Designed Incoherence: Populism and Discourse

The apparent peversion of authority delineates the limits of legitimized power within a given ideological field. When authority comes up against the boundaries it had previously set for itself, the contradictions of authority’s foundational systems become apparent. As a distruption of the established politico-cultural hegemony, Trump expresses these contradictions, and reveals the limitations of existing ideological structures when it comes to maintaining homeostasis. It is Trump as representative of this phenomenon, not Trump as an individual, that serves as an important subject for any critical theory of contemporary society.

The most obvious example of institutionalized resistance to Trump(ism) finds its genesis in the mainstream Left, the #Resistance. This isn’t at all surprising of course, with the presence of certain objects against which the “progressive” ideology is organized. The set of signifiers that constitute the expressive structure of this ideology are primarily formulated on the basis of opposition. Opposition to a somewhat vague, generalized enemy, usually seen as manifested in Republican Party. The idea of a great reactionary entity on the other side of the aisle allows people to coalesce around a specific code of values. American liberalism does not stand on its own, but relies on its avowed hostility towards the Other Side. The same can be said for conservatism. Differentiation is a crucial component of a pluralist democracy, no matter how superficial it may be.

Doubtless, many a protest will be raised by the notion of liberalism and conservatism as mutually reinforcing formations, most likely on the basis of differing policy viewpoints. The problem with such an argument is that it ignores that both groups seek to defend the same social order. The difference lies in their approaches to responding to the problems of capitalism. They may disagree on how to do it, but both are trying to do the same thing, i.e. save capitalism and all its exploitive relations. As they struggle to assert their competing visions of how to properly manage these relations, the two groups reproduce each other through the construction of an ideological discourse that attempts to contain any attempts at structural change.

An innate feature of politics is the building of monstrous enemies to be torn down, the projection of images of a dangerous, foreign Other that must be resisted. In this process of generalized contrasts, both fantasy and nightmare can be equally nebulous while maintaining their efficacy. Both sides appeal to concepts of “freedom”, “equality”, and “democracy”. The fragmentation of meaning here, the loss of common definitions in the midst of mutual application demonstrates what Slavoj Zizek calls the “signifier without signified”. Appeals to such high ideals are most effective when they are left without explicit description. We can all get behind the concept of “freedom”, right? But what does “freedom” even mean?

This question seems relatively straightforward. And yet, situated in political discourse, a field in which communicative agents speak past each other by design, any clear answer is elusive. It is similar to when a politician says “those people are ruining this country!”. “Those people” are a faceless abstraction, ready-made to have anyone’s fears projected onto them. Immigrants, bankers, racists, criminals, conservatives, liberals, even other politicians could all fit nicely into that nebulous non-object, “those people”. Each “side” is just a team of techinicians specializing in the manipulation of signs for a certain audience. The real goal of politics is to find a common ground through mutual misunderstanding.

The populist shares certain similarities with Deleuze and Guattari’s schizophrenic. He slips in and out of different states, frusturating theoretical or ideological schemas through the scrambling of codes, deterritorializing as he pleases. To try and pin him down, to trace out a definitive identity, proves impossible. The populist constantly slides along the spectrum, shaking hands and kissing babies. He is the politician accelerated and imploded, shifting across different thresholds with ease.

If Trump appears as a disruption of previous forms of discourse, a departure from business as usual, it’s certainly not because he’s “telling it like it is”. He doesn’t subscribe to any truth, so how can he tell any? The really peculiar thing about him is his existence as a political non-entity. He lacks a firm commitment to any particular set of political beliefs, making things up as he goes. All politicians are flip-floppers, of course, but unlike them, Trump has no starting point. He doesn’t change positions because he doesn’t have any positions to change. When he appears to take a stance on something, it’s just a representation, a still image of a moment in his constant movement. We should stay out of Syria, we should attack Syria. This mass of conflicting actions and statements expresses the impossibility of Trumpian policy as a coherent program.

Self-parody is perhaps the most apt description of this new administration. It utilizes much of the same usual tropes, but exaggerated to an absurd level, without any sense of self-awareness. Bloated and clumsy, it stumbles about, sticking its fingers where it shouldn’t. The breakdown of the old spectacle, the growing instability of the political sphere, are side-effects of capitalism’s increasingly frantic attempts to prevent its own disintegration. The fall in industrial employment and the continued growth of a surplus population (among many other things) puts a continous strain on class relations, forcing the mutation of political horizons in order to keep up.

Ernesto Laclau saw the emergent precedence of what he called a “social logic of equivalence” as a condition necessary for the rise of populism in a given situation. The accumulation of unsatisfied social demands forms an aggregate, coalescing as an “equivalential chain”. A unity is found in the common frusturation of demands, producing a new political subject, which Laclau designates the “popular” subject. The popular subject rejects the established routes for the satisfaction of specific demands, favoring a break with existing institutions. According to Laclau, “a situation in which a plurality of unsatisfied demands and an increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them differentially coexist, creates the conditions leading to a populist rupture”. In the field of political discourse, a particular demand may come to consitute the medium through which the whole equivalential chain is articulated, assuming a represenational role. In the case of Trump, the call for the expulsion of illegal immigrants and/or the expanison of border security serve this purpose. A growing feeling of socioeconomic marginalization was expressed via anti-immigrant positions.

Laclau’s illuminating examination of populism provide important insight on how it capitalizes on societal trends, harnessing anti-institutionalism for the benefit of certain factions. It also allows us to see that populist sentiment develops as the result of the failures of a democracy to maintain an equilibrium. The current decomposition of political categories is emblematic of this problem. The binary dynamic of old is no longer sufficient when it comes to integrating dissent into an institutional framework. New tools are needed. Populism becomes the system’s only recourse as the old methods prove inadequate to prevent further disruptions. The irony of any populist political strategy, of course, is that it utilizes resentment towards institutional failures to reinvest public sentiment into those institutions, through the application of cosmetic changes. Such strategies allow systems of domination to evolve with changing circumstances.

The morbidly comedic manifestation of this latest populism in the form of the orange tryant further prove the precarious position of the state, as it flounders amidst the rapidly intesifying antagonisms of capital. Its agents leap from point to point, trying to encircle the expanding and increasingly diverse collection of grievances against authority. It’s becoming clear that even this strategy is seeing diminishing returns.

Only time will tell if this rupture will remain a political crisis or become a crisis of politics itself. Such an escalation would be dependent on the rejection of populism’s insitutionalized anti-institutionalism, and the independent action of a unified working class. Not unified by adherence to particular political formation, but by the struggle to end the reign of capital and give rise to a world free from exploitation. Such a struggle is beyond the scope of (electoral) politics, as it must seek to overcome the ideology of democracy and capitalism.