DONALD TRUMP’S seemingly improbable quest for the United States presidency continues unabated, despite efforts on all sides to stop it, Republicans and Democrats alike. What explains Trump’s appeal to such a large segment of the voting public? Racism and xenophobia certainly play a part — to spectacular effect in Trump’s rhetoric. But Trump is more a symptom than causal agent (although he is the kind of symptom around which a certain fragile whiteness has mobilized). If we think about Trump’s popularity as a part, or the absurd end, of the long history of sovereignty in the United States, his appeal becomes much more understandable (if, perhaps, even more horrifying).
Democracy, especially in the United States, has always been vexed by the concept of sovereignty. It is one thing to invoke the liberating, empowering phrase “popular sovereignty,” the sine qua non of democracy; it is another altogether to think through the sovereignty of popular sovereignty — which remains a question of domination and subjection that on the surface seems inimical to democracy. Donald Trump makes manifest this latent desire of the people (or at least an increasingly large segment of the people) to be subjected to some sovereign authority. The glaring contradictions, the all-encompassing narcissism, the insistent claims to violate the law, to do what needs to be done, to “Make America Great Again,” are all evidence not of Trump’s failings — his combination of danger and incompetence is, as most opinion polls suggest, apparent to nearly everyone — but of a political reality taking hold in the United States today: the desire for a new age of the sovereign.
“Sovereignty” is a concept with a long and complicated history, grounded in the fantasy of an indivisible, final political authority. German political philosopher Carl Schmitt’s well-known definition of sovereignty — himself a staunch proponent of dictatorship — is very much at the core of Trump’s appeal. “Sovereign,” Schmitt wrote in his classic work of 1922, Political Theology, “is he who decides on the exception.” This definition has become a recurring trope in work on sovereignty in the United States, particularly since 9/11. But what, exactly, is the exception? Schmitt elaborates, claiming that a sovereign:
decides in a situation of conflict what constitutes the public interest or interest of the state, public safety and order [. . .]. The exception, which is not codified in the existing legal order, can at best be characterized as a case of extreme peril, a danger to the existence of the state, or the like. But it cannot be circumscribed factually and made to conform to a preformed law.
The sovereign, in a moment of conflict, determines the interest of the state, public order, and safety, and is able to do so by declaring exceptions to the law which cannot rest on facts, in order to articulate and enact dictatorial powers in a moment of crisis. A shadow of this definition lingers over Trump, who consistently articulates the United States as in a state of perilous crisis.
Sovereignty is maintained regardless of whether it is embodied in a symbolic monarch, or, losing the monarch in whom it was once embodied, disperses into the demos. But even in the case of popular sovereignty, it does not wane in power; instead, it proliferates. In 19th-century United States — the moment of ascendant popular sovereignty — it was attached to the federal government, the states, the people, the individual, virtue, justice, femininity, marriage, the family, and God, to name a few. If this was in part about a kind of divided, or what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have called “network power,” it also tracked a tension between freedom and subjection. Transcendentalist and Democratic partisan Orestes Brownson in 1838 published a rousing denunciation of popular sovereignty that “Democracy [. . .] is sometimes asserted to be the sovereignty of the people.” Brownson wrote, “If this be a true account of it, it is indefensible,” in large part because it insured that the freedom of the individual would always be subjected to the collective will of the people, making every man “an absolute slave,” (a phrase Brownson, like most white men in the 19th century and since, used without irony). In the last analysis, Brownson offered a sovereign to whom all individuals could be subjected. “Justice is, then, the sovereign, the sovereign of sovereigns, the king of kings, lord of lords, the supreme law of the people, and of the individual.” Even in this encomium to the free individual, there was, lurking in the shadows of liberal democracy, some sovereign power to whom one could be and should be subjected.
As sovereignty was increasingly associated with individuals, collectivities, and state rulers all at the same time, what was supposed to be an indivisible concept was becoming hopelessly fragmented. As the French political philosopher Claude Lefort wrote, democracy is a form “instituted and sustained by the dissolution of the markers of certainty. It inaugurates a history in which people experience a fundamental indeterminacy as to the basis of power, law and knowledge, and as to the basis of relations between self and other, at every level of social life.” Democracy does not constitute the end of sovereignty; instead, as Lefort suggests and Brownson demonstrates, sovereignty increasingly becomes attached to all kinds of quotidian and mundane parts of the life of the people, dividing and dispersing a supposedly indivisible political concept.
