Olivier Jutel – Donald Trump’s Libidinal Entanglement with Liberalism and Affective Media Power

love of trump

by Olivier Jutel


This essay has been peer-reviewed by the b2o editorial board


The emergence of Donald Trump as president of the United States has defied all normative liberal notions of politics and meritocracy. The decorum of American politics has been shattered by a rhetorical recklessness that includes overt racism, misogyny, conspiracy and support for political violence. Where the Republican Party, Fox News, Beltway think-tanks and the Koch brothers have managed their populist base through dog-whistling and culture wars, Trump promises his supporters the chance to destroy the elite who prevent them from going to the end in their fantasies. He has catapulted into the national discourse a mixture of paleo-conservatism and white nationalism recently sequestered to the fringes of American politics or to regional populisms. Attempts by journalists and politicians during the campaign to fact-check, debunk and shame Trump proved utterly futile or counter-productive. He revels in transgressing the rules of the game and is immune to the discipline of his party, the establishment and journalistic notions of truth-telling. Trump destabilizes the values of journalism as it is torn between covering the ratings bonanza of his spectacle and re-articulating its role in defence of liberal democracy. I argue here that Trump epitomizes the populist politics of enjoyment. Additionally liberalism and its institutions, such as journalism, are libidinally entangled in this populist muck. Trump is not simply a media-savvy showman: he embodies the centrality of affect and enjoyment to contemporary political identity and media consumption. He wields affective media power, drawing on an audience movement of free labour and affective intensity to defy the strictures of professional fields.

Populism is here understood in psychoanalytic terms as a politics of antagonism and enjoyment. The rhetorical division of society between an organic people and its enemy is a defining feature of theoretical accounts of populism (Canovan 1999). Trump invokes a universal American people besieged by a rapacious enemy. His appeals to “America” function as a fantasy of social wholeness in which the country exists free of the menace of globalists, terrorists and political correctness. This antagonism is not simply a matter of rhetorical style but a necessary precondition for the Lacanian political “subject of enjoyment” (Glynos and Stavrakakis 2008: 257). Trump is an agent of obscene transgressive enjoyment, what Lacan calls jouissance, whether in vilifying immigrants, humiliating Jeb Bush, showing off his garish lifestyle or disparaging women. The ideological content of Trump’s program is secondary to its libidinal rewards or may function as one and the same. It is in this way that Trump can play the contradictory roles of blood-thirsty isolationist and tax-dodging populist billionaire.

Psychoanalytic theory differs from pathology critiques of populism in treating it as a symptom of contemporary liberal democracy rather than simply a deviation from its normative principles. Drawing on the work of Laclau (2005), Mouffe (2005) and Žižek (2008), Trump’s populism is understood as the ontologically necessary return of antagonism, whether experienced in racial, nationalist or economic terms, in response to contemporary liberalism’s technocratic turn. The political and journalistic class’s exaltation of compromise, depoliticization and policy-wonks are met with Trump promises to ‘fire’ elites and his professed ‘love’ of the ‘poorly educated’. Trump’s attacks on the liberal class enmeshes them in a libidinal deadlock in that both require the other to enjoy. Trump animates the negative anti-fascism that the liberal professional classes enjoy as their identity while simultaneously creating the professional class solidarity which animates populist fantasies of the puppet-masters’ globalist conspiracy. In response to Trump’s improbable successes the Clinton campaign and liberal journalism appealed to rationalism, facts and process in order to reaffirm a sense of identity in this traumatic confrontation with populism.

Trump’s ability to harness the political and libidinal energies of enjoyment and antagonism is not simply the result of some political acumen but of his embodiment of the values of affective media. The affective and emotional labour of audiences and users is central to all media in today’s “communicative capitalism” (Dean 2009). Media prosumption, or the sharing and production of content/data, is dependent upon new media discourses of empowerment, entrepreneurialism and critical political potential. Fox News and the Tea Party were early exemplars of the way in which corporate media can utilize affective and politicized social media spaces for branding (Jutel 2013). Trump is an affective media entrepreneur par excellence able to wrest these energies of enjoyment and antagonism from Fox and the Republican party. He operates across the field whether narcissistically tweeting, appearing on Meet the Press in his private jet or as a guest on Alex Jones’ Info Wars. Trump is a product of “mediatiaztion” (Strömbäck and Dimitrova 2011), that is the increasing importance of media across politics and all social fields but the diminution of liberal journalism’s cultural authority and values. As an engrossing spectacle Trump pulls the liberal field of journalism to its economic pole of valorization (Benson 1999) leaving its cultural values of a universal public or truth-telling isolated as elitist. In wielding this affective media power against the traditional disciplines of journalism and politics, he is analogous to the ego-ideal of communicative capitalism. He publicly performs a brand identity of enjoyment and opportunism for indeterminate economic and political ends.

The success of Trump has not simply revealed the frailties of journalism and liberal political institutions, it undermines popular and academic discourses about the political potential of social/affective media. The optimism around new forms of social media range from the liberal fetishization of data and process, to left theories in which affect can reconstitute a democratic public (Papacharissi 2015). Where the political impact of social media was once synonymous with Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring and direct democracy we must now add Donald Trump’s populism and the so-called ‘alt-right’. While Trump’s politics are thoroughly retrograde, his campaign embodies what is ‘new’ in the formulation of new media politics. Trump’s campaign was based on a thoroughly mediatized constituency with very little ground game or traditional political machinery, relying on free media coverage and the labour of social media users. Trump’s campaign is fuelled by ‘the lulz’ which translates as the jouissance of hacker nerd culture synonymous with the “weird Internet” of Twitter, 4-Chan and message boards. For Trump’s online alt-right army he is a paternal figure of enjoyment, “Daddy Trump” (Yiannopoulos 2016), elevating ritualized transgression to the highest reaches of politics. Trump’s populism is a pure politics of jouissance realized in and through the affective media.

