Farce as Tragedy

The Trump era has been a mix of farce and tragedy as it’s hard to take him seriously while his actions have fractured the state of the country with many Americans experiencing the repercussions of not taking him seriously from the beginning.

   Written by: Taylor Dorrell
   Date: January 9, 2021

Trump supporters with police inside the U.S. Capitol Building Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
Will McNamee | Getty Images

    It was the summer of 2016 and I was driving my grandmother’s 2008 Toyota Camry to Cleveland where the Republican National Convention would formalize Donald Trump as the republican nominee. It was the online discord that motivated me to make the journey with the intent of photographing what would unfold. People were claiming that the skirmishes on the streets of Cleveland would be the start of Civil War II. The city was surrounded by fencing and occupied by masses of police. Of course there ended up being little violence and the events that week amounted to little but a farce (I remember walking by the comedian Eric Andre after he embarrassed conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on an outdoor stage). The protesters protested, Trump supporters clapped for police, yelling matches took place between all parties, and by the end it all felt more like an interlude than Civil War 2.0’s spark. But it is in this farce where the very real tragedy took place, where the seed was planted.

Christian demonstrators outside the Republican National Convention, 2016. Photo: Taylor Dorrell.

    Marx famously corrected Hegel’s idea that history necessarily repeats itself when, in his Eighteenth Brumaire he claimed: ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great events and characters of world history occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’1 But the way in which fascism unfolds would seem to flip Marx’s theses. The history of fascism appears to repeat itself first as farce then as tragedy with Trump, like Hitler, being treated as a joke at first. Trump’s presidency seemed as though it started in the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner when Obama and others made fun of Trump for thinking about running. His official announcement years later was met with the same mockery. This was matched by so much of the photographs being taken that made Trump supporters look like stupid caricatures (although this is organic and not necessarily intentional). Then once 2016 winded down things got a little too serious after he won the nomination, the presidency, and his regime began implementing fascist policies. He was eventually taken seriously, but with a grain of salt since these fascist policies were ushered in by a reality tv star.

Outside of a Trump rally, Cincinnati, OH, 2016. Photo: Taylor Dorrell.
    But was not the real tragedy the fact that Trump was treated as a joke and the subsequent fascist regime was the farcical lesson to the world that the Trumps and Hitlers should be dealt with at the beginning? It was the mocking of Trump by the Washington elites that spoke to the working class white voters fed up with the “elites” (excluding Trump). There is a well known quote from the 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Keirkegaard who tells a brief story: “A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that's just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it's a joke.” In many ways Trump and the neo-fascists who tend to be former actors or non-serious seeming individuals are the farce following the tragedy of 20th century fascism that could only be considered as tragedies after the fire had developed beyond control. Of course in these cases it is the clown who started the fire and knows that yelling about it will only lead to laughter. Most are scared of clowns anyway, they [Trump and neo-fascists] much more closely resemble the clown from Stephen King’s IT than of a comic relief.

Andrew Harnik | Credit: AP

    In his introduction to a new edition of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire Marcuse reminds us that sometimes the historical repetition under the guise of farce can be more serious than the original tragedy. After defeating fascism in the 20th century, the Marshall Plan sought to prevent the next Hitler through addressing the very real economic circumstances that created him. The decades of austerity measures in the U.S. have bred the same resort to fascism and the question should be whether or not this will be addressed by Biden’s administration. Bernie Sanders has already addressed this concern in recent interviews, reminding Americans that Obama didn’t mobilize early in his administration to provide Americans with the change that Obama promised. Will Biden, who was Obama’s vice president, make the same mistake and spark an even more radical turn to fascism in the elections to come?

Rioters enter the US capitol Building on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. © Win McNamee, AFP

    The images of the storming of the Capitol are hard to take seriously as the fur hat guy breaks through police barriers next to a small cross-eyed man and a vaping woman sits at a congresspersons desk. The overwhelming number of memes that have followed signal this dialectic of tragedy and farce. Even the deaths of rioters have become travesties - one man accidentally tazed himself in the balls leading to a heart attack, a woman carrying a “don’t tread on me” flag was trampled to death, a woman who retweeted that traitors should be shot was subsequently shot herself, and rioters (many who proclaim that “blue lives matter”) killed a cop by throwing a fire extinguisher at his head. While many on the left are able to navigate this terrain (they take it seriously, calling for impeachment, but also make the memes), many on the right are stuck within cynical conspiracy realm where anyone who can screenshot a random conspiracy theory typed in their notes app suddenly create a new belief system for millions.

Trump supporters gesture to U.S. Capitol Police in the hallway outside of the Senate chamber after breaching the halls of the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

    Sen. Cory Booker rightly made a parallel in American history claiming that there were two times “where individuals laid siege to our capitol”: the War of 1812 and today. He goes on to compare the 2021 rioters to the British, both wanting to destroy democracy - in 1812 in favor of a monarchy and in 2021 for Donald Trump. While the fascist connection appears to flip Marx’s formulation, but ultimately supports it dialectically (Trump is the farce of Hitler and the real tragedy is treating fascism as a farce), the connection to American democracy is a much tighter fitting glove in Marx’s formulation. While many Trump supporters continue to squirm with conspiracy theories justifying what happened, some are more aware of their ideology, supporting the idea of a Christian monarchy headed by Trump. All of course fall into the funnel of farce. But perhaps the real farce exists in a future in which another smarter version of Trump rises to power and exploits the farcical and cynical nature of Americans. It’s hard to imagine where media and memes will be in 10-20 years, but it doesn’t seem as though we have learned from history and it will continue to repeat itself, first as tragedy then as farce.


  1. Karl Marx, "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:' in Surveys From Exile, edited and introduced by David Pernbach, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1973, p. 146.