On the rise of Trump, the fall of the Democratic party, and the future of the global left

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
The role of the public intellectual in our society is arguably more important now than ever before. Believing that political issues are too important to be left only to politicians, Slavoj Žižek is considered a global rock star when it comes to philosophical debates.
Whether it’s through the rerelease of his text, In Defense of Lost Causes or his forthcoming work, Lenin 2017, the Slovenian native frames the world as we know it through his Marxist lens.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Slavoj Žižek coming up right now.

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: I am pleased to welcome Slavoj Žižek back to this program. The public intellectual has been called the most dangerous philosopher in the west, and he’s published more than 50 books in 20 different languages.
He’s rereleasing a number of those texts this year, including the rerelease of his 2008 text, In Defense of Lost Causes and Lenin 2017 later this spring. I am always honored to have on this program the brilliant philosopher, Slavoj Žižek. How are you, sir?

Slavoj Žižek: I am well, but otherwise, I’m in a bad mood. I’m well because I’m very glad to be here with you.

Tavis: [Laugh] Otherwise, you’re in a bad mood, but I’m glad to have you here anyway. I’m going to put you in a further bad mood maybe, I don’t know. I was surprised — and then again, maybe not, knowing how your mind works — to see this from you.
So just before the election of Donald Trump, we are told that you gave an interview to Channel 4 in the U.K. and in that interview, you were asked if you were a U.S. citizen whether or not you would vote for Donald Trump and you said you would.
I’m quoting now from Slate. “The most prominent living Marxist philosopher in the world is rightfully horrified” — your word, horrified — “at Trump. But as a sort of a bright side, he posits that handing him the keys to the Oval Office and the nuclear codes would trigger a big awakening” — your words — “a big awakening in American politics.”
Why do you think that handing Mr. Trump the keys to the nuclear codes, which he now has, would be or is now a big awakening for American politics?

Žižek: Well, I simply think first that Trump, I totally agree with Trump’s diagnosis. Trump is a threat to world peace, maybe to future of humanity on the earth and so on and so on. But I think I’m a pessimist in a much deeper sense.
I think that where we’re all, not just United States, worth moving, we are moving towards a certain end point, problems with refugees, threat of new economic catastrophes, new racisms exploding not just in the United States, Europe is much worse now and so on. And maybe it was a mistake. I’m ready immediately to change my mind.
I just think that we should never forget one thing. Trump is an effect. It’s an effect of all that was wrong with mainstream liberal politics. Trump, his fake populism, is [inaudible] to it. So the way to really fight Trump is not just to fight Trump.
If you just fight Trump, you are doing what in medicine they call, if I get it correctly, symptomatic healing. You can heal illness, but you just take pills to ease the pain. We must cut off the causes of it. And that’s what bothered me, although he may be a Hillary Clinton, a nicer person and so on. But her coalition, her rainbow coalition, let’s call it, was an incredible one.
From Wall Street to Occupy Wall Street, everybody was there and I think she stood for what was wrong with democratic politics. You make all the concessions to politically correct causes and so on and so on, just not to address the key economic question. And that’s what gave birth to Trump.
That’s why, incidentally, I’m also a big fan of Bernie Sanders. One may disagree with this or with that about Bernie Sanders, but you know he did what everyone thought is not possible. He mobilized precisely those disappointed white workers who otherwise voted for Trump. That’s why I think it’s — so, again, sorry. Back to Trump.
My idea is that if Democratic Party remains what it is, this liberal establishment, let’s call it, even if we win over this Trump, there will be another Trump. In Europe, we have the same problem, my God! The key problem today is the disintegration, the impotence, whatever you call it, of this — let’s call it even liberal left center or whatever.
This is the predominant farce today. You know, all the big names from Silicon Valley and so on, they are all very progressive about LGBT and so on, but you don’t touch capitalism and so on. We have to do this. That’s the key to our survival.
I’m not talking any naive [bleep] about communism or whatever. I’m very modest. Just a little bit of a push toward the left in the sense of healthcare, human rights, workers’ rights. If we don’t do this, if we don’t mobilize also ordinary working people and so on, then it doesn’t matter if we get rid of this Trump. Another Trump will come.
Europe is full of Trumps and so on and so on. And I’m pretty desperate here. You know, I really think that we are approaching a catastrophe, again, ecological, social catastrophe, immigrants and so on. Here I am desperate about the mistakes liberal left.
Look at Europe, this politically correct approach of liberal left. Just let’s talk it up. Start to vote immigrants, but let’s change it into a humanitarian issue. Do we Europeans have a card? How to help them instead of addressing the true causes of all this?
Then you get what? The catastrophe that is now Europe. In Germany, in France, in England, I don’t think, but maybe I was wrong. It was not a principal decision, this crazy old [inaudible] logic, always vote for the worst guy because in this way you will help the revolution. No. I thought maybe I’m wrong.
But nonetheless, with all its faults, United States is a great country with many civil institutions and so on and so on, and things are happening. There was a great debate within the Democratic Party. Another thing, things are beginning to happen. For example, an extremely important thing. This revitalization of women in the millions is a political factor. It wasn’t only here…

