Editor’s Note: This article was written by Ivan Blečić and published on his blog on November 7, 2018. It was later submitted to the Raven ReView for publication.
In his perceptive reading of James Cameron’s 1997 film “Titanic”, Slavoj Žižek neatly illustrates how a catastrophe can save a fantasy, or an ideal. There is a scene in the film, where Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) and Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) make each other a promise of eternal love: “When this ship docks, I’m getting off with you“, Rose says.
That, and not the Titanic going down, Žižek claims, would have been the true catastrophe. Indeed, we can easily imagine how, once in New York, maybe after a few weeks of good sex, this fantasy of pure untainted love would have faded away, crumbling perhaps under the pressure of social expectations, of their objective cultural and social status differences, combined with the dullness after the inevitable loss of novelty and euphoria of falling in love.
This then was the true function of the iceberg sinking the Titanic in the film: a momentous real catastrophe has to happen, so that the fantasy (or the ideal) can live on. (So that Rose can be able to say towards the end of the film: “I promise. I will never let go, Jack. I’ll never let go”, while, in a twisted performative contradiction, she’s literally letting go Jack’s frozen body to sink). A real catastrophe needs to happen in order to save the fantasy from turning into reality, so that the fantasy can survive and persist (otherwise, as Žižek put it elsewhere, when a dream gets realized, it’s called nightmare).
Here’s the analogy with Trump and yesterday’s Republicans’ House debacle [the losing of the House majority in the election].
If we’ve learned something in the last couple of years, it’s that Trump’s popular support is less, if at all, about policy (otherwise, how to account for it after the repeated attempts to repeal some objectively popular provisions of the Obamacare?, or the “tax cut for the rich”?, etc.). Rather, it is more about group identity, about – how should I put this – strengthening in-group bonds and sense of unity and belonging, by means of guiding and fostering a convergence of blame put on a designated guilty party, by designating the culprits, someone to blame and direct the violence against, in other words, by activating a scapegoating mechanism.
The effectiveness of the scapegoat mechanism vis-à-vis policy concerns should all in all not surprise anyone. More than 35 years ago, René Girard wrote, “The scientific spirit cannot come first. It presupposes the renunciation of a former preference for the magical causality of persecution so well defined by the ethnologists. Instead of natural, distant and inaccessible causes, humanity has always preferred causes that are significant from a social perspective and which permit of corrective intervention – victims.” (Girard, The Scapegoat, p. 204)
So, this is how we can paraphrase our Titanic story from the beginning: the very real catastrophe of the Democratic House takeover was needed, so that the fantasy of Trump can be saved, survive and live on. Instead of having no excuse not to deliver with the Republican majority in both chambers of the Congress, once the Democrats take over the House, they can be blamed for all the things not done, for the obstruction of all the imaginable “resolutive initiatives” (or, in a more conspiratorial variant, for feeding the deep state and re-filling the swamp). No matter if those initiatives are real or empty announcements (mid-October middle-class tax cut, anyone?), sensible or fantastic (border wall?), press conferenced of tweeted, truly resolutive or grounded on magical thinking. This is how the Trump fantasy survives and lives on: “if only that iceberg hadn’t struck the ship”; “if it weren’t for the House Democrats, he would have delivered, he would have really made America great again!”
In other words, the briefest possible formula of analogy, in such a phantasmatic economy, would thus be: just as the Titanic disaster didn’t destroy but saved the love, so can the Democratic takeover of the House save Trump.
This again accounts for Trump’s antifragility, essentially because scapegoating is antifragile.
But there’s likely a more ominous prospective to all of this because this “internal blaming”, I predict, will further escalate the political polarization of the American society. Assuming we’ve entered into that Girardian territory I mentioned before, a structural shift can happen when the blame and the (threat of) violence, from being directed outwards (to external enemies, say, foreigners, immigrants, etc.) get directed inward, to the opposite camp within the same political community (thus to internal enemies, say, traitors, or debasers of “our values”, etc.).
There is some of that already going on, but, I predict, the House passing into Democratic hands will not only exacerbate the degree of internal violence, the intensity of this internal confrontation, but will bring about a whole new quality and function to that “within violence” (a new configuration and phase in the sacrificial crisis, to put it in Girard’s terms). Because now, Democrats can objectively be blamed as the obstacle for making the Trump (and Trump’s) fantasy real. And by extension the blame can be put to all those who put Democrats in charge of the House. Now, the other camp can with greater efficiency and effectiveness be employed as a unifying scapegoat. And the fantasy can survive in the only way in which a fantasy can, as a fantasy.
I want to conclude with a small personal half-baked speculation. What is to be done? Again, if we’re in that Girardian territory, how can a real emancipatory politics be imagined? What could it be and look like?
Shortly after that passage I quoted before, Girard writes: “In order to lead men to the patient exploration of natural causes, men must first be turned away from their victims. This can only be done by showing them that from now on persecutors ‘hate without a cause’ and without any appreciable result. In order to achieve this miracle, not only among certain exceptional individuals as in Greece, but for entire populations, there is need of the extraordinary combination of intellectual, moral and religious factors found in the Gospel text.” (Girard, The Scapegoat, p. 205)
Perhaps less ambitiously and less sonorously, there could be envisioned a space of possibility for political action proper by insisting on the revelation of the scapegoating mechanisms whenever and wherever they are operative, by stubbornly insisting that the victims we and others pick are innocent, and that resorting to scapegoating is but the easiest strategy to obtain bonding, unity and meaning of belonging to a community, when there are no strict obligations of reciprocal solidarity in traditional terms (cfr. P. Dumouchel, The Barren Sacrifice: An Essay on Political Violence). And to acknowledge thereafter that, under such conditions, the State can be perhaps the only place possible for such obligations of solidarity to be universalized and granted as a right.
Image: Left: Screenshot from Youtube: “Tears, hugs and dabbing as new Congress sworn in,” by Guardian News. Right: “Donald Trump, August 2019,” via Wikimedia Commons. Available via Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Ivan Blečić is associate professor at the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering and Architecture, University of Cagliari, Italy His research interest are in the fields of urban studies, urban planning, evaluation and urban modelling. In May 2019, he is organizing a research colloquium “Mimetic Theory and the Production of Space” with Paul Dumouchel, at the University of Cagliari.
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