Donald Trump as spectacle and fetish

I’ve always been ambivalent about Slavoj Žižek, not least of all with the alt-right turn seemingly underway in his new book. Nonetheless, I think he gets to the point in his analysis of how Trump has been elevated into a fetish object within the liberal establishment, his garish buffoonery standing in the way of an engagement with the social antagonism that brought about the situation under which Trump could assume power. He is a symptom of a dying order and our fixation on him obscures the new order being born, including the role of a much broader radical right coalescing under his sign. There are characteristics of Trump himself which make him conducive to being fixated on in this way. As Žižek suggests on pg 185-186 on Like A Thief in Broad Daylight:

Imagine that, a couple of years ago, a comedian performed on stage Trump’s statements, tweets and decisions –it would have been experienced as a non-realist, exaggerated joke. So Trump is already his own parody, with the uncanny effect that the reality of his behaviour is more outrageously funny than most parodies of it.

An already strange man was made even stranger through his elevation, constituting himself as an assembly of tweets, clips and statements optimised to win in the attention economy. The fact he constructed this, learned tactics to entrench it and has built his life around it pursuit is something which can be seen the in biographies of Trump or even just examining his trajectory as a Twitter user. For all his absurdity, the man has gamed the attention economy on a unprecedented scale and ridden fortuitous circumstances to power in a manner that only becomes thinkable retroactively. It’s a cliche but one worth dwelling on that President Trump was literally unthinkable only two years ago. The power of his representations are given ever more force by this ontological weirdness, the forceful awareness of his ascent as something which should not have happened.

What Žižek’s book has left me thinking about is Trump as spectacle: “not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images”. What is at work when we are preoccupied by this spectacle? How are we connected and what are the consequences of these connections? How does our attention constitute President Trump and where is this going? I can’t recall reading anything which really gets to grips with these questions since the last election. It’s so immediate, accelerated and climactic that ontology gets subsumed under outrage, fear or strategy. But it’s important to step back and reflect on the constitution of Trump as Trump. It’s easy to imagine an alternative figure acting as a political fetish at a time of epochal unwinding e.g. an American equivalent to Macron who rose to power by uniting a divided country. But what makes the fetishism of Trump so dangerous is the spectacle of Trump which makes it impossible to look away.

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