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Slavoj Zizek: Trump’s GREATEST TREASON is the betrayal of populism

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, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London.

is a cultural philosopher. He’s a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London.

Slavoj Zizek: Trump’s GREATEST TREASON is the betrayal of populism
In his erratic grasping at power, outgoing US President Donald Trump is doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. The undemocratic electoral system needs to be dismantled, but he doesn’t have the good of his supporters in mind.

When the district judge Vanessa Baraitser rejected the US demand to extradite Julian Assange, many Leftist and liberal critics commented on this decision in terms which recall the famous lines from T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: “The last temptation is the greatest treason / To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” In the play, Becket is afraid that his “right thing” (the decision to resist the king and sacrifice himself) is grounded in a “wrong reason” (his egotist search for the glory of sainthood). Hegel would have answered to this predicament that what matters in our acts is their public content: if I do a heroic sacrifice, this is what counts, independently of the private motives for doing it, which may be pathological.

But the refusal to extradite Assange to the US is a different case: it was obviously the right thing to do, but what is wrong are the publicly stated reasons for doing it. The judge fully endorsed the US authorities’ assertion that Assange’s activities fell outside of the realm of journalism, and justified her decision purely on mental health grounds – she said: “The overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man, who is genuinely fearful about his future.” She added that Assange's high level of intelligence means he would probably succeed in taking his own life.

Evoking mental health is thus an excuse to deliver justice - the implicit but clear public message of the judge is: “I know the accusation is wrong, but I am not ready to admit it, so I prefer to focus on mental health.” (Plus, now that the court also rejected bail for Assange, he will remain in the solitary confinement in prison which brought him to suicidal despair…) Assange’s life is (maybe) saved, but his Cause – the freedom of the press, the struggle for the right to render public any state crimes – remains a crime. This is an indicative example of what the humanitarianism of our courts really amounts to.

But all this is common knowledge – what we should do is apply T.S. Eliot’s lines to two other recent political events. Is the comedy that took place in Washington on January 6 not the final proof – if one were needed – that Assange should not be extradited to the US? It would be like extraditing dissidents who escaped Hong Kong back to China.

The first event: when Trump put pressure on Mike Pence, his vice-president, not to certify electoral votes, he also asked Pence to do the right thing for the wrong reason: yes, the US electoral system is rigged and corrupted, it is one big fake, organized and controlled by the ‘deep state.’ The implications of Trump’s demand are interesting: he argued that Pence, instead of simply acting in his constitutionally-prescribed proforma role, could delay or obstruct the Electoral College certification in Congress.

After the votes are counted, the vice-president has just to declare the result, whose content is determined in advance – but Trump wanted Pence to act as if he is making an actual decision… What Trump demanded was not a revolution but a desperate attempt to save his day by forcing Pence to act within the institutional order, taking the letter of the law more literally than it was meant.

The second event: when pro-Trump protesters invaded Capitol on January 6, they also did the right thing for the wrong reasons. They were right in protesting the US electoral system, with its complicated mechanisms whose aim is to render impossible a direct expression of popular dissatisfaction (this was clearly stated by the Founding Fathers themselves). But their attempt was not a Fascist coup – prior to taking power, Fascists make a deal with big business, but now “Trump should be removed from office to preserve democracy, business leaders say.”

So did Trump incite the protesters against big business? Not really: recall that Steve Bannon was thrown out of the White House when he not only opposed Trump’s tax plan but openly advocated raising taxes for the rich to 40 per cent, plus he argued that rescuing banks with public money is “socialism for the rich.” 

Trump advocating ordinary people’s interests is like Citizen Kane from Welles’ classic movie – when a rich banker accuses him of speaking for the poor mob, he answers that, yes, his newspaper speaks for the poor ordinary people in order to prevent the true danger which is that the poor ordinary people will speak for themselves.

