Slavoj Zizek on Clinton, Trump and the Left’s Dilemma
To paraphrase Stalin: They are both worse.
In These Times is dedicated to providing an accessible forum for strategic debate on the Left. In this Up for Debate series, we host a range of views on what has become a divisive question: how to approach voting in the November presidential election.
JOSÉ SARAMAGO’S SEEING TELLS THE STORY OF THE STRANGE EVENTS in the unnamed capital city of an unidentified democratic country. When the election day morning is marred by torrential rains, voter turnout is disturbingly low, but the weather breaks by mid-afternoon and the population heads en masse to their voting stations. The government’s relief is short-lived, however, when vote counting reveals that over 70 percent of the ballots cast in the capital have been left blank. Baffled by this apparent civic lapse, the government gives the citizenry a chance to make amends just one week later with another election day. The results are worse: Now 83 percent of the ballots are blank.
Is this an organized conspiracy to overthrow not just the ruling government but the entire democratic system? If so, who is behind it, and how did they manage to organize hundreds of thousands of people into such subversion without being noticed? The city continues to function near-normally throughout, the people parrying each of the government’s thrusts in inexplicable unison and with a truly Gandhian level of nonviolent resistance. The lesson of this thought-experiment is clear: the danger today is not passivity but pseudo-activity, the urge to “be active,” to “participate,” in order to mask the vacuity of what goes on. People intervene all the time. People “do something.” Academics participate in meaningless debates, and so on. The truly difficult thing is to step back, to withdraw. Those in power often prefer even a “critical” participation, a dialogue, to silence, because just to engage us in dialogue, is to make sure our ominous passivity is broken. The voters’ abstention is thus a true political act: it forcefully confronts us with the vacuity of today’s democracies.
This, exactly, is how citizens should act when faced with the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. When Stalin was asked in the late 1920s which deviation is worse, the Rightist one or the Leftist one, he snapped back: They are both worse! Is it not the same with the choice American voters are confronting in the 2016 presidential elections? Trump is obviously “worse.” He enacts a decay of public morality. He promises a Rightist turn. But he at least promises a change. Hillary is “worse” since she makes changing nothing look desirable.
With such a choice, one should not lose ones nerve and chose the “worst,” which means change — even if is a dangerous change — because it opens up the space for a different more authentic change.
The point is thus not to vote for Trump — not only should one not vote for such a scum, one should not even participate in such elections. The point is to approach coldly the question: Whose victory is better for the fate of the radical emancipatory project, Clinton’s or Trump’s?
Trump wants to make America great again, to which Obama responded that America already is great. But is it? Can a country in which a person like Trump has a chance of becoming president be really considered great? The dangers of a Trump presidency are obvious: he not only promises to nominate conservative judges to the Supreme Court; he mobilized the darkest white-supremacist circles and openly flirts with anti-immigrant racism; he flouts basic rules of decency and symbolizes the disintegration of basic ethical standards; while advocating concern for the misery of ordinary people, he effectively promotes a brutal neoliberal agenda that includes tax breaks for the rich, further deregulation, etc., etc.
Trump is a vulgar opportunist, yet he is still a vulgar specimen of humanity (in contrast to entities like Ted Cruz or Rick Santorum whom I suspect of being aliens).
What Trump is definitely not is a successful productive and innovative capitalist — he excels at getting into bankruptcy and then making the taxpayers cover up his debts.
Liberals panicked by Trump dismiss the idea that Trump’s eventual victory can start a process out of which an authentic Left would emerge. Their favorite counterargument is a reference to Hitler. Many German Communists welcomed the Nazi takeover in 1933 as a chance for the radical Left as the only force which can defeat them. As we know, their appreciation of Hitler’s rise was a catastrophic mistake. The question is: Are things the same with Trump? Is Trump a danger that should bring together a broad front in the same way that Hitler did, a front where “decent” conservatives and libertarians fight together with mainstream liberal progressives and (whatever remains of) the radical Left? Fredric Jameson was right in a November 4 interview to warn against the hasty designation of the Trump movement as new fascism: “People are now saying — this is a new fascism and my answer would be — not yet. If Trump comes to power, that would be a different thing.”
(Incidentally, the term “fascism” is today often used as an empty word when something obviously dangerous appears on the political scene but we lack a proper understanding of it. No, today’s rightwing populists are NOT simply Fascists!) Why not yet?
First, the fear that a Trump victory would turn the United State into a fascist state is a ridiculous exaggeration. The United States has such a rich texture of divergent civic and political institutions that their Gleichschaltung (the standardization of political, economic, cultural and social institutions as carried out in authoritarian states) cannot be enacted. Where, then, does this fear come from? Its function is clearly to unify us all against Trump and thus to obfuscate the true political divisions that run between the Left, as resuscitated by Bernie Sanders, and Clinton who is theestablishment’s candidate supported by a rainbow coalition that includes neocon Iraq War advocates like President George W. Bush’s Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and interventionists like Ronald Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy Richard Armitage.
