Vox Nova is pleased to present the following guest post by Ben Johnson.
The turbulence and division caused by the most recent presidential election reminds me that we are not immune to chaos. We are in an already shaken nation. No matter how safe we feel, destructive, chaotic events simply occur in nature and take us by surprise when they do. What will we do when we are swept into it? How can we calm the storm? One hopeful answer, which was oddly enough revealed through the events of the 2016 Republican National Convention, is this: “Make them laugh… and give them a pony.”
The RNC, held in Cleveland, had the potential to erupt into fatal chaos. Many of the participants, the protesters, and all the police were armed. In addition to the large number of firearms present, there we many angry people and several reputedly incendiary groups including the Westboro Baptist Church and the Ku Klux Klan. This could have become a terrible tragedy if someone had fired a shot, but no one did. There were events which could have escalated into armed conflicts, but they were de-escalated before that could happen. How? While there are many reasons, not the least of which being that people generally want to avoid large gunfights, there was a notable primary agent of this de-escalation. A strange man with a boot on his head, yelling into a bullhorn. His name is Vermin Supreme.
His description and behavior may suggest a person who is just going to add to the pandemonium. Instead, he tells jokes. He reads police manuals on crowd control into his bullhorn. He comically acts as though he is in charge and the police are just following his orders. As a result, he turns the tense atmosphere between protesters and police into a comedic play.
“Between the cops and the protesters, there’s a vacuum. That’s the space I occupy.”
His performance presents the event as an absurd farce in which both of the divided parties are willing participants. He creates a space in which both the police and the protesters can have the awareness that they are creating this scene together. They all have the power to keep the situation from degrading into complete chaos because they are all actors on the same stage.
The joke may be lost on much of the crowd, but it still has the effect of easing tension and keeping the peace. When he starts to perform, people get somewhat confused. So, instead of yelling in outrage, many are momentarily stunned. Surely the confusion at the RNC only grew when he announced that he was a candidate in the presidential election.
“If you were watching me down in the delegate zone, you’d see so many Trumpsters love me,” Supreme says, “But I’m seeking Cruz delegates, trying to flip them, maybe in the third ballot or something like that.”
He ran on a platform stressing mandatory tooth brushing, and switching to a “pony based economy.”
My free-pony platform is of course a jobs creation program. It will create lots and lots of jobs once we, ah, switch over to pony based economy. It will also lower our dependence on foreign oil, we will also be able to turn all that pony poop into methane gas and wonderful compost, and we will be able to re-up our soil that is being depleted by aero-chemicals, etcetera. etcetera. Etcetera.
Again, his performance is presenting the event, in this case presidential election, as an absurd farce. His character promises to implement programs which will force people to brush their teeth for health reasons and completely control our transportation. In addition, he promises to not keep his promises. He is being explicit and honest where other candidates have simply lied.
My name is Vermin Supreme. I’m a friendly fascist, a tyrant you can trust, and you should let me run your life because I do know what is best for you. Yes I’m a politician and I will promise you anything your electoral heart desires because you are my constituents, you are the informed voting public, and I have no intention of keeping any promise that I make. Vote Early. Vote Often. Remember a vote for Vermin Supreme is a vote completely thrown away.
I live and work in a catholic worker house of hospitality where the chaos levels can rise very quickly. The founders of the catholic worker movement, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, believed in social transformation through personalism. They embraced anarchism as a method for achieving social change from the “bottom up” rather than the “top down”. In one of his “Easy Essays,” Maurin states,
People who are in need
and are not afraid to beg
give to people not in need
the occasion to do good
Maurin believes that anarchism best facilitates this goodness because it is easier to give from the heart when not forced by a centralized authority. Our personal relationships with each other can can be what unite and organize us to positively change society. This practice is also based on the teachings of the Catholic Church that all individuals are created in the image and likeness of God; therefore, they have inherent dignity and the “goodness of God” within them. All of this leads to a lovely idea which is very difficult to live out. It gives us complete freedom to be the best people we can be, but it often results in conflict, violence, and eventually madness.
In anarchy (by this I simply mean any system which has no ruler) chaos and order work together. When a system is in a chaotic state, spontaneous order naturally occurs. Vermin Supreme is jumping into chaotic situations and seemingly acting as a catalyst for peaceful order.
In this I see a strange and comforting answer to handling potentially chaotic situations. When in the midst of intense conflict and division, we need effective and non-violent ways to exist together. We also need to feel safe and protected against potential harm. Many at the RNC were armed to control the potential chaos. To transform it took a clown.
Below are urls to articles on Vermin Supreme.
A native of Minneapolis, MN, Ben Johnson currently lives and works at Hope House, a catholic worker house of hospitality in Dubuque, IA.