The following is a chapter from Trumpism and its Discontents. Click to download a PDF of the book here.
By Judith Butler
Donald Trump would have us believe that his behavior, his lawbreaking, is just fine, perfect even, and that the House impeachment hearings were a kind of coup. What he has done, he would do again. Indeed, he has already done it again with his open appeal to China to investigate the Bidens and his refusal to comply with the impeachment inquiry. Pundits such as Roger Cohen of the New York Times and Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s short-lived director of communications (whose main achievement in life may be his name), say that all this is a form of madness, speculating that Trump is either carrying out a very public suicide or exhibiting some weird genius for survival. But is it really either/or?
We have wandered into a psychoanalytic wonderland. Elected politicians are supposed to shy away from the prospect of being shamed or found guilty of breaking the law. Yet Trump owns the things he does, not by demonstrating repentance but through a flamboyant display of shamelessness. Some commentators suggest that Trump is trying to anesthetize the public to his wrongdoing or to normalize his actions, but that account cannot address the “genius or suicide” dilemma. One reason psychoanalysis as a form of critique has never been more important than it is today is that we are being asked to contemplate actions that could be either suicidal or a means of triumphant survival. But what if they are both and are both playing out now in the political arena? How are suicide and survival linked in the psychic field we call “Trump”? It is not just that he thinks shameless confession normalizes his crimes and makes possible his triumph in a world in which law and crime have become fatally confused. It is that he seems to regard upholding the law and his oath of office as a form of weakness, convinced as he is that only those who circumvent the law (by evading tax disclosure requirements, by ignoring constitutional constraints on executive power) are smart and powerful enough to prevail. He banks as well on the enthusiastic admiration his base has for those who have the guts to flout the law: such romantic criminals are icons to those who thrill to the fantasy of living above and outside the law, without inhibition or shame.
When commentators speak of Trump’s “death wish,” they are on to something, though maybe not quite what they imagine. The death drive, in Freud, is manifested in actions characterized by compulsive repetition and destructiveness; and though it may be attached to pleasure and excitement, it is not governed by the logic of wish fulfillment. Repetitive action unguided by a wish for pleasure takes distinctive forms: the deterioration of the human organism in its effort to return to a time before individuated life, the nightmarish repetition of traumatic material without resolution, the externalization of destructiveness through potentially murderous behavior. Both suicide and murder are extreme consequences of a death drive left unchecked. The death drive works in fugitive ways and is fundamentally opportunistic: it can be identified only through the phenomena on which it seizes and surfs. It may operate in the midst of moments of radical desire, pleasure, an intense sense of life. But it also operates in moments of triumphalism, the bold demonstration of power or strength, or in states of extreme conviction. Only later, if ever, comes the jolt of realization that what was supposed to be empowering and exciting was in fact serving a more destructive purpose.
There is no need to speculate about Trump’s childhood, or to subscribe to a biological notion of the death drive, to recognize in his public display a compulsion to do himself in or to do in the world that will not let him have his way. Shamelessness is the vector through which the death drive works. If he is not shamed by the accusations against him, they do not “work,” and the accusations become fainter and weaker, less and less audible in the public sphere. At the same time, on display for the world to see, Trump’s repeated and compulsive defiance of shame and rejection shows just how imperiling those specters are for him. Yes, he comes off as someone whose main aim is to show that he is proud and triumphant and innocent in the face of every accusation of incapacity, criminality, and unethical conduct; the law will have no power over him. But that coin can flip. For Trump’s power as a lawbreaker relies on the persistence of law, and if he succeeds in destroying all sense of law by erasing the distinction between criminal and legal actions, his power also vanishes. In other words, he needs law in order to become the monomaniacal lawbreaker he seeks to be. And to the extent that he needs the law, he reproduces it as the very condition of his reckless, lawless triumphalism. Yet even this dialectical twist is not the end of the story.
Invoking the law and the criminality of his enemies is one of Trump’s favorite tactics: he knows its power. “Lock her up!” he still encourages his supporters to chant about Hillary Clinton, and now he can be heard suggesting that Joe Biden deserves the electric chair. The detention centers on the southern border of the United States, too, represent a criminal and life-destroying instantiation of legal power. Notoriously, he claimed in 2016 he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and still win the election. Immunity from the law has become the very definition of power, and so the loss of immunity would be his demise. His belief that only those who can escape the law survive is demonstrated by his appeal to China to investigate the Bidens—a rhetorical repetition of the crime of which he was accused in relation to Ukraine. And yet, although Trump’s ostensible power is displayed by a willingness to act despite and against the law, the law is now belatedly rearing its head, asking him to turn over tapes and documents, seeking to hold him accountable. In refusing to acknowledge the power that the law holds over him, he is setting himself up as a target of the chant he started: “Lock him up!”
Of course, Trump’s survival has depended on a swarm of lawyers constantly doing his bidding in court, but that is one of the milder paradoxes of his traffic with the law. Perhaps the most important has become more clearly visible recently. As members of the House of Representatives considered impeachment, Trump was actively piling up evidence for them in the media even as he refused to turn any requested material over to them officially in fulfillment of his legal obligations. He is standing on Fifth Avenue—but is the gun pointed at an enemy or at himself? Or both?
If he does finally get taken down, escorted by federal guards from the White House or, after he has left office, extracted from Mar-a-Lago or from one Trump property or another, he doubtlessly will be spewing accusations and insults as he goes. He will try to destroy in the course of being destroyed. But for him, it will be the scene of a lifetime, a raging battle to determine who delivers the final judgment against whom.
Was the Trump regime always meant to end this way? Maybe. His base is taken by the drama of the reckless sovereign, the ultimate representative of state power living shamelessly outside the law. It is a manic escapade, a mythological thriller in which the ruler who declares his “great and unmatched wisdom” threatens the destruction of the Turkish economy days before he unleashes the Turks on the Kurds. The rhetoric would be laughable if the consequences were not so murderous.
At best, a lethal joke is being played out here as the sovereign pumps up his destructive powers on the eve of his exposure and legal capture. By continuing to unleash rhetorical utterances that confirm all that the investigators need in order to impeach him while refusing to yield to the impeachment proceedings, he manically proves that he is above and outside the law even as he seals the legal judgment against him. The shameful “end” is what he fends off and solicits at the same time: getting shamed is not what he wants, yet he moves compulsively in that direction. Here mania takes the form of an unrelenting fight, an obsessional pursuit of his enemies, a limitless self-aggrandizement, his weaponized messages fired out into the world as a barrage of daily tweets, kept going at all costs—because what would happen if he stopped? How odd that Trump may well give us back the law as he is forced to submit to the law and go down: Will he then become, even if only in his demise, the lawgiver? The price he would pay might well be prison, an infinity of shame waiting for him at the end of the road.
I have offered no more than a dream sequence of my own. It may be that shame and guilt have suffused all he has ever felt. The jury is out. My wager/dream is that he would rather die than pause to feel the shame that passes through him and is externalized as destruction and rage. If he ever registers shame, it may be only in that briefest moment just as it turns outward, to be expelled into the world around him. It can never properly be lived as his own because his psychic structure is built to block it—a gigantic task. If in the end shame ever turns back on him, it would—according to the rules of his psychic playbook—be a suicidal submission. Expect, then, a very long and loud howl as he launches a climactic accusation against the whole world. Let us hope that by then he has been deprived of his access to military power.