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Trump, fascism, and the construction of "the people": An interview with Judith Butler

Christian Salmon29 December 2016

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Christian Salmon's interview with Judith Butler first appeared in Mediapart. Translated by David Broder.

Correction: An earlier version of this post included Judith Butler's remarks in translation from French. Butler has since sent us the English responses she submitted to
Mediapart, which the post has been updated to reflect. 

via Flickr.

What does Donald Trump represent? The American philosopher Judith Butler, professor at UC, Berkeley, has recently published a short book in French, Rassemblement [Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly]. She explains that Donald Trump incarnates a new form of fascism. As she puts it, "A lot of people are very happy to see this disturbing, unintelligent guy parading around as if he was the centre of the Earth and winning power thanks to this posture." 

Many writers and intellectuals in the United States and Europe have expressed their views on the Trump phenomenon; mostly to express their consternation or their reprobation, condemning the excesses of his language or expressing their alarm at his proposals to build a wall on the Mexican border or to expel millions of undocumented migrants. But if we are to try to understand what is going on with "Trump" — the Trump phenomenon — then we need to bear in mind the analyses that Judith Butler has elaborated since the late 1990s, from her Excitable Speech, A Politics of the Performative to her latest book, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly.

Mediapart: Might we say that Donald Trump is a sort of "figure in the carpet" of the analyses you have been producing over the last two decades? Is Trump not a "Butlerian object" par excellence

Judith Butler: I am not sure that Trump is a very good object for my kind of analysis. I do not think that there is, for instance, a fascination with the person of Trump. And if we consider his speech, then we have to consider more specifically the effect of his speech on one part of the US public. Let us remember that he 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 way to becoming the President. So 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 US parties. But Hillary Clinton won more votes than Trump. So when we ask about support for Trump, we are asking how a minority in the US was able to bring Trump to power. We are asking about a deficit in democracy, not a popular groundswell. In my view, the electoral college should be abolished so that our elections more clearly represent the will of the people. Our political parties also have to be rethought so that there can be greater popular participation in the process.

So the minority that supported Trump, the minority that were able to achieve an electoral success, were enabled not only by their own disaffection with the political field, but the disaffection of about 50% of eligible voters who did not vote. Perhaps we should be talking about the loss of participatory democracy in the US.

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 about an economic future brought on by economic and financial movements that leave whole communities decimated is surely important. But so too is the increasingly demographic complexity of the US, and forms of racism old and new. The desire for “strength” is, on the one hand, about enhancing state power against foreigners, undocumented workers, but it is coupled with a desire to get government off our backs, a slogan that serves both individualism and the market.

The clearest point of comparison between Trump and fascism — if any such comparison can be made — concerns the relation between the leader and the masses who produce him. Fundamentally, the big fascist leaders were not the inventors of fascism, but they did seize control of a certain scenario in which the petty bourgeoisie or middling bourgeoisie really struggled to deal with its declining class status after the defeat and the crisis of the 1920s, and expressed its frustration through its hatred for the proletariat. Recently I had a chance find, an old text of Trotsky’s in which he talks about the fascist leader. I thought this provided a good description of the Trump phenomenon: "His political thoughts were the fruits of oratorical acoustics. That is how the selection of slogans went on. That is how the program was consolidated. That is how the 'leader' took shape out of the raw material." Can’t we say the same of Trump?

This may well be a moment to distinguish between old and new fascisms.  What you have described are the mid twentieth-century forms of European fascism. With Trump, we have a different situation, but one which I would still call fascist. On the one hand, Trump is wealthy, and those who voted for him were primarily not wealthy. And yet, workers identified with him – he worked the system and succeeded. Take the example of his ability to leverage his debts so that he would not have to pay taxes. Clinton was mistaken to think that ordinary people who pay taxes would be outraged by this fact. But they actually admired him for finding a way to avoid paying taxes. They would like to be that person! The fascist moment comes, however, when he arrogates to himself the power to deport millions of people or even 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 re-introduction of “water-boarding” 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 broken and made.

