The Trump Event

Alain Badiou’s work is both needlessly obscure and rather appalling. But the gist is that he argues for an ethics and politics of what he calls “the Event,” which is a kind of rupture in the normal run of things. The paradigmatic instance of an Event, in his view, is falling in love. He has in mind the kind of “lightning strike” some people may experience, which completely transforms their sense of who they are and how their life is to be lived. (This is not so secretly modeled on a version of Christianity, wherein the convert is happy to sacrifice all earthly satisfactions (which the stroke of faith suddenly reveals as false or inadequate—so is it really a sacrifice?) in favor of the Ultimate Satisfaction found in unconditional identification with a transcendental reality.) Crucially, for Badiou, one only becomes a genuine human being (or “subject”) by way of such an Event. Once in love, one “keeps the faith” by allowing oneself to remain possessed by its alien(ating) force.

The same sort of thing is allegedly possible in science (e.g., Copernicus or Galileo) and art (e.g., Picasso). A scientific paradigm shift or a radical aesthetic innovation retroactively reorganizes the basic coordinates of the entire domain, transforming the very meaning and purpose of the activity.

Politically, Badiou has the unmitigated gall to identify the Event with revolution, and especially the communist variety. Among other things, this means that there is no politics outside of such Events; what we do the rest of the time is just ideological conformity. Most importantly, it means that the Event “is a “possibility in the name of which you act,” or “an elevation to a different order” that we experience as upheaval, disruption and disorientation. It is literally impossible to anticipate where the Event may lead us, and this is what demands our fidelity to its Truth.

For some inexplicable reason, Badiou just assumes that the unconditional freedom introduced by revolution is a good in itself, no matter the outcome. Mao is as good as Gandhi. And in fact, Badiou is highly complimentary of Mao in particular.

The parallel to Trumpism is not hard to see. Perhaps the clearest and most important sign that Trump is an Event in Badiou’s sense is the obsessively expressed puzzlement concerning the stark contrast between what conservative voters and politicians long claimed to believe before Trump’s campaign and their unyielding support for him in the wake of his election. Enormous quantities of digital ink and airtime have been spent on versions of this question: Has Trump revealed what the conservative movement and/or the Republican party have always been, or does he represent a new direction for them?

The question is badly put but, from Badiou’s perspective, inevitably so. Understood as an Event, Trumpism is both new and revelatory; it consists precisely in abolishing the distinction between its historical precedents and its ongoing manifestation. As an Event, it retroactively transforms the historical development leading up to it. And through this Event, the right appears in a wholly new light, discontinuous with itself yet somehow always destined to arrive at Trump.

This is why Trump supporters are unconditionally committed to his Presidency. Their very subjectivity is predicated on its advent. It simply no longer relies on or responds to the erstwhile coordinates of the symbolic order. Every element of that order henceforth acquires a new meaning, from “democracy” to “Christianity.” So it is no longer a question of consistency with prior ideological commitments, or hypocrisy, or exposure of some deeper truth (e.g., white supremacy, patriarchy) concealed by those commitments. Instead, for his supporters it is literally true that “everything is different now,” on account of the Trump Event. They are new people, in much the way Paul ceased to be Saul of Tarsus upon the Event of his conversion.

All of which reveals a disturbing dimension of Badiou’s politics. Not only is it incapable of discriminating between emancipatory/egalitarian and oppressive/tyrannical events, but it seems rather powerfully to side with the latter. One need not think too hard to discern the ideological valence of Christian conversion; after all, the promise of infinite heavenly reward was used for centuries to legitimate brutal earthly sacrifice.

But the issue is not whether Badiou’s theory is coherent or correct. After all, it could be that the only durable, just and satisfying form of political association requires a Hobbesian Leviathan or its functional equivalent. What troubles me is that to accept Badiou’s theory is to conclude that disasters like Trumpism must be granted the same dignity as the founding of a democratic or communist society. Which is to say that if Badiou is in fact right, I’d rather be wrong.


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