Reflections on Trump
From the Series: The Rise of Trumpism
Let us remember that Donald Trump was elected by less than one-quarter of the public, and that it is only as the consequence of an outmoded electoral college that he is now on his way to becoming the president. We should not imagine that there is widespread popular support for Trump. There is widespread disillusionment with participatory politics, and there is some serious contempt for both of the major U.S. political parties. But Hillary Clinton won more votes than Donald Trump. So when we ask about support for Trump, we are asking how a minority in the United States was able to bring Trump to power. We are asking about a deficit in democracy, not a popular groundswell.
My own sense is that Trump unleashed a rage that has several objects and several causes, and we should probably be skeptical of those who claim to know the true cause and the exclusive object. The condition of economic devastation and disappointment, the loss of hope in the face of an economic future brought on by economic and financial movements that leave whole communities decimated, is surely important. But so, too, is the increasing demographic complexity of the United States, and forms of racism old and new.
This may well be a moment to distinguish between old and new fascisms. The key reference point remains the mid-twentieth-century forms of European fascism. With Trump, we have a different situation, but one which I would still call fascist. The fascist moment comes when Trump arrogates to himself the power to deport millions of people or to put Hillary in jail after he assumes office (he has now taken that back), to break trade agreements at will, to insult the government of China, to call for the reintroduction of waterboarding and other modes of torture. When he speaks that way, he acts as if he has the sole power to decide foreign policy, to decide who goes to jail, to decide who will be deported, which trade agreements will be honored, which foreign policy will be made and broken. Many of us took his arrogance, his ridiculous self-importance, his racism, his misogyny, and his unpaid taxes to be self-defeating characteristics, but all of those were frankly thrilling for many who voted for him. No one is sure that he has read the Constitution or even cares about it. That arrogant indifference is what attracts people to him. And that is a fascist phenomenon. If he puts deeds to words, then we have a fascist government.
It seems clear that the presidency has become increasingly une phénomène médiatique. One question is whether many people treat voting the way they treat the Facebook option to like or dislike. Trump takes up space on the screen, becomes a looming figure, and this was brought out well by the Saturday Night Live sketch in which Alec Baldwin roams around the stage, appearing to almost attack Hillary. That kind of looming and threatening power draws, as well, on Trump’s practices of sexual harassment. He goes where he wishes, he says what he wants, and he takes what he wants. So even though he is not charismatic in any traditional sense, he gains size and personal power through taking up the screen in the way that he does. In this sense, he allows for an identification with someone who breaks the rules, does what he wants, makes money, gets sex when and where he wants it. The vulgarity fills the screen, as it wishes to fill the world. And many rejoice to see this awkward and not very intelligent person posturing as the center of the world, and gaining power through that posturing.
I am not sure we are in the middle of post-truth. Trump’s statements are not utterly arbitrary, but he is willing to change positions at will, bound only to the occasion, his impulse, and his efficacity. He is not living in a world of evidence. It does not matter whether or not he contradicts himself or whether it is obvious that he rejects those conclusions that diminish his power or popularity. Both his brazen and wounded narcissism and his refusal to submit to evidence and logic make him all the more popular. He lives above the law, and that is where many of his supporters also want to live.
To speak truth to power is not fundamentally an individual act. Before we ask what it means to speak truth to power, we have to ask who can speak. Sometimes the very presence of those who are supposed to remain mute in public discourse breaks through that structure. So many of the public demonstrations against austerity and precarity present bodies in the street and within public view who are themselves suffering from displacement and disenfranchisement. They also assert political agency in common by gathering as they do. So although we can think about parliamentary assemblies as part of democracy, so too can we understand the extraparliamentary power of assemblies to alter the public understanding of who the people are. Especially when those appear who are not supposed to appear.
Although demonstrations and assemblies are often not enough to produce radical change, they do alter our perceptions about who the people are, and they assert fundamental freedoms that belong to bodies in their plurality. There can be no democracy without freedom of assembly, and there can be no assembly without the freedom to move and gather. When the undocumented assemble, or when those who have suffered eviction assemble, or those who suffer unemployment or drastic cuts in their retirement, they assert themselves into the imagery and the discourse that gives us a sense of who the people are or should be. Of course, they make specific demands, but assembly is also a way of making a demand with the body, a corporeal claim to public space and a public demand to political powers. As long as “security” continues to justify the banning and dispersion of demonstrations, assemblies, and encampments, it serves the decimation of democratic rights and democracy itself. Only a broad-based mobilization—a form of embodied and transnational courage, we might say—will successfully defeat xenophobic nationalism and the various alibis that now threaten democracy.
Distilled from an interview with Christian Salmon, Mediapart, December 18, 2016. Translated by Judith Butler.