How Might Roland Barthes Have Explained Donald Trump’s Presidential Campaign

When I read the headline, “This French Philosopher Is The Only One Who Can Explain The Donald Trump Phenomenon” and then realized that the “French philosopher” was Roland Barthes, I exclaimed, Wow!?! Or maybe it was, Wo!?!

And this item did not even appear in some sort of academic newsletter or other publication focused on academia such as the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Education.

It was published, instead, by ThinkProgress. The author, Judd Legum, connects Barthes and Trump in this manner:

“You won’t find Roland Barthes on the Sunday morning roundtables dissecting the presidential race. Barthes is a French philosopher who died in 1980. But his work may hold the key to understanding Trump’s popularity and his staying power.

“Barthes is best known for his work in semiotics, the study of signs and symbols. But he wasn’t limited to lengthy, esoteric treatises. Rather, Barthes published much of his work in short, accessible pieces breaking down elements of popular culture. The New York Times described Barthes as the godfather of the TV recap.

“His most famous essay, published in his 1957 book Mythologies, focuses on professional wrestling. Could an essay about professional wrestling hold the key to understanding Trump’s appeal? It’s worth noting that, before he was a presidential candidate, Trump was an active participant in the WWE. In 2013, Trump was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.”

Legum then quotes the following passage from Mythologies (the highlights are Legum’s):

“This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxing- match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time . . . The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future. In other words, wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.”

Legum then offers this priceless application of Barthes’ insights on the sports (though clearly he is writing about wrestling as more of an entertainment, a “spectacle,” than as a sport) to Trump’s style as a campaigner and its appeal:

“In the current campaign, Trump is behaving like a professional wrestler while Trump’s opponents are conducting the race like a boxing match. As the rest of the field measures up their next jab, Trump decks them over the head with a metal chair.

“Others in the Republican field are concerned with the rules and constructing a strategy that, under those rules, will lead to the nomination. But Trump isn’t concerned with those things. Instead, Trump is focused on each moment and eliciting the maximum amount of passion in that moment. His supporters love it.”

The photo included with Legum’s article is also priceless:

Trump WWE

Legum’s full article is available at:



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