Something is awry in the framing of the argument to remove Trump from office.
Advocates of removal have appealed to the Constitution, the framers’ intent (e.g., the Federalist papers), and moral principle. They’re imploring the public, if not GOP Senators, to choose country over party, democracy over authoritarianism, right over wrong.
This all seems perfectly reasonable, even obligatory. But amid the shitstorm of right-wing gaslighting, it’s easy to miss the ultimate ground of their counterclaim: power. The only way to reconcile the plethora of red herrings and surreal kettle logic proffered by Trump’s defenders is to acknowledge that their sole claim is that those with power are entitled to use it as they see fit.
That, after all, is what Trump is “guilty” of doing. Nor has he seriously denied it; his head fakes in the direction of denial have all been overtly insincere. The governing logic of his self-defense has been that of nullification, which is predicated on a tacit pact between the accused and the jury to deploy publicly legitimate but substantively hollow forms of argument as cover for what everyone knows is a crime.
That logic is, according to its critics, precisely the one governing American democracy from the start. From that perspective, appeals to freedom and equality have comprised a cynical ruse all along, used by those in power to justify their position. They have been the threads from which a pernicious veil of ignorance was continually woven, blocking from view an unremitting barrage of brutality and ruthless domination.
So what has changed, now that the veil has been torn off the ghastly physiognomy of power? Isn’t that what we wanted all along? And isn’t it the height of hypocritical naïveté to demand that the veil be put back in place?
The primacy of power has been the “unknown known” which, once known, cannot become unknown again. That is because every appeal to principle thenceforth registers as an attempt to seize power. Which, for the record, it is. The Right is not wrong about that; on the contrary, they are exquisitely attuned to that fact—and only that fact. In a struggle for power, the side which abjures power is destined to lose.
How, then, should we understand the Democrats’ case against Trump? How seriously should we take appeals to democratic and moral principle? Given what we know, those appeals are either naïve, or cynical, or pointless. Or are they? Perhaps they are aimed at future voters, or future generations, in the hope that the current regime can be made to pay, or that history will vindicate us.
Perhaps. Yet such fanciful reassurances presume that the democratic veil is somehow restored—a strange dream for those who aspire to authentic egalitarianism. Worse, they prevent us from confronting the raw but refined reality of power, which is inherently zero-sum. Those in power will not be moved by appeal to a principle devised to dissimulate power’s grip. They have no need of it. In fact, setting fire to the veil is vital to their own popular appeal. Fantasmatic emancipation from the ostensible constraints of democratic principle is the whole point. It is the source of virtually boundless enjoyment. Trump’s supporters don’t want him in office despite his crimes (say, for transactional reasons); they want him there because of them. The spectacle of sovereignty—of unconditional exemption from the law and the principles it encodes—embodies the fantasy of de-sublimation.
From this vantage, we see that beyond enabling and justifying power, the democratic veil actively cultivates the fantasy of de-sublimation. It instills the promise of life without the veil. In effect, the Right’s unapologetic, exuberant rejection of democratic principle perversely manifests the latent content of democracy itself, its “populism.” This is the fantasy of “democracy without (the pretense of) democracy.”