Gaslighting on a Global Scale

Gaslighting on a Global Scale

A conversation with Bonnie Honig on “disaster patriarchy” and how feminism offers the best way to make sense of the post-Trump moment.


For the entirety of Donald Trump’s presidency, academics and pundits continually debated if he was a fascist, a populist, a nativist, a businessman president, and so forth. This debate continues. Sometimes sidelined in these conversations was a perspective that might’ve understood the heart of Trump and Trumpism from the start—feminism. From beginning to end, some of the most sustained protest against Trump’s presidency came from feminists galvanized by his blatant misogyny and the fear that their rights stood endangered by it. Indeed, given Trump’s macho manner and sexism, feminist criticism offers rich resources for making sense of the Trump phenomenon to encompass man and movement.

This is why Bonnie Honig’s new book, Shell Shocked: Feminist Criticism After Trump, can be considered a landmark study, one that helps makes sense of the last four years. Honig, a professor of modern culture and media/political science at Brown University, shows how feminist criticism can help readers understand the idea of male entitlement, a concept in which freedom is reduced to being able to impulsively “say what you think and grab what you want.” This impulsiveness, she argues, is essential to Trumpism and ultimately leads to constant disruptions, daily controversies, and rumbles of political rage. Such a permanent disorientation of reality, Honig observes, shocks and overwhelms a people’s senses. Trumpism is thus to be understood as a kind of “disaster patriarchy” leading to the unending gaslighting of democratic institutions.

How, though, can disaster patriarchy and its shell-shock effects be discerned? In what ways does feminist criticism provide tools to resist and refuse it? And what is the way forward for feminist criticism in the Biden era? To answer these questions, I spoke with Honig regarding her thinking on feminist criticism in the age of Trump we have lived through and how we might articulate “a feminist theory of refusal.”

—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: Why did you title your new book Shell Shocked: Feminist Criticism After Trump? Is there a connection between your notion of “shell shock” and the theme of Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine?

Bonnie Honig: Yes, there is a connection, but I was also informed by shell-shock treatment during World War I, novelized by Pat Barker in Regeneration. Barker contrasts the approaches of real-life figures W.H.R. Rivers and Lewis Yealland. For Yealland, shell shock was a kind of feminized malingering, and he treated it with shock therapy (“the terrified soldier must utter words to get the torture to stop,” said John Mullan, quoting Barker’s book in The Guardian). For Rivers, shell shock was a sensorial injury and he treated it with a program of sensorial regeneration that included walks, nature, and poetry in addition to hypnosis and talk therapy. I build on Rivers’ approach in Shell Shocked, affiliating feminism with criticism’s art of close reading and noting its power as a humanistic response to shock politics.

Klein builds on different examples of shock treatment to analyze neoliberalism’s “shock doctrine.” She details what I call “the shock politics two-step,” in which whole populations, or detainees subjected to torture, are first deprived of sensorial stimulation (for a population, communications are shut down; for a detainee, a hood is placed over the person’s head) and then, later, once their sensory guard is down, subjected to overstimulation (the public is bombarded with propagandist messaging; the detainee is subjected to bright lighting and deafeningly loud music). But Klein’s account of “disaster capitalism” is unconnected to “disaster patriarchy.” In disaster patriarchy, shock is an everyday occurrence and reality itself is at stake. I extend Klein’s argument to analyze Gaslight, the classic film about reality manipulation, as well as contemporary practices of gaslighting. In addition to Trump, I discuss Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Jeffrey Epstein, and others, noting that the real pleasure for them in their predations is the power to say, “No one will believe you.” That is not just an instrumental threat, it is what these men are in it for: to hoard believability for themselves.

DSJ: You observe that after James Comey was fired by Trump as head of the FBI, his critics—and most notably, Trump—“so rapidly feminized [him] that you would think he was J. Edgar Hoover.” They viewed Comey as a “drama queen” and “too emotional” to be head of the FBI. However, you suggest that Trump himself actually embraced a kind of feminization that worked toward his own political advantage. In what sense is this the case?

BH: George W. Bush played cowboy to masculinize his presidency (leading William Connolly to call his policies “cowboy capitalism”). Ronald Reagan supplemented his cowboy image with Rambo (the first three movies of the franchise came out during his presidency). Trump, I argue, presents himself in a more ambigendered way, playing both the brutal dominating strongman and the helpless damsel in distress. For four years, Trump bombastically ordered his crowds to beat up opponents and also pleaded with supporters to save him from unfounded persecutions. The cry to “Stop the Steal” was the culmination of it all. Trump positioned himself as needing saving, and on January 6, 2021, many of his followers heeded his cries for help as if he were Penelope Pitstop and they were the Ant Hill Mob (whom they did uncannily resemble).

