King David was most compelling when he danced. Overcome by gratitude to God, he stripped down to his linens and whirled about before the ark of the covenant — his love and joy spilling beyond the boundaries of normal decorum.
His wife, Michal, the daughter of King Saul, was repulsed by his behavior, especially because he was doing it in front of the commoners. She snarked at him when he got home for exposing himself in front of the servants’ slave girls like some scurrilous fellow.
The early Christians seem to have worshipped the way David did, with ecstatic dancing, communal joy and what Emile Durkheim called “collective effervescence.” In her book “Dancing in the Streets,” Barbara Ehrenreich argues that in the first centuries of Christianity, worship of Jesus overlapped with worship of Dionysus, the Greek god of revelry. Both Jesus and Dionysus upended class categories. Both turned water into wine. Second- and third-century statuettes show Dionysus hanging on a cross.
But when the church became more hierarchical, the Michals took over. Somber priest-led rituals began to replace direct access to the divine. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nazianzus urged, “Let us sing hymns instead of striking drums, have psalms instead of frivolous music and song, … modesty instead of laughter, wise contemplation instead of intoxication, seriousness instead of delirium.”
When elites try to quash the manners and impulses of the people, those impulses are bound to spill out in some other way. By the Middle Ages the cathedrals were strictly hierarchical, so the people created carnivals where everything was turned on its head. During carnival (Purim is the Jewish version), men dressed like women, the people could insult the king and bishops, drunkenness and ribaldry was prized over sober propriety.
As Ehrenreich puts it, “Whatever social category you had been boxed into — male or female, rich or poor — carnival was a chance to escape from it.”
Sometimes the celebration took on an enthusiasm that is hard for us to fathom. In 1278, 200 people kept dancing on a bridge in Utrecht until it collapsed and all were drowned.
The carnivals were partly a way to blow off steam, but in hard times they served as occasions for genuine populist revolts. In 1511, a carnival in Udine, Italy, turned into a riot that led to the murder of 50 nobles and the sacking of more than 20 palaces.
Carnival culture was raw, lascivious and disgraceful, and it elevated a certain social type, the fool.
There were many different kinds of fools: holy fools, hapless fools, vicious fools. Fools were rude and frequently unabashed liars. They were willing to make idiots of themselves. The point of the fool was not to be admirable in himself, but to be the class clown who had the guts to talk back to the teacher. People enjoyed carnival culture, the feast of fools, as a way to take a whack at the status quo.
You can see where I’m going with this. We live at a time of wide social inequality. The intellectual straitjackets have been getting tighter. The universities have become modern cathedrals, where social hierarchies are defined and reinforced.
We’re living with exactly the kinds of injustices that lead to carnival culture, and we’ve crowned a fool king. President-elect Donald Trump exists on two levels: the presidential level and the fool level. On one level he makes personnel and other decisions. On the other he tweets. (I honestly don’t know which level is more important to him.)
His tweets are classic fool behavior. They are raw, ridiculous and frequently self-destructive. He takes on an icon of the official culture and he throws mud at it. The point is not the message of the tweet. It’s to symbolically upend hierarchy, to be oppositional.
The assault on Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., was classic. He picked one of the most officially admired people in the country and he leveled the most ridiculous possible charge (all talk and no action). It was a tweet devilishly well crafted to create the maximum official uproar. Anybody who writes for a living knows how to manipulate an outraged response, and Trump is a fool puppet master.
The sad part is that so many people treat Trump’s tweets as if they are arguments when in fact they are carnival. With their conniption fits, Trump’s responders feed into the dynamic he needs. They contribute to carnival culture.
The first problem with today’s carnival culture is that there’s an ocean of sadism lurking just below the surface. The second is that it’s not real. It doesn’t really address the inequalities that give rise to it. It’s just combative display.
This is a resolution I’m probably going to break, but I resolve to write about Trump only on the presidential level, not on the carnival level. I’m going to try to respond only to what he does, not what he says or tweets. I really wish some of my media confreres would do the same.
David Brooks became a New York Times Op-Ed columnist in September 2003. He has been a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly, and is currently a commentator on PBS.