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HKRB Essays: Donald Trump and Liberal Outrage

As the Election results come in, Daniel Bristow provides a final assessment of Trump’s despicable significance and warns that if he loses, we must not forget what his success has shown us about liberalism and political discourse today.

The eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith conceived of an ‘invisible hand’ that establishes market equilibrium from the natural balances of supply and demand; it is a founding doctrine of the church of neoliberal economics by which so many of today’s world’s politicians and financiers swear, however blindly. The unfortunate assumption at the notion’s foundation is that harmony fundamentally underpins nature (if we were being generous we could perhaps call this a trait more excusable in a thinker surrounded by scientific narratives that relied to a far greater extent on a theory of natural harmony than in the policy-makers of today’s world, the science of which has become all the more aware of the contingency and disequilibrium at nature’s heart). It is not only a reading of economic history since Smith, but our very empirical experience of the world in the past decade (a decade of aftereffects of previous decades), that confirms that modern capitalism is not some paradisiacal holistic order with a self-regulative invisible hand guiding its homeostasis. Nonetheless, it is still assumed to be; hence neoliberalism. (Of course I am aware of how generous a reading this is, in its saying nothing of the disingenuousness – or bad conscience – of the holders of such assumptions [but there is a veritable literature on this in my Everyday Analysis articles].)

Assumptions have effects (i.e., assumptions, in the ideation, have real-world effects; assumptions, whose realm is the imaginary, when symbolically promulgated and reinforced, affect the real). The assumption on which Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ rests has taken long-lasting effect on world economics, despite the interventions of Karl Marx (and his followers), so often so easily ignorable with a dismissive wave of a visible hand and not a single glance at his contributions to the science of political economy.

By analogy, there is an assumption in the liberal outrage displayed in reaction to the rise of Donald Trump: the assumption that he is just so beyond the liberal pale as to be something like a logical impossibility. It is this pale that is universalised by the liberal imaginary, and which thus constructs and structures liberal logic, making the transcendental apperception of Trump seemingly logically impossible, and rendering his ascent incomprehensible. How can this misogynist, racist demagogical blower of his own trumpet and total political parvenu be within inches’ grasp of the White House? So the social media outcries go.

How? Through the liberal widening of the parameters of ‘the conversation’ – this ‘real conversation’ that’s so reiteratedly needed on the big issues, of immigration, work, and welfare, etc., that can only be had by skirting the prohibitive constraints of ‘political correctness’, etc.; or so the story goes – precisely to include misogyny’s, racism’s, ableism’s, incitement to hatred and violence’s, homo- and transphobia’s, etc.’s say, to allow its defence of itself as ‘locker-room banter’ and other euphemisms to be sustained, not by being unchallenged, but by being equally weighted in its ostensibly unbiased coverage; to allow it, that is, to be ineffectually challenged (the effects of its challenges have become structurally bypassable or elidable through this supposed equality).

There is an assumption that the environs of the political Left are wishy-washy and do-goody, overly sensitive and precious spaces, that ‘lefties’ are fluid, fickle, and easily taken in or influenced by crocodile sobs of the supposed oppressed – a view promulgated by the Right (particularly of the ‘political correctness gone mad’-type) – but it is an assumption met with an unashamedly firm resolve held on these issues by so many – activists, thinkers, voters alike – on the Left. There is thus here identified the necessity of interdictions on misogyny, racism, ableism, trans- and homophobia, etc. being unshakeable; yet in the liberal idea, or ideal, of free speech (to which we must defend others’ rights with our lives, whether or not we agree with what is being spoken; a once-again fashionable idea, but a strange martyrdom) these prejudicial tropes may be given free rein. The liberal idea of free speech, in this regard, seems very worried about the spreading of the madness of political correctness, as if it were a catchable disease, and a little inoculation by way of administration of its toxins would naturally build immunity to it. This is the assumption that allows misogyny, racism, ableism, trans- and homophobia to have their say. The equation of this assumption is this: that it should be said > the relinquishment of the right to free speech. Where the failure comes in is in the inability of the liberal imagination to distinguish between free speech and hate or discriminatory speech because it rests on its enlightened laurels, universalises them, and believes that immunity to hate or discriminatory speech is natural, is an invisible hand guiding free thought and speech, any departure from which is a perversion that will show itself up and be scorned (when it has been given the floor, the microphone, the segment). For this type of liberalism does not know how closely it treads to the abysses of nihilism and abject relativism, immune as it might consider itself to be from them. The aghast reactions of proud liberals to a figure embodying so much of these dangerous qualities can only be accounted for by this. How can Trump’s speech be believed? Because it is freely given, and feely taken.

This is not, of course, to call for the outlawing of free speech, but rather for a (re)conceptualisation of free speech as that which enables freedom (encoded with a solidarity between races, sexes, abilities, sexualities, differences); that it is to say, free speech is so often only incarnated in thought and discourse negatively, concedingly; it is a modest plea, that is for positivity.

