Politics as performance: When debate is a formality and voters go for the man with the biggest hat Skip to content

Politics as performance: When debate is a formality and voters go for the man with the biggest hat

The GOP goal, at the state and national level, is not governing. The goal is getting the most time on stage.

4 min read
Located on Highway 127 Bypass in Lawrenceburg, the Anderson County seat. (Photo by Teri Carter)

One morning during the 2024 legislative session, I walked out of a meeting about Senate Bill 2 — putting armed guardians in lieu of fully-trained school resource officers in our schools, with no budget allocation — and ran into a familiar lawmaker and two interns waiting for the elevator.

“I was just saying how all of us know how we’re going to vote before going into committee meetings,” the lawmaker said to me, both interns looking puzzled. The lawmaker continued explaining that leadership drives the bills they want, that bill sponsors know they have the votes to get out of committee before they testify or present their bills, and that nothing is a surprise. 

I joined the conversation to express, as a citizen, how infuriating this is. The young interns shook their heads in disbelief, but this is how it works. 

So much is predetermined. And it is all performance.

The day before primary voting began, I ran into a longtime, Chamber of Commerce-style, Anderson County Republican and asked for his thoughts on our state Senate primary, a three-way race among Adrienne Southworth (incumbent), Ed Gallrein and Aaron Reed.

I pointed out that Reed, with his cowboy hat and giant signs around town, seems to be making the biggest splash, and our conversation circled around to the current state of GOP politics: Our three candidates are all basically the same — Trump loyalists, election and/or vaccine deniers — and leaning far enough right that none would have qualified as a normal conservative prior to 2016 and Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party.

What stands out is not policy, but performance.

Watching Trump on trial for hush money payments (potential campaign finance violations) to a porn star, I’ve come to realize how blinded I have been about the former president, and current presumptive nominee, as far back as the Access Hollywood Tape. 

To refresh your memory, and mine, here is a transcript of the audio/video, which opens thus: “WARNING: This video contains language that some may find offensive.”

“I moved on her, and I failed. I’ll admit it. I did try and f—- her. She was married…,” and then, “You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful, I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the p—-. You can do anything.”

From 2016 on, I was so focused on the “grab them by the p—- part that I missed the point that appealed, and continues to appeal, to many Republican voters. “When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.” 

Trump might have been a TV star with “The Apprentice” leading up to the 2016 election, but that pales in comparison to today. You can’t turn on the news, open an online newspaper, or scroll social media without seeing Trump’s name and/or picture, though cable TV — from CNN to MSNBC to FOX — might be the worst.

It’s like watching the O.J. Simpson white Bronco chase circa 1994 on a never-ending loop. We can’t take our eyes off of it, even though nothing new ever happens. We are transfixed, not by breaking news but by the outlandishness of the constant, over-the-top performances.

Republicans voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 for the same reasons they will vote for him in 2024. He is the ultimate American celebrity; an obsession on the right and the left; the big middle finger to liberalism; the rule-snubbing blowhard voters wish they could be in their boring, restricted, church-going, law-abiding lives; their hero; their definition of what it means to be a man.

If Adrienne Southworth loses her reelection bid, I suspect it will be less about policy differences than the fact that, because she talks back and has refused to fall in line with Republican leadership in Frankfort, they redistricted her away from her own voting base. 

Gallrein and Reed, both loudly touting their Navy Seal credentials in next door Shelby County, where GOP voters almost double those in Southworth’s original Anderson, will be more appealing to the Trump voter looking for the man with the biggest hat. 

Agree or disagree with Southworth — and I disagree with her on all policy — the fact is that more than a few times she has been less than deferential, therefore displeasing, to leaders in the Frankfort Frat House. 

But the bigger than life, Navy Seal he-men? Military retirees more likely to fall in line and take orders from leadership? Check and check! 

It’s the same way committee meetings work. Leadership has already chosen winners and losers and what happens is 100% based on what those men can sell as tough enough, as man enough, in a Trump-dominated election year.

I can see now, for example, that Senate Bill 2 — sponsored by leadership darling Sen. Max Wise, and a bill that I followed and fought in good faith — was one of those bills blessed with passage long before it ever saw its first committee meeting, which was nothing more than a formality. 

If the Republican Party is not yet dead, it is a five o’clock shadow of itself. The GOP goal, at the state and national level, is not governing. The goal is getting the most time on stage.

If you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything, even if it’s driving nail after nail in the coffin of your own party.


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Teri Carter

Teri Carter writes about rural Kentucky politics for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Washington Post, and The Daily Yonder. She lives in Anderson County.