Tavis: Sure, around the world, yeah.

Žižek: It’s all around the world and so on and so on. I just expect more of this.

Tavis: I guess the question, though is — let me just back up. I hear your critique, Slavoj. I hear your critique of American liberalism. I would make one distinction. The Democratic Party is hardly a bastion of American liberalism and it’s certainly…

Žižek: What about…

Tavis: And it has very little room for progressives and that was played out in this debate we just had about…

Žižek: But that’s my point. That’s my only goal.

Tavis: I hear that. I hear that as a goal. I guess the question is whether or not the ends justify the means, which is to say, in the first month or so of his presidency, have you started to rethink whether or not your initial thought was correct or incorrect, given what you’ve seen him do so far?

Žižek: No. I mean, I think…

Tavis: You still think giving him the keys was a good idea?

Žižek: Wait a minute. Things here are more complex. I think this idea, I don’t take it seriously that Trump is simply a madman who will, just as another of his narcissistic jokes, press the button.
There are arguments, so I will now show to you that I’m aware of them, of why I’m sincerely horrified by Trump. Let’s forget about all the content, but the style of how he talks. It’s an incredible degradation, vulgarization of public discourse, how we are allowed to publicly speak.
And here I am for — I’m sorry to say this — for good manners. Maybe you’ve had the same experience. When we were young — I’m older than you — I remember official politicians were talking this [inaudible] noble language and we leftists [inaudible], whatever.
But now it’s almost the opposite. The more you go to the right, Breitbart, and this is a unique change. We leftists should propose ourselves we are the true moral majority. We stand for the ordinary decency, good sense, of common people and so on and so on.
So that for me one among true catastrophes of Donald Trump, this incredible degradation of public discourse. And it’s not only Trump. How things that still some five or ten years ago were simply prohibited in public space. You couldn’t say them. Now we can tell them. I think that’s my pessimism.
Let’s say Hillary were to win. Of course, it would have been better in many domains, but isn’t it that it would be deceptive faction? Okay, we avoided the worst so we can go all the way with it. I’m too much of a pessimist for that, if you ask me. But I can be, again, I can be converted.
I mean, it was not a principal decision, again, always vote for the bad guy because the system will be in a crisis. I just hoped. Maybe I was wrong, but you know what’s my fear now? This may interest you and our public. I have now another fear and this would be a true argument against me.
My God, what if at least for a couple of years, Trump will succeed? Somehow he will manage and shock them. Economy, he will not totally break with Mexico, with Putin? He will do some dirty deals and so on and it may work for a couple of years, you know. This is the truth…

Tavis: I hear your point. In American politics, as you well know, there is always this notion that whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, no matter how left or right they might be, they always tack back to the middle. So my sense has always been that Donald Trump at some point is going to tack back to the middle and act with good sense in some measure and get something done.
What that looks like, I do not know, but I’ve always believed that from the very beginning. Here’s the question that you raised for me. I think you’re right.
If he has so degraded and demonized the very nature of how we engage in public discourse, assuming that it takes public discourse that we have to have some sort of conversation in the public square to get this thing right, if that well has been poisoned, how do you even have the conversation? If all the rules of how we engage in conversation with our leaders has changed, how do you have a conversation?