Populism and Enjoyment

The value of an obscene figure like Donald Trump is that he demonstrates a libidinal truth about right wing populist identity. It has become a media cliché to describe Donald Trump as the id of the Republican party. And while Trump is a uniquely outrageous figure of sexual insecurity, vulgarity and perversion, the insights of psychoanalytic theory extend far beyond his personal pathologies.[1] It should be stated that this psychoanalytic reading is not a singular explanation for Trump’s electoral success over and above racism, Clinton’s shockingly poor performance (Dovere 2016), a depressed Democratic turnout, voter suppression and the electoral college. Rather this is an analysis which considers how Trump’s incoherence and vulgarity, which are anathema to normative liberal politics, ‘work’ at the level of symbolic efficiency.

The election of Trump has seemingly universalized a liberal struggle against the backward forces of populism. What this ‘crisis of liberalism’ elides is the manner in which populism and liberalism are libidinally entangled. Psychoanalytic political theory holds that the populist logics of antagonism, enjoyment and jouissance are not the pathological outside of democracy but its repressed symptoms, what Arditi borrowing from Freud calls “internal foreign territory” (2005: 89). The explosion of emotion and anger which has accompanied Trump and other Republican populists is a return of antagonism suppressed in neoliberalism’s “post-political vision” (Mouffe 2005: 48). In response to the politics of consensus, rationalism and technocracy, embodied by Barack Obama and Clinton, populism expresses the ontological necessity of antagonism in political identity (Laclau 2005). Whether in left formulations of the people vs the 1% or the nationalism of right wing populism, the act of defining an exceptional people against an enemy represents “political logic tout court” (Laclau: 229). The opposition of a people against its enemy is not just a rhetorical strategy commonly defined as the populist style (Moffitt 2016), it is part of the libidinal reward structure of populism.

The relationship between antagonism and enjoyment is central to the psychoanalytic political theory approach to populism employed by Laclau, Žižek, Stavrakakis and Mouffe. The populist subject is the psychoanalytic “subject of enjoyment” (Glynos & Stavrakakis:  257) shaped by trauma, irrational drives and desires. Populist ontology is analogous to Lacanian “symbolic castration” in which the child’s failure to fulfill a phallic role for the mother “allows the subject to enter the symbolic order” (Žižek 1997: 17). Populism embodies this fundamental antagonism and sense of lost enjoyment. Populist identity and discourse are the perpetually incomplete process of recapturing this primordial wholeness of mother’s breast and child. It is in this way that Trump’s ‘America’ and the quest to ‘Make America Great Again’ is not a political project built on policy, but an affective and libidinal appeal to the lost enjoyment of a wholly reconciled America. America stands in as an empty signifier able to embody a sub-urban community ideal, military strength or the melding of Christianity and capitalism, depending upon the affective investments of followers.

In the populist politics of lost enjoyment there is a full libidinal identification with the lost object (America/breast) that produces jouissance. Jouissance can be thought of as a visceral enjoyment which that defies language as in Barthes’ (1973) notion of jouissance as bliss. It is distinct from a discrete pleasure as it represents an “ecstatic release” and transgressive “absolute pleasure undiluted” by the compromises with societal constraints (Johnston 2002). Jouissance is an unstable excess, it cannot exist without already being lost. ‘America’ as imagined by Trump has never existed and “can only incarnate enjoyment insofar as it is lacking; as soon we get hold of it all its mystique evaporates!” (Stavrakakis 2007: 78). However this very failure produces an incessant drive and “desire structured around the unending quest for the lost, impossible jouissance” (Glynos and Stavrakakis: 261). Donald Trump may have won the White House but it is unclear whether American greatness has been restored, delayed or thwarted, as is the nature jouissance. The Trump campaign and presidency embodies jouissance as “pleasure in displeasure, satisfaction in dissatisfaction” (Stavrakakis: 78). With a dismal approval rating and disinterest in governing Trump has taken to staging rallies in order to rekindle this politics of jouissance. However the pleasure generated during the campaign has been lost. Matt Taibbi described the diminishing returns of jouissance among even his most devoted followers who turn out “for the old standards” like “lock her [Clinton] up” (2017) and are instead subjected to a narcissistic litany of personal grievances.

The coalescence of libidinal energy into a populist movement depends on what Laclau calls an affective investment (2005) in a ‘people’ whose enjoyment is threatened. The shared affective experience of enjoyment in being part of the people is more important than any essential ideological content. In populist ontology ‘the people’ is a potent signifier for an organic virtue and political subjectivity that is seemingly pure. From Thomas Jefferson’s ode to the yeoman farmer, the Tea Party’s invocation of the producerist tradition and the humanism of Bernie Sanders[2] there is a belief in the people as the redeemer of politics. However for Laclau this people is always negatively defined by an antagonistic enemy, whether “mobs in the city” (Jefferson 1975: 216), liberal government, Wall Street or ‘Globalists.’ Trump’s promise to make America great again is at once destiny by virtue of the people’s greatness, but is continually threatened by the hand of some corrupting and typically racialized agent (the liberal media, George Soros, China or Black Lives Matter). In this way Trump supporters ‘enjoy’ their failure in that it secures an embattled identity, allows them to transgress civic norms and preserve the illusory promise of America.

