[post-election update: let us hope that Žižek was right]
Since I keep getting asked about this video, and since Žižek knows his Laclau, let's think about the role of movement, ideology, and rhetoric in populism.
I'll bet Lacan's students flipped out when he told them “Freud was in no way a progressive” too. Your thought leaders don’t need to agree with you on everything in order to have something to contribute. Here’s another one: while he clearly leaned left in theory, Lacan tried to position himself as a centrist liberal. Žižek is almost certainly (though not quite certainly) wrong about Trump victory leading to a rethinking within the GOP field, and I can’t agree with Žižek on this one, but he’s making a consistent argument with regard to class struggle in opposition to capitalism.
Contra Žižek, I don’t think a Trump victory leads to any immediate, fundamental rethinking for the GOP, because Trump is only an outlier in style, not substance. The roots of Trumpism do not simply trace to the Tea Party, the Recession, the Reagan era, etc. The roots go right back to the birth of the modern GOP after Civil Rights, to the Southern Strategy detailed in 1970 by Nixon’s strategist Kevin Phillips aimed at attracting southern whites. In this New York Times article, they openly acknowledged the GOP would never again get more than 1/5 African American votes (which is laughably high in retrospect), and this wouldn’t matter as long as they could mobilize an anti-black demographic. The modern GOP has always been about race, and various rhetorical devises (encoding racism into “welfare queen” or “war on drugs,” redefining conservatism with the qualifier “compassionate” or revising it as “libertarian,” or appeals to Christian family values) have never been anything other than tactical devices for the true goal, the support of capital interests. The rhetoric is pure bullshit, believed by constituents more than by the establishment, but it cannot be dismissed as merely bullshit.
In America, we at the very least need to take race (and probably patriarchy/heterosexism) just seriously as class struggle, and I saw the Žižek video as a quick, yet significant, disagreement with Ernesto Laclau’s work on populism. In In Defense of Lost Causes, Žižek (a close reader of Laclau) argues that a post-politics, technocratic style of government management (Obama, Clinton) inevitably produces an “empty” populist backlash which actually feeds a need for technocratic style. He was writing while watching the rise of European nationalist movements and the beginning of the Tea Party, which we now have the research (Putnam & Campbell, American Grace) to conclude was much more about a desire for theocracy than about “smaller government” or views on debt/deficit. The classic “empty signifier” of populism is “the People!” which has been thoroughly eclipsed by “Real Americans!” since 2008. Populism can be divided into (1) movement, (2) ideology, and (3) rhetoric. They are often put precisely in this order: movement is the true thrust toward a goal, ideology is the framework reifying and sustaining a particular consciousness, and rhetoric then comes along to curate and reinforce cohesion. Laclau rightly counters this ranking to say we cannot dismiss rhetoric as a least important element. Rhetoric may be bullshit, but it is not simply bullshit; rhetoric is actively reconstructing ideology and vice versa. It is still a threat, and my interpretation is that Žižek sees Trump’s bullshit as simply that; an empty threat which will be abandoned without triggering waves of anti-black and anti-immigrant movement. Rhetoric really can get people killed, especially in an election that is all about race.
Trump has a 1/3 chance of winning, but should he lose in a landslide, I think it more likely that the temporary end of the GOP as a viable party for Presidency leads to a split between Clinton centrists and the Sanders left, who will no longer face obvious, crushing defeat should they push slightly left. That may be a delusional dream, but I think it more likely than any immediate rethinking with the GOP establishment in the case of a Trump victory. The GOP wakes up on Wednesday and either says “Ryan/Romney was right: see 2012 autopsy report” or says “Trump was right: white nativism works.” In the case of a crushing Trump defeat, capital will need to shift its support more permanently toward the Democrats (which has already happened in this cycle), and that is precisely where Žižek could turn out to be horrifically prescient.