There was a time when the Left was about causing outrage, not getting outraged. Counter-cultural activists and artists were boldly transgressive, deliberately defying bourgeois sensibilities — as opposed to dictating what can and can’t be said in polite society.
However, as the Left has become increasingly institutionalised, others have discovered the power of transgression, and many of the most disruptive politicians of our time are now found on the Right. In place of the respectability that one might expect conservatives to cultivate and appeal to, the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have made it their thing to flout convention. Uncontrolled in speech and indisciplined in office, they’ve hijacked movements that once championed personal responsibility.
More recently, there has been a bevy of Right-wing candidates in the midterm elections who revel in ‘owning the libs’ and, for lack of a better word, trolling. But this points to a tension. Most Right-wing populists are not true revolutionaries. Though they’ve done a lot to disrupt the status quo (as with Brexit), they still have conservatively-minded voters to satisfy. They need to project conservatism, but in an unruly form. Perhaps a better word than ‘transgressive’ is ‘grotesque’.
Literally meaning ‘of the cave’, it is thought that the Italian grottesca originally referred to the artworks found in Roman ruins. Over time this evolved into the pejorative sense of ‘grotesque’ — i.e. “distorted and unnatural… abnormal and hideous”.
So what possible purpose could the grotesque serve in contemporary conservative politics? The most obvious example is the ‘dead cat strategy’ in political communications — that is, saying or doing something outrageous to divert the media’s attention away from a more damaging story.
Alternatively, the aim may be to focus our attention. In the run-up to the 2019 general election, Johnson and Dominic Cummings engineered a series of confrontations designed to prove that they really were serious about getting Brexit done, such as the removal of the whip from 20 Conservative MPs and the attempt to prorogue Parliament. Though these battles may have looked like setbacks in the short-term, the real objective (mobilising the Leave vote) was successful.
Outraging elite opinion obviously signals opposition to the establishment. The odiousness of a protest politician can also serve, and advertise, an instrumental purpose, providing a means by which outsiders can inflict discomfort on the presumed insiders. This certainly worked for Donald Trump in 2016, when angry voters sent him to the White House.
But the trouble with the grotesque is that it has a short shelf-life — especially in government. Cultivating chaos stops working when your first duty is to maintain order. On a political level, the outrageous mode of conservatism has only one way of responding to its own failures, and that is to ramp up the grotesquerie. This is how Trumpism ended up at the stolen election narrative, not to mention the disgraceful scenes of the Capitol invasion. It is also how British Conservatives managed to follow the bacchanalian disorder of the Johnson years with the spectacular implosion of Liz Truss’s 45 days.
On both sides of the Atlantic, conservatives have had a painful lesson in the limitations of the grotesque. From the midterm election results in the US to the collapse of Tory poll ratings in the UK, it’s clear that the public have had enough. Indeed, it’s becoming intolerable even in small amounts.
Of course, ours is a culture that celebrates the maverick and the mischief-maker — and there’s no doubt that conservative populists have had fun playing the rebel. Now, though, playtime is over.