Within the field of Lacanian political theory there is rift between a post-Marxist anti-essentialism (Lacalau, 2005, Mouffe, 2005) which simply sees populism as the face of the political, and a Lacanian Marxism which retains a left-political ethic as the horizon of emancipatory politics (Žižek, 2008, Dean, 2009). With the ascent of populism from the margins to the highest seat of power it is essential to recognize what Žižek describes as the ultimate proto-fascist logic of populism (Žižek, 2008). In order to enjoy being of the people, the enemy of populism is libidinally constructed and “reified into a positive ontological entity…whose annihilation would restore balance and justice” (Žižek 2008: 278). At its zenith populism’s enemy is analogous to the construct of the Jew in anti-semitism as a rapacious, contradictory, over-determined evil that is defined by excessive enjoyment. Following Lacan’s thesis that enjoyment always belongs to the other, populist identity requires a rapacious other “who is stealing social jouissance from us” (Žižek 1997: 43). This might be the excessive enjoyment of the Davos, Bohemian Grove and ‘limousine-liberal’ elite, or the welfare recipients, from bankers, immigrants and the poor, who ‘enjoy’ the people’s hard earned tax dollars. For the populists enjoyment is a sense of being besieged which licenses a brutal dehumanization of the enemy and throws the populist into an self-fecund conspiratorial drive to discover and enjoy the enemy’s depravity. Alex Jones and Glenn Beck have been key figures on the populist right (Jutel 2017) in channelling this drive and reproducing the tropes of anti-semitism in uncovering the ‘globalist’ plot. In classic paranoid style (Hofstader 1965), this elite is often depicted as occultist[3] and in league with the lumpen-proletariat to destroy the people’s order.

Trump brings a people into being around his brand and successful presidential in personifying this populist jouissance. He is able to overcome his innumerable contradictions and pull together disparate strands of the populist right, from libertarians, evangelicals, and paleo-conservatives to white nationalists, through the logic of jouissance. The historically high levels at which evangelicals supported the libertine Trump (Bailey 2016) were ideologically incongruous. However the structure of belief and enjoyment; a virtuous people threatened by the excessive enjoyment of transgender rights, abortion and gay marriage, is analogous. The libidinal truth of their beliefs is the ability to enjoy losing the culture wars and lash out at the enemy. Trump is able to rail against the elite not in spite of his gaudy billionaire lifestyle but because of it. As Mudde explains, populism is not a left politics of reflexivity and transformation aimed at “chang[ing] the people themselves, but rather their status within the political system” (2004: 547). He speaks to the libidinal truth of oligarchy and allows his followers to imagine themselves wielding the power of the system against the elite (as also suggested by Grusin 2017, especially 91-92, on Trump’s “evil mediation”). When he appeared on stage with his Republican rivals and declared that he had given all of them campaign contributions as an investment, it was not an admission of culpability but a display of potency. There is a vicarious enjoyment when he boasts as the people’s plutocrat “when they [politicians] call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them…I call them, and they are there for me” (Fang 2016).

Populist politics is not a means to a specific policy vision but enjoyment as its own end, even if Trump’s avarice runs counter to the people’s rational self-interest. The lashing out at women and immigrants, the humiliation of Jeb Bush, telling Chris Christie to ‘get on the plane’, the call to imprison Hillary Clinton, all offer a release of jouissance and the promise to claim state power in the name of jouissance. When he attacks Fox News, the Republican party and its donors he is betraying powerful ideological allies for the principle of jouissance and the people’s ability to go to the end in their enjoyment. The cascading scandals that marked his campaign (boasting of sexual assault, tax-dodging etc) and provoked endless outrage among political and media elites, function in a similar way. Whatever moral failings it marks him as unrestrained by the prohibitions that govern social and political behaviour.

In this sense Trump’s supporters are invested in him as the ego-ideal of the people, who will ‘Make America Great Again’ by licensing jouissance and whose corruption is on behalf of the people. In his classic study of authoritarianism and crowds, Freud describes the people as having elevated “the same object in the place of their ego ideal and have consequently identified themselves with one another in their ego” (1949: 80). Trump functions in this role not simply as a figure of obscene opulence and licentiousness but in a paternalistic role among his followers. His speeches are suffused with both intolerance and professions of love and solidarity with the populist trope of the forgotten man, however disingenuous (Parenti 2016). Freud’s theory of the leader has rightly been criticized as reducing the indeterminacy of crowds to simply a singular Oedipal relation (Dean 2016). However against Freud’s original formulation Trump is not the primordial father ruling a group “that wishes to be governed by unrestricted force” (Freud: 99) but rather he is the neoliberal super-ego of enjoyment “enjoining us to go right to the end” (Žižek 2006: 310) in our desires. This libidinal underside is the truth of what Lakoff (2016) identifies as the “strict father” archetype of conservatism. Rather than the rigid moral frame Lakoff suggests subjects, this obscene father allows unrestrained transgression allowing one to “say things prohibited by political correctness, even hate, fight, kill and rape” (Žižek 1999: 6). Milo Yiannopolous’ designation of Trump as the ‘Daddy’ of the alt-right perfectly captures his role as the permissive paternal agent of jouissance.

