What can we learn from Hegel on Donald Trump and his liberal critics? Quite a lot, surprisingly. In his critical account of Romantic irony, Hegel scathingly dismisses it as an exercise of empty negativity, of the vain subjectivity which perceives itself as elevated over every objective content, making fun of everything, caught in “the hither and thither course of the humor which uses every topic only to emphasize the subjective wit of the author.” “It is the artist himself who enters the material, with the result that his chief activity, by the power of subjective notions, flashes of thought, striking modes of interpretation, consists in destroying and dissolving everything that proposes to make itself objective and win a firm shape for itself in reality, or that seems to have such a shape already in the external world.”1
Today, we can easily recognize in these lines a postmodern intellectual who obsessively “deconstructs” every stable social institution or value. So what does Hegel oppose to this vain irony? Hegel’s point is usually taken as conservative: instead of the all-destroying anarchic irony of the Romantics, one should recognize the Good and the True embodied in social customs, i.e., its own rational core… However, Hegel is much more ambiguous here. First, his basic reproach to subjective humor is not that it is undermining all objective content, not taking it seriously, relativizing it, but that this all-destroying ironic stance is really utterly impotent. It actually threatens nothing; it just provides the ironic subject with the illusion of inner freedom and superiority. When individuals are caught in an impenetrable cobweb of social relations, the only way to assert their subjectivity is the niche of jokes which allegedly demonstrate their inner superiority.
Hegel opposed to Romantic subjective irony a much more radical ontological irony which characterizes the innermost core of dialectics. Apropos Socratic irony, he points out that, “like all dialectic, it gives force to what is — taken immediately, but only in order to allow the dissolution inherent in it to come to pass; and we may call this the universal irony of the world.”2 Perceiving reality as in itself antagonistic, a dialectical approach does not try to undermine it actively; it just lets it be what it is (or claims to be), taking it more seriously than it takes itself, and in this way allows it to destroy itself. This irony is in a way objective, so no wonder that, in a short (and regretfully underdeveloped) passage, Hegel opposes to “subjective humor” what he calls “objective humor”:
When “what matters to humor is the object and its configuration within its subjective reflex, then we acquire thereby a growing intimacy with the object, a sort of objective humor. /…/ The form meant here displays itself only when to talk of the object is not just to name it, not an inscription or epigraph which merely says in general terms what the object is, but only when there are added a deep feeling, a felicitous witticism, an ingenious reflection, and an intelligent movement of imagination which vivify and expand the smallest detail through the way that poetry treats it.”3
We are dealing here with a humor which, by way of focusing on significant symptomal details, brings out the immanent inconsistencies/antagonisms of the existing order. So would it not be legitimate to extrapolate from these indications the idea that the social totality itself is traversed by antagonisms, wrought by comical reversals? Freedom turns into terror, honor into flattery – are such reversals not the stuff of the Cunning of Reason? Can one imagine a more terrifying case of “objective humor” than that of Stalinism, of the comical reversal of great emancipatory hopes into a self-destructive terrorist violence? Was, in this sense, Stalin not the big Jokester of the twentieth century? And is, in our time, individual freedom of choice also not a joke whose truth is the desperate situation of a precarious worker? In view of the fact that the greatest cultural product of the Stalinist era are political jokes, one is tempted to paraphrase Brecht yet again: what is even the best anti-Stalinist joke compared to the joke that is the Stalinist politics itself? Or, closer to our time, what are even the best jokes on Trump compared to the joke that is Trump’s actual politics? Imagine that, a couple of years ago, a comedian were to perform on stage Trump’s statements, tweets and decisions. That would have been experienced as a non-realist exaggerated joke. So, Trump already is his own parody, with the uncanny effect of the reality of his acts being more outrageously funny than most parodies.
Hegel’s critique of subjective humor is more actual than ever today. One of the popular myths of the late Communist regimes in Eastern Europe was that there was a department of secret police whose function was (not to collect, but) to invent and put in circulation political jokes against the regime and its representatives, as they were aware of jokes’ positive stabilizing function (political jokes offer to ordinary people an easy and tolerable way to blow off steam, easing their frustrations).
And, at a different level, the same holds for Trump. Remember how many times the 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. Which means that 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 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.”4 Or, we should add, the Left does what is worse still: 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…) which 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.”5
In my past work, I used a joke, popular among dissidents, from the good old days of Really-Existing Socialism. In the 15th century Russia occupied by Mongols, a farmer and his wife walk along a dusty country road; a Mongol warrior on a horse stops at their side and tells the farmer that he will now rape his wife; he then adds: “But since there is a lot of dust on the ground, you should hold my testicles while I’m raping your wife, so that they would not get dirty!” After the Mongol finishes his job and rides away, the farmer starts to laugh and jump with joy. Surprised, the wife asks him: “How can you be jumping with joy when I was just brutally raped in your presence?” The farmer answers: “But I got him! His balls are full of dust!” Politically incorrect as it sounds, this joke brings out a sad truth. It tells of the predicament of dissidents: they thought they are dealing serious blows to the party nomenklatura, but all they were doing was getting a little bit of dust on the nomenklatura’s testicles, while the nomenklatura went on raping the people… And can we not say exactly the same about Jon Stewart & Co. making fun of Trump? Do they not just dust his balls, or, in the best of cases, scratch them?
[Appeared in The Philosophical Salon on January 15th 2018.]