From Hero to Buffoon: Kenneth Burke, Evan Mecham, and Donald Trump


Words and deeds that were considered by many to be anti-Semitic, homophobic, racist, sexist, and pompous to a fault marked [Evan] Mecham’s brief career as governor of Arizona. In stark contrast, others deemed Mecham to be straightforward, honest, and gallant for being able to boldly proclaim their socially conservative doctrine…To many conservatives, Mecham was a hero defending the faith against liberalism. For others, Mecham was a buffoon who represented the ignorance of bigotry and a new form of intolerance banded as conservatism.

Our hero the buffoon: Contradictory and concurrent Burkean framing of Arizona Governor Evan Mecham, C. Wesley Buerkle; Michael E Mayer; Clark D Olson Western Journal of Communication; Spring 2003; 67 (2) Spring 2003, pp 187–206.

In 2003 several scholars used Kenneth’s notion of poetic forms to explain the rapid rise and sudden decline of Evan Mecham in Arizona. Mecham was an outspoken political outsider who was elected governor, and who was chased out of office almost as soon as he got there. An extension of this analysis can provide insights into Trump and what might come next (folks tracking Trump administration might enjoy Mecham’s obituary).

Burke suggested two forms of frames through which we understand the world, acceptance and rejection. One type of acceptance frame is epic, which includes a hero and leads us to embrace the person or event being described. On the other hand is burlesque, a rejection frame through which a person or event is shunned. As they write, “Radically different from the epic is the burlesque, a rejection frame that focuses upon ridiculing and denouncing an idiotic character. Burlesque identifies buffoons as those who are to blame for the lack of order and denies them the possibility of logical reasons for their actions, thereby dismissing the system of authority they represent and creating a ‘reduction to absurdity’.” (p. 191)

Mecham tripped into office with 40% of the vote in a three-person race, claimed he was riding a storm, and kept on storming. He rose as hero and fell as a buffoon. To his supporters, Mecham was standing up to liberal elites. Those who were offended deserved it, were too thin-skinned, or didn’t see all the good Mecham was doing for the state. His was an epic tale of an outsider finally speaking truth with power, not just to it. His approach quickly led to his unraveling. Almost immediately after taking office he was investigated for using state funds to help his own businesses, his handling of minor political missteps made him look foolish, and public sentiment quickly turned against him. He became a comic figure, a player in a burlesque show. Actions that were bold when viewed through a heroic lens became embarrassing when viewed through a burlesque lens. Mecham didn’t change, the linguistic and rhetorical filter through which many Arizonans viewed him did.

The parallels to Trump are striking. Both are businessmen (Mecham was an automobile dealer). Both claimed the mantle of outsider but had been around politics for a number of years (Mecham unsuccessfully ran for governor four times before winning in 1986, Trump was an Obama gadfly and major political donor). Both got to office with less than a majority of the votes cast. Neither settled into the norms of the office once elected, attacking bombastic rhetoric are hallmarks of both, and Trump’s business ties are raising increasing questions while Mecham’s were part of his undoing.

If accurate, this analysis offers both cautions for the Trump administration and guidance for his political opponents. The appeal of the outsider, heroically leading an epic charge against the status quo, can quickly turn to comedy with the fallen hero a burlesque caricature if the outlandish and questionable behavior once seen as bold continues and is seen as absurd. What was once brave can quickly become irresponsible. If the hero doesn’t notice this shift and account for it, if the behavior continues, a fall can quickly follow.


Burke’s work is worth checking out — this is a good introduction to his theory of identification, this two minute video is fun, and as is often the case his obituary provides a good snapshot of his work. Burke was such a forceful and broad thinker that a Kenneth Burke Society, complete with its own academic journal, was created when Burke was alive, apparently he would attend their meetings which is a weird real-life version of a scene from Annie Hall.


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