The following Presidential Address was given on December 7, 2018, at the 50th Annual ASEEES Convention in Boston, MA.
Perhaps the most daunting thing I did as president of ASEEES was write my presidential address. I had been given twenty minutes on the stage of the 2018 annual convention to say whatever I wanted to an audience that, rather than catch up with friends in the hotel bar or explore Boston’s nightlife, would gather to celebrate recipients of the association’s annual awards. Aware that whatever I might say should justify this choice, I asked myself a series of questions about the specific type of performance that ASEEES’s presidential address represents. I wondered what my audience might expect from a twenty-minute speech at a convention whose overarching theme was itself “Performance.” These thoughts about the genre of ASEEES’s presidential address made me feel a certain pressure to say something weighty about the state of the field, about ASEEES’s changing role in a rapidly changing world, and about the urgency of the important work we all do as academics, journalists, and public intellectuals. However, at the same time that I thought about what I might say from the bully pulpit of ASEEES’s annual convention, I also began worrying about what I would wear.
Given the performativity of human identity and interactions, the package in which I delivered my own presidential performance played no small role in my audience’s interest in and perception of what was inside that package. Russian Formalism has convinced us of the overwhelming importance of the literary device, and we know that the medium is the message, to borrow from Marshall McLuhan. Guy DeBord has similarly pointed out that we live in “the society of the spectacle,” and we also understand that our identities, gendered and otherwise, are not a matter of nature, but of performance, to paraphrase Judith Butler.1 On a daily basis, each of us encounters situations in which the style of a communication or interaction takes precedence over the ostensible content of what was said or done. These encounters demonstrate a rapidly evolving “stylization of life, that is, the primacy of forms over function, of manner over matter,” which, according to Pierre Bourdieu, occurs in every area of our lived practice with “the aim of purifying, refining and sublimating primary needs and impulses.”2
I will let those who attended the awards ceremony in Boston determine whether the blue velvet dress I wore purified, refined, or sublimated the needs and impulses behind my presidential address in any way. Rather than focus on myself, I prefer to use the notion that style tends to subsume content to approach the presidentiaperformances of two figures whose communications and interactions merit significantly more scrutiny than my own: Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Although much has been said about their dress, speech, and comportment, as well as the peculiar Putin-Trump bromance, our first impulse as scholars is to search for the substance behind Putin’s impassive face or Trump’s spiraling rhetoric. In both cases, academics and pundits have searched for the ideology underlying a startling variety of presidential performances. However, what they have found suggests that the systematic body of theory, aims, ideals, and beliefs that constitutes an ideology like Marxism-Leninism or Reaganism is simply absent. I propose that we stop searching for the substance behind Putin’s and Trump’s respective presidential styles, if only briefly, so that we might consider in what ways presidential manner in fact represents the matter of both their presidencies. Putin and Trump perform two distinct yet clearly related versions of political masculinity, and their success in purifying, refining, and sublimating citizens’ needs and impulses to their particular masculine styles has had a profound impact on the political sphere in both Russia and the United States.
My own experience writing about and teaching Putin’s macho behavior has led me to view the Russian president’s carefully crafted, almost twenty-year-long spectacle of political masculinity as a useful lens to focus some of Trump’s gestures in recent years. Since Putin’s rise to power in 1999, he has systematically cornered the market on political masculinity within Russia, commandeering everything from the country’s media to its laws and elections. For example, the infamous photo ops staged by the Kremlin’s political technologists show Putin in all manner of manly pursuits, which let him ooze machismo and authority while working out in his judogi, playing ice hockey, riding a horse shirtless, or lifting weights. In public speeches, Putin has similarly flexed his masculine muscle by promising to snuff out Chechen terrorists in the latrine, and he has carried through on such promises by seizing Crimea, bombing Syria, and devising a number of frozen conflicts at the edges of his would-be empire. As these examples show, the Russian president’s performance of political masculinity is much more than the raw material for the endless stream of Putin memes on the internet. Rather, Putin’s virile posturing suggests that instrumentalized notions of gender and sexuality have become his go-to political weapons in both the domestic and global arenas.