Žižek: My crazy hope, maybe I’m wrong, is that precisely as a reaction to Trump, there is a unique change that a little bit more radical progressives, they should shamelessly address also ordinary decent people who are otherwise afraid of the left and so on and so on. Our message should be, listen, Trump is a decadent.
We are the true voice of moral majority, Christian values and so on, even family values. This is already an excellent argument. I remember years ago when Reagan spoke about family values. And many of my leftist friends dismissed him as, no, these are conservative Christian values.
I told them no. The leftist answer should be if you mean anything minimally serious by family values, supporting family, children support and so on, then Reaganomics did more to destroy family values than all the LGBT leftists or whatever you want, all of them together.
I think, you see, that’s the crux of the matter. I think that just keeping Trump at bay and protecting this mainstream [inaudible] is not enough. Then we are still sliding towards a catastrophe, if you ask me.

Tavis: Let me read this. Your Lenin 2017 book is coming out later this year. I wanted to read a quote from Steve Bannon, who we all know very well, in the White House. This a quote from Bannon about Lenin. Bannon says, and I quote.

“I’m a Leninist. Lenin wanted to destroy the state and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

That’s what Bannon felt about Lenin and that’s what he feels about the establishment in the U.S. of A. What do you make of that comment?

Žižek: The Lenin I like and he miserably failed is the Lenin after the revolution and civil war when the Bolshevikan power faced this simple problem. Okay, now we won the war. How do we reorganize the daily life?
The big misery of today’s left for me from Venezuela to everywhere, even in Greek cities and so on, they’re big at bringing together one million people. We all cry with them, but, you know, for me the true test of progressive forces is what I call this post-alcoholic nightmare, the morning after. It’s easy to gather one million people, but at some point…

Tavis: For a rally, sure, sure.

Žižek: Yes. At some point, things return to normal.

Tavis: That’s right, that’s right.

Žižek: How will ordinary people then feel the difference? That’s the problem. Does the left have an actual answer here? They protest, okay. How to reorganize society and so on? I will give you an example. Did you see the movie — maybe many of our viewers did see it. It was popular a couple of years ago with Natalie Portman, V For Vendetta.
You remember, at the end, people penetrate the British Parliament. People take over and what happens then? The end. As I like to say — sorry for tasteless metaphor — I’m ready to sell my mother into slavery, God bless her. She is dead, so I can say it.
To see a movie called V For Vendetta, Part Two, but what happens then when the people take over? What measures do they do? Do they nationalize what they do? I think this is really the crux of the matter, the big problem of today’s left.

Tavis: But there are a lot of people on the left who would ask you — and I will stand in their stead and ask you — what do they do? If the Republicans control the House, the Republicans control the Senate, they’re about to control the Supreme Court, they control the White House, the average ordinary citizen doesn’t feel empowered.
They don’t feel that they have the agency to actually do anything about this until there’s another election in a couple of years. What do people do?

Žižek: Okay. My first counterpoint would have been that people already felt that they are not in power under previous democratic administrations, and that’s why Trump won. That’s why I’m only saying that’s my mantra. A deeper change is needed. It’s not just enough to swing it back. That’s why I was horrified by what Nancy Pelosi said a couple of weeks ago. I think she basically renormalized the situation.
She said, “Listen, it happens from time to time. We had Reagan for eight years. We had Bush, the younger, for eight years. Our time will come back.” No, it will not. I want to see cornered in a tight political Democratic Party — maybe it will not happen — and realizing it has to move more to the left…

Tavis: But here’s the problem. When Bernie tried that, who you and I both like, he failed.

Žižek: Almost failed. But he began something.

Tavis: He began something.

Žižek: It was the first mass mobilization that got the workers…

Tavis: And the next test was for the Democratic Party just days ago when they had…

Žižek: And they failed, yes.

Tavis: And they failed again. So the point is, I’m all for fighting. I’m with you and Samuel Beckett. Try again, fail again, fail better. Try again, fail again, fail better. I’m with Beckett on that.
But when people keep having these fights and they keep trying to use the agency that they do have and, at this level, they keep getting beaten down because Nancy Pelosi normalizes or the DNC fight doesn’t come out in their favor or Bernie gets picked on by the Democratic Party, they lose hope. And that’s your real problem. Hopelessness is the real problem.

Žižek: Yes, but still I agree with you. I’m basically a pessimist, but what’s your solution? We have to — if we are condemned to Democratic Party, the way it is this party, as the only alternative to Donald Trump, then we are lost.

Tavis: I agree with you. I agree, yeah.

Žižek: We should go on, Bernie. The crucial thing now, I think, is to bring Bernie, what Bernie stands for, our revolution or whatever, together with all Black movements and so on. We have to do a great long-term pedagogic work here. For example, another point that may interest you. Remember Black Lives Matter? And then the answer of Donald Trump and some others, not just Black lives. All lives matter.

