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From Resentment to Possibility: How Enjoyment Shapes the Political Imagination in Election 2016

Our political worldviews are shaped by the narratives through which we understand our desires.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont greets supporters at a town meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, on July 18, 2015. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Part of the Series

One year ago, political philosopher Jodi Dean wrote a short, brilliant article about the candidacy and campaign of Donald Trump. At a time when few would have imagined he would go on to clinch the nomination, Dean offered a precise diagnosis of Trump’s appeal: “Donald Trump cuts through the ideological haze of American politics and exposes its underlying truth, the truth of enjoyment. Where other candidates appeal to a fictitious unity or a pretence of moral integrity, he displays the power of inequality.”

In other words, Trump’s unmediated self-representation of wealth and power works to excavate the repressed beliefs and desires that attend our unequal and oppressive social relations.

Drawing on psychoanalytic theory, Dean described how Trump — and narratives surrounding him — has catalyzed our enjoyment. Trump activates our deeply held and sometimes dormant beliefs about ourselves and others, encouraging them to be more zealously expressed. For example, Trump permits his supporters to more actively embrace white supremacy. As Trump’s odious rhetoric cuts through publicly permissible discourse, people can unabashedly bask in their racism and sexism. And, projecting their fantasies onto Trump, they can gain psychological reprieve from their own oppression by “imagining themselves with his power.”

Looking closer, Dean also helps us to begin to see how different narratives through which we understand and enjoy our desires shape our political imaginary — a process all of us (not just Trumpeters) are seemingly caught up in, including those who oppose him. For example, Trump provides a surrogate through which some progressives and liberals can direct and actualize feelings of revulsion toward the working class. “Liberals enjoy their outrage… not only is he a candidate that they can enjoy hating, but he enables them to extend their hate to all non-millionaires supporting Trump: they really must be idiots.”

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

Since the nomination of both Trump and Hillary Clinton, another mode of enjoyment has emerged. With an apocalyptic narrative of a potential Trump presidency in place, some liberals and progressives are expressing outrage and condescension toward presumed allies who dare to support third-party candidates, or who are choosing to abstain from presidential election voting, or who, in some cases, are simply critiquing Clinton’s policies and practices. How can anyone in this moment not do the pragmatic and responsible thing and fully support the only candidate that can defeat pure evil?! How can they risk a Trump presidency?!

Some suggest that those who are refusing to lockstep behind Clinton must be too naïve to understand the political calculus; or that white people who are not voting for Clinton are doing so solely because their privilege emboldens them to be ideologically pure instead of pragmatic; or that the choice not to vote for Clinton is primarily a result of sexism preventing people from understanding the political significance of the first woman presidential candidate in the US from a major party. Thus, these Clinton supporters can take an amount of pleasure in knowing that they are wise not naïve, that they are aware of their privilege and not invested in it, and that they are egalitarian and not sexist.

From our perspective, none of these explanations are necessarily incorrect. They undoubtedly do describe, or at least partially describe, some particular people with particular sets of politics. But by beginning with the assumption that voting for Clinton is the only reasonable position, these explanations can serve to normalize the violence of our dominant political-economic system. In their effort to condemn the professed politics and ideas of Trump, they tend to obscure the destructiveness and terror brought on by actually existing policies and practices supported by Hillary Clinton, the “military-industrial status quo” and the broader regimes of white supremacy and capital accumulation. More problematic is that these explanations minimize the agency, and political analysis behind that agency, of the many individuals and movements with different identities and interests coming from the left who have read the political terrain done the political calculus and have decided that it is in their best interest to vote against or not participate in the current establishment.

What we find most instructive and worth paying attention to, however, are the ways in which particular desires, and enjoyment of those frustrated desires, coalesce in particular ways, arranging us in political space and moving us to action. The narratives through which we enjoy explain who or what is preventing the realization of our desires and causing us to suffer — whether it’s the ignorance of blue-collar racists that are supporting Trump, the privileged position and sexism of the “Bernie-or-Bust” crowd perpetuating their own privilege, or the naïveté of third-party supporters that might bring about an apocalyptic Trump administration. On a certain level, politics always involves identifying an “enemy,” but these narratives, fuelled by resentment and sustained by a kind of thrilling-enjoyment, grip us too tightly, foreclosing on other ways of being political, other ways of expressing desire, and other ways of relating to and learning from each other.

It’s impossible to know ahead of time how any particular individual vote will impact a presidential election, let alone the new social and political dynamics that any particular administration might set in motion. What we can begin to discern, however, is how our dominant political system works to channel and structure enjoyment in ways that attach us to particular sets of possibilities. Whereas the Trump candidacy “cuts through the ideological haze of American politics” exposing the “dark drives” of enjoyment that circulate through culture and help to construct our social reality, our two-party electoral system demands that we limit our desires for social change to what is currently deemed possible. It’s as if Trump — like others that have been previously deemed the “greater evil” — is the obscene supplement to a symbolic order that commands us to fall in line.

We might understand then, that the enormous effort to ignore, discredit and truncate Bernie Sanders’ campaign — by the corporate media, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and others — from inception through the convention, should not be attributed to Sanders’ policy prescriptions alone, but also to the ideological and libidinal rupture in the political fabric that allowed the movement to grow. Free higher education, a $15 minimum wage, opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), taxing the rich; these progressive proposals do indeed challenge the status quo and would be of great benefit to many. At the same time, some of Sanders’ positions on foreign policy are in line with establishment geopolitics. And, when pressed, the DNC and Clinton platform were able to appropriate and incorporate some of Sanders’ primary policy planks which, months before, had been deemed “unrealistic.” We certainly can’t know ahead of time what any particular reform might lead to, but none of Sanders’ welcome proposals are, in and of themselves, a threat to the existing social order.

What was truly threatening about a Sanders candidacy, and what generated so much love, loyalty and pleasure from the movement surrounding Sanders, was the relatively unbounded political imaginary that Sanders emboldened. Like Occupy Wall Street before, the movement behind Sanders invited public conversations in ways not circumscribed by existing ideological conditions. To put this another way, Sanders activated enjoyment, not simply around a set of desires to oppose the corporate-driven agenda of the 1% that is preventing us from having a world that we want, but also in the very act of dreaming and thinking for a world of possibilities beyond what might be possible within our current configuration of liberal, democratic capitalism. From our perspective, those who pursue such a political imaginary are less gripped by resentment-saturated politics, and in so doing, can develop collaborative and creative ways of being in the world and relating to others as political creatures.

To be perfectly clear, we are not arguing that the two major party candidates don’t have significant differences. There are certainly political consequences for electing one candidate over the other — though, for the moment, it appears that Trump’s campaign is beginning to implode. However, as Kali Akuno, the cofounder of Cooperation Jackson, recently remarked in a social media post, both parties present differently terrifying visions that must be addressed:

On the one hand, we must get prepared to fight the advance of an emergent white supremacy, in its fascist form, which might in fact be even more virulent and violent if Trump doesn’t win. And on the other hand, we better get prepared to fight the most aggressive and malicious form of neo-liberal and neo-conservative governance Wall Street can buy, which will be fiercely adverse to any resistance from the left. Clarity of vision and clarity regarding our position are absolutely needed to chart clear paths of effective, autonomous resistance in the days ahead.

We are thus charged with the momentous and psychologically challenging task of balancing two, seemingly dissonant political and affective stances: critiquing, organizing against, and resisting oppressions and exploitation, while at the same time supporting, teaching about, and organizing around the movements, projects and narratives that allow us to enjoy a politics from which a truly egalitarian world can be imagined and desired.

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