I’ve been going to the New York State Fair annually for a bit over ten years and have been posting from there every summer since I began blogging. The New York State Fair is It carnivalesque in all the ways that will be immediately recognized by critical theorists. I have unfailingly enjoyed it as such, drawn deeply into the massive pulse of human, animal, and machine life of the place. There was, of course, also always something incredibly grotesque about the Fair, says the professor from his own position of class privilege.
For the most of my time spent there, which was after 2008, the Fair stood out as a super-conservative social place. That was part of the carnival environment, one particular to Central New York. But that conservative social space was hedged in by the larger liberal cultural space shaped politically by President Obama. You saw the gun loving, flag waving, anti-Obama t-shirts. They were always “deplorable,” “clinging” to their guns and God. You knew what it was all about, the local racism they reflected, but you could move through it. These things mattered, to be sure, but they mattered less than they do today. Whatever real cultural and political force they exhibited were kept in check, their worse impulses kept under a rock. This says the university professor from his own position of class privilege.
Then the ratio between the smaller social space of the Fair and the political sphere and larger culture flips structurally in 2017, the first Fair after Trump’s inauguration. Today, the Fair no longer represents the form of a contradiction between a super conservative “place” embedded in a larger liberal cultural “space.” Instead, what has always been a carnivalesque and even cartoonish rightwing place, pocked here and there by exhibitions of conservative resentment and racial animus, now more clearly reflects and is reflected in the larger cultural space of the American public sphere shaped politically by President Trump. A takeaway from the new Bob Woodward book, the White House looks something more like a large State Fair in miniature, and this reflects upon the country as a whole.
It’s not just the Trump at the State Fair. It’s also the Confederate flag, which has worked its little poison into the county and State fairgrounds north of the Mason-Dixon. According to a quick Google search, you can see how starting around 2014 or 2015, vendors start selling shirts and other items emblazoned with Confederate flags. Activists start registering complaints about their appearance at county fairs, for instance in Delaware County. In 2017 at the New York State Fair, there were a lot more Confederate flags and emblems at the t-shirt vending booths. This year, vendors were strongly encouraged not to sell them, although there were those generally smaller venues that continued to sell them.
I remain of mixed mind and basically confused by the Fair.
On the one hand, if I focus on the t-shirt vendors, it is because they have always set the affective political tone of the place. They have always signaled a form of wild conservative expression. With Trump in office, that vibe feels all the more aggressive, even anti-Black. Messages are made by the combination of gun culture emblems, Confederate flag emblems, and the Trumpian political shot clearly directed against the NFL protests and Black Lives Matter (“I Stand for the Flag and Kneel for the Cross,” “Blue Lives Matter”). I asked one of the vendors about the Trump shirts and he said that they were selling like hotcakes. These shirts on sale at the Fair reflect and feed into the malignity of the culture at large under Trump and magnified by Trump, says the professor from a position of class privilege.
On the other hand, thinking more self-critically, I stopped myself at a certain point to ask who, in fact, were wearing these shirts. Because among all “those people” buying these shirts only a few were wearing them at the Fair. We saw maybe 4 or 5 or 6 Trump shirts on any given day, which is not a lot compared to the tens of thousands of people visiting the fairgrounds on that any given day. Shirts for guns were more common than for Trump. Maybe all those Trump shirts and other rightwing swag sold at the Fair were taken back home as memorabilia, trophies, talismans, or simply as gifts for friends and family. And even these shirts and swag expressed less confidence than one might have assumed at first glance. Provocatively in your face, they were self-conscious and maybe self-pitying. They were less “Make America Great Again” and more “If You Are Offended by Trump, You Won’t Like Me” or If You Are Offended by This Flag, I’ll Help You Pack,” of which there were two versions, American and Confederate.
So what is that I’m looking at at the State Fair in terms of a human political mass. Am I to assume that every white person at the Fair is a Trump supporter, a Trump voter? The statistics would probably bear that out on the main. But, then, so what? While the Fair felt Trumpy, the people were not necessarily; or they were and they weren’t, and without a t-shirt signaling political intentions, there is no way to know for sure in a crowd full of strangers. Case by case, mostly what you saw was a wide diversity of people in the hundreds and in the thousands, presumably working class and middle class, from all walks of racial, ethnic, and religious life, white, brown, and black, including lots of immigrants from the Middle East.
The people at the Fair were all or for the most part grouped in little family and other social packs going about their business. I’m not sure if in this setting “apolitical” is the right word for people milling about and mixing, having a good time. The people were out for the day or for the evening, exhibiting livestock, participating in competitions, checking out the animals, on a date, chasing after small children, hanging out with friends, going on rides, playing the games, stressed out and exhausted, most of them eating deep fried food and drinking beer.
Coming home back to New York City, I picked through an essay in last week’s New York Times Week in Review by Corey Robin about “the New Socialists” (not a word about state control of the economy). There were articles on the Senate race in Texas by Beto O’Rourke, and about Aretha Franklin and John McCain, articles online about anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party. There were also the latest episodes of Who is America?. There was also a petty scandal in the Jewish press about a candidate for the New York State Senate who claimed she was Jewish, or that her family was Jewish, which does not seem to be the case. The school year has begun, there are confirmation hearing for a new super-right Supreme Court Justice, and elections in November, and an early September heat wave that just blew out the entire electricity of the building where I work. None of this is cool. It’s hot as hell.