Conservative Historian

Politics as Performance: Boris, Julius, and AOC

September 26, 2021 Bel Aves
Conservative Historian
Politics as Performance: Boris, Julius, and AOC
Show Notes Transcript

What is the difference between performance, as in carrying out an action, and performance as an act of entertainment.  We look to Boris Yeltsin, Julius Caesar, Margaret Thatcher and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for answers.  

Performance as Politics – Boris, Julius, and AOC

September 2021


David Boaz, writing in 2016 for the Cato Institute, penned an article about Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, “Russian hard-liners had staged a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. On that morning of August 19, 1991, as the coup plotters issued a declaration of a new Soviet president and seized control of Russian media, supporters of democracy gathered at the Russian parliament. And Boris Yeltsin, the new president of the Russian Soviet Socialist Federal Republic, decided to go out and speak to the soldiers and people outside the parliament building. He climbed up on a tank and rallied opposition to the coup. Two days later, it collapsed, and Yeltsin was a national hero. As I wrote when Yeltsin died in 2007: More than any other man, Boris Yeltsin moved the Russian people from tyranny to a rough approximation of freedom. For that, he is one of the authentic heroes of the 20th century.” 


Was this display necessary? Would Yeltsin have accomplished his goal without the theatrical performance atop that war machine? We cannot know, but we do know that this act caught the world’s attention in a way that a simple statement could not have done.  


During Gaius Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, he sent a stream of correspondence back to the Senate and People of Rome. His book Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War, often called The Conquest of Gaul), was essentially a propaganda piece (published as a whole in 53 BCE) justified his military and political actions during the nine-year campaign in Gaul (and a short jaunt into Britain). Caesar was the master of making one thing accomplish several goals, and this was no exception. He kept the government informed of his actions, he was able to tout his considerable successes, and he demonstrated his brilliance at writing as well as politics and generalship.  


According to the 2nd century C.E. author Plutarch in his Life of Alexander (6.1-5), Bucephalus was given to Alexander’s father, Philip II. The horse proved to be too vicious and unmanageable and would not allow anyone to mount him. Alexander, about 12 or 13 years old at the time, undertook the challenge to tame the horse, much to the amusement of the older men around him. Alexander, however, had noticed that the horse was afraid of its shadow and gently turned its head toward the sun and was able to mount him and attach the bridle. Philip II was so impressed and declared that Alexander would secure for himself a large kingdom, as Macedonia was too small for him. Since Alexander reigned in the 300s BCE, nearly 500 years prior to Plutarch’s account, we can safely say this depiction was not a 1st person narrative. Assuming if the story were true, this is more politics as performance, but I have always harbored skepticism for this tale. Though the Phalanx, an infantry unit in which 16-foot pikes or sarissas were packed together, was always the core of the Macedonian army, the quick-strike aspect was the companion cavalry, the elite unit of the military. So, we are to understand that Phillip, and the older men around him, who all probably spent as much time astride horses in riding and battle as they did not on their own feet, were wholly unaware that a shadow might spook a horse? Through the auspices of Plutarch, performative politics became performative history. As the actor, Carleton Young, who is all but forgotten except for his immortal turn as the newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, delivers this famous line, “When the legend and the facts are at odds, “Print the legend.”


In the Civil War, George B. McClellan was so successful in the performance or appearance of military competence that the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac rejoiced when he retook command before the battle of Antietam. They adored “Little Mac” in a way that they never would for George Meade despite the latter leading them to a victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, or Ulysses S Grant. The reason why most people know of Grant may be that he was a two-term president and that he was buried in that eponymous tomb. Oh, he won. Little Mac was severely beaten during the Seven Days campaign by Robert E Lee despite enjoying a nearly two-to-one advantage. Technically, McClellan won at Antietam over Lee. As Lee struggled back to Virginia, Little Mac did not follow up despite having almost 20,000 fresh troops to deploy.  


The nature of politics as a profession depends not so much on accomplishments or success but the appearance of accomplishments and success. Moreover, a political figure relies on a group of followers committed to them, often in a personal way. So there is usually, but not always, a sense of the performance. But where in the performance is the substance?


