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Not That: reflections on the Election, Choicelessness and Contradiction

By Cam Scott.


[Alain Badiou]

It is the end of a long week and the first of many. We could seek catharsis in the obvious, and repeat to ourselves that Trump is yet another village idiot; and it is true that he campaigned to the finish line without completing a thought. But his abrupt non-sequiturs would have been better comic fodder if he hadn’t the inscrutable power to be taken seriously by everybody somewhere, seemingly no matter what. Around-the-clock annotation of Trump’s profundity keeps journalists in work; a beneficent gesture toward the freelancer precariat. But his pronouncements are worse than paranoid, and are soon to be deadly. The laughter stops, and even those who emphasized the indistinction of the candidates are coming to the realization that this presidency will be different.

Still, one mustn’t succumb uncritically to the myth of Trump’s exceptionality. He is only as original as he is impulsive. However, to summon Adorno, whose election coverage has been impeccable thus far, one may say that Trump is a pathological case; but “incongruity with the objective calamity visited upon the world by that paranoiac renders the diagnosis ridiculous.” Over the course of this election, we’ve taken turns playing the ridiculous diagnostician, but now we must meet Trump with weapons greater than condescension.

Making the World America Again

As angry bodies throng the base of Trump Tower, one might ask a topographical question. What is the surface area of this so-called ‘Trump’s America’ to which we collectively awake? Are we now in it? Movingly, a disconsolate mass affirms that they comprise no part of this elected body. And yet, Trump’s political vision has precisely to do with the fanatical purification of a fantasized whole, of which these dissenting voices are already no part. The real political antagonism and symbolic stakes of this election may be summed up by this coincidence: the mutual contempt of would-be oppressor and oppressed, impeding any chance of political co-recognition. Trump has laid bare the inexistent of American politics by naming it; a considerable litany of names, in fact, which he inveighs specifically against at every moment.

These names are targets. The racist terror Trump has promised to unleash is already underway, and in fact, it has been so from the outset. Like a proper huckster, he campaigned on a promise to make America what on one hand it has always been – a white supremacist colony and global financial ‘minotaur’ – and on the other, what it has never been – a racially homogenous enclave of self-sustaining prosperity. The latter version is a fantasy of the former; and the former is the real of the latter scenario. In this respect, Trump’s campaign divides two ‘world-views,’ albeit of a common world; and perhaps one reason for today’s panic has to do with this direct antagonism, heretofore concealed behind an official doctrine of complexity.

Critics of Obama’s track record on deportation, imperial warfare, pipeline expansion, mass incarceration and more, are quick to point out that Trump’s policies may enjoy greater continuity with the present state of affairs than most would care to acknowledge. And it is true, the executive power that Trump assumes is not radically subject to change depending on the values of a single-minded head of state. The power of any such sovereign operator is secured at market, in the ongoing occupation of indigenous territories, in processes of imperial domination, by the police in the streets who, circularly, overwhelmingly supported Trump. There is nothing so innocuous as a neutral office.

These same imperial and colonial structures comprise the checks and balances to which liberals allude today: Trump will be unable to pursue the worst of his policy ideas, it is said, because he will be impeded by the inbuilt prudence of the system qua systematicity. The sublime legal bureaucracy before which we cross our t’s and dab our eyes is supposed to ensure the (calculated) return of the (quantified) same.

But Trump and his left critics share a signifier. That is not to say, as has been suggested, that they share a politics. This is a crucial point on which we ought to be more ardently specific. A certain quality of left melancholic have been sounding some suspicious themes this week: to paraphrase, they are caught up in the lament that it is too late to counterfactually recruit the disaffected ‘working’ masses, who are said to have mis-cognized their class position unto white ressentiment. Venerable tropes of “education” are invoked without accompaniment of the old left vernacular of ‘consciousness,’ let alone class. That macro-object has been nebulized by the over-identification of its constituents with certain secondary signifiers of class; though some correlatives travel less readily than others.