In an individuated polity Trump’s movement sans party achieves what can be described as a coalescence of individual affective investments. Where Freud supposes a totalizing paternal figure, Trump does not require full identification and a subsumption of ego to function as a super-ego ideal. This is the way to understand Trump’s free-form braggadocio on the campaign trail. He offers followers a range of affective points of identification allowing them to cling to nuggets of xenophobia, isolationism, misogyny, militarism, racism and/or anti-elitism. One can disregard the contradictions and accept his hypocrisies, prejudices, poor impulse control and moral failings so long as one is faithful to enjoyment as a political principle.

The Liberal/Populist Libidinal Entanglement

In order to understand the libidinal entanglement of liberalism and populism, as embodied in the contest between Trump and Clinton, it is necessary to consider liberalism’s conception of the political. Historical contingency has made liberalism a confused term in American political discourse simultaneously representing the classical liberalism of America’s founding, progressive-era reformism, New Deal social-democracy, the New Left and Third Way neo-liberalism. The term embodies the contradiction of liberalism identified by CB MacPherson as between the progressive fight to expand civil rights and simply the limited democracy of a capitalist market society (1977). The conflation of liberalism and the left has occurred in the absence of a US labour party and it has allowed Third Way neo-liberals to efface the contribution of 19th century populists, social-democrats and communists to progressive victories. The fractious nature of the 2016 Democratic primary process where the Democratic Party machinery and liberal media organs overwhelming supported Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders and a youthful base openly identifying as “socialist”, has laid bare the conflation of liberalism and the left. In this way it makes sense to speak of liberalism and neoliberalism interchangeably in contemporary American politics.

Liberal politics disavows the central premise of psychoanalytic theory, that political identity is based on antagonism and enjoyment. Mouffe (2005) describes its vision of politics as process-oriented with dialogue and rational deliberation between self-interested parties in search of true consensus. And while the process may not be seemly there are no ontological obstacles to consensus merely empirical blockages. One can see this in Hillary Clinton’s elevation of the ‘national conversation’ as an end in and of itself (McWhorter 2016). While this may contribute to a democratic culture which foregrounds journalism and ‘the discourse’, it presents politics, not as the antagonistic struggle to distribute power, access and resources, but simply as the process of gaining understanding through rational dialogue. This was demonstrable in the Clinton campaign’s strategy to rebuff Trump’s rhetorical recklessness with an appeal to facts, moderation[4] and compromise. With the neoliberal diminution of collective identities and mass vehicles for politics, the role of politics becomes technocratic administration to expand individual rights as broadly as possible. Antagonism is replaced with “a multiplicity of ‘sub-political’ struggles about a variety of ‘life issues’ which can dealt with through dialogue” (Mouffe: 50). It is in this way that we can understand Clinton’s performance of progressive identity politics, particularly on social media,[5] while being buttressed by finance capital and Silicon Valley.

The Trump presidency does not simply obliterate post-politics, it demonstrates how populism, liberalism and the journalistic field are libidinally entangled. They require one another as the other in order to make enjoyment in political identity possible. The journalist Thomas Frank has identified in the Democrats a shift in the mid-1970s, from a party of labour to highly-educated professionals and with it a fetishization of complexity and process (2016a). The lauding of expertise as depoliticized rational progress produces a self-replicating drive and enjoyment as one can always have more facts, compromise and dialogue. In this reverence for process the neoliberal democrats can imagine and enjoy the transcendence of the political. Liberal journalism’s new turn to data and wonk-centric didacticism, embodied in the work of Nate Silver and in the online publication Vox, represents this notion of post-politics and process as enjoyment. Process then becomes the “attempt to cover over [a] constitutive lack…through continuous identificatory acts aiming to re-institute an identity” (Glynos and Stavrakakis: 261). For neo-liberal Democrats process is a fetish object through which they are fulfilled in their identity.

However try as they might liberals cannot escape their opponent and the political as a result of the inter-subjective dimensions of enjoyment. Those outside the dialogic process are seen as “old-fashioned ‘traditionalists’ or, more worryingly, the ‘fundamentalists’ fighting a backward struggle against the forces of progress” (Mouffe: 50). Where liberalism sees Trump as a dangerous xenophobe/fundamentalist, Bernie Sanders functions as a traditionalist clinging to an antagonistic political discourse and a universalist project (social democracy). Sanders’ universalism was widely criticized as undermining particular identity struggles with Clinton chiding him that ‘Breaking up the banks won’t end racism’. Thomas Frank systematically tracked the response of the Washington Post editorial page to the Sanders campaign for Harper’s Magazine and detailed a near unanimous “chorus of denunciation” of Sanders’ social democracy as politically “inadmissible” (2016b).

