Practicing Theory: The Sublime Object of Ideology and Donald Trump

It’s been about three years since I wrote anything properly serious and academic, but it feels good to re-read some of the seminal texts from my undergraduate.

In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Žižek writes:

Ideology is, strictly speaking, only a system which makes a claim to the truth — that is, which is not simply a lie but a lie experienced as truth, a lie which pretends to be taken seriously. Totalitarian ideology no longer has this pretension. It is no longer meant, even by its authors, to be taken seriously — its status is just that of a means of manipulation, purely external and instrumental; its rule is secured not by its truth-value but by simple extra-ideological violence and the promise of gain.

The persistent rumors that Donald Trump never thought he’d make it this far in the election — and to be clear, someone who launches their campaign with a rambling speech just bursting with racist nonsense probably doesn’t expect to win — suggests that whether consciously or unconsciously Trump has embraced the kind of ideological stand Žižek describes; an ideology secured by extra-ideological violence and the promise to make America great again.

That violence exists, in threats made against the media, veiled suggestions that the “second amendment people” could possibly do something to prevent Hillary Clinton from appointing a supreme court justice who would work to curtail gun rights, in assaults sanctioned by the candidate at massive rallies, and in his use of the media. And yet, Trump is being taken seriously, or rather, the idea of Trump with access to nuclear weapons, and control over US trade and foreign policy is being taken seriously. Arguing with his supporters on social media is a nearly futile exercise; the things I take seriously (equality across race and gender, religious and social freedoms, not breaking the seventh seal and ushering in the Biblical apocalypse, and avoiding a fourth Reich) are not values shared by Trump supporters.

They don’t seem to care about equality, regard feminism with suspicion, are not concerned that a misogynist racist with Cosby-esque rape allegations could actually win the election and put American society on a regressive path for a decade. Or more. (Does he know there are term limits?) In that sense, Trump supporters either do not understand or do not care about the words that are coming out of his mouth. Of course, his consistent ideas are expressed with different words so there’s probably nothing to worry about.

Then there are people who “don’t support Trump” but are going to vote for him anyway. They might share concerns about his ideology, but are more concerned about the ideological figure of Hillary Clinton. To borrow some more from Žižek, “an ideology really succeeds when even the facts which at first sight contradict it start to function as arguments in its favor.” Voting for Trump is supporting Trump. A ballot cast doesn’t say “I don’t support you, but I can’t stand the idea of a female president for reason X,” but it does say “I want the Donald to be President of the United States.” Any other possible meaning interpreted from a vote cast for a candidate in the Presidential election is preposterous.

Finally, there’s Trump’s level of support among non-white voters. While outliers exist, Clinton is overwhelmingly supported by Black and Hispanic voters; this despite efforts to reach out to minorities. John Aravosis suggests that Trump is “wooing white voters [with] fake black outreach.” This insight helps to explain why Trump is travelling to Mexico today. If he can appear to be a not-racist racist, then maybe his polling will improve?

Trump’s ideology carries the characteristics of the totalitarian ideology as described by Žižek: a lie, enforced by violence and the promise of gain.

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