While some social scientists have struggled to understand the oxymoron of Putinism’s “sovereign democracy,” others have linked the return of traditional values under Putin to “a biopolitical turn” in policy and legislation.3 Putin’s performance of political masculinity anchors the clearly gendered and heteronormative laws that have emerged in Russia in recent years, from the institution of “maternity capital” in 2007 to the 2013 ban on “homosexual propaganda.” However, I believe we should push our understanding of Russia’s biopolitical turn one step further. In the absence of any truly coherent ideology, Putin’s regime has made heteronormativity, with its concomitant homophobia, into an ideological proxy and defined citizenship in Russia today through the dual imperative of embodying essentialized gender and compulsory heterosexuality. Whether we look to legislation, public policy, or popular culture, we see that the Russian Federation’s ideal citizen has a specific gender and sexual orientation. The paradigmatic Russian who emerges from these varied venues is not the country’s hypermasculine leader, an oligarch, or even a man, but a young, sexually-available woman, who chooses to shape her body, behavior, and, most importantly, desires in response to Vladimir Putin. Vivid proof of this argument appeared in the 2011 video campaign of a group called Putin’s Army, which challenges young women to rip their shirts and in effect to strip for Putin.4 As the video’s images and voiceover demonstrate, the passion that Putin’s Army shows for their leader has nothing to do with his politics, but rather with his status as a stylish man, which is apparently what makes him a worthy politician. At the same time that their support of Putin lacks any political substance, these nubile college co-eds, with their stiletto heels and ample cleavage, model the erotically inflected awe with which patriotic Russians should view their president.
The hyperfemininity of Putin’s Army seems like a call and response to their president’s own hypermasculine style, which brings us to the question of how Putin’s macho chic functions for the multiple audiences watching his presidential performance. The mass-mediatization of the Putin we see on Russia’s state-sponsored television, in a Putin action figure, or on a Putin t-shirt means that his ongoing presidential performance has reached innumerable millions, been the subject of myriad interpretations and manipulations, and inspired everything from sincere reverence and erotic arousal to biting sarcasm and visceral repulsion.5 Putin’s performance of machismo invites such widely divergent reactions, since the virility marketed under the Putin brand straddles the threshold between sociologist Max Weber’s notion of charisma as the single most important quality conferring leadership and theorist Susan Sontag’s definition of camp as an aesthetic sensibility.6 The inherent virtuality of the Putin seen by all, with the exception of a small circle of insiders, allows any image of Russia’s leader to slide effortlessly from charisma, through camp, and into other performative modes characterized by irony, for example, kitsch, glamour, or drag. This constant movement between charisma, camp, and camp’s ironic cousins is a process I call camprisma, and it is not exclusive to Putin’s presidential performance.
Camprisma has become ubiquitous in post-Soviet Russian culture, but I will limit myself to a single example from popular music to illustrate my point. The self-styled “Superblond of All Russia,” Olia Poliakova always performs in a camped-up version of a traditional Russian kokoshnik. Her 2012 music video “Russian Style” clearly refers to the Korean mega-hit “Gangnam Style,” and it provides a hilarious send-up of the clichés of Russia and Russian femininity in which global culture trades.7 At first glance, the video appears to be just another silly performance of hyperfemininity accompanied by cheesy accordion music and culminating in the singer’s strip-tease appearance out of a barrel of caviar before a group of hunky balalaika players. However, the video’s brief framing narrative locates “Russian Style” in a Siberian log cabin, which houses the sole survivors of the Apocalypse and in which one can take refuge only in a kokoshnik, suggesting that a neonationalist message lurks behind the camp of “Russian Style.”
Poliakova’s video can sustain both of the interpretations offered above, as well as myriad others. Regardless of the performers’ intent, the predispositions of viewers and the countless contexts of their viewing play key roles in the movement from charisma, through camp, and into kitsch. In fact, the “Russian Style” of Poliakova and Putin appears not only to acknowledge, but also to embrace the effortless slide from one performative mode to another, suggesting a link to the “performative shift” within late Soviet culture identified by anthropologist Alexei Yurchak. As Yurchak describes, the performative shift in post-Stalin culture made “it [more] important to participate in the reproduction of the form of [late Soviet] ritualized acts of authoritative discourse than to engage with their” content.8 If Yurchak describes the performative shift of an entire country, which took almost four decades to culminate in the Soviet Union’s demise, then camprisma’s rapid-fire shifting within a single song or image represents something new. In addition to dramatically accelerating the process described by Yurchak, camprisma gives the gendered and sexed body pride of place within a phenomenon initially focused on discourse. Putin’s political masculinity takes part in an ongoing performative shift in post-Soviet culture, which not only privileges form over meaning, but allows Putin to use his embodied style of domineering heteronormativity to block out political substance.