The extent of the liberal/populist co-dependency was revealed in a Clinton campaign memo outlining the “Pied-Piper” strategy to elevate Trump during the Republican primary as it was assumed that he would be easier to beat than moderates Rubio and Bush (Debenedetti 2016). For liberalism these retrograde forces of the political provide enjoyment, virtue and an identity of opposing radicals from all sides, even as populism continues to make dramatic advances. The contradiction of this libidinal entanglement is that the more populism surges the more democrats are able to enjoy this negative and reactive identity of both principled anti-fascism and a cultural sophistication in mocking the traditionalists. The genre of Daily Show late night comedy, which has been widely praised as a new journalistic ideal (Baym 2010), typifies this liberal enjoyment[6] with populists called out for hypocrisy or ‘eviscerated’ by this hybrid of comedy and rational exposition. Notably John Oliver’s show launched the ‘Drumpf’ meme which was meant to both mock Trump’s grandiosity and point out the hypocrisy of his xenophobia. What the nightly ‘skewering’ of Trump by SNL, The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s Tonight Show achieves is the incessant reproduction of identity, widely shared on social media and other liberals sites like Huffington Post, that allows liberals an enjoyment of cultural sophistication in defeat.

Immediately after the election of Trump SNL made a bizarre admission of this liberal over-identification with its negative identity. Kate McKinnon, who impersonated Hillary Clinton on SNL, began the show in character as Clinton while performing the late Leonard Cohen’s sombre ballad ‘Hallelujah’. Here the satirical character meant to provide the enjoyment of an ironic distance from political reality speaks for an overwrought full identification with liberalism through the cultural politics of late night comedy providing liberals what Rolling Stone called ‘catharsis after an emotionally exhausting’ election (Kreps 2016). Writer and comedian Matt Christman has described this as an elevation of comedians analogous to the conservative fetish of ‘The Troops’ (Menaker 2016). There is a fantasy of political potency and virtue embodied in what Žižek might call these ‘subjects supposed to eviscerate’ who wield power in our place.

In the 2016 US Presidential elections, liberalism failed spectacularly to understand the political and to confront its own libidinal investments. While the Clinton campaign did manage to bring certain national security Republicans and moderates to her side in the name of consensus, this reproduced the populist imaginary of a class solidarity of the learned undermining The People’s natural order. Hillary Clinton’s vision of meritocracy included a diverse Silicon Valley cabinet (Healy 2016) and the leadership of “real billionaires.”[7] Meanwhile Trump spoke of the economy in antagonistic terms, using China and the globalist conspiracy to channel a sense of lost community and invert the energies of class conflict. Trump, the vulgar tax-dodging billionaire, is preferable to a section of working class voters than a rational meritocracy where their class position is deserved and their fate to learn code or be swept away by the global economy. Friedrich von Hayek wrote that the virtue of the market as a form of justice is that it relies on “chance and good luck” (1941: 105) and not simply merit. However erroneous this formulation of class power, it allows people to accept inequality as based on chance rather than an objective measure of their value. In contrast to Clinton’s humiliating meritocracy, Trump’s charlatanism, multiple bankruptcies and steak infomercials reinscribe this principle of luck and its corollary enjoyment.

The comprehensive failure of liberal post-politics did not simply extend from the disavowal of antagonism but the fetishization of process. The party’s lockstep support of the neoliberal Clinton in the primary against the left-wing or ‘traditionalist’ Sanders created an insular culture ranging from self-satisfied complacency to corruption. The revelations that the party tampered with the process and coordinated media attacks on Sanders’ religious identity (Biddle 2016) fundamentally threatened liberal political identity and enjoyment. This crisis of legitimacy necessitated another, more threatening dark political remnant of history in order to restore the fetish of process. Since this moment liberals, in politics and the media, have relied on Russia as an omnipotent security threat, coordinating the global resurgence of populism and xenophobia and utilizing Trump as a Manchurian candidate and Sanders as a useful idiot.[8] This precisely demonstrates the logic of fetishist disavowal, liberals know very well that process has been corrupted but nevertheless “they feel satisfied in their [fetish], they experience no need to be rid of [it]” (Žižek 2009: 68). For the liberal political and media class it is easier to believe in a Russian conspiracy of “post-truth politics” than it is to confront one’s own libidinal investments in rationalism and consensus in politics.

Affective Media Power and Jouissance

The success of Trump was at once a display of journalistic powerlessness, as he defied predictions and expectations of presidential political behaviour, and affective media power as he used access to the field to disrupt the disciplines of professional politics. The campaigns of Clinton and Trump brought into relief the battle over the political meaning of new and affective media. For Clinton’s well-funded team of media strategists and professional campaigners data would be the means by which they could perfect the politics of rationalism and consensus. Trump’s seemingly chaotic, personality driven campaign was staked on the politics of jouissance, or ‘the lulz’, and affective identification. Trump represented a fundamental attack on the professional media and political class’ notions of merit and the discourse. And while his politics of reaction and prejudice are thoroughly retrograde, he is completely modern in embodying the values of affective media in eliciting the libidinal energies of his audience.

By affective media I am not simply referring to new and social media but the increasingly universal logic of affect at the heart of media. From the labour of promoting brands, celebrities and politicians on social media to the consumption of traditional content on personalized devices and feeds, consumption and production rely upon an emotional investment, sense of user agency, critical knowingness and social connectivity. In this sense we can talk about the convergence of affect as a political economic logic of free labour, self-surveillance and performativity, and the libidinal logic of affective investment, antagonism and enjoyment. Donald Trump is therefore a fitting president for what Jodi Dean calls communicative capitalism (2009) in which capital subsumes personalized affective drives in circuits of capital. He exemplifies the super-ego ideal of communicative capitalism and its individuating effects as a narcissist who publicly ‘enjoys’ life and leverages his fame and media stakes to whatever end whether real estate, media contract negotiations or the presidency.