Yet the desire for the indivisible remains. If popular sovereignty registers the tension between freedom and subjection, then why can’t we, in the name of freedom and autonomy, escape sovereignty? Why is it that we desire, not necessarily to be a sovereign, but rather to have a sovereign? Why is Donald Trump our sovereign choice?
At the heart of liberal democracy lies a central paradox: to be a free individual, a free citizen, a constitutive part of the people, requires an act or process of subjection in order to be constituted as a subject. Subjection always resides, in some capacity, in the concept of sovereignty, yet it always seems repressed in the elision of democracy, popular sovereignty, and freedom. Why does Donald Trump seem to effectively embody this repressed sovereign authority now? If rational engagement with the Trump phenomenon yields little results, it might well be because his appeal lives in registers beyond the rational, beyond the conscious. It may just be that Trump figures himself as the primal father, “a violent and jealous father,” as Freud put it in Totem and Taboo, “who keeps all the females for himself and drives away his sons as they grow up.” Trump’s appeal to the populace lies not in rationality but in a desire to be subjected — a masochistic attachment to an arbitrary, narcissistic, sovereign father.
Perhaps few other contests highlight this pathology more than the one between Trump and Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly — a contest he alone seems to be waging. As is now well known, Kelly opened the first Fox presidential debate specifically by problematizing Trump’s history of misogyny. “One of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter.” She then framed the question around women’s issues and sexism:
However that is not without its downsides, in particular when it comes to women. You have called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals. [. . .] You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton [. . .] that you are part of the war on women?
Kelly directly challenges Trump in a way that questions/castrates his authority to be president/primal father given his history of misogyny, and more specifically Trump’s insistence that women are simply sexual objects to please the primal father. Trump’s response is instructive here, as he poses himself as a commanding sovereign not bound by conventions of civility, which would only hinder him:
I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct [cheers] [. . .] I’ve been challenged by so many people. And I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico. Both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody. And frankly, what I say, and oftentimes it’s fun, it’s kidding. We have a good time. What I say is what I say. And honestly, Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn’t do that. But you know what? [cheers] We need strength. We need energy. We need quickness and we need brain in this country to turn it around. That I can tell you right now.
Trump never actually addresses Kelly’s question. Instead, he frames his response around the notion that political correctness stands in the way of sovereign strength. Here Trump and the nation have a metonymic relation, wherein he is constantly challenged “by so many people” just like the nation is challenged by China and Mexico, and neither have the time for political correctness; he frames his treatment of Kelly as a moment of underserved largesse, and then offers himself as strong, energetic, quick, and brainy — just the attributes that the nation needs in its sovereign father. Trump’s rivals for the Republican nomination, like his business rivals, and like men with whom he has competed for the sexual attention of women (Trump has recounted these types of stories multiple times throughout his life as media spectacle) all figure as the metaphoric sons he must dominate to maintain his position as primal father. And he barely registers a response about his misogyny, because he figures women as the objects of pleasure, there only to gratify the desire of the primal father.
And yet, Kelly’s position as castrating woman, challenging the unchecked, exceptional power of Trump, could not go unaddressed. Days later, he turned this exchange into one of the first spectacles of his role as castrating father. When asked about his exchange with Kelly, Trump turned his attention to her supposed rage, which was manifest in her apparently bloody body. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Despite his later protestations, Trump’s association of blood and an enraged woman drew on a long history of associating women’s menstruation with the incapacity to govern. As the feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey wrote, “Woman’s desire is subjected to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound, she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it.” Defending himself both through his derision of political correctness and through his association of Kelly (and, implicitly, all women) with a bleeding body, Trump shored up his position as primal father, castrating all women and potentially castrating all men. His sovereign power insistently turns on this performance.
Trump’s relations to women have generally been a combination of possession and domination, evident as much in this exchange with Kelly as in his frequent public cataloguing of sexual partners. That he has, since this exchange with Kelly, repeatedly demeaned her as an incapable journalist and castrated woman (captured in his frequent reference to her as a “bimbo”), is more evidence of the repetitive nature of symbolic castration necessary to shore up the authority of the sovereign, primal father.