Tavis: Blue lives matter, all lives matter, yeah.

Žižek: Yes. That’s a dirty lie. You know why? Because in general, this is of course true, but the specific violence of the system, you can grasp it only in that case of Black lives. And I will give you another example here so that you will not think that I have any respect for Donald Trump.
You remember when it was the debate about who is more guilty, either Black demonstrators where some madman also shot a couple of policemen, or white policemen who overstepped their limit? And Trump, he actually physically talked about it. Trump’s idea was no. The ultimate crime is when people are shooting policemen because they attacked the law.
No, I claim. The ultimate [inaudible] is policemen shoot ordinary — you know why? Because if an ordinary guy shoots a policeman, it’s deplorable. It shouldn’t be done. But it’s still somebody outside the law attacks the agent of the law. But if an agent of the law…

Tavis: Attacks you…

Žižek: Attacks, the whole law and order disintegrates. The state agent acts as a common criminal. That’s the true horror. That’s why there is no symmetry here. You see, this is one of those nice situations where it’s too easy to say they are both wrong. Demonstrators attacking policemen? No, they are not wrong in the same way. The true catastrophe is police doing it and so on and so on.
Let me give you — this may be of some interest to your viewers. What is happening now in Europe? I consider it so ridiculous that, if it wouldn’t be the ultimate horror, I would be laughing. You know, it’s now — and the tragedy is this is no longer some marginal nut. This is a theory reported in white media.
They claim that the conflict between Arabs or Palestinians and Israelis is a fake. It is made to cover up the fact that immigrants who are invading Europe are organized by Jews to do in Christianity. So it’s this totally crazy idea. Now you will say, but this is marginal. What has this to do with Trump?
It has a lot because with some people around Trump, I detect a tendency which is terrifying. It’s not a paradoxical notion. It’s a reality. Zionists, anti-Semites, the same people who are against Jews here, they’re exploiting cause, blah-blah-blah, are absolutely for Israel there.
And this is what people around Trump are doing and so on. The whole political — how shall I put it — political mapping is changing. With Trump, something really new emerged. Again, my point is, bless this one. I repeat it again. We cannot beat this by simply remaining faithful to liberal values…

Tavis: Let me ask you. Why do you think that so many good white folk on the left have the right values, but are disconnected from the everyday lives of everyday people?

Žižek: I think the reasons are mostly, simply economic reasons in what sense? I think that’s the lesson of Bernie Sanders for me. You know, even if they are these white liberals and so on, they may be sincere.

Tavis: Yeah.

Žižek: But, you know what always bothered me? Look at this politically correct people who claim not LGBT, LGBT+…

Tavis: They’re all politically correct. I get it, yeah.

Žižek: Yeah, yeah. The point is that what makes me so suspicious is this extra urgency, how they insist in all these — at least they secretly know that they are not touching the real problems. That’s why they have to exaggerate this [inaudible].
So there is something so terribly fake about all these white liberals who when I call my friends, like you’re Black and not African American, I’m already a racist and so on and so on. It’s such a comfortable position to focus on this problem and avoid true problems. You know who saw it? You must know this better than me. In the last years, Martin Luther King.

Tavis: Of course, of course.

Žižek: Again, I’m not arguing for this out of some crazy twisted radical leftist idea, no. I’m just saying that if we don’t move the whole scene a little bit towards the left, liberalism itself will not survive. We, liberalism, what was best in liberalism? All the lessons of tolerance, women’s rights and so on can only survive through a move to the left.

Tavis: I’ll leave it there. I feel like I’m just getting started on that last point, but I think you take his point. I am always honored to have you on this program, my friend.

Žižek: I’m very glad to be here.

Tavis: You must come again. We’ll do it again.

Žižek: I consider you — I’m not saying this in vain. Although we met just briefly, one of the few people whom I see as my authentic friend here.

Tavis: I appreciate that.

Žižek: I am so sick of this full of career-pursuing academia and so on and so on. Even if I am an atheist, I am praying to God that you will survive here [laugh].

Tavis: And that’s why we’re friends [laugh]. And that’s why you’re welcome back on this show any time.

Žižek: Thanks very much.

Tavis: We will always continue to have these conversations.

Žižek: I am so glad.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

[Appeared on PBS on March 1st 2017.]