But also, when he claims that he would hit or kill someone who interrupts him at a crowd, he bespeaks a murderous desire that, quite frankly, thrills many people. When he normalizes non-consensual sex or calls Hillary a “nasty woman," he gives voice to long-standing misogyny, and when he figures Mexican immigrants as murderers, he gives voice to long-standing racism. Many of us took his arrogance, his ridiculous self-importance, his racism, his misogyny, his unpaid taxes, to be self-defeating characteristics, but all those were frankly thrilling for many who voted for him. No one is sure 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.

Donald Trump did not campaign in poetry or in prose — as in the old saying coined by Mario Cuomo — but, like all fascist leaders, in argot. He invented his own sociolect, a mix of jokes, funny faces, scatological allusions, complaints, slogans and imprecations. His rhetoric corresponds to a sort of ‘branding’ based on exclusion. He communicates less by structured discourse than by signals, an amalgam of slogans and insults brandished as a massive weapon for delegitimising minorities. How would you analyse Donald Trump’s slogan in The Apprentice — "You’re Fired"?

Once again, the speech act presumes that he is the one in power to deny people of their jobs or their positions or their power. So part of what he managed to do is to communicate that sense of power that he delegated to himself. Speech acts such as the one you cite do precisely that. Let us also remember that the anger against cultural elites takes the form of an anger against feminism, against the civil rights movement, against religious tolerance and multiculturalism. All these are figured as “super-egoic” constraints on racist, misogynist, passions. So Trump “liberated” hatred from the social movements and public discourses that condemn racism – wit Trump, one is “free” to hate. He put himself in the position of the one who was willing to risk and survive public condemnation for his racism and sexism. His supporters wish to be shamelessly racist as well, which is why we saw the sudden increase of hate crimes on the street and in public transportation immediately after the election. People were “liberated” to shout their racism as they wish. How then to liberate ourselves from Trump, “the liberator”?

If we concentrate too much on rhetoric we risk forgetting a second dimension: the very great "corporeity" of his performances at rallies or talk shows. It is not worth saying anything more about his haircut and his "orangeness," but beyond that there is also the way he moves his hands and his mouth, a mannerism expressed in zany face-pulling, overblown gestures, a form of over-exhibition of his body, particular to the universe of tele-reality. Surely the naked statues of Trump that spread across public squares in cities around America sanctioned a sort of kitsch sacrality, aiming at a sort of hateful contagion, a corporeal provocation… Seeing this I thought of a line from Kafka, "One of the most effective means of temptation that Evil possesses is the challenge to struggle against it." How would you analyse this "reality TV" character breaking through onto the political stage?

It seems clear that the presidency has become increasingly une phenomene mediatique. 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 satire in which Alec Baldwin roams around the stage, appearing to almost attack Hillary from the rear. That kind of looming and threatening power draws as well on his 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.

Having been accused of lying, Trump defended himself by saying that he practised what he called "truthful hyperbole," "an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion." European media are increasingly using the expression "post-truth politics" to designate the blurring of true and false, reality and fiction that Hannah Arendt described as a property of totalitarianism. In this view, social media have created a new context characterised by the appearance of independent news bubbles, creating a sort of news echo-chamber allowing for the wildest rumours, conspiracy theories and lies to spread. Indeed, it is inaccessible to media fact checking. During his campaign Trump was able to address his little republics of resentment via Twitter and Facebook, and federate them into an over-excited "wave." What do you think of this concept of "post-truth politics"?