This narrative needs to be complicated. The working class overwhelmingly did not come out for either candidate, and those who did voted decisively for the Democratic Party; perhaps also in spite of their interests. There can be no pretence that Trump won on anything like momentum of a class-based populism. He won on a platform of racist nostalgism and white identity politics. The white college graduate vote did more to secure Trump’s victory. In essence, a nebulous but numerically powerful troll vote is to blame, whose improper identification with a lapsed authority secures and expresses the interests of a numerically insignificant but all-powerful ultra-rich. The scapegoating of class not only pardons active white supremacists of their ideology, but may double as a centrist ruse to discredit a concerted radical (and comprehensively anti-racist) politics, and will probably detract from necessary mobilizations against newly empowered would-be militia-men.

What narratives can we agree upon? First off, the decision of the Democratic Party to run a self-described centre-right candidate against a far-right candidate was a dreadful mistake that insults the extremely high stakes of this election. Further, we know that the DNC conspiratorially suppressed the insurgent Sanders because his candidacy represented a grassroots tendency that exceeded the party remit. This is well-documented but bears repeating. Even conservative commentators will note this week that Sanders polled far better against Trump than Clinton. This is not to lionize Sanders, but to observe that he and Trump had one thing in common; each represented a surge in enthusiasm unprecedentedly excessive of their respective party bases, to which they were only uneasily yoked.

It seems fair to suggest that the true ideological antagonism was between Sanders and Trump, and that Clinton’s brand – unfettered market capitalism with a smattering of social justice – was an attempt to ameliorate these stakes. But here is where an anti-dialectical prejudice of the mainstream left obtrudes and things get reactionary: when people begin to assert that Trump and Sanders had common cause.

In an idealized version, the only thing that Sanders and Trump share is antagonism. Not a skepticism of free trade, not a commitment to the American worker, not any policy in spirit nor in particulars; Sanders and Trump index incompatible dissatisfactions and wholly incongruent programs, and the illusion of a common referent has to do with that they both address a social whole. This is a figure upon which socialism and fascism have always converged, antithetically.

“After Trump We Must Begin”

In an impromptu election post-mortem, Alain Badiou sounds some of his familiar themes. While this election represents the difference between a new fascism and an old oligarchy, the horrified observer “cannot forget that in some sense this difference is inside the same world. It is the expression of two different strategic versions of the same world.” Badiou is clear that the properly political contradiction is not between two forms of the same world, but between a world and something which is beyond the limits of that world. The true contradiction was between Trump and Sanders, Badiou says. In affirmation of real choice, he continues that “today, against Trump, we cannot desire Clinton. We must create a return to the true contradiction. That is, we must propose a political orientation that goes beyond the world as it is …”

The perversity of desiring Clinton in retrospect is worth pausing upon. For as Badiou cautions and exhorts, “after Trump we must begin.” Clinton may have been the prudent choice at ballot, in a swing state anyway; but after such time as an ‘unthinkable’ limit to liberal politicking has been transgressed, it is worse than cynical to rally for the second-worst candidate, defeated by her own mercenary tactics. Now that a Trump presidency has become reality, one must rally to his proper opposition, politically and philosophically, not to the provisional opponent that a two-party election offers to market. Here ‘Sanders’ cannot represent a cleaner, less corrupt candidate, but a set of demands exceeding the mandate of an “actually existing” Democratic Party altogether. The channeling of these demands and this desire into a broader and more radical politics is required now more than ever.

Our stoical progress advances upon disaster, yes; but without our mistaking the disaster that is a pre-condition of political progression for a result in advance of our inheriting it as such. Slavoj Žižek was rightly taken to task for suggesting a week in advance of the election that a vote for Trump was tactically preferable to a vote for Clinton, because it would precipitate new and untold political alternatives. In this thought experiment, he plays idle vanguard of the Götterdämmerung, to the extreme detriment of those less likely to survive a slate-cleansing transfer of power. There is no dialectical rule by which to venture forth this argument: Žižek ends up performing a pre-emptively thwarted political will in the name of hard-nosed realism. (Or, contradictorily, ‘nihilist pragmatism.’)