The success of Trump’s populism and the contradictory responses he drew from establishment media must be understood in terms of the shifts of media political economy and the concurrent transformation of journalistic values. Journalism has staked its autonomy and cultural capital as a profession on the principle that it is above the fray of politics, providing objective universal truths for a public “assumed to be engaged in a rational process of seeking information” (Baym 2010: 32). Journalism is key to the liberal belief in process, serving a technocratic gatekeeping role to the public sphere. These values are libidinal in the sense that they disavow the reality of the political, are perpetually frustrated by the economic logic of the field, but nevertheless serve as the desired ideal. Bourdieu describes the field of journalism as split between this enlightened liberalism and the economic logic of a “populist spontaneism and demagogic capitulation to popular tastes” (Bourdieu 1998: 48). This was neatly demonstrated in the 2016 election when CBS Chairman Les Moonves spoke of Trump’s campaign to investors; “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS” (Collins 2016). The Trump campaign and presidency conform to the commercial values of the field, providing the volatility and spectacle of reality television, and extraordinary ratings for cheap-to-produce content. Faced with these contradictions journalists have oscillated between Edward R. Murrow-esque posturing and a normalization of this spectacle.

Further to this internal split in the field between liberal values and the economic logic of the Trump spectacle, the process of “mediatization” (Strömbäck and Dimitrova, 2011) explains the centrality of affective media to public political life. With neo-liberal post-politics and the diminution of traditional political vehicles and identities, media is the key public space for the autonomous neoliberal subject/media user. The media is ubiquitous in “producing a convergence among all the fields [business, politics, academia] and pulling them closer to the commercial pole in the larger field of power” (Benson 1999: 471). In this way media produces symbolic capital, or affective media power, with which media entrepreneurs can make an end-run around the strictures of professional fields. Trump is exemplary in this regard as all of his ventures, whether in real-estate, broadcasting, social media or in politics, rely upon this affective media power which contradicts the traditional values of the field. The inability of the journalistic and political fields to discipline him owes to both his transcendence of those fields and the indeterminacy of his actions. Trump’s run may well have been simply a matter of opportunism in an attempt to accrue media capital for his other ventures, whether in renegotiating his NBC contract or putting pressure on the Republican party as he has done previously.

The logic of Trump is analogous to the individuated subject of communicative capitalism and the injunction to throw yourself into circulation through tweets and posts, craft your brand and identity, expand your reach, become and object of desire and enjoy. He exemplifies mediatized life as “a non-stop entrepreneurial adventure involving the pursuit of multiple revenue streams predicated on the savvy deployment of virtuosic communicative and image skills” (Hearn 2016: 657). Trump is able to bypass the meritocratic constraints of professional fields through the affective identification of a loyal audience in his enjoyment and brand. His long tenure on national television as host of The Apprentice created precisely the template by which Trump could emerge as a populist ego-ideal in communicative capitalism. He is a model of success and the all-powerful and volatile arbiter of success (luck) in a contest between ‘street-smart’ Horatio Algers and aspiring professionals with impeccable Ivy-League resumes. The conceit of the show, which enjoyed great success during some of America’s most troubled economic times, was the release of populist enjoyment though Trump’s wielding of class power. With the simple phrase ‘you’re fired’ he seemingly punishes the people’s enemy and stifles the meritocracy by humiliating upwardly mobile, well-educated social climbers.

Trump’s ability to channel enjoyment and “the people” of populism relies upon capturing the political and economic logic of affect which runs through contemporary media prosumption (Bruns 2007). From the superfluousness of clickbait, news of celebrity deaths and the irreverent second-person headline writing of Huffington Post, affect is central to eliciting the sharing, posting and production of content and user data as “free labour” (Terranova 2004). Trump’s adherence to the logic of affective media, combined with a willing audience of affective labour, is what allowed him to defy the disciplines of the field and party, secure disproportionate air-time and overcome a 4-to-1 advertising deficit to the Clinton campaign (Murray 2016). The Trump campaign had a keen sense of the centrality of affect in producing the spectacle of a mass movement, often employing ‘rent-a-crowd’ tactics, to using his staff as a cheer squad during public events. In a manner similar to the relationship between the Tea Party and Fox News (Jutel 2013) the performance of large crowds produced the spectacle that secured his populist authenticity. While Fox effectively brought the Tea Party into the fold of traditional movement conservatism, through lobbying groups such as Freedom Works, Trump has connected his mainstream media brand with the online fringes of Brietbart, Info Wars and the so-called ‘alt-right’. It is from this space of politicized affective intensity that users perform free labour for Trump in sharing conspiracies, memes and personal testimony all to fill the empty signifier ‘Make America Great Again’ with meaning. Trump’s penchant for entertaining wild conspiracies has the effect of sending his online movement into a frenzied “epistemological drive” (Lacan 2007: 106) to uncover the depths of the enemy’s treachery.