Historian Cynthia Herrup argues that early modern monarchs, both male and female, struggled to practice use of the pardon, presenting sovereignty as both merciful (feminine) and angry (masculine). The full story of Trump’s pardons has yet to be told, but Trump as president presented sovereignty in just this ambigendered way. For example, when he talked at his rallies about the so-called “Russia hoax” and “deep state” investigations, he would veer into discussing Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, two FBI employees whose extramarital affair he used to suggest that everything they did was immersed in illegality. In front of thousands of people, week after week, he performed imagined scenes from their bedroom, and he played both parts: he was Page desiring Strzok as well as Strzok desiring Page. What other US politician on the national stage could impersonate a woman having sex with a man and get away with it? He did it regularly. The soundtracks to his rallies included the Village People’s “YMCA” and “Macho Man,” gay anthems that ironize the heteronormative sex/gender binary that Trump delighted in violating as he gyrated mincingly to their lyrics: “You can do whatever you feel!” There is also his wheedling tone, his pursed lips, his pinkie finger gesture that alternates with the strong thumb of dismissal, and his naturally high voice, which he deepens into a growl when he wants to play macho—all parts of his performance of sovereignty in drag.

Perhaps the point is that he alone can walk the sex-gender divide and still be a man, just as he alone could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still represent law and order. Or perhaps his act reassures men everywhere that manliness is just a performance, after all, and so they too can pull it off, with a thumb and a growl, or maybe a gun.

DSJ: In some sense the hero of Shell Shocked is the woman who appears on its cover: “Naked Athena.” This is the name given to the Portland protester who resisted those mysterious federal forces who had descended on the city by order of Trump in the name of protecting a federal courthouse. She did so by sitting nude on the asphalt, with her knees up and legs spread wide. “A feminism worthy fighting for,” you say, “needs its Naked Athenas.” What makes her actions so powerful for you?

BH: Where Trump feigns vulnerability for his own purposes, the woman nicknamed Naked Athena risked authentic vulnerability when she intervened in a stand-off between police and protesters in Portland last year. She took off her clothes, walked to the middle of the road, stood there, then sat down in protest, and the police got into their cars and left. Someone called it “pussy power.” It reminded me of what the older women in Toni Morrison’s novel Home call “sun smacking.” Sun smacking is the cure they prescribe for Cee, a young woman suffering the effects of shock and mutilation. But Cee hesitates to expose herself, and so the women who care for her have to help guide her past shame and self-doubt to healing, pride, and independence.

Naked Athena is on the cover of Shell Shocked because that image captures what shock can feel like to those on its receiving end, faced with bright lights, police cars, and anonymous armed men in the street, in the dark. She was important then because the so-called Moms had just entered the Portland protests, which was initially a welcome, humorous intervention but soon developed into a kind of retrograde Mom-ism. A counter-performance of feminist agency was sorely needed. But even more important than Naked Athena, I argue, were the Mothers of the Movement, Black women who’d lost children to police violence and had joined together to work toward police accountability, reform, or abolition, their grief and their power a living reproach to racist structural violence in the US.

So, Naked Athena is not the hero of Shell Shocked. The fuel of democratic activism is action in concert. But individual heroics can inspire, so it was a problem that her story was told at the time as if it were part of the branded quirkiness of Portland rather than part of a worldwide practice of nude protest by feminists in Latin America, Europe, and Africa. Her story was told, that is to say, as if it were cute, not powerful.

Shell Shocked counters such subtle techniques of disempowerment by retelling stories from Homer to Netflix of the last four years that feature people joined together, often at great risk, to perform acts of witnessing and solidarity on behalf of a more egalitarian future. Stories are like batteries: they store the power generated by action in concert so that the power outlasts the event. But we need to tell those stories in the right way. That means paying attention to their telling detail or loose threads.

DSJ: You seem primarily attracted to individual and local acts of refusal in Shell Shocked and your other recent book, A Feminist Theory of Refusal. Interestingly, you refer to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez one time, and in passing. Women are at the forefront of a democratic socialist movement in this country. The Squad, for instance, arose during the central period of the Trump presidency. What do you make of this?

BH: One major technique of shock is to isolate the target. It is important to track how people work their way out of isolation back to world-belonging. When I focus on individuals, it is on behalf of such exemplarity. My claim is that feminism after Trump requires a commitment to the telling detail that might unravel patriarchy’s whole cloth. I think this is one of AOC’s great talents: she is great at reframing. In Shell Shocked, I refer to her in the context of the Green New Deal, when I analyze efforts by the wealthiest Americans to opt out of climate catastrophe (with secret bunkers and remote hideaways), while denying its reality for the rest of us. This is one of several chapters that center on the power of public things. Extending the claims of my 2017 book, Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair, I argue that public things not only revivify a democracy’s sense of equality, they also help reorient democratic life after shock.

The neoliberal habit of opting out of public things deals a terrible blow to American democracy’s prospects. Without the orientation of public things, like parks, bridges, community centers, and so on, we—by which I mean a multiracial, multi-ethnic, plural, and fractious democracy—are lost. And yet, Republicans have branded “choice” as freedom and for them choice is the freedom to opt out of public things. Opting out, it is important to recognize, is rooted in this country in the white supremacist abandonment of public things like schools and pools after they are racially integrated. Perhaps it should be no surprise that after a Black man was elected president, it became suddenly acceptable to a sizable minority of this country to opt out of elections too.

