Not such a long time ago, in a galaxy that now appears far, far away, the public space was clearly distinguished from the obscenities of private exchanges. Politicians, journalists and other media personalities were expected to address us with a minimum of dignity, talking and acting as if the common good is their main preoccupation, avoiding vulgar expressions and reference to personal intimacies. There were, of course, rumors about their private vices, but they remained that – private matters mentioned only in the yellow press. Today, however, not only we can read in the mass media about the intimate details of public personalities, populist politicians themselves often regress to shameless obscenity. It is the very public domain in which ‘fake news’ circulates, in which rumors and conspiracy theories abound.
One should not lose sight of what is so surprising about this rise of shameless obscenity, so well noted and analyzed by Angela Nagle in her book Kill All Normies. Traditionally (or in our retroactive view of tradition, at least), shameless obscenity was subversive, an undermining of traditional domination, depriving the Master of his false dignity. I remember from my own youth how in the 1960s protesting students liked to use obscene words or gestures to embarrass figures of power and, so they claimed, denounce their hypocrisy. However, what we are seeing today is not the disappearance of authority, of Master figures, but its forceful reappearance – we are getting something unimaginable decades ago, obscene Masters.
Donald Trump is the emblematic figure of this new type of obscene populist Master, and the usual argument against him – that his populism (worry for the well-being of the poor ordinary people) is fake, that his actual politics protects the interests of the rich – is all too inadequate. The followers of Trump do not act ‘irrationally’, they are not victims of primitive ideological manipulations which make them vote against their interests. They are quite rational in their own terms: they vote for Trump because in the ‘patriotic’ vision he is selling around, he also addresses their ordinary everyday problems – guaranteeing them safety, a permanent job, et cetera.
When he was elected president, I was asked by a couple of publishers to write a book which would submit the Trump phenomenon to a psychoanalytic critics, and my answer was that we do not need psychoanalysis to explore the ‘pathology’ of his success – the only thing to psychoanalyze is the irrational stupidity of the left-liberal reactions to it, the stupidity which makes it more and more probable that Trump will be re-elected. To use what is perhaps the lowest point of Trump’s vulgarities, the left has not yet learned how to grab him by the pussy.
Trump is not winning just by shamelessly bombarding us with messages which generate obscene enjoyment at how he dares to violate the elementary norms of decency. Through all his shocking vulgarities, he is providing his followers with a narrative which makes sense – a very limited and twisted sense, but nonetheless a sense which obviously does a better job than the left-liberal narrative. His shameless obscenities serve as signs of solidarity with so-called ordinary people (‘you see, I am the same as you, we are all red under our skin’), and this solidarity also signals the point at which Trump’s obscenity reaches its limit. Trump is not totally obscene: when he talks about the greatness of America, when he dismisses his opponents as enemies of the people, et cetera, he intends to be taken seriously, and his obscenities are meant to precisely emphasize by contrast the level at which he is serious: they are meant to function as an obscene display of his belief in the greatness of America.
In order to undermine Trump, one should begin by displacing the site of his obscenity and treat as obscene his ‘serious’ statements. Trump is not truly obscene when he uses vulgar terms, he is truly obscene when he talks about America as the greatest country in the world, when he imposes his economic measures, et cetera. The obscenity of his speech masks this more basic obscenity. One could paraphrase here the well-known Marx brothers’ dictum: Trump acts and looks like a shamelessly obscene politician, but this should not deceive us – he really is a shamelessly obscene politician.
Public obscenity that proliferates today constitutes a third domain between the private and the public space: the private space elevated into the public sphere. It seems to be the form that fits best our immersion into cyberspace, our participation in all possible forums; Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. No wonder, then, that Trump makes most of his decisions public through Twitter. However, we don’t get here the ‘real Trump’: the domain of public obscenities is not that of sharing intimate experiences, it is a public domain full of lies, hypocrisies and pure malevolence, a domain in which we engage in a way similar to that of wearing a disgusting mask. The standard relationship between my intimacy and the big Other of public dignity is thus turned around: obscenities are no longer limited to private exchanges, they explode in the public domain itself, allowing me to dwell in the illusion that it’s all just an obscene game while I remain innocent in my intimate purity. The first task of a critic is to demonstrate how fake this purity is.