Trump-Shock, Resonant Violence and The New Fascism
Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?
Since the U.S. election, daily surges of Trump-shock – awful disorienting blasts – have regularly defied our standard ways of making sense of political life. Something is happening here, indeed. But, each unpredictable wave throws our paradigms into disarray. We are perpetually swept into the wake of an event that scrambles the measures of consistency and inconsistency we desperately try to employ. Trusted weapons of analysis and resistance cannot find their aim fast enough to keep up with the whirlwind.
While the new regime bears important similarities to classic fascism–rapid intensifications of white supremacist nationalism, dismissive attacks on reason, autocratic leadership, deepening entwinements of state and capital, disenfranchisement, the attack on liberal and representative democratic institutions, and the increasingly open right-wing populist violence – this new fascism relies on distinctive dynamics that must be illuminated to move toward understanding – and ultimately transforming – our current condition. To this end, we offer the following theses as a modest, preliminary contribution to a theory of the emerging fascism:
1. Beyond the substantive elements of what is shocking about Trump himself, he is a hyper-intensification of shock politics as such.
Neoliberal shock politics, as described by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine, functions by creating and capitalizing on crises that send shockwaves throughout the polity that disorganize, dismantle and subsequently reorganize lifeways, institutions, and spatio-temporal regularities. While previous shocks have typically had at least the illusion of a substantive character – financial meltdowns, fiscal crises, terrorist threats, natural disasters – Trump-shock manifests more in the very character of the waviness itself, the chaotic aggressively disjointed temporality, of 140 letter pulses, refusing accountability, disavowing predictability, with a serial blast-like character that disorients all who are geared toward ordinary political reasoning and conduct.
The chaos of Trump-shock sends waves of distracting, disorganizing, and dispersing energy through the polity in ways that defract and overload the circuits of critical response to the emergence of an extreme right-wing political regime that will consistently enhance capitalist circulation and vilify difference beyond all bounds. As the regime moves steadily toward the extreme right (a climate change denier takes charge of the EPA, Goldman Sachs steps in to head the Treasury, a multi-billionaire moves to privatize education, and a rabid purveyor of white supremacist hate assumes control of strategy ‘to see what sticks’), minute by minute twitter flares and ‘protocol smashing’ phone calls repeatedly draw away energy and attention. By incessantly provoking frenetic scrambles to react to each appalling new event, Trump-shock disables proactive movement and oppositional initiative.
2. Most fundamentally, Trump unleashes an extreme sovereignty of perpetual disruption, confusion, and contradiction, rather than embodying a power that imposes and is bound to a single order or a coherent, consistent ideology (though his regime surely orders and ideologizes).
We can understand this as a nominalist mode of shock sovereignty that operates through radically disordered ordering, which simultaneously exceeds order and transforms ordering itself. While efficient and formal causalities of state and leader are still highly operative, technologically intensified and diffused modes of resonant causality assume transfigure the fascist machine.
Trump-shock admits of no otherness, not even of himself an eyeblink prior to the present. In that way, Trump exemplifies power as instantaneous event with no stable form. This perpetual hyperspeed exceptioning makes Agamben’s State of Exception seem quaintly stable. Trump-shock is like the sovereignty of William of Ockham’s God, manifested in the fact that he can be bound by no law he had made, even to the point of totally changing the past willy nilly.
In the extremity of Hobbes’ explication, such sovereignty is epitomized in the fact that there can be no law prior to nor uttered by the sovereign to which the sovereign can be held accountable, because law can be none other than the sovereign’s interpretive event at each instant. Hobbes writes: “To him therefore there cannot be any knot in the law insoluble, either by finding out the ends to undo it by, or else by making what ends he will (as Alexander did with his sword in the Gordian knot) by the legislative power; which no other interpreter can do.” (Lev., XXVI) Trump displays this power in an endless series of chaotic tweets, spinning out myriad unpredictable, ephemeral, and contradictory stances.
Analysts and opponents, missing the performativity of this power and the power of this perfomativity, often scurry to measure the veracity of his missives according to traditional frameworks (law, ideologies, empirical facts) – or even their consistency with his own past statements. Thus, for example, when Trump claimed to The New York Times that “the law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest,” pundits jumped to reference U.S. Code, presidential tradition and constitutional law to assess the correctness of the claim. We suggest that the substance of his claim adheres to the nominalist event – the energized sword that Hobbes describes. The affective energies and powers of this event, however, are not missed by those hungering to unleash themselves from all restraints of democratic norms and accountability.
3. The power of nominalist shock functions through a modulation of resonant violence that is ubiquitous and also unaccountable.
The affective energies of this movement of will to power animate significant portions of the polity – particularly on the neo-fascist right. As Trump’s Twitter shocks surge directly into the pockets of over 17,000,000 followers, many are propelled into barrages of raging threats against those he vilifies–directly or indirectly. In this way, the violence of shock-sovereignty exceeds the formal channels of the state (themselves horrifying). For example, when Trump tweets condemnation of a union organizer in Indiana or a woman at a rally, hundreds of threatening communications (including murderous violence) to the targeted follow almost instantaneously.