Few figures fused these like Margaret Thatcher. Not surprisingly, given her conservative bona fides, Anna Leszkiewicz of the New York Times sniffs, “Between 1979 and 1990, Thatcher delivered speeches to the public in a patronizing, slow voice, accompanied by a stern expression and under a thick starchy halo of hair. She had a very distinctive walk and relished her reputation as “the Iron Lady,” in public favoring a uniform of skirt suits with shoulder pads and a rigid handbag that seemed to be an extension of her arm.”


Thatcher was undoubtedly performing, but she also was a figure of great substance. Upon her death in 2013, former Prime Minister David Cameron summed up the consensus from friend and foe alike that the Iron Lady was “a great Briton. As our first woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher succeeded against all the odds,” Cameron said. “The real thing about Margaret Thatcher is that she didn’t just lead our country, she saved our country, and I believe she’ll go down as the greatest British peacetime prime minister.”


And this comes to the politics of the day. Arguably the two most successful politicians of our time are Nancy Pelosi, the only person to be nominated as Speaker by her party after losing the gavel, and Mitch McConnell. By success, I do not mean influence over societal norms nor number of Instagram followers. Instead, it is about getting legislation of their choosing through the system. You know, the stuff that they are actually elected to do. But these two are not the ones driving the cultural narrative. And their politics are very much that the of the reactive. Pelosi is a more traditional California liberal (more than she would like to admit). However, the voice and driver of the center-left and far-left agenda is Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Ocasio Cortez, or AOC as she often is named, aspires to intellectualism. However, her actual utterances are those of the insipid freshman undergrad who is midway through their first poly sci course. 

She maintains an air of working-class roots, but her father owned his own business, and she attended Boston University, hardly the college of choice for the lunch bucket crowd. She revels in her Latina heritage, but when it came time to send money to her Puerto Rican Abuela, she demurred instead purchasing a Tesla, color white, of course, her best look. And though it is rarely mentioned for fear of seeming to be vapid, or a charge of misogyny, if she looked more like Jabba the Hutt than a beautiful young woman, she would not have achieved the heights she now enjoys, especially with her host of shortcomings elucidated above. But it is not looks or minority status alone. Ocasio Cortez has an instinctual sense of online and on-camera performance.


When delivering a scripted speech, she lacks the patina of soaring rhetoric, the hallmark of Barack Obama. She does not make those audience connections that were the core of the Bill Clinton touch. And unlock Nancy Pelosi, she does not convey the sense of insinuation like she is letting you in on some unknown conspiracy that the other side is doing some dastardly deed. Rather she is bland. But when speaking into the now omnipresent iPhone or pontificating on a Tik Tok video, she becomes compelling in a way that the more seasoned politicians above cannot replicate.  


Also, in a twist of fate, the Majority leader of the Senate, Chuck Schumer, hails from the same state as AOC. A 2000s era Schumer was undoubtedly a man of the Democratic party favoring unions, the environment, and greater social services. But today’s Schumer seems more like Bernie Sanders than the pragmatic Schumer of 20 years ago. Part of Schumer’s support emanated from the financial nabobs of Manhattan, so that always reined in his appetite for things such as higher taxes. But a fearing a run from the left flank conducted by AOC, Schumer is now in lockstep with his democratic socialist allies. Another reason to abhor primaries. 

The 70-year Schumer simply does not understand the new performative part of his role and the 31-year-old AOC. 


We now live in a country where people live their lives online, in the spotlight, and on stage. 

Instead of a raised platform or a box theater, their stage is Facebook, Instagram, Snap, YouTube, and Tik Tok. Ocasio Cortez understands this, embraces it, and lives life online.  


And this brings us to the Met Gala, like Peggy Noonan, writing in the Wall Street Journal, noted, “The Met Gala the other night showed the elite of a major industry losing the thread. Google the pictures. It was a freak show. There was no feeling of a responsibility to present to the world a sense of coherence or elegance, to show a thing so beautiful it left the people who saw it aspiring to something they couldn’t even name. All this was presided over by a chic and cultivated woman who is cunning and practical. If freaky is in, she’s going freaky deaky to the max. Follow the base, even if it’s sick. Do not lead. Leading is impossible now.”  


