Making sense of Zizek’s choice for Trump
It was long speculated, but on 4th of November 2016 Zizek finally came out and said it: if he were an American citizen, he’d vote for Trump. Although the video provided is relatively short, the reasons are all there. Perhaps one needs to get over the shock of a self-proclaimed Marxist voting for someone like Trump – that is, someone who has typically been accused of fascism. But perhaps also there is a need for some background knowledge that is lacking. So in this post, let me elaborate on why Zizek’s hypothetical vote for Trump should not all be surprising (or shocking).
Let’s start with Zizek’s absolute disdain for Clinton. Disdain is perhaps even too mild of an expression, it is more of a repulsion and disgust. Why? As he points out in an article on August 12th 2016:
On CBS’s 60 Minutes (May 12, 1996), Albright was asked about that year’s cruise missile strikes on Iraq known as Operation Desert Strike: ‘We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?’ Albright calmly replied: ‘I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.’
This sentiment, the normalisation of death of children in American political life that the previous Clinton administration has wholeheartedly endorsed is precisely the reason for that disgust. As Zizek continues in that same article:
Let’s ignore all the questions that this reply raises and focus on one aspect: can we imagine all the hell that would break out if the same answer would be given by somebody like Putin or the Chinese President Xi? Would they not be immediately denounced in western newspapers as cold and ruthless barbarians?
To Zizek, the liberal consensus driven ideological framework is precisely the problem with the contemporary so-called ‘left’ in America. If Clinton has no problem in justifying the death of 500.000 children (read that again: 500.000), there is not much else to feel towards that person than disgust. And let us not forget that Hillary Clinton is considered to be more right-leaning than her husband; under her administration the normalisation of such justifications would not only continue, but, in all probability, also intensify. This is, at least, what Zizek expects. Perhaps this is paranoia, but given his close friendship with Julian Assange,1 there is ample reason for him too to consider Clinton a ‘war hawk’:
Hillary’s problem is not just that she’s war hawk. She’s a war hawk with bad judgement who gets an unseemly emotional rush out of killing people. She shouldn’t be let near a gun shop, let alone an army. And she certainly should not become president of the United States (source: WikiLeaks).
She is a war hawk that will only further endanger the lives of thousands of people across the globe. More than that, she has absolute disregard for human life. I want to repeat this once again: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price [death of 500.000 children] is worth it.” The number itself is, of course, irrelevant. It could be half of that, a tenth, just a few hundred, or a dozen – the point is simply that no matter what the number, she has no regard for human life as such.Albright: this is a very hard choice, but the price (death of 500.000 children) is worth it. Click To Tweet
The problem is not only a moral one. There is a substantial political reason to opt for a right-wing Trump, given the choice of course, than to a somewhat left Clinton. The public opinion at the time of writing is positive regarding Clinton. Positive not in the sense that she enjoys a positive rating, as does Obama, but that she is regarded as an establishment candidate. Her victory would be expected, nothing would truly change. Zizek’s concern here is deeply political precisely because her victory would not lead to any serious protests towards the government. Of course, your usual Fox News mockery and condemnation would continue. But would there by a challenge, a demand for change of course by either right or left in a manner that involves the public?
It is in this instance that we can discern this bizarre option for Trump in Zizek. His position is to vote for someone who is not part of ‘business as usual’, precisely because it could lead to protests not just towards the current established order, but towards the very core of politics in America. So let’s be clear about this: Zizek is not opting for a demagogue to change political life from the top; rather, he opts for the possibility for the public to rise and establish the frontiers against the demagogue. It is glimmer of “desperate hope” that a form of civil disobedience that we witnessed in the 1960s would re-enter the political climate – and with it, a radical break from the continuity of contemporary political order.2
The aim of this public rise is to revitalise what is essentially democratic – namely, the diversity of the public itself. An obvious question at this point is how Trump would be able to achieve that end better than Clinton. The answer lies in what Clinton embodies. Her moral outlook is certainly problematic; but even if we disregard morality completely, there would still be a significant problem. So what is it that Clinton embodies? Well…. everything. She embodies all kinds of positions, from Wall Street to Occupy, bankers, big business and trade unions, Sanders supporters and his opposers, the pragmatists, realists and idealists, feminists, LGBT+ and chauvinists – she embodies every thinkable position all the way down to those who are willing to sacrifice 500.000 children. Remember that for Madeleine Albright “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” That was her gesture of endorsement that went unquestioned, while all attention went David Duke endorsement of Trump.A political space can only meaningfully be called political when it allows for frontiers of resistance to be formed. Click To Tweet
But back to Zizek and politics of the matter, as I digress. The problem here is, at its very core, a democratic one: embodying the whole of the population, according to Zizek, leads to a lack of any meaningful political space. A political space can only meaningfully be called political when it allows for frontiers of resistance to be formed. Or to put in Foucault’s terminology: ‘there are no power relations without resistance’ (a close paraphrase). An absolute embodiment forecloses possibilities of resistance, and by doing so, it forecloses power relations between the rulers and the ruled – what remains is a total embodiment of the people.3 The moment it reaches a total embodiment, we are no longer in a democratic society but in a totalitarian one.4
A vote for Trump is thus not meant to be a downward spiral that accelerates the demise of the political system as a whole. Rather, it is meant, paradoxically, to keep the possibilities of contestation alive. A vote for Trump, according to Zizek, is thus less dangerous precisely because Trump lacks that total embodiment.
A brief note on the purpose of this piece: I am only elucidating Zizek’s position, and do neither endorse nor oppose either of the candidates here. I am of the opinion that his analysis is correct (otherwise I would not bother elucidating it); but I am also of the opinion that he overestimates post-elections political engagement. I am not a US citizen, nor would I vote for Trump (or Clinton for that matter) were I asked to cast a vote.
- The Observer has written and article on Assange and Clinton, cf. here.
- Note that Zizek is well aware of this hope being dangerous. As he makes clear, things could also not change at all, and America would have more right-wing supreme court judges. (As a sidenote: aren’t we a little too optimistic about the death of current judges – who have not died yet?)
- Of course for Foucault power relations never fully disappear.
- Cf. Lefort, C. (1988). Democracy and Political Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.