Just as Trump-shocks come anytime and all the time – these expressions of resonant violence can emerge explosively from anywhere and everywhere. This unpredictable ubiquity is amplified by the intimate relationship between the Trump regime and neo-fascist right-wing media outlets like Breitbart News, which spontaneously launch their own call and response shock waves that vilify, threaten, and enact violence. Rather than being met with condemnation from the president-elect, they resonate with and are amplified by previous and coming 3 a.m. kindred tweets from Trump Tower. In turn, these frequently drive mainstream news cycles that perpetuate the resonance in more subtle and insidious ways.
Operating according to resonant probabilities, these shock waves have a Teflon-like quality in relation to calls for accountability that follow logics of formal and efficient causality, for they come less from a single location and more from resonances among nominalist shocks that move too quickly in and out of being to be caught at rest.
4. This form of power both draws on and transforms what we conceive of as a neoliberal smart political energy grid that has been taking shape in recent decades.
A smart energy grid is one that employs a variety of modes of (political) energy production, transmission, consumption, and blackout in highly flexible and responsive ways to maximize power. No longer relying on a few central nodes of power generation, they work with increasingly interactive forms of energy production to create even and usable flows of power across a wide area. Elemental to the neoliberal grid are mutually amplifying currents between overwhelming episodic energies of political economic shock, on the one hand, and myriad quotidian energies associated with radically inegalitarian circulations of goods, finance, capital, bodies, and media resonances.
Each shock wave simultaneously summons new flows and resonances that maximize capitalist power and profit, energize vitriol, and enhance capacities for future shocks while shutting down impediments to capitalist metastasization. These amplificatory currents are immanently connected with affective currents of fear and rage that both energize and are energized by capitalist intensities – particularly in manifestations of xenophobia, white supremacy, and fundamentalisms that are hostile to reasoning and science. Trump draws on and proliferates these existing flows of power as well as intensities of shock.
As shock politics moves from being episodic to becoming itself quotidian and accompanied by dispersed resonant violence, the neoliberal dynamics are at once amplified and rendered more unstable in ways that may ultimately short-circuit the grid itself with intensities and counter-energies it cannot handle.
5. Efforts to parse truths, reveal contradictions, or selectively negotiate and collaborate with this mode of power are both blind to and disguise what it fundamentally is – a new fascism that exercises and enhances nominalist sovereignty through disordering ordering and hyper-prerogative power.
The Italian term fascismo referred to the fascio littori–a bundle of rods attached to a battle ax symbolizing strength through unity and the bolstered authority of the Roman civic magistrate. In the Twenty-First Century, the ax becomes the chaotically moving nominalist cyber-sword of shock plugged into the neoliberal power grid of circulations and affective resonances, such that even within government all that is solid melts in the air.
In the first weeks of the Trump administration, the nominalist cyber-sword has been quickly turned on the agencies and processes of American government. In this process, chaos is not only a means of dissolving the recalcitrance of other branches of government and agencies but also a principle of governance itself.
Consider the example of the so-called Muslim ban executive order, the “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” order issued January 27, 2017.
Preceding the release of the order, different members of the regime leaked multiple, contradictory versions—sowing seeds of speculation and confusion. Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway even claimed it may never be released. In rolling out the order, Trump did not consult department heads including the very relevant State Department nor did he vet the order with the Office of Legal Counsel. The Department of Homeland Security saw the text of the order only shortly before it was released. In the midst of all this interpretive confusion, the execution of the Order was left largely to the judgement of officers of Customs and Border Protection. What all this begins to show is the extent to which the Trump regime enables, deploys and tolerates a high degree of chaos and unpredictability as a mode of reinventing government. While such mayhem in an earlier moment would be an indication of weakness and disarray, the new fascism operates through disordering-ordering, which simultaneously exceeds order and transforms ordering itself. Nominalist sovereignty seeks to liquify government to the ever-changeable will of the sovereign. In the ceaseless exercise of prerogative power and its chaotic effects, Giorgio Agamben’s notion of the state of exception almost seems quaint. Prerogative power doesn’t quite capture this phenomenon.
Rather, it is a kind of hyper-prerogative power in which each communicative and ordering action intensifies and proliferates a whirlwind of contradictory and confusing qualities that endlessly call forth new exercises of prerogative.
Clearly, radical democratic politics must target the classical manifestations of fascism we noted at the outset. As we do so, a monumental challenge will be imagining how to resist and contest the unprecedented apparatus of surveillance, security, and militarized policing whose potentials have been constructed since 9-11, but whose uses are likely to take countless new and horrifying forms.
Yet, we believe all of this will hinge upon our capacities to counter the shock politics and resonant violence characteristic of the new fascism. This will require engaging in a double politics. On the one hand, we must escalate sustained modes of direct action carefully-targeted to short-circuit the worst aspects of the regime. On the other hand, we must develop a radical democratic politics that shocks in a different way, that overwhelms the unaccountable vitriol of Trump-shock with dramatic engagements and magnetic enactments of receptive solidarity. This will take great creativity among those who oppose Trump and neo-fascism. Stay tuned.
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