Where the Trump campaign understood the media field as a space to tap antagonism and enjoyment, for Hillary Clinton the promise of new media and its analogue ‘big data’ were a means to perfect communication and post-politics. Clinton was hailed by  journalists for assembling “Silicon Valley’s finest” into the “largest” and “smartest” tech team in campaign history (Lapowsky 2016). Where Clinton employed over 60 mathematicians using computer algorithms to direct all campaign spending, “Trump invested virtually nothing in data analytics” seemingly imperilling the future of the Republican party (Goldmacher 2016). The election of Trump did not simply embarrass the New York Times and others who made confident data-driven projections of a Clinton win (Katz 2016), it fundamentally undermined the liberal “technology fetish” (Dean 2009: 31) of new media in communicative capitalism. Where new media enthusiasts view our tweets and posts as communicative processes which empowers and expands democracy, the reality is a hyper-activity masks the trauma and “larger lack of left solidarity” (Dean 2009: 36). Trump is not simply the libidinal excess born of new forms of communication and participation, he realizes the economic logic and incentives of new media prosumption. The affective labour of Trump supporters share a connective tissue with the clickfarm workers purchased for page likes, the piece-meal digital workers designing promotional material or the Macedonian teenagers who circulate fake news on Facebook for fractions of a penny per click (Casilli 2016). Trump reveals both an libidinal and political economic truth nestled in the promise of new mediatized and affective forms of politics.

The clearest demonstration of affective media as a space of enjoyment and antagonism, as opposed to liberal-democratic rationalism, is the rise of the so-called ‘alt-right’ under Trump. In journalistic and academic discourses, new media cultures defined by collaboration and playful transgression are seen as the inheritance of liberalism and the left. From Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring, affect is deemed central to enabling new democratizing public formations (Grusin 2010, Papacharissi 2016). The hacker and nerd cultures which proliferate in the so-called ‘weird internet’ of Twitter, Reddit and 4chan have been characterized as “a force for good in the world” (Coleman 2014: 50). Deleuzian affect theory plays a key role here in rejecting the traumatic and inter-subjective dimensions of enjoyment for a notion of affect, whose transmission between mediatizaed bodies, is seen as creating ‘rational goals and political effects’ (Stoehrel and Lindgren 2014: 240). Affect is the subcultural currency of this realm with ‘lulz’ (jouissance) gained through memes, vulgarity and trolling.

However as the alt-right claim the culture of the “youthful, subversive, underground edges of the internet” (Bokhari and Yiannopoulos 2016) it is apparent that a politics of affective media is not easily sublimated for anything other than the circular logic of jouissance. It was in fact the troll ‘weev’, profiled in Coleman’s book on Anonymous as the archetypal troll, who claims to have launched ‘Operation Pepe’ to turn the Pepe the frog meme into a ubiquitous form of alt-right enjoyment as a prelude to race war (Sklar 2016). Trolling defines the alt-right and exemplifies the intractability of the other in enjoyment. Alt-righters might enjoy brutally dehumanizing their opponents in the purest terms of racism, anti-semitism and misogyny, but this is coupled with an obsessive focus on ‘political correctness’ on college campuses, through to pure fascist and racist nightmares of miscegenation and the other’s enjoyment. It should be clear that we are in the realm of pathological enjoyment and violent libidinal frustration particularly as the alt-right overlaps with the “manosphere” of unbridled misogyny and obsession with sexual hierarchies (Nagle 2017). The term “cuckseravtive” has become a prominent signifier of derision and enjoyment marking establishment conservatives as cuckolded or impotent, clearly placing libidinal power at the centre of identity. But it is also self-consciously referencing the genre of inter-racial ‘cuckold’ pornography in which the racial other’s virility is a direct threat to their own potency (Heer 2016). With the rise of the alt-right to prominence within internet subcultures and the public discourse it should be clear that affect offers no shortcuts to a latent humanism but populism and the logic of jouissance.


The election of Donald Trump, an ill-tempered narcissist uniquely unqualified for the role of US President, does not simply highlight a breakdown of the political centre, professional politics and the fourth estate. Trump’s populism speaks to the centrality of the libidinal, that is antagonism and enjoyment, to political identity. His vulgarity, scandals and outbursts were not a political liability for Trump but what marked him as an antagonistic agent of jouissance able to bring a people into being around his candidacy. In his paeans to lost American greatness he elicits fantasy, lost enjoyment and the antagonistic jouissance of vilifying those who have stolen “America” as an object of enjoyment. Trump’s own volatility and corruption are not political failings but what give the populist the fantasy of wielding unrestrained power. This overriding principle of jouissance is what allows disparate strains of conservatism, from evangelicals, paleo-conservatives and the alt-right, to coalesce around his candidacy.

The centrality of Trump to the emergence of a people echoes Freud’s classic study of the leader and crowd psychology. He is a paternal super-ego, referred to as ‘Daddy’ by the alt-right, around which his followers can identify in themselves and each other. However rather than a figure of domination he embodies the neoliberal injunction to enjoy. In a political space of mediatized individuation Trump provides followers with different points of affective identification rather than subsumption to his paternal authority.  His own improbable run to the presidency personified the neo-liberal ethic to publicly enjoy, become an object of desire and ruthlessly maximise new opportunities.

The response to Trump by the liberal political and media class demonstrates the libidinal entanglement between populism and neo-liberal post-politics. The more Trump defies political norms of decency the more he defined the negative liberal identity of urgent anti-fascism. The ascendance of reactionary populism from Fox News, the Tea Party and Trump has been meet in the media sphere with new liberal forms of enjoyment from Daily Show-style comedy to new authoritative data-driven forms of journalism. The affinity between Hillary Clinton and elite media circles owes to a solidarity of professionals. There is a belief in process, data and consensus which is only strengthened by the menace of Trump. The retreat to data functions as an endless circular process and fetish object which shields them from the trauma of the political and liberalism’s failure. It is from this space that the media could fail to consider both the prospects of a Trump presidency and their own libidinal investment in technocratic post-politics. When the unthinkable occurred it became necessary to attribute to Trump an over-determined evil encompassing the spectre of Russia and domestic fifth columnists responsible for a ‘post-facts’ political environment.