So, for such a discourse such as Trump’s to have been given the presentation as it so often has – most notably of course on right-wing media outlets, which are underpinned by this liberal attitude (i.e. anything can be said, but the reasoned viewer or listener – by our standards(!) – will be able to sort the wheat from the chaff) – has given it ground to take effect. In (American, First Amendment) law, it seems, unless (hate) speech presents imminent material danger to persons, it is fair game; what sometimes seems to be neglected in its implementation, however, is a full interrogation of the logistics of cause and effect. An interview with an American Republican opponent of Trump, who recently protested at a rally of his, demonstrates clearly such effects as are here being discussed: he talks of holding an anti-Trump sign, being booed, then assaulted and tackled to the floor and being piled on by masses of Trump supporters until the police stepped in to break it up; Trump was rushed from the stage whilst this was going on as someone had shouted that a gun was being brandished (see this link for the interview with the Guardian). The protester claims that Trump, and his rhetoric, ‘take good people and they turn them into animals’.

We must be wary here of invoking the currently ubiquitous term ‘populism’, which Jacques Rancière recently has been instructive on in his short piece ‘The People Are Not a Brutal and Ignorant Mass’. Yet, the term being so frequently deployed at the moment relates again to the liberal ego as it tries to comprehend the political situation of our times: the term (in its current usage), and its deployment, is dismissive of swathes of what the Republican protester nonetheless calls ‘good people’, whom he ‘loves’, due to its enactment of severance from these people based on a feeling of superiority (i.e. what it does not do is question, or critique, itself on the matter of these disparities; it does not ask itself how it might have contributed to being responsible for them, and this through universalisation of affects of superiority and disavowal of (neo)liberal policy and its implementation, a system founded perhaps not on the equality assumed, and a system creative thus of the mirror-image of this discourse, Hilary Clinton [but that’s a story for another time]). Underwriting this liberal assumption then is something alike to what Marx identified as underwriting the theory of utilitarianism – as propounded by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill – which supposes itself the objective arbiter of the greatest happiness for the greatest possible number, but which misrecognises the bourgeois assumptions this rests on, mistaking them for a sound understanding of human nature itself; however, human nature is not itself deducible from the principle of utility. Applying this to man, he that would judge all human acts, movements, relations, etc. according to the principle of utility would first have to deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as historically modified in each epoch. Bentham does not trouble himself with this. With the dryest [sic] naiveté he assumes that the modern petty bourgeois, especially the English petty bourgeois, is the normal man. Whatever is useful to this particular kind of normal man, and to his world, is useful in and of itself. The Christian religion, for example, is ‘useful’, ‘because it forbids in the name of religion the same faults that the penal code condemns in the name of the law’. Art criticism is ‘harmful’ because it disturbs worthy people in their enjoyment of Martin Tupper, etc. This is the kind of rubbish with which the brave fellow, with his motto ‘nulla dies sine linea’ [no day without its line], has piled up mountains of books. If I had the courage of my friend Heinrich Heine, I should call Mr Jeremy a genius in the way of bourgeois stupidity.[1]

Indeed, similarly, the modern liberal (the modern bourgeois) assumes themselves to be the ‘normal’ subject, and as a by-product of this the subject of the greatest number, i.e. the majority (which in recent political rhetoric has had to prefix to itself the word ‘moral’ to try to escape its irksome numerical entrapment). What are the consequences of these assumptions, their effects, and the platform created out of this combination? If we look quickly to an idea of Luce Irigaray’s, on sexed legal rights, we may see how far away from it we have become when we are struggling even with bog-standard misogyny á la Trump’s, which proves (in the wake of the revelations of his 2005 comments, and the misunderstandings they have occasioned, e.g. a focus on the word ‘pussy’ as sexist, rather than the act of ‘grabbing it’ – how blind-sided masculinism doesn’t realise itself to be! – and the ambiguous ways with which further attestations of sexual humiliation or harassment have been met):

It’s not a good thing […] for women or for relations between the sexes, that women as the injured party be put in the position of simply being accusers. If there were civil rights for women, the whole of society would be the injured party in the case of rape or all the other forms of violence inflicted on women; society, then, would be the plaintiff or co-plaintiff against the harm caused to one of its members.[2]

Indeed, legalistically, it is not hard to see that this isn’t quite how women’s rights are yet framed, but that they are rather always-already exceptional, and thus not social, tout court. In terms of the phenomenon of ‘barracks humour’, Alain Badiou has talked with great perspicacity in ‘The Red Flag and the Tricolore’ about how this in fact boils down to ‘jokes mocking the people’ themselves, inviting us to consider whether we support a ‘really democratic and constantly progressive approach, or [are] else on the side of the lascivious wheeler-dealer and the wealthy speculator who also happened to be a hedonist and a sceptic.’ Although this last characterisation, of Voltaire, fits Trump quite easily, it is most unfortunate that in this surreal race for the American Dream the former option is not truly a mainstream option either. It is as this this race finishes that this piece is written: if Trump wins, perhaps this analysis will become a little more pertinent; should he lose, it shouldn’t lose along with him any of what pertinence it may have.

[1] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1 [1867], trans. by Ben Fowkes, 3 vols (London: Penguin Classics, 1990) I, pp.758-759, n.51.

[2] Luce Irigaray, Je, Tu, Nous [1990], trans. by Alison Martin (Abingdon: Routledge Classics, 2007) p.81.


Daniel Bristow is a scholar of psychoanalysis from the UK. Among other things he is the author of Joyce and Lacan: Reading, Writing, and Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2016) and the series editor of the Everyday Analysis book series.

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