Further, Žižek’s off-the-cuff analysis duplicates the special kind of fallacy described above. Badiou describes Trump as a figurehead of a global capitalist consensus, to which Clinton, too, belongs; thus the possible contradiction between Trump-as-figure and Sanders-as-negation has to do with the otherworldly status of the latter’s politics. Žižek, however, effectively hypostatizes the relation between the two by situating Trump heroically outside the present order he in fact typifies, as though Trump-and-’Sanders’ were together the negation of Clinton. In fact, Sanders was Clinton’s negative during the primaries and, for many, ongoingly throughout the campaign in spite of his cautious endorsement. And it may be observed, as has Žižek, that any triadic structure works thus, that the conceptual isolation of a single term will binarize the three. This is a demonstration of what is erased or threatened in the forced consensus of a two-party system. ‘Sanders,’ whatever this nomination represents, which will have little or nothing to do with the man himself going forward, contrary to the fixated rhetoric against Bernie Bros as well as the chauvinist enthusiasms of the fraction of campaigners deserving of the epithet, exceeds the Clinton-Trump pair immanently. Insofar as these challenges augur a new world or horizon, that world is necessitated by the contradiction of the sordid as-is with itself. By repeating the myth of Trump’s novelty in order to affirm its necessity, Žižek makes him out to be a revolutionary instrument that he simply isn’t, yet. Only resistance can bestow such standing on an obstacle, and it is perverse to will one worthy of resistance.

It is worth revisiting Badiou’s texts around the election of Sarkozy, not least of all because these writings proceed from a “tangible sense of depression in the air” to outline possibilities for philosophical and practical resistance. There are passages that are strikingly to the point: “It can be oddly dispiriting when an election is won by the candidate who has led in the opinion polls from the start, just as when the favourite horse wins the race; anyone with the slightest feeling for a wager, a risk, an exception or a rupture would rather see an outsider upset the odds.” It is to his credit that Badiou, in his diagnostic summary of the American election, does not succumb to what we might call Žižek’s “feeling for risk,” opting instead to out Trump as the establishment figure that he is, whose victory was written in advance by processual inertia and media excitation.

In The Meaning of Sarkozy, Badiou appears to contradict the above description of electoral politics as “difference inside the same world,” describing a global capitalism that “seeks to impose the political conviction that there are two separate worlds and not just one. There is the world of the rich and powerful, and the immense world of the excluded, subjected and persecuted.” Trump’s nativism is an attempt to quarantine this “world of the powerful” from the latter “world of the excluded.” It is against a related divisory attempt by Sarkozy that Badiou stresses the performative necessity of the assertion that “there is only one world,” a common space of difference. To the extent that ‘Sanders’ designates a political orientation that goes “beyond the world as it is,” this ‘beyond’ only conveys the world of the excluded to the world of the powerful. Socialism would be other-worldly by the accounting of American capitalism because it asserts itself as a horror movie villain, already in the house.

‘Not My President

It is with this in mind that we ought to problematize the profession of dis-identification on the tip of many a protestor’s tongue: what might it mean to say that Trump is “not my president?” This slogan raises some pressing political-ontological questions on the authorization of sovereign power, and sounds differently depending on the speaker. Truly, those who have the most to fear from Trump are those whom he does not purport to represent, those who are not represented by him; those for whom he is no president. This includes the undocumented immigrants and workers he has threatened with deportation, the would-be refugees and asylum seekers he has pledged to turn away; those without a vote and without representation, who have come to an imperial centre to avail themselves of the rumour of opportunity with no security whatsoever, or for reasons less available to the purposes of self-inflated American jingoism. These parties have the most to fear from a Trump presidency not only because he has campaigned on a promise to do them harm, but also because it is directly within his power: constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process due not extend to non-citizens.

Perhaps Trump doesn’t lie outrightly when he says that he will be a president for all Americans; but then it is the extreme selectivity of this criteria that one ought to fear and interrogate. And anybody in the position of de facto inclusion in this violently reduced vision must rally to the support of those outside, in affirmation of the fact that there is only one world, and Trump’s America is not commensurate.


Cam Scott is a poet, essayist and practicing non-musician. Born in Winnipeg, Canada on Treaty One territory, he writes from Brooklyn.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 19th, 2016.