Jacques Ranciere reflects on the end of the Trump presidency and asks how this decline into unreason reconstructed what democracy means
Witnessing the assault on the Capitol, it may seem surprising to see Trump’s supporters relentlessly denying the facts to the point of sinking into fanatical violence. Some see them as gullible spirits deceived by fake news. But how can we still believe in this fable when we live in a world where there is an overabundance of both news and commentaries that ‘decipher’ the news? In fact, if people reject what is obvious, it is not because they are stupid, it is to show they are intelligent. A sign of a perversion inscribed in the very structure of our reason.
It is easy to make fun of Donald Trump’s follies and wax indignant at the violence of his fanatics. But the unleashing of the purest irrationality at the heart of the electoral process, in the country best set up to manage alternation in a representative system also raises questions about the world we share with it: a world that we thought was the world of rational thought and peaceful democracy. And the first question is of course: how can people stubbornly refuse to recognise the best attested facts, and how can this refusal be so widely shared and supported?
Some people still cling to an old lifeline: those who do not want to acknowledge the facts are seen as misinformed ignoramuses or gullible spirits deceived by fake news. This is the classic idyll of a good but simple-minded people who are taken in, but who only need to learn to inform themselves about the facts and judge them with a critical mind. But how can we still believe this fable of popular naivety when we live in a world where means of information, means of verifying information, and commentaries that ‘decipher’ all information, are abundantly available to all?
The argument must then be reversed: if people reject the obvious, it is not because they are stupid, it is to show they are intelligent. And intelligence, as is well known, consists in being wary of facts and questioning the purpose of the enormous mass of information unleashed on us every day. To which the answer is, quite naturally, that it is to deceive people, because what is displayed in plain sight is generally there to cover up the truth, which we need to be able to discover – hidden under the false appearance of the facts presented.
The strength of this answer is that it satisfies both the most fanatical and the most sceptical at the same time. One of the remarkable features of the new far right is the place held by conspiracy and negationist theories. These theories have delusional aspects, such as the theory of the great international paedophile conspiracy. But this delirium is ultimately only the extreme form of a type of rationality that is generally valued in our societies: one that demands that we see every particular fact as the consequence of a global order, placing it in an overall connection that explains it and shows it to be ultimately very different from what it seemed to be at first.
We know that this principle of explaining everything by the sum of connections also works the other way round: it is always possible to deny a fact by invoking the absence of a link in the chain of conditions that make it possible. This, as we know, is how certain radical Marxist intellectuals denied the existence of Nazi gas chambers, since it was impossible to deduce their necessity from the overall logic of the capitalist system. And, again today, some subtle intellectuals have seen coronavirus as a fable invented by our governments to better control us.
The logic underlying conspiracy and negationist theories is not peculiar to simple minds and sick brains. Their extreme forms testify to the share of unreason and superstition present at the heart of the dominant form of rationality in our societies, and in the ways of thinking that interpret how they work. The possibility of denying everything is not the kind of ‘relativism’ challenged by serious minds that see themselves as guardians of rational universality. It is a perversion inscribed in the very structure of our reason.
It might be said that for people to deny everything it is not enough to have the intellectual weapons. It is also necessary to want to. That is absolutely right. But we need to examine the content of this will or affect which leads to believing or not believing.
It is unlikely that the seventy-five million voters who cast their ballots for Trump are weak minds convinced by his speeches and the false information they convey. They don’t believe in the sense that they take what he says to be true. They believe in the sense that they are happy to hear what they hear: a pleasure that may be expressed in a ballot paper every four or five years, but much more simply every day in a simple ‘like’. And the peddlers of false information are neither naïve people who imagine it to be true nor cynics who know it to be false. They are simply people who want it that way, who want to see, think, feel and live in the community of sentiment that these words weave.
How should we understand this community and this desire? This is where another lazy notion lies in wait, that of populism. Instead of a good and naive people, this conjures up a frustrated and envious people, ready to follow someone who knows how to embody their resentments and point out their cause.
