Trump Saved by Democrats’ Takeover of the House

In his perceptive reading of James Cameron’s 1997 film “Titanic”, Slavoj Žižek neatly illustrates how a catastrophe can save a phantasy, or an ideal. There is a scene in the film, where Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) and Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) make each other a promise of eternal love: “When this ship docks, I’m getting off with you“, Rose says.

That, and not the Titanic going down, Žižek claims, would have been the true catastrophe. Indeed, we can easily imagine how, once in New York, maybe after a few weeks of good sex, this phantasy of pure untainted love would have faded away, crumbling perhaps under the pressure of social expectations, of their objective cultural and social status differences, combined with the dullness after the inevitable loss of the novelty and of the euphoria of falling in love.

This then was the true function of the iceberg sinking the Titanic: a momentous real catastrophe has to happen, so that the phantasy (or ideal) can live on. A real catastrophe needs to happen in order to save the phantasy from turning into reality, so that the phantasy can survive and persist (otherwise, as Žižek put it elsewhere, when a dream gets realised, it’s called nightmare).

Here’s the analogy with Trump and yesterday’s Republicans’ House debacle. If we’ve learned something in the last couple of years, it’s that Trump’s popular support is less, if at all, about policy (otherwise, how to account for it after the repeated attempts to repeal some objectively popular provisions of the Obamacare?, or the “tax cut for the rich”?, etc.). Rather, it is more about group identity, about — how should I put this — strengthening in-group bonds and sense of unity and belonging, by means of guiding and fostering a convergence of blame put on a designated guilty party, by designating the culprits, someone to blame and direct the violence against, in other words, by activating a scapegoating mechanism.

The effectiveness of the scapegoat mechanism vis-à-vis policy concerns should all in all not surprise anyone. More than 35 years ago, René Girard wrote, “The scientific spirit cannot come first. It presupposes the renunciation of a former preference for the magical causality of persecution so well defined by the ethnologists. Instead of natural, distant and inaccessible causes, humanity has always preferred causes that are significant from a social perspective and which permit of corrective intervention — victims.” (Girard, The Scapegoat, p. 204)

So, this is how we can paraphrase our Titanic story from the beginning: the very real catastrophe of the Democratic House takeover was needed, so that the phantasy of Trump can survive and live on. Instead of having no excuse not todeliver with the Republican majority in both chambers of the Congress, once the Democrats take over the House, they can be blamed for all the things not done, for the obstruction of all the imaginable “resolutive initiatives” (or, in a more conspiratorial variant, for feeding the deep state and re-filling the swamp). No matter if those initiatives are real or empty announcements (mid-October middle-class tax cut, anyone?), sensible or fantastic, press conferenced of tweeted, truly resolutive or grounded on magical thinking. This is how the Trump phantasy survives and lives on: “if only that iceberg hadn’t struck the ship”; “if it weren’t for the House Democrats, he would have delivered, he would have really made America great again!”

This again accounts for Trump’s antifragility, essentially because scapegoating is antifragile.

But there’s likely a more ominous prospective to all of this because this “internal blaming”, I predict, will further escalate the political polarisation of the American society. Assuming we’ve entered into that Girardian territory I mentioned before, a structural shift can happen when the blame and the (threat of) violence, from being directed outwards (to external enemies, say, foreigners, immigrants, etc.) get directed inward, to the opposite camp within the same political community (thus to internal enemies, say, traitors, or debasers of “our values”, etc.).

There is some of that already going on, but, I predict, the House passing into Democratic hands will not only exacerbate the degree of internal violence, the intensity of this internal confrontation, but will bring about a whole new quality and function to that “within violence” (a new configuration and phase in the sacrificial crisis, to put it in Girard’s terms). Because now, Democrats can objectively be blamed as the obstacle for making the Trump (and Trump’s) phantasy real. And by extension the blame can be put to all those who put Democrats in charge of the House. Now, the other camp can be employed as an effective unifying scapegoat. And the phantasy can survive in the only way in which a phantasy can, as a phantasy.

I want to conclude with a small personal half-baked speculation. What is to be done? Again, if we’re in that Girardian territory, how can a real emancipatory politics be imagined? What could it be and look like?

Shortly after that passage I quoted before, Girard writes: “In order to lead men to the patient exploration of natural causes, men must first be turned away from their victims. This can only be done by showing them that from now on persecutors ‘hate without a cause’ and without any appreciable result. In order to achieve this miracle, not only among certain exceptional individuals as in Greece, but for entire populations, there is need of the extraordinary combination of intellectual, moral and religious factors found in the Gospel text.” (Girard, The Scapegoat, p. 205)

Perhaps less ambitiously and less sonorously, there could be envisioned a space of possibility for political action proper by insisting on the revelation of the scapegoating mechanisms whenever and wherever they are operative, by stubbornly insisting that the victims we and others pick are innocent, and that resorting to scapegoating is but the easiest strategy to obtain bonding, unity and meaning of belonging to a community, when there are no strict obligations of reciprocal solidarity in traditional terms. And to acknowledge thereafter that, under such conditions, the State can be the only place possible for such obligations of solidarity to be universalised and granted as a right.