Elaborating on the primal father and “the great man” in Moses and Monotheism, Freud gives us a picture of the desire for the father that sounds uncannily like our contemporary sovereign father, Trump.
We know that in the mass of mankind there is a powerful need for an authority who can be admired, before whom one bows down, by whom one is ruled [. . .] and perhaps even ill-treated [. . .] It is a longing for the father felt by everyone from his childhood onwards, for the same father whom the hero of legend boasts he has overcome [. . .] The decisiveness of thought, the strength of will, the energy of action are part of the picture of a father — but above all the autonomy and independence of the great man, his divine unconcern which may grow into ruthlessness.
Here we have Trump, ruthless, autonomous, divinely unconcerned with “the real world,” the world of facts. He emerges as that repressed father, who the “hero of legend” believes he has overcome. In contemporary democracy, isn’t this hero of legend “the people” of democracy, now confronted with the repressed father in the figure of Donald Trump?
Trump’s rhetoric, we might comfortably argue, is consistently racist and xenophobic. In this, despite his demagoguery, he is a more powerful symptom of the long-standing territorial border anxieties and racism of American democracy. He may mobilize this, but he has not caused it. Indeed, his racism and xenophobia draw on the long racial and colonial structure of sovereignty itself. This racism, the quasi-colonial character of Trump’s border fetishism, buttresses his figuration of the sovereign father. But it may also mask what sits at the heart of his performance: a kind of arbitrary sovereign father, exemplified in the crude phallic discourse of the Republican primary.
As nearly every commentator, left and right, has pointed out, Trump contradicts himself at nearly every turn; much of what he utters is factually unverifiable. Indeed, this has become the most compelling path of opposition to Trump — the belief that exposing his lies, his inventions, his absurd boasts, will mobilize the rational faculties of the American electorate. To this point reason has not been particularly effective; indeed, the more his inaccuracies have been exposed, the more popular he has become — evidence that the attachment to Trump does not operate in the world of the rational. Instead, for many voters, his appeal arises from an oft-cited, simple logic: he tells it like it is.
The rational response is to point out, as did John Oliver to hilarious effect, that no, he does not tell it like it is. Rather, he never tells it like it is. Trump claims he is worth $10 billion, but research reveals that is unlikely the case; Trump claims his entire campaign is self-funded, but a quick perusal of his website reveals not one but two “donate” buttons; he often claims he will or has sued someone, but then doesn’t, or never has — the list goes on. Telling it like it is, it seems, means something a bit different in Trump’s case: It is the sovereign who promises to declare a permanent state of exception because, in his authoritative telling, we are in a permanent state of crisis, a permanent conflict. What Trump performs here is the role of the castrating father who claims, because he possesses the phallus — that is, because he is the primal father — he can exceed the law. This is telling it like it is, and it is perhaps, in the end, most clearly articulated in his willingness never to be held accountable to facts, and instead invent the world that he wants to govern. This is why people find him appealing, and it is also why the crude phallic moments of his campaign matter so much.
That the Republican presidential campaign has turned on repeated references to penis size should come as little surprise. Trump is no stranger to crude moments in the campaign, trading ripostes in the phallic discourse that is presidential politics. As is rather well known at this point, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump debated over the size of “Big Donald’s” penis. At a campaign rally, responding in part to Trump’s frequent reference to Rubio as “Little Marco,” Rubio took a thinly veiled shot at Trump’s penis.
He’s always calling me “little Marco.” And I’ll admit, he’s taller than me. He’s like six two which is why I don’t understand why his hands are the size of someone who is five two. Have you seen his hands? [. . .] And you know what they say about men with small hands [long pause] You can’t trust them.
Playing on the hand/penis equivalence, Rubio closes by suggesting that a man with a small penis can’t be trusted. Or, conflating penis and phallus, a man who does not possess the phallus cannot be sovereign. Unsurprisingly, Trump responded at the opening of the next Republican debate. Holding up his hands for all to see, Trump said, “Look at those hands. Are they small hands? [laughter, cheers] And, he referred to my hands, if they’re small, something else must be small. I guarantee you, there’s no problem. I guarantee it.” It’s as if to say, “See, I have the phallus, I am the primal father, I am your sovereign.” Of course, as both Freud and Lacan pointed out, the penis is not the phallus — rather it is an illusion, since no one can actually have the phallus, which is the province of the primal father, who is always already dead, outside the world of the law. Trump may perform that position, but in the end, he simply cannot fully inhabit it. This is why, penis politics aside, his rhetoric is always boastful emptiness — 50-foot walls, mass deportation, $10 billion net worth — all hyperbolic penises trying to be the phallus.