Putin and Trump could hardly seem more different when we consider such things as personal behavior, political career, or national context. Yet ever since Trump became a presidential nominee in 2015, his performance of political masculinity has been compared to that of Putin. For example, Trump brought his sexual potency into the 2016 Republican debates, which had previously focused on political platform and competence, by referring to the size of his hands.9 Thinly veiled references to penis size might have embarrassed another politician, yet Trump has managed repeatedly to transform what were once political liabilities into positive PR pitched to his supporters. From a pre-campaign video in which he bragged about grabbing women by the crotch to the hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels, Trump has used potential scandal not only to construct his own hypermasculine presidential persona, but also to draw attention away from some of his more questionable statements and actions. Many who count themselves among Trump’s base apparently agree with his comments dismissing Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that she was sexually assaulted by now supreme court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, celebrating the return of conservative values that differ from those currently in sway in Russia only in their details. And at rallies, Trump has even inspired his own army of cheerleaders, who model the erotically inflected awe with which he would like patriotic Americans to view their president. In other words, Trump has filled the ideological void of his presidency with a swaggering performance of political masculinity that seeks to reshape contemporary American citizenship through naturalized gender and assumed heterosexuality. Perhaps the biggest difference between what Trump’s political masculinity attempts to do and what Putin’s has already done is the relatively minor role of homophobia in the American president’s performance. Rather than sanction hatred for all of America’s sexual minorities, Trump focuses hostility on the country’s trans community and illegal immigrants.
Much like Putin, Trump has developed a hypermasculine presidential style that seeks to make his country great again by blending charisma with camp and even allowing it to slide into kitsch. As with Putin, Trump’s version of camprisma allows the varied audiences watching his performance to perceive different qualities in and to enact different aspirations through their president. On the one hand, the elevation to the American presidency of Trump’s pre-existing brand of real-estate mogul cum reality-TV star has aroused excitement, patriotism, and passionate loyalty among his base. On the other hand, the degradation of the institution of the American presidency bemoaned by Trump’s opponents allows them to exercise righteous indignation about the commander-in-chief’s fabrication of facts, as well as his attacks on liberal values and the media. Whether he knows it or not, Trump’s sometimes charismatic yet often campy presidential performance has triggered multiple and often contradictory performative shifts within American society. And whether we embrace or lament the movement away from political substance to masculine style on which Trump has built his presidential persona, we cannot doubt that the performative shifts of the Trump era have already had and will continue to have a profound impact on political discourse in the United States. Nonetheless, when compared to Putin, Trump seems at a distinct disadvantage in winning over voters and garnering public approval. While Putin won his most recent presidential election by a landslide with over 75% of the vote and enjoys approval ratings in the same range and often higher, Trump only received slightly more than 46% of the vote in 2016, and his approval rating is typically half that of Putin. In addition, Trump appears to be an unusually naïve political actor, who, instead of taking cues from a squad of political technologists, more often than not ignores the counsel of White House advisors, firing them on a regular basis. Of course, America’s beleaguered democracy is a far cry from the corrupt neoauthoritarism that currently characterizes Russia. Despite Trump’s allegations of election fraud and efforts to discredit CNN and The New York Times, the American president does not have the power to stuff ballot boxes or silence journalists critical of his presidency, as Putin has done. Of even greater relevance to my comparison is Trump’s admiration, bordering on sycophancy, for his Russian counterpart, which represents the single biggest crack in the American president’s masculine armor.
Although commentators have labeled Putin and Trump’s relationship a “bromance,” this word is a misnomer if “bromance” refers to mutually shared intimacy and love between two men.10 Rather than exhibit homosocial reciprocity, the relationship between the two world leaders more closely resembles a girlish crush on an older and apparently unavailable man. Trump’s starry-eyed admiration of Putin precludes any admission that the Russian president or his government might have overstepped the law, and Trump has repeatedly expressed his desire “to get along with Russia,” gushing about how “nice” Putin is. For the summit in Helsinki during the summer of 2018, not only did Trump refuse his aides’ help while preparing, but he more shockingly insisted that he and Putin meet alone, so that whatever transpired would remain off the record. Frankly, this sounds less like a summit and more like an attempt at seduction to me, and Trump’s remarks after their tête-à-tête—in which he denied Russian interference in the 2016 elections, described the Russian president as “extremely strong and powerful,” and effused about Putin’s trustworthiness in comparison to U.S. intelligence agencies—smacks of post-coital bliss.
