Trump, Sanders & The Violence of Idealism

With the classic Beatles’ track “Revolution 1,” John Lennon, famously (and controversially) sends a mixed message about his support for violent revolutionary activity.  “If you’re talking about destruction yeah, don’t you know that you can count me out… in,” he sings.  Aside from being a prime example of Lennon as proto-punk, I think this juxtaposition says much about the nature of far-left politics.  In short, it suggests that political idealism, especially of the far-left variety, always contains an element of violence.  Relating this to current US politics, the question becomes, will Bernie Sanders supporters embrace this violence and vote for Donald Trump?

As I’ve written about before on this blog, all human activity takes place in the shadow of ideals— visions, however vague, of the way the world should be.  Those who profess radical political beliefs are particularly intimate with their ideals.  Ideals though, by their very definition, are situated in opposition to the world of actually existing human affairs.  This means that to embrace an ideal fully, to long for it and work towards its realization in the manner of a true radical, is to wish for the destruction of the actually existing.  After all, the real and the ideal can’t exist alongside each other.  One must give way.

So some level of violence is inherent in all idealism.  Likewise, on a practical level, a cursory review of the historical record reveals that indeed all (or nearly all) instances of revolutionary change are occasioned by destruction.  That the failure of the old is necessary for the new isn’t a particularly novel idea.  It terms of human psychology, it makes sense that things must get really bad before people embrace new options.  Simply put, if the old system is working, you’re not going to get revolutionary change.

This brings us to current state of US politics.  Imagine you’re an idealistic Bernie supporter (or maybe you actually are).  You look at the world and see inequality and oppression.  Things are bad.  Unfortunately, as the outcome of the Democratic primary shows, most people do not think things are bad enough to require revolution.  Instead, they demand only a tepid incrementalism, a politics which leaves the current elites, and the system by which they benefit, in place.  In short, the majority of the population is still tied to the real, thereby rejecting the ideal (they can’t exist together, remember)

So what has to happen for the majority to embrace a (leftist) ideal?  The answer, unfortunately for most happy-go-lucky idealists, is destruction.  For radical political change to occur, the system must utterly fail.  The real world must be shown to be degraded, incapable of supporting human flourishing.  In short, for things to get better, things have to get much, much worse.

According to the this logic, we can see how a far-left Bernie supporter could make a rational case for voting for Donald Trump.  As numerous experts have opined, a Trump presidency would be an unmitigated disaster.  The economy would collapse, international relations would fray.  By all indications a lot of people would get hurt, yes.  I’d like to suggest though that this violence—this unmitigated human suffering—is part of the logic of the ideal.  A Trump presidency, by this thinking, is desirable simply because it would be so terrible.

Of course, much radical literature supports my claim.  Mao and Stalin (and ISIS and Al-Qaeda for that matter) recognize that the road to utopia starts with instability, with destruction.  John Lennon knew it too.  In the end though, he backed away from the ideal, choosing to live in the real world.  Like him, Bernie holdouts must make a choice: the violence of the ideal or the (slightly less intense) violence of the real.  I hope the above makes clear the necessity of that choice.

Urban Cowboy and the Tyranny of the Ideal

Like some doomed, mythological seafarer, humans are fated to forever ply the waters between the real and the ideal. How we do this– how we conceive the relationship between what is good and what is possible– goes to the very heart of ethics. Let’s turn to (the Sunday afternoon basic cable) canon to shine some light on this issue.

The characters in 1980’s Urban Cowboy labor under the sign of the “real cowboy.” This is the ideal which Bud (John Travolta) aspires to embody and Sissy (Debra Winger) aspires to sexually and romantically possess. What constitutes the real cowboy remains unformed; like all ideals it exists only as an opaque network of affect-laden signifiers (a real cowboy = large hat, masculine aggression, ability to two step and ride a mechanical bull, etc). Despite this vagueness though, the idea of the real cowboy exerts great sway over the characters’ lives. It in essence drives the plot of the movie.

As a pragmatist, my domain is lived reality, that which comes to us within the flux of embodied experience. The “real cowboy” doesn’t fit within this category. You can’t touch or taste him. That doesn’t mean he’s not real in a pragmatic sense though. Ideals, whether the real cowboy or freedom or justice or Jesus, provide reference points by which we determine value. Sissy, for example, judges Bud against this standard. This is of course not a rational or systematic process; again, affect is key. But by guiding our behavior, ideals do have material impact.

It’s important to keep in mind the relationship between the ideal and the real though. Every ideal contains what Slavoj Zizek would label an “irrational excess.” This emerges in the form of a colonizing impulse. In other words, every ideal is innately destructive, seeking to destroy and remake everyday existence.

In Urban Cowboy, the destructive nature of the ideal is vividly exemplified by the character of Wes. After Sissy, in pursuit of her real cowboy, marries Bud, Wes (Scott Glen) appears on the scene. He’s an ex-con, capable of riding a real bull and engaging in an exponentially greater degree of masculine violence than Bud. Wes, it appears, is the real cowboy Sissy has sought. Of course she takes up with him, making plans to run off to Mexico together.

Wes– with his intensity and scars and psychopathic behavior– perfectly embodies the ideal ideal. He is an agent of disruption, destruction. His desire knows no bounds and the extent to which he will go to fulfill that desire knows no limit. He is the caliphate or Marxist utopia or “greatness” Donald Trump wants America to achieve. He is pure excess.

So how should we deal with Wes? It seems that one way is by refusing to fetishize him. We need to recognize that the ideal is not, and cannot be, real in the sense that Bud and Sissy’s (awesomely sexy) bodies are real. He’s an affective abstraction– a bundle of desires– and those desires, we must recognize, can and should be constantly reworked in response to our everyday lives. We can’t let our psychopathic ideals push us over the cliff, in other words.

So do Sissy and Bud manage to rein in the tyrannical excess represented by Wes? Unfortunately, I would say that they do not. Toward the end of the film Bud wins Sissy back by proving himself more adept at riding the mechanical bull than Wes, in essence supplanting the latter’s position as the living embodiment of the real cowboy. The ideal itself remains unchallenged though. This, I would argue, represents an ethical failure on the part of Bud and Sissy. Though Wes as a man is defeated, the irrational excess he embodies is left free to terrorize the honky-tonk.