Trump, we are told, is the representative of the distress and anger of underprivileged white communities: those left behind by economic and societal transformation; those who have lost their jobs with deindustrialisation and their identity markers with the new forms of life and culture; those who feel abandoned by remote political elites and despised by educated elites. The song is not new: this is already how unemployment served in the 1930s as an explanation for Nazism and is repeatedly used to explain any advance of the far right in our countries. But how can we seriously believe that the seventy-five million Trump voters all fit this profile of victims of crisis, unemployment and downgrading? It is then necessary to abandon the second lifeline of intellectual comfort, the traditional figure of a people cast in the role of irrational actor: a frustrated and brutal people who are a counterpart to the good and naive people.
More profoundly, we need to question this form of pseudo-scholarly rationality, which seeks to turn the political forms of expression of the people-subject into features belonging to this or that social stratum in ascent or decline. A political people is not the expression of a sociological people that pre-exists it. It is a specific creation: the product of a number of institutions, procedures and forms of action, but also of words, phrases, images and representations that do not express the feelings of an existing people but create a particular people, by creating a specific regime of affects for it.
Trump’s people is not the expression of social strata in difficulty and in search of a protector. It is, above all, a people produced by a specific institution in which many stubbornly see the supreme expression of democracy: that which establishes an immediate and reciprocal relationship between an individual deemed to embody the power of all and a collective of individuals deemed to recognise themselves in him. It is also a people built by a particular form of address, the personalised address made possible by the new communication technologies, where the leader speaks every day to each and every one, both as a public and a private man, using the same forms of communication that allow each and every one to say daily what is in their mind or in their heart.
It is, finally, a people built by the specific system of affects that Donald Trump has maintained through this system of communication: a system of affects that is not intended for any particular class and which plays not on frustration but, on the contrary, on satisfaction with one’s condition, not on a feeling of inequality to be repaired but on a feeling of privilege to be maintained against all those who would want to attack it.
There is nothing mysterious about the passion Trump appeals to, it is the passion for inequality, the passion that allows both rich and poor to find a multitude of inferiors over whom they must at all costs maintain their superiority. Indeed, there is always a superiority in which you can participate: superiority of men over women, of white women over women of colour, of workers over unemployed, of those working in the occupations of the future over others, of those with good insurance over those who depend on public support, of natives over migrants, of nationals over foreigners, and of citizens of the mother country of democracy over the rest of humanity.
The co-presence, in the Capitol occupied by Trumpian thugs, of both the flag of the thirteen founding states and the flag of the slave-owning South illustrates very well this singular montage that makes equality a supreme proof of inequality and the ‘pursuit of happiness’ a hateful affect. But the ethos of a particular nation cannot be equated either with this identification of the power of all with a countless collection of superiorities and hatreds, or with a particular social stratum. We know the role played in our own country by the opposition between a ‘hardworking France’ and a ‘scrounger France’, between those who forge ahead and those who remain dependent on archaic systems of social protection, or between citizens of the country of the Enlightenment and human rights and the backward and fanatical populations that threaten its integrity. And we can see, every day on the Internet, the hatred of all forms of equality that is stoked to boiling point by the comments of newspaper readers.
Just as stubborn denial is not the mark of backward minds but a variant of the dominant rationality, so the culture of hatred is not the product of underprivileged social strata but of the functioning of our institutions. It is a way of ‘people-forging’, a way of creating a people that belongs to the logic of inequality. Almost two hundred years ago, Joseph Jacotot, thinker of intellectual emancipation, showed how anti-egalitarian folly was the basis of a society in which every inferior was able to find someone inferior to them and enjoy this superiority. Only a quarter of a century ago, I suggested for my part that the identification of democracy with consensus produced, in place of a people of social division, now declared archaic, a much more archaic people based solely on the affects of hatred and exclusion.
Rather than the comfort of indignation or derision, the events that marked the end of Donald Trump’s presidency should prompt us to take a somewhat closer look at the forms of thought we call rational and the forms of community we call democratic.