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What Trump Could Learn from Carnival

Maybe the Carnival tradition of role reversal could positively impact Trump's worldview? At the very least, seeing him off his high horse for once would make us all feel a little better.

If President Donald Trump is going to have any chance of improving his tanking poll numbers, he's going to have to undertake some uncharacteristic gestures. With Lent right around the corner, one option he ought to consider is embracing the tradition of role reversal. Typically associated with the Carnival festivals of late winter, a theatrical switcheroo between rich and poor has long been a gesture of humility from those in power that ingratiates them with the common man.

Like Christmas, Carnival is one of those Christian holidays that has been interpreted a thousand different ways throughout time and geography and is inextricably linked to numerous pagan traditions. It has no singular definition but is typically a hedonistic party featuring a lot of meat—the name is believed to descend from the latin words "carne" and "vale," which means "a farewell to meat." It usually happens at the time of year when you're balls deep into winter and are about to enter a period of fasting—either because your meat is about to spoil, or you're a Catholic sinner who doesn't deserve anymore flesh until Easter.

"It was a way to let off emotional steam after months of winter," says Dr. Carl Raschke, professor of religious studies at the University of Denver. "It's common in many cultures to have this ritual of excess to restore balance to the universe. Like today's bachelor party, it's the idea of getting it out of your system before you have to go into a disciplined mode of life."

In order to quell the social unrest that could build up after months of winter, men in positions of authority would give those subservient to them the chance to answer that age-old question posed by Joan Osborne: "What if God was one of us?" Sometimes this could be children disciplining their parents or an enslaved man impersonating his prissy, upper-class oppressor.

"It was like how only the court jester could make fun of the king," says Raschke. "It was an undermining of authority that doesn't really upset the order. It was a harmless diversion for unhappy people, so you give them a socially approved instrument to express their rebellion or resentment of authority."

"All were considered equal during carnival," wrote Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, who coined the phrase "carnivalesque." "Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people, who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age... People were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations."

In the Christian tradition, this role reversal was often an extension of Jesus's revolutionary edict that one day "the last will be first and the first will be last."

"The incarnation of God becoming human overturns the conventional hierarchy," says Max Harris, author of Carnival and Other Christian Festivals. "The Catholic tradition is very hierarchical, from the pope all the way down. Carnival says, 'There's something wrong there, because the Christian narrative is about the guy at the top, God, becoming the guy at the bottom, Jesus.'"

When it came to slavery of blacks in the US and the Caribbean in the 18th century, this Freaky Friday tradition didn't always play out as a progressive utopia where rich and poor realize we're all humans who breathe the same air and should live harmoniously. In some cases, it fueled harmful stereotypes of blacks as carnal beasts with none of the civilized restraint of white folks.

"In Trinidad, the white slave owners would put on blackface and strut around and aspire to licentious activities that they believed blacks indulged in," says Harris.

While it's true that in many cases enslaved blacks would be served booze and invited into the homes of their overlords for a fine meal, former slave and iconic abolitionist Frederick Douglas saw this hospitality as a kind of Chinese finger trap that robbed them of their dignity (and, thereby, their ability to rebel).

"From what I know of the effect of these holidays upon the slave, I believe them to be among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection," wrote Douglas. "Were the slaveholders at once to abandon this practice, I have not the slightest doubt it would lead to an immediate insurrection among the slaves. These holidays serve as conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity.

"Their object seems to be, to disgust their slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation," he continues. "So, when the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field—feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back into the arms of slavery."

This dynamic of making a peasant king for a day would likely be the side of Carnival that President Trump would be down with. When attending the Iowa State Fair last year, Trump didn't put on cowboy boots and munch on deep-fried butter with the rest of the common folk. Instead, he offered free rides in his helicopter to giddy children, literally raising them out of a land of poverty, watched in awe by the open-mouthed mortals below.

While it's true that the golden-haired billionaire once dressed up in overalls and sang the theme from Green Acres and has appeared on a Saturday Night Live skit that jabbed at the idea of his presidency (remember when it was all seemed too wacky to even consider?), these were always profoundly safe, pre-approved exhibitions of humility. The whole humbling-yourself-before-poor-people routine doesn't seem to really be in Trump's wheelhouse.

Although Carnival masquerades were used by European colonialists to present harmful stereotypes of enslaved Africans, after emancipation in colonies like Trinidad, the newly freed African men and women hosted on their own Carnival masquerades. They used the celebrations to do much more than just pretend they were their former masters—they mocked and made fun of their former masters. This tradition of speaking truth to power has carried on to this day in celebrations like J'ouvert, where Carnival revelers across the African-diaspora lampoon those in power with satirical costumes and critical placards. This subversive aspect of Carnival is probably something that would never fly with Trump. Even when he was honored with his own Comedy Central Roast, he made every comedian on the bill promise to never joke about him not being as rich as he claims he is.

It's also a poorly kept secret that the humiliation he received at the hands of Obama during the Correspondents' Dinner in 2011 helped motivate him to officially run for president. Now that he is in the White House, he has opted to skip the Correspondents' Dinner entirely, making him the first president in 30 years to refuse to subject himself the gentle chiding of a comedian. That is bad news for America.

The divisive poison of the 2016 election, the catty drama of the inauguration, and a month of terrifying executive orders all amount to one long proverbial winter. And like ancient Europeans in need of a good Carnival before the meat runs out, the American people are in desperate need of Carnival's role-reversal pageantry, even if just for a moment, before our hope runs out.

Art by Duane Bruton

Follow Josiah Hesse on Twitter.