate, and truly just want to represent the will of the people; “I’m one of you, I will defend you, and together we will enact change.”
But this is just another form of kayfabe and over the years developed into the political spectacle. It’s why election years always seem like a year-long holiday combined with a season of baseball. We perform the rites of receiving mailers, watching the primaries of each state, buying t-shirts, and hats, among a countless number of other activities. Like wrestling, it’s an attempt to sell a drama and entertainment for votes where the season climaxes with the final election.
Over the last decade, however, the spectacle has been shifting, and it would appear that citizens no longer want the traditional spectacle. People are responding to politicians who can entertain like those actors and athletes that permeate their media. This new emerging spectacle is a step above the old one with even less emphasis on issues (because honestly, voters haven’t really cared about them yet) and more so on who is the bigger star.
Trump, Bolsonaro, Macron, and Zelensky all attract the same kind of attention that celebrities do whenever they’re caught galivanting in a drunken stupor or cheating on their spouses. It’s scandalous and despicable, but consumers seem to love every minute of it. I could always end up being wrong, but I believe that this is merely the beginning of a shift in the political spectacle and that candidate will become increasingly outlandish. Donald Trump didn’t win because of his ideas but because he engaged voters in the spectacle.
So, when libertarians come out against Vermin Supreme as the arbiter of doom for the liberty movement, I shake my head because they’re making judgments of Teslas by the standards of Model Ts. Based on the idea of the political spectacle, Supreme has a reasonable chance, not to win, but to certainly get more votes because he can entertain while questioning the system. At this point, I have not endorsed any LP candidate, but it would be foolish to dismiss Vermin Supreme and hold on to the image of a respectable politician.