And here is the difference between the performance and the politics. The legend spun around Alexander was in service to the warlike spirit of the ancient world. Caesar’s Gallic commentaries were meant to continue support for what turned out to be a 9-year campaign of conquest. Thatcher’s persona was to emphasize policies that were meant, and in actuality, succeeded in lifting the United Kingdom out of its 1970s malaise caused by quasi-socialist policies. Yeltsin’s tank performance was meant to stop the hard-liners from regaining power and reconstituting the Soviet Empire.  


But what exactly is AOC’s performance supposed to invoke. Well, the first thought is the green new deal or redistributive government. But the linkage to those goals and her lifestyle is tenuous. It is difficult to preach the need for the redistributive government for the poor and attend a $30,000 a person soiree clad in a dress representing 10% of per annual income for the common folk. She can write all of the Tax the Rich screeds on all the dresses in the world, but doing it in an event where a table runs close to a million dollars seems just a tad disconnected. It was also not lost on social media that Joe Biden talked of a vaccine mandate and demanded mask-wearing the same week. The gala attendees were all maskless, yet the servants surrounding them were all sporting face coverings. There was no Cinderella at this ball. It is as if the stepsisters were the ones with the glass slippers.  


Thatcher was exposed to some extreme opposition, including more timid members of her party. Yeltsin put his life at risk. Yet as Noonan observes above, AOC and most politicians today are not in service to their base but fear their disfavor. Thus, they tax the rich emblem on the back. See, AOC is sticking it to the swells, though, of course, she is one of them.  


This is the phenomenon on the right as well. I have watched several Fox News host twist themselves into pretzels to defend the unvaccinated, citing everything from herd immunity to, correctly, noting all of the illegal immigrants crossing the border - unvaxxed. And both of these points are meaningless to the value of the vaccines. If the vaccines combined with herd immunity create super immunity, then get the shot. If the illegals are unvaxxed, then that is another justification for a controlled, orderly immigration process. The Democrats, secretly and sometimes openly, do not desire (all of those illegals are viewed as Democratic voters in the future). So citing them is a weak defense for protecting the choice to go without getting the vaccines. 


And as an advocate of personnel choice, I often note that the “right to healthcare” is problematic because if someone also eats Twinkies as their three meals of the day, why should I have to pay for their insulin. You can defend unvaxxing as a personal choice, but you cannot also complain about not getting treatments in the E.D. when there is almost no evidence that vaccines are harmful. And here is the most incredible hypocrisy. All those Fox News and right-wing hosts are vaxxed. Which should make them advocates. But their audience is turning anti-vax, so that is what they get. Yet there is a difference between a cable news host, paid based on their audience size, catering to their whims, and elected politicians. Even President Trump, darling of a particular bloc of the right, was booed for advocating the vaccines that his own administration developed. It will be interesting to see if, in the future, he maintains his pro-vaccine position.  


In the past 230 years we have had two presidents who have made either a total, or a partial living by performing. Donald Trump enjoyed success, and some failures, as a real estate developer, football team owner and airline operator.  But he was he hosted the number 1 TV show in the land in the first season of the apprentice. It was a performance but a performance as himself. Yet of his policies he really only believed in two of them. Higher tariffs and immigration control which is why I am certain of Trump’s future stance on vaccines


The other performer, in terms of being paid as such, was Ronald Reagan. Yet many believed that his delivery or his speeches were effective because he was a trained performer. They missed the essential passion of the man.  He certainly believed in his policies, and to an extent he believed in himself, but what he really believed in was the idea of the United States of America.  Reagan was at heart an idealogue first, and a performer second.  I will cover this in more detail in a future podcast.  


We are a Republic. Meaning we elect our officials to lead on the issues. AOC abrogated her leadership on the redistribution policy in favor of performing for the cameras on the red carpet at the Met Gala. She is the worst of both worlds. She advocates wrong-headed policies that will lead us closer to Venezuela than to Nirvana. She also does not really believe in them or she would have chosen to forgo the frivolity of that gala. 


But leading, and legislating, and doing the heavy lifting is work. Performing is fun. The darling of the left is performing. Here is hoping that the next leader of the right understands the difference.