Trump’s appeal to both men and women rested on his promise to impose a lost or threatened order of racial and gender hierarchies. The appeal was made not rationally or programmatically, but libidinally—it was the erotic call and response that won the day.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re closing out March with one of our timeless and most popular titles, Gender and the Politics of History: thirtieth anniversary edition. Today we are pleased to present you with a response from author Joan Wallach Scott, to ‘s post “The Nightmare Begins,” originally posted on the LRB Blog on November 1o, 2016.
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Adam Shatz has offered the best analysis I have so far read of the Trump phenomenon. I found his understanding of Trump’s “animal magnetism,” the dreams of restored “virility,” and his supporters’ craving for the sanctity of law and order to be especially compelling. That Trump came to embody a fantasy of absolute power is undeniable. How and why that worked so well and what it suggests for an oppositional politics are the questions his piece leaves open.
Shatz’s comments on the reasons for Clinton’s failure do not provide good enough answers. It wasn’t only what she stood for (the depth of her associations with Wall Street, a certain elitist cosmopolitanism) or her flip flopping on issues of economic and racial justice, but—I would argue—the very appeal she made to logic and reason that led to her defeat. She offered factual corrections to his lies, practical policies to address concrete issues—but nothing in her words or her manner called forth the kind of libidinal energy he did. To be sure, millions voted for her—indeed she won the popular vote—but her words and her demeanor offered little comfort to the angry, white, lower middle class men and women, as well as so many of the others including many urban as well as rural voters, who opted for Trump. And, of course, the fact that she was a woman limited the scope of the appeal she could offer. Even had she not been the kind of wonky personality she is, a woman candidate with “animal magnetism” could never have been seen as an avatar of absolute power. While Trump’s excesses (all those women, even his daughter; all that gold; the repeated insults to immigrants, Blacks, Latinos; all that ego;) demonstrated his potency (his phallic force), any such excess on a woman’s part would only confirm her unsuitability for public office. Indeed, even without excess of that kind, Clinton elicited virulent misogynist reactions.
Trump’s performance of over-sized masculinity (despite the small size of his hands) made him seem to many capable of restoring a lost or threatened order. His very transgressions (bankruptcy, tax evasion, infidelity, profiteering) ironically confirmed his ability to impose and enforce the law. He was the all-powerful father Freud theorized about in Totem and Taboo—the one who can make the law without having to follow it. Trump’s appeal to both men and women rested on his promise to impose a lost or threatened order of racial and gender hierarchies. The appeal was made not rationally or programmatically, but libidinally—it was the erotic call and response that won the day.
What kind of political response is possible in the face of this power? How does democracy—historically the alternative to absolutism—make an equally potent, but different libidinal appeal? Does the promise of emancipation (an end to the primal father’s monopoly) have the same erotic charge today that socialists (e.g. Marcuse) and second-wave feminists thought it did—did it ever, does it still? What about redemption as a communal experience in the way Martin Luther King offered it?
Any political movement of opposition will need to contend with these questions and come up with answers to them; for those answers the psychic charge of politics needs to be a serious consideration. If we abandon that terrain to the Trumps of this world, the danger of fascism, already on the horizon, will become ever more real.