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Opinion

Slavoj Žižek: Trump’s flexible relationship with the truth made him more dangerous than a fascist

Donald Trump has been a US president who has revelled in lies and obscenity. As we consider his legacy, his continued crass behaviour should make us ask how such a worthless person got the job in the first place.

On November 23, Donald Trump finally agreed to begin the transition of power, but the way it was announced tells us a lot about him.

Head of the General Services Administration Emily Murphy said in a letter to President-elect Joe Biden that she had determined the transition from the Trump administration could formally begin. She added that she came to her decision “independently” and did not receive pressure from the executive branch. (Murphy referred to Biden as the “apparent election winner” – the opposite of appearance is essence, so her qualification implies that ‘essentially’ Trump won, whatever the final results.

Minutes after Murphy’s letter was first reported, Trump tweeted that he had given her permission to send the letter, but he vowed to continue protesting his own defeat. His campaign team continues to push supporters to back fundraising efforts in a last-ditch bid to beat the election outcome. 

So, Trump approves transition without conceding defeat; he permits acts which are made independently of his will. He is a living contradiction: the ultimate post-modern ironist presenting himself as a guardian of traditional Christian values; the ultimate demolisher of law and stable order presenting himself as its unconditional enforcer.

We find the same tension in how Trump relates to conspiracy theories. When he is asked about radical Rightist groups which propagate violence or conspiracy theories, Trump is ready to formally distance himself from the problematic aspects, while praising the group’s general patriotic attitude.

This distance is empty, of course, and is a purely rhetorical device: the group is silently expected to act upon the implicit calls to violence Trump’s speeches are full of – when he constantly attacks alleged Leftist violence, he does it in terms which are divisive and a call to violence in themselves.

A prime example of this was Trump’s answer when he was asked about the violence propagated and practised by the Proud Boys in the first presidential debate. As was reported at the time, “Minutes after Trump told the Proud Boys, a far-right group with members who espouse white supremacism, to ‘stand back and stand by’, on national television… members of the men-only group took to fringe social media sites to celebrate what they considered a ‘historic’ moment for their ideological push against leftists.”

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This is – if I can be pardoned using an expression which is very problematic here – Trump at his best. He does tell them to “stand back” – ie to restrain from violence. But he adds “and stand by” – ie to get ready, but for what? The implication is clear: to practise violence if Trump loses the election.

In Trump, we thus encounter a new variation on the old idea of the emperor’s new clothes. While in the original Hans Christian Andersen version an innocent child’s gaze is needed to publicly proclaim that the emperor is naked, in today’s reign of public obscenity, the emperor himself proudly proclaims he has no clothes. But this very openness functions as a redoubled mystification. How?

In homology with Ernst Kantorowicz’s thesis on the King’s Two Bodies, today’s populist emperor has double clothes. So, while he boasts that he is divested of his personal ‘clothes’ of dignity, he keeps his second clothes, the instruments of his symbolic investiture.

For this reason, what makes Trump’s obscenity perverse is that he is not just lying brazenly, without any constraint – he also directly tells the truth when one would expect him to be embarrassed by it. When, in August 2020, he announced his intention to defund the US post service, there was no need for a complex analysis to prove that he was proposing this to make more difficult postal voting and thus deprive the Democrats of votes: he openly stated this was the case.

Lying means you still recognize implicitly some moral norms, you just violate them in reality. But what happened with Trump in this case is worse than lying: in saying what is literally true, he undoes or suspends the very dimension of truth.

We can also clearly see this in how Trump dealt with QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory alleging a secret plot against him and his supporters by a supposed ‘deep state’. This is how ABC reported his reaction: “The White House… defended the President’s embrace of a fringe conspiracy group, with press secretary Kayleigh McEnany saying that he was “talking about his supporters” when he called QAnon followers people who “love the country” and said he appreciates their backing.”

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Trump was careful not to say that he takes the QAnon theory seriously. Instead, he limited himself to only two facts, both of which are true: those who advocate QAnon theories are supporters of him, and they love America. Plus, he added a subjective fact – which is also true – that he appreciates their backing. The question of the factual truth of QAnon didn’t even enter the picture.

We are thus gradually approaching what effectively can be called a post-truth discursive space, a space which oscillates between pre-modern superstition (conspiracy theories) and post-modern cynical scepticism. This is why Trump is not a fascist; he is something maybe even more dangerous.

With Trump, we see the polar opposite to Stalinism, where the figure of the leader should be kept unblemished at any price. While the Stalinist leader fears that even a minor indecency or indiscretion would destroy his position, our new leaders are ready to go pretty far in renouncing dignity. Trump is famous not in spite of his obscenities, but on account of them.

In the old royal courts, a king often had a clown whose function was to destroy the noble appearance with sarcastic jokes and dirty remarks, thereby confirming – by contrast – the king’s dignity. Trump doesn’t need a clown; he already is his own clown, and no wonder that his acts are sometimes more funny or tasteless than the performances of his comic imitators. The standard situation is thus inverted: Trump is not a dignified person about whom obscene rumors circulate; he is an openly obscene person who wants his obscenity to appear as a mask of his dignity.

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All this, unfortunately, doesn’t mean that his ‘excesses’ are not to be taken seriously. In a rare appearance on the electoral campaign, Melania Trump denounced Biden’s “socialist agenda”. So what about Kamala Harris who is usually perceived as more Leftist than the extremely moderate Biden? Her husband was clear on this point: “She’s a communist. She’s not a socialist. She’s well beyond a socialist. She wants to open up the borders to allow killers and murderers and rapists to pour into our country.” Incidentally, when did open borders become a characteristic of communism?

Biden immediately reacted: “There’s not one single syllable that I’ve ever said that could lead you to believe that I was a socialist or a communist.” Factually true, but this rebuttal misses the point. The dismissal of Biden and Harris as socialist or communist is not simply a rhetorical exaggeration; Trump is not just saying this, even though he knows it to be untrue.

His ‘exaggerations’ are perfect examples of what one should call realism of notions. Notions are not just names, they structure political space and, as such, have actual effects.

Trump’s ‘cognitive mapping’ of the political space is an almost symmetrical reversal of the Stalinist map in which everybody who opposes the party is considered to be part of a fascist plot. In a similar way, from Trump’s standpoint, the liberal centre is disappearing – or, as his friend, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán put it, liberals are just communists with a diploma, which means there are only two true poles: populist nationalists and Communists.

There is a wonderful expression in Serb: “Ne bije al’ ubija u pojam.” Roughly translated, it means, “It doesn’t beat but it kills the concept/notion.” It refers to somebody who, instead of destroying you with direct violence, bombards you with acts which undermine your self-respect so that you end up humiliated, deprived of the very core – or ‘notion’ – of your being.

To ‘kill in a notion’ describes the opposite of the actual destruction (of your empirical reality) in which your ‘notion’ survives in an elevated way (like killing an enemy in such a way that the enemy survives in the minds of thousands as a hero). This is how one should proceed with Hitler and Nazism: not just to destroy him – to get rid of his ‘excesses’ and save the sane core of his project – but to kill him in his notion.

And it’s the same with Trump and his legacy. The true task is not just to defeat him (because there is always the possibility that he will return in 2024), but to ‘kill him in his notion’. To make him visible in all his worthless vanity and inconsistency, but also – and this is the crucial part – to ask how such a worthless person could have become the president of the US. As the German philosopher Hegel would have put it, to kill Trump in his notion means to ‘bring him to his notion’ – ie to allow him to destroy himself by way of just making him appear as what he is.

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