Second, the fact remains that Trump draws support from the same rage out of which Bernie Sanders mobilized his partisans. The majority of his supporters view him as the anti-establishment candidate. And one should never forget that popular rage is by definition free-floating and can be re-directed. Liberals who fear the Trump victory are not really afraid of a radical Rightist turn. What they are really afraid of is actual radical social change. To repeat Robespierre, they admit (and are sincerely worried about) the injustices of our social life, but they want to cure them with a “revolution without revolution” (in exact parallel to today’s consumerism which offers coffee without caffeine, chocolate without sugar, beer without alcohol, multiculturalism without conflict, etc.): a vision of social change with no actual change, a change where no one gets really hurt, where well-meaning liberals remain cocooned in their safe enclaves. Back in 1937, George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier wrote:
We all rail against class-distinctions, but very few people seriously want to abolish them. Here you come upon the important fact that every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed.
Orwell’s point is that radicals invoke the need for revolutionary change as a kind of superstitious token that should achieve the opposite, i.e., prevent the only change that really matters, the change in those who rule us, from occurring. Who really rules in the United States? Can we not already hear the murmur of secret meetings where members of the financial and other “elites” are negotiating about the distribution of the key posts in the Clinton administration? To get an idea how this negotiations in the shadows work, it suffices to read the John Podesta emails or Hillary Clinton: The Goldman Sachs Speeches (to appear soon by OR Books with an introduction by Julian Assange).
Hillary’s victory would be the victory of a status quo overshadowed by the prospect of a new world war (and Hillary definitely is a typical Democratic cold warrior), a status quo of a situation in which we gradually but inevitably slide towards ecological, economic, humanitarian and other catastrophes. That’s why I consider Ian Steinman’s “Leftist” critique of my position extremely cynical. He writes:
Yet while we can do little to predict how the pieces will fall, we know that to intervene in a crisis the left must be organized, prepared and with support among the working class and oppressed. We can not in any way endorse the vile racism and sexism which divides us and weakens our struggle. We must always stand on the side of the oppressed, and we must be independent, fighting for a real left exit to the crisis. Even if Trump causes a catastrophe for the ruling class, it will also be a catastrophe for us if we have not laid the foundations for our own intervention.
True, the left “must be organized, prepared and with support among the working class and oppressed” — but in this case, the question should be: Which candidate’s victory would contribute more to the organization of the Left and its expansion? Isn’t it clear that Trump’s victory would have “laid the foundations for our own intervention” much more than Hillary’s?
Yes, there is a great danger in Trump’s victory, but the Left will be mobilized only through such a threat of catastrophe. If we continue the inertia of the existing status quo, there will for sure be no Leftist mobilization. To quote the poet Hoelderlin: “Only where there is danger the saving force is also rising.”
In the choice between Clinton and Trump, neither “stands on the side of the oppressed,” so the real choice is: abstain from voting or choose the one who, worthless as s/he is, opens up a greater chance of unleashing a new political dynamics which can lead to massive Leftist radicalization. Think about Trump’s anti-establishment supporters who would be unavoidably upset with Trump’s presidency. Some of them would have to turn towards Sanders in order to find an outlet for their rage. Think about the disappointed mainstream Democrats who would have seen how Clinton’s centrist strategy failed to win even against an extreme figure like Trump. The lesson they would learn would be that sometimes, to win, the strategy of “we are all together” doesn’t work and we should instead introduce a radical division.
Many poor voters claim Trump speaks for them. How can they recognize themselves in the voice of a billionaire whose speculations and failures are one of the causes of their misery? Like the paths of god, the paths of ideology are mysterious. When Trump supporters are denounced as “white trash,” it is easy to discern in this designation the fear of the lower classes so characteristic of the liberal elite.
The title and subtitle of a Guardian report of a recent Trump electoral meeting puts it this way: “Inside a Donald Trump rally: good people in a feedback loop of paranoia and hate. Trump’s crowd is full of honest and decent people — but the Republican’s invective has a chilling effect on fans of his one-man show.” But how did Trump become the voice of so many “honest and decent” people? Trump single-handedly ruined the Republican Party, antagonizing both the old party establishment and the Christian fundamentalists — what remains as the core of his support are the bearers of the populist rage versus the establishment, and this core is dismissed by liberals as the “white trash” — but are they not precisely those that should be won over to the radical Leftist cause (this is what Bernie Sanders was able to do).
One should rid oneself of the false panic, fearing the Trump victory as the ultimate horror which makes us support Clinton in spite of all her obvious shortcomings. Although the battle seems lost for Trump, his victory would have created a totally new political situation with chances for a more radical Left — or, to quote Mao: “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.”
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously and Trouble in Paradise.