Trump is nothing new as far as the Republican Party is concerned. But the January 6 insurrectionists went further than before in their willingness to discard the procedures and even the facade of democracy. The procedures and facade of democracy are important, however: not because the procedures secure fairness and not because there is anything great about facades, but because they provide a ground on which to challenge the injustices of the existing political order. Stacey Abrams knows this.

The challenges are coming today largely from women. Women are not just at the forefront of a democratic socialist movement now, as you rightly say, but are also the leaders of the Movement for Black Lives, which has since the 2014 Ferguson uprising worked to reimagine policing, rebuild community, cancel debt, and organize for empowerment. We may recall Hannah Arendt referring to political action as miraculous when we note that things that were just recently unthinkable as mainstream political positions are now on the agenda in the US because of the work of activists, organizers, and some elected politicians.

We are witnessing, and participating in, a set of vital, diverse political engagements on issues of race. At the same time, questions of economic fairness have been reopened in the wake of a pandemic that forced recognition that “essential workers” really are essential to any functioning society. These are some of the most important developments in American politics in the last few years. My claim in Shell Shocked is that feminist criticism and refusal are indispensable here because we are up against not just disaster capitalism and white supremacy but also the disaster patriarchy that completes the triptych.

DSJ: Naked Athena connects Shell Shocked to A Feminist Theory of Refusal, which looks to Greek antiquity for articulating a new feminist politics of refusal. What can antiquity teach us about how women can resist and transform unjust political and economic systems?

BH: A Feminist Theory of Refusal is inspired by Euripides’ late-fifth-century BC play the Bacchae, in which Theban women refuse work, abandon the city, explore new forms of life outside it, kill the king (this may or may not be an accident), return to the city, and are then exiled by the wine god, Dionysus. Most readings of the play see the women as pawns of Dionysus, but why assume he uses them and not that they use him—or both?

The bacchants’ actions are a radical demand for equality. They move along an arc of refusal from strike to fugitivity. The arc is completed when, on behalf of fabulation, the women return to claim the city. They want to tell their story in their own way, and there is, here, I argue, an important counter to those who embrace refusal in its “Bartleby” form. Preferring not to, refusing to engage in the to and fro of political claims, is a tactic, not a politics.

Thanks to your questions, I realize I might have done well to mention AOC in this context, as well, since she has not given up on the city either. Perhaps it is a telling Dionysian or bacchic detail that she used to work as a bartender.

DSJ: Cornel West and Jeremy Tate recently wrote a piece lamenting Howard University’s decision to dissolve its classics department amid a move for “educational prioritization.” West and Tate judged this decision to be a “spiritual catastrophe.” Some might see decisions of this nature as the consequence of contracting university educational budgets. However, it is often justified by its defenders as the desire to move beyond the “crimes of the West” and the philosophies that have inspired it. You are a feminist critic who draws inspiration from the classics. What is your view of the matter?

BH: This is a difficult question. It is important to decenter ancient Greece, as many classicists are now doing, in the study of antiquity. At the same time, the task of feminist theory and criticism is to work through received materials. In the absence of reworking, the old readings retain their power, and we may find ourselves repeating inherited scripts. I made that argument in Antigone, Interrupted (2013), where I reclaimed Sophocles’ Antigone for a less heroic, more collective feminist politics, building on neglected textual details that suggest a possible conspiracy between the sisters in Sophocles’ play. In A Feminist Theory of Refusal, I note that some characters in the Bacchae think the women are mad, but others differ, just as in Antigone, the protagonist is called mad by some, but righteous by others. Thus, the idea that the women are simply mad is contested within the plays. Since pathologizing refusal is still a go-to move today, it is important to see that it has always been contested. I depathologize the bacchants in the company of Saidiya Hartman who does something similar with the women she calls “wayward.” Indeed, her Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is in my view a Bacchae, one of several I analyze in the book.

DSJ: Both of your books were written during the Trump presidency. Resisting the shell shock of it through the politics of refusal raises the question of feminist critique in the Biden era. Are you at all worried about a kind of apathy setting in as shock gives way to “normality”?

BH: I am not worried, but determined. Figuratively speaking, we have arguably chosen a good father over the monstrous one, a nursing father over an omnivorous one. Both are familiar patriarchal figures, however. And, though I think Biden has been perfect for the moment thus far, activists have made the actual difference with their years-long work. We are not done with Trumpism, but we need to not be reactive to it (non-reactivity is one of Biden’s great strengths). The best way to defeat it is to build something worthwhile in its place. A feminist theory of refusal, committed to the city not as it is but as it might be, is a necessary and important part of the coalition of approaches needed now, and it is anything but apathetic.

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