Affective media power was central to Trump’s ascendance. Where journalists and the Clinton campaign imagined the new media field as a space for rationalism and process, Trump understood its economic and political logic. His connection to an audience movement, invested in him as an ego-ideal, allowed him to access the heights of the media and political fields without conforming to the disciplines of either. He at once defines the field through his celebrity and performances which generated outrageous, cheap-to-produce content with each news cycle, while opening this space to the pure affective intensity of the alt-right. It is the free labour of his followers which produced the spectacle of Trump and filled the empty signifier of American greatness with personal testimonies and affective investments.

Trump’s pandering to conspiracy and his unyielding defiance of decorum allowed him to function as a paternal figure of enjoyment in affective media spaces. Where new media affect theory has posited a latent humanist potential, the emergence of Trump underlines the primacy of jouissance. In the alt-right the subcultural practices of trolling and ‘the lulz’ function as a circular jouissance comprised of the most base dehumanization and the concomitant racial and sexual terror. New media have been characterized as spaces of playful transgression however in the alt-right we find a jouissance for its own end that clearly cannot be sublimated into emancipatory politics as it remains stuck within the inter-subjective dimensions of enjoyment. Jodi Dean has described the effects of communicative capitalism as producing a ‘decline of symbolic efficiency’ (2010: 5), with new communicative technologies failing to overcome neoliberal individuation. Left attempts to organize around the principles of affective media, such as Occupy, remain stuck within discursive loops of misrecognition. Trump’s pure jouissance is precisely the return of symbolic efficiency that is most possible through a politics of affective media.


Olivier Jutel (@OJutel) is a lecturer in broadcast journalism at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. His research is concerned with populism, American politics, cyberlibertarianism, psychoanalysis and critical theory. He is a frequent contributor to Overland literary journal .

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[1] While one should avoid constructing Trump as an enemy of pure jouissance, analogous to the enemy of populism, the barefaced boasts of sexual predation are truly horrific (see Stuart 2016).

[2] While Laclau holds that all political ruptures have the structure of populism I believe it is important to distinguish between a populism, which constructs an overdetermined enemy and a fetishized people, against a politics which delineates an enemy in ethico-political terms. Bernie Sanders clearly deploys populist discourse however the identification of finance capital and oligarchy as impersonal objective forces place him in solidly in social-democratic politics.

[3] The most widely circulated conspiracy to emerge from the campaign was ‘Pizzagate’. Fed by Drudge Report, Info Wars and a flurry of online activity the conspiracy is based on the belief that the Wikileaks dump of emails from Clinton campaign chairman revealed his complicity in a satanic paedophilia ring run out of Comet Pizzeria in Washington D.C. A YouGov/Economist poll found that 53% of Trump voters believed in the conspiracy (Frankovic 2016).

[4] Having secured a primary victory against the left-wing Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s general election tact consisted principally of appealing to moderate Republicans. Democrat Senate Leader Chuck Schumer explained the strategy; “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in Western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin” (Geraghty 2016). While a ruinous strategy it appealed to notions of a virtuous, rational political centre.

[5] In the build-up to the Michigan primary contest, and with the Flint water crisis foregrounded, Clinton’s twitter account posted a network diagram which typifies the tech-rationalist notion of progressive politics. The text written by staffers stated “We face a complex, intersectional set of challenges. We need solutions and real plans for all of them” (Clinton 2016). The diagram pictured interrelated concepts such as “Accountable Leadership”, “Environmental Protection”, “Investment in Communities of Color”. The conflation of intersectional discourse with network-speak is instructive. Politics is not question of ideology or power but managing social complexity through expert-driven policy solutions.

[6] This form of satire is well within the confines of the contemporary liberal conception of the political. John Stewart’s pseudo political event “The Rally to Restore to Sanity” is instructive here as it sought primarily to mock right-wing populists but also those on the left who hold passionate political convictions (Ames, 2010). What is more important here than defeating the retrograde politics of the far-right is maintaining civility in the discourse.

[7] At a campaign stop in Palm Beach, Florida Clinton stated that “I love having the support of real billionaires. Donald gives a bad name to billionaires” (Kleinberg 2016)

[8] The Russia narrative was aggressively pushed by the Clinton campaign in the aftermath of the shock defeat. In Allen and Parnes’ behind the scenes book of the campaign they describe a failure to take responsibility with “Russian hacking…the centre piece of her argument” (2017: 238). While Russia is certainly an autocratic state with competing interests and a capable cyber-espionage apparatus, claims of Russia hacking the US election are both thin and ascribed far too much explanatory power. They rely upon the analysis of the DNC’s private cyber security firm Crowdstrike and a report from the Director of National Intelligence that was widely been panned by Russian Studies scholars (Gessen 2017; Mickiewicz 2017). Subsequent scandals concerning the Trump administration have far more to do with their sheer incompetence and recklessness than a conspiracy to subvert American democracy.


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