Slavoj Zizek: The secret of how to defeat Trump lies in Europe

Slavoj Zizek
Slavoj Zizek is a cultural philosopher. He’s a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana and Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University.
Slavoj Zizek: The secret of how to defeat Trump lies in Europe
There may well be two sides to Donald Trump. The “peaceful” and the “belligerent,” depending on his moods. And we might just have seen both of them in quick succession.

Just after announcing the meeting with Kim Jong-un, Trump decided to withdraw from the Iran agreement, thereby bringing instability and the threat of war (not only) to the Middle East.

But, of course, there is only one Trump, who was doing exactly the same thing in both cases. In the case of North Korea, he began with exerting extreme pressure, including economic sanctions and military threats, and he is doing the same to Iran, in the hope that, if it worked the first time, it will work now also.

Will it though? What if the US government is well aware that the pressure on Iran will not work? What if, together with Israel and Saudi Arabia, they are preparing for war with Iran?

It is difficult to speculate about the consequences of such a military conflict. We should rather focus on the limitation of Trump’s entire approach: Will Trump get his comeuppance? Because Neither Russia nor China can do this – they are caught in the same game as Trump and they basically all speak the same language of “America (Russia, China…) first.”

Last hope

Only the European Union can deliver a hammer blow, and the new situation offers the bloc a unique chance to assert itself as a sovereign power block and to act as if the pact with Iran is still valid. Seizing this opportunity, the French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said that Trump’s proposals to corral the EU into joining US foreign policy on Iran should be counteracted by a stronger, independent European foreign policy. “We have to work among ourselves in Europe to defend our European economic sovereignty. Do we want to be a vassal that obeys and jumps to attention?”

Sounds nice – but does Europe have enough strength and unity to do it? Will the new East European, post-Communist axis (stretching from the Baltic States to Croatia) follow the EU resistance to the US, or will it bow to the US and thus provide yet more proof that the quick expansion of the EU to the east was a mistake?

What further complicates things is that Europe is caught in its own populist revolt, triggered by the fact that people trust less and less the Brussels technocracy, regarding it as a center of power with no democratic legitimacy.

The result of the last Italian elections is that, for the first time in a developed Western European country, Euroskeptic populists came to power. Plus, the withdrawal from the Iran agreement is just the middle one of the three anti-European acts of the US: the move of the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem vehemently opposed by the EU, plus the opening shot in the trade war with three of its biggest trading partners by deciding to begin levying tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum from the EU, Canada and Mexico.

Other view

Although most of us sympathize with the European reaction, we should not forget the (as a rule ignored) background of the US decision. To understand it, let’s turn to another topic which may appear to be totally different: the current uproar in the US over the abrupt cancellation of ABC’s hit TV show ‘Roseanne’ because of a racist tweet by the show’s star Roseanne Barr.

In her column “With Roseanne Barr gone, will the US working-class be erased from TV?” Joan Williams argues that the Left should finally start to listen to the white working class. She perspicuously notices how a key fact of this affair passed unnoticed: the cancellation “deprived American television of one of the only sympathetic depictions of white working-class life in the past half century – in other words, since television began.”

Williams unambiguously supports the exclusion of Barr on account of her racist tweets – but she adds: “All that said, race is not the only social hierarchy. Disrespectful images of the working-class whites are part and parcel of the cultural disrespect that paved the path for a demagogue like Trump.” The sad plight of the working-class whites is the clearest indication of the disappearance of the American dream.

“Virtually all Americans born in the 1940s earned more than their parents; today, it’s less than half. The rust belt revolt that brought both Brexit and Trump reflects rotting factories, dying towns, and a half century of empty promises. Those left behind are very, very angry; Trump is their middle finger. The more he outrages coastal elites, the more his followers gloat they got our goat. Finally, they are being noticed.”

And it is crucial to read Trump’s tariff war against the closest allies of the US against this background: in his populist version of class warfare, Trump’s goal is (also) to protect the American working class (and are metal workers not one of the emblematic figures of the traditional working class?) from “unfair” European competition, and thereby save American jobs. This is why all the protests of public officials and economists in EU, Canada and Mexico, as well as the countermeasures proposed by them, miss the target: they follow the WTO logic of free international trade, while only a new Left addressing the concerns of all those left behind can really counter Trump.

At some deep and often obfuscated level, the US neocons perceive the European Union as the enemy. This perception, kept under control in the public political discourse, explodes in its underground obscene double, the extreme Right Christian fundamentalist political vision with its obsessive fear of the new world order (with conspiracy theories such as how Obama is in secret collusion with the United Nations, international forces will intervene in the US and put all true American patriots in concentration camps etc.)  

Conflicting ideas

One way to resolve this dilemma is the hardline Christian fundamentalist one, articulated in the works of Tim laHaye et consortes: to unambiguously subordinate the second opposition to the first one. The title of one of la Haye’s novels points in this direction: ‘The Europa Conspiracy.’ So, the true enemies of the US are not Muslim terrorists, they are merely puppets secretly manipulated by the European secularists, the true forces of the anti-Christ, who want to weaken the US and establish a new world order under the domination of the United Nations. And, in a way, they are right in this perception: Europe is not just another geopolitical power bloc, but a global vision which is ultimately incompatible with nation-states.

This brings us back to Trump and Putin: one openly supported Brexit, and the other is believed in the West to have desired it. Both figures belong to the conservative-nationalist line of “America/Russia first,” which should perceive a united Europe as its biggest enemy (even if Putin publicly says the opposite and many Russians resent their exclusion from the European project, rather than the notion itself) – and they are both right.

The problem for Europe is how to remain faithful to its emancipatory legacy, which is now threatened by the conservative-populist onslaught? In his ‘Notes Towards a Definition of Culture,’ the great conservative T.S. Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is the one between heresy and non-belief, when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main corpse. This is what has to be done today: the only way to really defeat Trump and to redeem what is worth saving in liberal democracy is to perform a sectarian split from liberal democracy’s main corpse.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.