Donald Trump's topsy-turvy world

Donald Trump’s topsy-turvy world

The most depressing aspect of the post-electoral period in the US is not the measures announced by the President-elect but the way the bulk of the Democratic Party is reacting to its historic defeat. Notably, its supporters oscillate between two extremes: the horror at the Big Bad Wolf called Trump and the obverse of this panic and fascination — the renormalization of the situation, the idea that nothing extraordinary happened, that it is just another reversal in the normal exchange of Republican and Democratic presidents: Reagan, Bush, Trump… Along these lines, Nancy Pelosi “repeatedly brings up the events of a decade ago. For her, the lesson is clear — past is prologue. What worked before will work again. Trump and the Republicans will overreach, and Democrats have to be ready to jump at the opportunity when they do.”1 Such a stance totally ignores the real meaning of Trump’s victory, the weaknesses of the Democratic Party that rendered it possible, and the radical restructuring of the entire political space this victory announces.

The restructuring I am pointing to is made clear by yet another version of Trump’s inconsistency which concerns his stance towards Russia: while hardline Republicans were continuously attacking Obama for his all too soft approach to Putin, tolerating Russian military aggressions (Georgia, Crimea…) and thereby endangering Western allies in Eastern Europe, the Trump supporters now advocate a much more lenient take on Russia. The underlying problem is, precisely, here. How are we to unite the two ideological oppositions — the opposition of traditionalism versus secular relativism and the other big ideological opposition, on which the entire legitimacy of the West and its “war on terror” relies, namely the opposition between liberal-democratic individual rights and religious fundamentalism embodied primarily in “Islamo-Fascism”? Therein resides the symptomatic inconsistency of the US neoconservatives: whereas, in domestic politics, they privilege the fight against liberal secularism (abortion, gay marriages, etc.) — i.e., their struggle is the one of the so-called “culture of life” against the “culture of death” — , in foreign politics, they privilege the very opposite values. i.e. the liberal “culture of death.”

One way to resolve this dilemma is the hardline Christian fundamentalist approach, articulated in the works of Tim LaHaye et consortes: to unambiguously subordinate the second opposition to the first. Thus, at some deep and often obfuscated level, the US neocons perceive the European Union as the enemy. This perception, kept under control in public political discourse, explodes in its underground obscene double, the extreme Right Christian fundamentalist political vision with its obsessive fear of the New World Order. According to such a view, Obama is in secret collusion with the United Nations; international forces will intervene in the US and put all true American patriots in concentration camps. A couple of years ago, there were already rumors that Latin American troops were in the Midwest planes, building concentration camps…

The title of one of LaHaye’s novels points in the same direction: The Europa Conspiracy. The true enemy of the US is not Muslim terrorists; they are merely puppets secretly manipulated by European secularists, the true forces of the anti-Christ who want to weaken the US and establish the New World Order under the domination of the United Nations. In a way, they are right in this perception: Europe is not just another geopolitical power block, but a global vision which is ultimately incompatible with nation-states. This dimension of the EU provides the key to the so-called European “weakness,” for there is a surprising correlation between European unification and its loss of global military-political power. If, however, the European Union is more and more an impotent trans-state confederacy in need of US protection, why then is the US financially ill at ease with it? Recall the indications that the US financially supported those forces in Ireland that organized the campaign for the NO to the new European treaty… Opposed to this minority opinion is the predominant liberal-democratic view, which sees the principal enemy in all kinds of fundamentalisms, and perceives the US Christian fundamentalism as a deplorable homegrown version of “Islamo-Fascism.” Nonetheless, this predominance is now threatened. What was till now a marginal stance limited to conspiracy theories that thrived underground is becoming the hegemonic stance of our public space.

How did we end up here? One has to repeat again and again that Clinton’s defeat was the price she had to pay for neutralizing Bernie Sanders. She did not lose because she moved too much to the Left but precisely because she was too centrist and in this way failed to capture the anti-establishment revolt that sustained both Trump and Sanders. Trump reminded some of his voters of the half-forgotten reality of class struggle, although, of course, he did it in a distorted populist way. Trump’s anti-establishment rage was a kind of return of what was repressed in the moderate liberal Left’s politics focusing on cultural and PC issues. This Left got from Trump its own message in its inverted true form. That’s why the only way to reply to Trump would have been to fully appropriate the anti-establishment rage, not to dismiss it as white trash primitivism.