In contrast to Trump’s fawning, the Russian president has been relatively circumspect in his praise of his American counterpart, sensitizing the media such small gestures as Putin’s momentary thumbs-up during a meeting in Paris in November of 2018. The imbalance in their relationship has led to speculation about whether someone in Russia might have compromising information, known as kompromat, on Trump, while others, including former Secretary of State and U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright, have called Trump “a useful idiot,” who unwittingly pursues Russia’s covert objectives.11 In either scenario, Trump’s political masculinity crumbles whenever he comments on or interacts with Putin, making Trump’s presidential performance into a cross-dressed version of the young, sexually-available women of Putin’s Army, who choose to shape their bodies, behaviors, and, desires in response to Putin. Apparently, Putin represents a kind of masculine kryptonite with the power not only to feminize the American president, but also to expose his performance of political masculinity for the substance-free style that it is.
Despite their many differences, the presidential performances of both Putin and Trump depend on displays of masculine political bravado that seek to control the biopolitical turns taking place in both countries. As a result, among the many forms that political dissent has taken in Russia and the United States, protests mobilizing women’s bodies represent the most troubling for both heads of state. Whether we consider Pussy Riot and Femen in post-Soviet space or the women’s marches and the #MeToo movement in the United States, women’s refusal to submit to their leaders’ erotic thrall exposes what is actually at stake when masculine style supplants political substance. Very often these protesters deploy their own version of camprisma to make their point. A vivid example of how such protests can in fact morph from kitsch and camp back into charisma took place in January of 2018 when a group of air cadets from the Russian city of Ulianovsk videotaped themselves lip-syncing to the Italian techno-pop tune “Satisfaction” while wearing little more than the caps from their uniforms and underwear.12 The Ulianovsk cadets aroused indignation among Russian officials, who threatened a variety measures to punish them for supposedly desecrating Russian aviation. But the countless fan videos, which began to appear on the internet in support of the cadets, demonstrated that the cadets’ and their fans’ own styles have no less political substance than the macho posturing of Putin or Trump.
Perhaps the Ulianovsk cadets’ most significant transgression was, like Pussy Riot, Femen, and many of the protesting women in the United States, to expose the type of hypermasculinity on which Putin’s and Trump’s presidential performances depend as the drag performance that it is. In addition, all of these groups demonstrate that citizens can and do take an active part in the rapidly accelerating performative shifts currently happening in Russia, North America, and around the globe. The ceaseless shift from style to substance and then back again allows citizens in both countries to forge horizontal connections among themselves and will help to inspire new futures once Putin’s and Trump’s presidential performances come to their inevitable ends.
Serving as the president of ASEEES has been a true honor for me, and as I look back on my own presidential performance, I prefer not to conclude with a serious pronouncement or weighty prediction, but rather by borrowing a line from American’s undisputed drag superstar, the inimitable RuPaul: All of us, including Putin and Trump, were born naked, and the rest is frankly just drag.
Julie Cassiday is the Willcox B. & Harriet M. Adsit Professor of Russian at Williams College, where she has been a member of the Department of German and Russian for over twenty years. She currently serves as the department Chair, as well as Chair of the Executive Committee of Williams’ Center for Foreign Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. Cassiday was the ASEEES Board President in 2018.
1 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1994); Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999).
2 Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 6.
3 Andrey Makarychev and Sergei Medvedev, “Biopolitics and Power in Putin’s Russia,” Problems of Post-Communism 62 (2015): 45.
4 “Putin’s Army [English Subtitles]” at https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=klcyPNIA698.
5 Julie A. Cassiday and Emily D. Johnson, “Putin, Putiniana and the Question of a Post-Soviet Cult of Personality,” Slavonic and East European Review 88(4) (2010): 681-707.
6 Max Weber, “The Sociology of Charismatic Authority,” From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), 245-252; Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’,” Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1966), 275-292.
7 “Russian Style” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xnnpi2VI89c.
8 Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 23.
9 Nick Gass, “Trump on small hands: ‘I guarantee you there’s no problem’,” Politico (3 March 2016) at https://www.politico.com/blogs/2016-gop-primary-live-updates-and-results/2016/03/donaldtrump-small-hands-220223.
10 Steve Denning, “Understanding the Putin-Trump Bromance,” Forbes (29 July 2018) at https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2018/07/29/ understanding-the-trump-putin-bromance/#387e4ce3675b.
11 Adam Davison, “A Theory of Trump Kompromat: Why the President is so nice to Putin, even when Putin might not want him to be,” The New Yorker (19 July 2018) at https://www.newyorker.com/news/swamp-chronicles/a-theory-of-trump-kompromat; Brent Griffiths, “Albright: Trump fits the mold of Russia’s ‘useful idiot’,” Politico (24 October 2016) at https://www.politico.com/story/2016/10/trump-russiauseful-idiot-madeleine-albright-230238.
12 “Satisfaction” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7y2ADtBhFc.