Is the show finally over for Donald Trump? | Judith Butler

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  • November 5, 2020
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There was never any question that Donald Trump would fail to make a gracious and swift exit. The only question for many of us was just how destructive he would become in the course of his downfall. I know “downfall” is usually reserved for kings and tyrants, but we are operating in that theatre, except here the king is at once the clown, and the man in power is also a child given over to tantrum with no discernible adults in the room.

We know that Trump will try to do anything to stay in power, to avoid that ultimate catastrophe in life – becoming “a loser”. He has shown that he is willing to manipulate and destroy the electoral system if he has to. What is less clear is whether he can do what he threatens to do, or whether the “threat” is left hanging in the air as an impotent command. As a posture, the threat to stop or nullify the vote is a kind of spectacle, composed for his base’s consumption. Considered as a legal strategy, however, by a team of lawyers, even lawyers working for the government, it constitutes a serious danger to democracy. As so many times before in the Trump presidency, we are left to wonder whether he is bluffing, scheming, acting (putting on a show) or acting (doing real damage). It is one thing to posture as the kind of guy who would do untold damage to democracy to hang on to power; it is quite another to make that show into reality, initiating the lawsuits that would dismantle the electoral norms and laws that guarantee voting rights, striking at the very framework of US democracy.

When we went to the polls, we were not voting for Joe Biden/Kamala Harris (centrists who disavowed the most progressive health and financial plans of both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) as much as we were voting for the possibility of voting at all, voting for the present and future institution of electoral democracy. Those of us outside of carceral institutions lived with a sense of enduring electoral laws as part of a constitutional framework that gave coordinates to our sense of politics. Many of those who had not suffered disenfranchisement before were not even aware of how their lives rested on a basic trust in the legal framework. But the idea of law as something that secures our rights and guides our action has been transformed into a field of litigation. There is no legal norm that cannot be litigated under Trump. A law is not there to be honored or followed, but as a potential site of litigation. Litigation becomes the ultimate field of law’s power, and all other kinds of law, even constitutional rights, are now reduced to negotiable items within that field.

Although some fault Trump for bringing a business model to governing, setting no limits on what can be negotiated for his profit, it is important to see that many of his business deals culminate in legal proceedings (as of 2016, he has been engaged in more than 3,500 lawsuits). He goes to court to compel the conclusion he wants. When the basic laws supporting electoral politics are litigated, if every legal protection is proclaimed as fraudulent, as an instrument profiting those who oppose him, then no law is left to constrain the power of litigation to destroy democratic norms. When he calls for an end to counting votes (much like his call to end Covid testing), he seeks to keep a reality from materializing and to maintain control over what is perceived as true or false. The only reason the pandemic is bad in the US, he argues, is that there is testing which furnishes numerical results. If there were no way to know how bad it is, then apparently it would not be bad.

In the early hours of 3 November, Trump called for an end to counting ballots in key states where he feared losing. If counting continues, Biden may well win. To circumvent that outcome, he wants to stop the count, even if citizens are deprived of their right to have their vote count. In the US, counting has always taken a while: that is the accepted norm. So what’s the rush? If Trump were sure to win if the electoral count stops now, we could understand why he wants to stop it. But given that he does not have the electoral numbers, why would he stop it? If the lawsuit that stops the count is accompanied by a lawsuit that alleges fraud (without any known basis for doing so), then he can produce a distrust in the system, one that, if deep enough, will ultimately throw the decision to the courts, the courts he has packed, the ones that he imagines will put him in power. The courts, along with the vice-president, would then form a plutocratic power that would enact the destruction of electoral politics as we know it. The problem, however, is that those powers, even if they generally support him, will not necessarily destroy the constitution from loyalty.

Some of us are shocked that he is willing to go this far, but this has been his mode of operating from the outset of his political career. We are still frightened to have seen the fragility of the laws that ground and orient us as a democracy. But what has always been distinctive of the Trump regime is that the executive power of the government has consistently attacked the laws of the country at the same that he claims to represent law and order. The only way that contradiction makes sense is if law and order are exclusively embodied by him. A peculiarly contemporary form of media-driven narcissism thus morphs into a lethal form of tyranny. The one who represents the legal regime assumes that he is the law, the one who makes and breaks the law as he pleases, and as a result he becomes a powerful criminal in the name of the law.

Fascism and tyranny take many forms, as scholars have clarified, and I tend to disagree with those who claim that national socialism remains the model by which all other fascist forms should be identified. And though Trump is not Hitler, and electoral politics is not precisely military war (not yet civil war, at any rate), there is a general logic of destruction that kicks in when the downfall of the tyrant seems nearly certain. In March 1945, when both the allied forces and the Red Army had vanquished every Nazi defensive stronghold, Hitler resolved to destroy the nation itself, ordering a destruction of transportation and communication systems, industrial sites, and public utilities. If he was going down, so too was the nation. Hitler’s missive was called “Destructive Measures on Reich Territory” but it was remembered as the “Nero Decree”, invoking the Roman emperor who killed family and friends, punishing those perceived as disloyal, in his ruthless desire to hold onto power and punish those perceived as disloyal. As his supporters starts to flee, Nero took his own life. His allegedly last words: “what an artist dies in me!”

Trump has been neither a Hitler nor a Nero, but he has been a very bad artist who has been rewarded by his supporters for his wretched performances. His appeal to nearly half of the country has depended upon cultivating a practice that licenses an exhilarated form of sadism freed from any shackles of moral shame or ethical obligation. This practice has not fully accomplished its perverse liberation. Not only has more than half of the country responded with revulsion or rejection, but the shameless spectacle has all along depended on a lurid picture of the left: moralistic, punitive and judgmental, repressive and ready to deprive the general populace of every ordinary pleasure and freedom. In that way, shame occupied a permanent and necessary place in the Trumpian scenario insofar as it was externalized and lodged in the left: the left seek to shame you for your guns, your racism, your sexual assault, your xenophobia! The excited fantasy of his supporters was that, with Trump, shame could be overcome, and there would be a “freedom” from the left and its punitive restrictions on speech and conduct, a permission finally to destroy environmental regulations, international accords, spew racist bile and openly affirm persistent forms of misogyny. As Trump campaigned to crowds excited by racist violence, he also promised them protection from the threat of a communist regime (Biden?) that would redistribute their income, take away their meat, and eventually install a “monstrous” and radical Black woman as president (Harris?).

The waning president, however, declares that he has won, but everyone knows he has not, at least not yet. Even Fox does not accept his claim, and even Pence says every vote is to be counted. The tyrant spiraling down calls for an end to testing, to counting, to science and even to electoral law, to all those inconvenient methods of verifying what is and is not true in order to spin his truth one more time. If he has to lose, he will try to take democracy down with him.

But when the president declares himself the winner and there is general laughter and even his friends call him a cab, then he is finally alone with his hallucinations of himself as a powerful destroyer. He can litigate as much as he wants, but if the lawyers scatter, and the courts, weary, no longer listen, he will find himself ruling only the island called Trump as a mere show of reality. We may finally have the chance to let Trump become a passing spectacle of a president who, in seeking to destroy the laws that support democracy, became its greatest threat, opening the way for some rest from what has seemed an interminable exhaustion. Bring it on, Sleepy Joe!

  • Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot professor in the department of comparative literature and the program of critical theory at the University of California, Berkeley. Her latest book is The Force of Nonviolence (Verso)


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