Remember how many times liberal media announced that Trump was caught with his pants down and committed a public suicide (mocking the parents of a dead war hero, boasting about pussy grabbing, etc.). Arrogant liberal commentators were shocked at how their continuous acerbic attacks on Trump’s vulgar racist and sexist outbursts, factual inaccuracies, economic nonsense, etc., did not hurt him at all but maybe even enhanced his popular appeal. They missed how identification works: we as a rule identify with the other’s weaknesses, not only or even not principally with the strengths, so the more Trump’s limitations were mocked, the more ordinary people identified with him and perceived attacks on him as condescending attacks on themselves. The subliminal message of Trump’s vulgarities to ordinary people was: “I am one of you!”, while ordinary Trump supporters felt constantly humiliated by the liberal elite’s patronizing attitude towards them. As Alenka Zupančič put it succinctly, “the extremely poor do the fighting for the extremely rich, as it was clear in the election of Trump. And the Left does little else than scold and insult them.”2 Or, we should add, the Left does what is even worse: it patronizingly “understands” the confusion and blindness of the poor… This Left-liberal arrogance explodes at its purest in the new genre of political-comment-comedy talk shows (Jon Stewart, John Oliver…) that mostly enact the pure arrogance of the liberal intellectual elite:

“Parodying Trump is at best a distraction from his real politics; at worst it converts the whole of politics into a gag. The process has nothing to do with the performers or the writers or their choices. Trump built his candidacy on performing as a comic heel—that has been his pop culture persona for decades. It is simply not possible to parody effectively a man who is a conscious self-parody, and who has become president of the United States on the basis of that performance.”3

Populism and PC are thus the two complementary forms of lying that follow the classic distinction between hysteria and obsessional neurosis: a hysteric tells the truth in the guise of a lie (what it says is literally not true, but the lie expresses in a false form an authentic complaint), and what an obsessional neurotic claims is literally true, but it is a truth which serves a lie. In a homologous way, PC is “like lying with truth. It says the right things, but it somehow comes across as wrong nevertheless. Populism, on the other hand, is somewhat like telling the truth in the form of a lie. It says all the wrong things, yet we feel that something about it is nevertheless right.”4 The populist protest displaces onto the external enemy the authentic frustration and sense of loss, while the PC Left uses its true points (detecting sexism and racism in language, etc.) to re-assert its moral superiority and thus prevent true social-economic change.

And the story of Donald and Hillary goes on: in the second instalment, the couple’s names are changed to Marine Le Pen and François Fillon. Now that Fillon was elected to be the Right’s candidate in the forthcoming French presidential elections, and with the (almost full) certainty that, in the second round of the elections, the choice will be between Fillon and Marine Le Pen, our democracy has reached its (till now) lowest point. Natalie Nougayrède wrote in her Guardian column “François Fillon is as big a threat to liberal values as Marine Le Pen”:

“It is no coincidence that Fillon was publicly lauded by Putin. This wasn’t just because the Kremlin hopes to find a French presidential ally on foreign policy. It’s also because Putin detects in Fillon streaks of his own ultra-conservative ideology. Witness how Russian propaganda has dubbed Europe ‘Gayropa’.”5

If the difference between Clinton and Trump was one between liberal establishment and Rightist populist rage, this difference has shrunk to a minimum in the case of le Pen versus Fillon. Although both are cultural conservatives, in matters of economy Fillon is a pure neoliberal, while Le Pen is much more oriented towards protecting workers’ interests. In short, since Fillon stands for the worst combination around today – economic neoliberalism and social conservativism -, one is seriously tempted to prefer Le Pen. The only argument for Fillon is a purely formal one: he formally stands for a united Europe and a minimal distance from the populist Right, even though, with regard to content, he seems to be worse than Le Pen. So he represents the immanent decadence of the establishment itself, which is where we ended up after a long process of defeats and withdrawals.

First, the radical Left had to be sacrificed as out of touch with our new postmodern times and its new “paradigms.” Then, the moderate Social-Democratic Left was sacrificed as also out of touch with the necessities of the new global capitalism. Now, in the last epoch of this sad tale, the moderate liberal Right itself (Juppé) was sacrificed as out of touch with conservative values which have to be enlisted if we, the civilized world, want to beat Le Pen. Any resemblance with the old anti-Nazi story of how we first passively observed when the Nazis in power took away the Communists, then the Jews, then the moderate Left, then the liberal center, then even honest conservatives… is purely accidental. The Saramago reaction – to abstain from voting – is here obviously the ONLY appropriate thing to do. The situation of today’s Poland provides a further example in this regard, serving as a strong empirical rebuttal to the predominant Left-liberal dismissal of authoritarian populism as a contradictory politics doomed to fail. While this is in principle true – in the long term, we are all dead, as J.M. Keynes put it –, there can be many surprises in the (not so) short term:

“The conventional view of what awaits the US (and possibly France and the Netherlands) in 2017 is an erratic ruler who enacts contradictory policies that primarily benefit the rich. The poor will lose, because populists have no hope of restoring manufacturing jobs, despite their promises. And massive inflows of migrants and refugees will continue, because populists have no plan to address the problem’s root causes. In the end, populist governments, incapable of effective rule, will crumble and their leaders will either face impeachment or fail to win re-election. But the liberals were wrong. PiS (Law and Justice, the ruling Rightist-populist party) has transformed itself from an ideological nullity into a party that has managed to introduce shocking changes with record speed and efficiency. /…/ it has enacted the largest social transfers in Poland’s contemporary history. Parents receive a 500 złoty ($120) monthly benefit for every child after their first, or for all children in poorer families (the average net monthly income is about 2,900 złoty, though more than two-thirds of Poles earn less). As a result, the poverty rate has declined by 20-40%, and by 70-90% among children. The list goes on: In 2016, the government introduced free medication for people over the age of 75. The minimum-wage now exceeds what trade unions had sought. The retirement age has been reduced from 67 for both men and women to 60 for women and 65 for men. The government also plans tax relief for low-income taxpayers.”6

PiS does what Marine Le Pen also promises to do in France: a combination of anti-austerity measures – social transfers no Leftist party dares to consider plus the assurance of order and security that asserts national identity and promises to deal with the immigrant threat. Who can beat this combination, which directly addresses the two big worries of ordinary people? We can thus discern on the horizon a perverted situation in which the official “Left” is enforcing austerity politics (even as it advocates for multicultural and other rights) at the same time that the populist Right is pursuing anti-austerity measures to help the poor (even as it advances a xenophobic nationalist agenda). That is the latest figure of what Hegel described as die verkehrte Welt, the topsy-turvy world.

And what if Trump moves in the same direction? What if his project of moderate protectionism and large public works, combined with anti-immigrant security measures and a new perverted peace with Russia, would somehow work?

The French language uses the so-called ne explétif after certain verbs and conjunctions; it is also called a “non-negative ne” because it has no negative value in and of itself but is used in situations where the main clause has a negative (either negative-bad or negative-negated) meaning, such as expressions of fear, warning, doubt, and negation.7 For example: Elle a peur qu’il ne soit malade. (She’s afraid that he is sick.) Lacan noted how this superfluous negation renders perfectly the gap that separates our true unconscious desire from our conscious wish: when a wife is afraid that her husband is sick, she may well worry that he is not sick (desiring him to be sick). And could we not say exactly the same about the Left liberals horrified by Trump? Ils ont peur qu’il ne soit une catastrophe. What they really fear is that he will not be a catastrophe.

One should get rid of the false panic, fearing the Trump victory as the ultimate horror, which made us support Hillary in spite of all her obvious shortcomings. Trump’s victory created a totally new political situation with chances for a more radical Left. Today’s liberal Left and populist Right are both caught in the politics of fear: fear of the immigrants, of feminists, etc., or the fear of fundamentalist populists, etc. The first thing to do here is to accomplish the move from fear to Angst: fear is the fear of an external object that is perceived as posing a threat to our identity, whereas anxiety emerges when we become aware that there is something wrong with our identity itself, with what we want to protect from the feared external threat. Fear pushes us to annihilate the external object; the way to confront anxiety is to transform ourselves.

The 2016 elections were the final defeat of liberal democracy, or, more precisely, of what we could call the Left-Fukuyamaist dream, and the only way to really defeat Trump and to redeem what is worth saving in liberal democracy is to perform a sectarian split from liberal democracy’s main corpse – in short, to shift the weight from Clinton to Sanders. The next elections should be between Trump and Sanders. Elements of the program for this new Left are relatively easy to imagine. Trump promises the cancellation of big free trade agreements supported by Clinton, and the Left alternative to both should be a project of new and different international agreements — agreements that would establish control of the banks, agreements about ecological standards, about workers’ rights, healthcare, protection of sexual and ethnic minorities, etc. The big lesson of global capitalism is that nation-states alone cannot do the job, and only a new political International can maybe bridle global capital.

An old anti-Communist Leftist once told me the only good thing about Stalin was that he really scared the big Western powers. And one could say the same about Trump: the good thing about him is that he really scares liberals. After World War II, Western powers learned the lesson and focused also on their own shortcomings, which led them to develop the welfare state. Will our Left liberals be able to do something similar?

Footnotes

  1. Quoted from http://www.politico.com/story/2016/11/nancy-pelosi-donald-trump-house-democrats-231716.
  2. Alenka Zupančič, “Back to the Future of Europe” (unpublished manuscript).
  3. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-marche-left-fake-news-problem-comedy-20170106-story.html.
  4. Alenka Zupančič, “Back to the Future of Europe” (unpublished manuscript).
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/28/francois-fillon-threat-liberal-values-marine-le-pen-france.
  6. Quoted from https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/lesson-of-populist-rule-in-poland-by-slawomir-sierakowski-2017-01.
  7. See http://french.about.com/od/grammar/a/negation_form_2.htm.

Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities. This account is not monitored and is only maintained to give appropriate credit.

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