This phallic exchange was a coda to Trump’s most significant act as castrating father during this campaign season, where he engaged in a symbolic castration of Jeb Bush that resulted in one of the more bizarre moments of the campaign. During the debate, in another performance of his sovereign authority, Trump was explaining how George W. Bush knowingly lied about weapons of mass destruction in order to justify a war with Iraq. Ironically, this amounted to one of the few moments during his campaign that he told a factually verifiable truth. Regardless, this was a Republican debate with a conservative, Republican audience — to claim the war was a mistake built on deception violated the ideological demands of party politics, akin to supporting Planned Parenthood or portions of the Affordable Care Act (both of which Trump has done in the past few months). Jeb, however, was having none of this and took it as one more attack on his family. After Trump claimed “So George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes, but that one was a beauty,” Jeb took off the restraints in a heated and bizarre defense of his family. “I could care less about the insults that Donald Trump gives to me. It’s blood sport for him, he enjoys it, and I’m glad he’s happy about it. [. . .] I am sick and tired of him going after my family. My dad is the greatest man alive in my mind. While Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe. And I’m proud of what he did.” Over this, Trump yells, in a humiliating act of castration, “The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign. Remember that.” Not only does he play on the phallic figuration of the World Trade Center, by using the word “reign,” but he acknowledges “the monarchy in democracy” (to borrow a phrase from the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott) that is sovereignty. George W. Bush, in this exchange, can never be the sovereign protector — he is a castrated, failed sovereign.
Jeb, however, pushes on. “He’s had the gall to go after my mother. [. . .] Look, I won the lottery when I was born 63 years ago and looked up and I saw my mom. Mom–my mom is the strongest woman I know.” Again, Trump yells over Bush, again castrating, “She should be running.” Here all presidential politics are reduced to family politics, with Jeb pronouncing the authority of his father, his brother, his mother, and presumably, through the sheer feat of consanguinity, himself. In short order, Trump ignores his father, castrates his brother, and then, through yelling that his mother should run, castrates Jeb. Three days later Jeb tweeted a photograph of a handgun engraved with “Gov. Jeb Bush.” The only text accompanying the photo was enigmatic: “America.” Playing 2nd Amendment politics as the South Carolina primary approached, Bush seemingly equated America with a handgun. But he was also reasserting his phallic authority — Jeb’s phallic gun was just the proof of his sovereign power that America was looking for. Of course, the gun was no better as a phallic substitute than the penis, and it holds its own illusion: Jeb hadn’t been governor since 2007 — if the authority of that gun rested on the engraving, then again, the primal father is always already dead. Four days later, castrated by Trump and the primary results, Bush suspended his campaign. This was not about policy, nor even ideology — rather, Bush was an ineffective embodiment of the illusion that a primal father could come into being in the world of law.
When a woman from Mississippi was asked to explain her support for Trump, she said, “We got a bunch of pansies up there right now. So it’s time for something else.” This is about as vague a reason of support for Trump as one can imagine — again, content does not matter all that much. Yet, with its reference to “pansies” it suggests, as I have, that it is a desire for the primal father, for the real but impossible masculine, that animates Trump’s appeal.
The conflation of democracy and popular sovereignty in the United States has long rested, in part, on the repression of this desire for submission to a sovereign Father. The return of the repressed always comes in distorted form, a grotesque re-appearance of that element in the psyche. The desire for an all-powerful sovereign who declares himself the permanent exception to all law by claiming we are in permanent crisis has long been the repressed of the democratic psyche. Donald Trump, in all his grotesquerie, is the return of the repressed. The literary critic Dana Nelson has argued that the presidency is “bad for democracy,” in large part because it holds out the fantasy that the people are at their best as a collective entity when they are symbolically unified in one figure. This has marked a vexing tension that has run through the democracy, such as it is, that is America. Trump’s ascendancy, embodying precisely that sense of the sovereign father that is the presidency, suggests that there is a wide part of the people who not only want to manifestly expose what is bad for democracy, but want to attach themselves to it.