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‘Swamp’ creature with a populist facade

As Yuval Kremnitzer demonstrated, Trump is a populist who remains within the system. Like any populism, his version also distrusts political representation, pretending to speak directly for the people – it complains about how its hands are tied by the ‘deep state’ and financial establishment, so its message is: “if only we didn’t have our hands tied, we would be able to do away with our enemies once and for all.”

However, in contrast to old authoritarian populism (like Fascism) which is ready to abolish formal-representative democracy and really take over and impose a new order, today’s populism doesn’t have a coherent vision of some new order – the positive content of its ideology and politics is an inconsistent bricolage of measures to bribe “our own” poor, to lower the taxes for the rich, to focus the hatred on the immigrants and our own corrupted elite outsourcing jobs, etc. That’s why today’s populists don’t really want to get rid of the established representative democracy and fully take power: “without the ‘fetters’ of the liberal order to struggle against, the new right would actually have to take some real action,” and this would render obvious the vacuity of their program. Today’s populists can only function in the indefinite postponement of achieving their goal since they can only function as opposing the ‘deep state’ of the liberal establishment: “The new right does not, at least not at this stage, seek to establish a supreme value – for instance, the nation, or the leader – that would fully express the will of the people and thereby allow and perhaps even require the abolition of the mechanisms of representation.”

What this means is that the true victims of Trump are his ordinary supporters who take seriously his babble against liberal corporate elites and big banks. He is the traitor of his own populist cause. His liberal critics accuse him of just seemingly controlling his supporters ready to violently fight for him, while he is really at their side, inciting them to act, even violently. But he is NOT really ON their side. On the morning of January 6, he addressed the rally on the Ellipse: “We're going to walk down to the Capitol. And we're gonna cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women. And we're probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them, because you'll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength and you have to be strong.” However, when the mob did this and approached the Capitol, Trump retreated to the White House and watched on television as the violence unfolded on Capitol Hill.

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Unmasking fake democracy

Did Trump really want to effect a coup d’etat? Unambiguously, NO. When the mob penetrated the Capitol, he made a statement: “I know your pain, I know your hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election, and everyone knows it, especially the other side. But you have to go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order.” Trump blamed his opponents for the violence and praised his supporters, saying, “We can’t play into the hands of these people. We have to have peace. So go home. We love you; you’re very special.”

And when the mob began to disperse, Trump posted a tweet defending the actions of his supporters who stormed and vandalized the Capitol: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away.” He concluded his tweet with: “Remember this day forever!” Yes, we should – because it displayed the fakeness of US democracy as well as the fakeness of the populist protest against it. Just a few elections in the US really mattered – like the California gubernatorial election in 1934: the Democratic candidate Upton Sinclair lost because the entire establishment organized a previously unheard-of campaign of lies and defamations (Hollywood announced that, if Sinclair wins, it will move to Florida, etc.).

On Thursday January 7, Trump gave another short speech in which, contradicting what he said before, he unambiguously condemned the attack on the Capitol as a threat to law and order, and promised to collaborate in the peaceful transition of power. Although he probably said this out of fear for his personal fate, this act just confirmed that he was and is a member of the establishment, not even a Rightist hero but a coward. No wonder masses of his fans are already describing him as a “traitor,” a part of the Washington “swamp” he’d promised to clear. This, of course, doesn’t mean that his supporters are in any sense progressives betrayed by Trump: they expressed their actual grievances in a Rightist populist way. There is a grain of truth in their complaints, but they themselves betrayed it by the form of their activity. Crazy as it may sound, if they mean it seriously, they should join Bernie Sanders.

The furious, dissatisfied crowd attacking the parliament on behalf of a popular president deprived of his power through parliamentary manipulations… sounds familiar? Yes: this should have happened in Brazil or in Bolivia – there, the crowd of the president’s supporters would have the full right to storm the parliament and re-install their president. A totally different game was going on in the US. So let’s hope that what happened on January 6 in Washington will at least stop the obscenity of the US sending observers to elections in other countries to judge their fairness – now the US elections themselves need foreign observers. The US is a rogue country, and not just when Trump became its President: the ongoing (almost) civil war displays a rift that was there all the time.

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

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