Somehow I cannot believe that those are Trump’s own words, but someone who is trying to normalize and even applaud his cavalier relation to truth. I am not sure we are in the middle of post-truth. Trump seems to me to attack the truth, and to show that he does not show evidence for his claims or even a logic to what he says. His statements are not utterly arbitrary, but he is willing to change positions at will, bound only to the occasion, his impulse and his efficacity. So for instance, when he said of Hillary Clinton that once he became president, he would “lock her up” that brought cheers from those who hated her; it even allowed them to hate her more. Of course, he does not have the power to “lock her up” and even as President, he does not have the power without a rather lengthy criminal proceeding and the judgment of a court. But at that moment he is above all juridical proceedings, exercising his will as he wishes, and so modeling that form of tyranny that does not really care whether she committed a punishable offense. The evidence so far suggests that she did not.  But he is not living in a world of evidence. Similarly, his claim that Clinton would not have won the popular vote if it were not for the millions of illegals who voted for her cannot possibly be substantiated. At that moment, though, he exposes his own narcissistic wound in public, and seeks to de-ratify the popular vote. At the same time, the idea that votes in his favor were ever illegal is radically discounted. On the one hand, it does not matter whether or not he contradicts himself or whether it is obvious that he rejects only those conclusions that diminish his power or popularity. Both the brazen and wounded narcissism and the 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.

In Excitable Speech you analyse the verbal violence of homophobic, sexist or racist discourse whose goal is to break and exclude the people to whom it is addressed. You also show that this verbal violence’s goal is to redraw the boundaries of a people. This means a discursive operation to exclude, trace, and delimit, but also to configure — bringing the emergence of the homogeneous, monochrome, heterosexual shape of a fantasy people. Nonetheless, you also explain that this performance can be turned back on itself, and open the space for a political struggle and a subversion of identities. What do you think are the levers that can bring this about?

Perhaps we have to think about xenophobic nationalism as one way to assert and define “the people.” There was support for Trump among the economically disenfranchised ad well as those who understand themselves as having lost the privileges of whiteness, but many wealthy people also voted Trump with the belief that more markets would open and that more wealth could be had. We can focus on his speech, and that matters, but it is not his speech alone that draws people to him. I thought Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, was right, however, to respond to his insulting comment about Clinton, “she’s a nasty woman”, with the rejoinder: “"Get this, Donald. Nasty women are tough. Nasty women are smart. And nasty women vote. And, on Nov. 8, we nasty women are going to march our nasty feet to cast our nasty votes to get you out of our lives forever.” That was doubtless an exhilarating moment of public feminism, but it was clearly not enough.

Since 2011 we have seen the international emergence of assemblies like Occupy, the Indignados, Nuit Debout, the Arab Spring… In your most recent book, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, you analyse the conditions of these movements’ appearance [les conditions d'apparition] and their political implications, extending your analyses of political performance. You write that when bodies assemble they take on a political expression, which is not reduced to these actors’ demands or the discourse they advance. What forces prevent or make possible this kind of plural action? What is their democratic character?

“Apparition” us perhaps not the right word for “appearance” in English, but we have to live with the ghosts in language. 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. So bodily mobility and capacity is assumed by this freedom. So many of the public demonstrations against austerity and precarity present bodies in the street and within the public view who are themselves suffering from displacement and disenfranchisement. They also assert political agency in common by gathering as they do. So though we can think about parliamentary assemblies as part of democracy, so too can we understand the extra-parliamentary power of assemblies to alter the public understanding of who the people are. Especially when those appear who are not supposed to appear, we see as well how the sphere of appearance, and the powers that control its borders and divisions, is presupposed in any discussion of who the people are. In this regard, I agree with Jacques Ranciere.

Michel Foucault analysed the democracy of fifth to fourth century BC Athens as simultaneously a discursive problem, the paradox of "speaking truth" in a democracy (parrhesia is perverted) and as a displacement of the "stage" of politics, from the "agora" to the "ecclesia" — namely from the city of citizens to the court of the sovereign. Can we consider the development of these new democratic stages appearing since 2011 as the agora’s revenge on the ecclesia?

To speak truth to power is not fundamentally an individual act. To speak truth to power means that one appropriates power in speaking as one does. And that the structures of power can be taken over or redeployed in the service of “talking back.” So we may think of the speaking subject as an individual who speaks, it is an anonymous and shifting position that potentially includes any number of people. 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. 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. So in a way, we have first to break into discourse before we can speak truth to power. We have to break upon the constraints on political representation in order to expose its violence and oppose its exclusions. As long as “security” continues to justify the banning and dispersion of demonstrations, assemblies, and encampments, security 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.



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