A few months back, I called Guy Rundle, Crikey’s principal interpreter of American political gibberish, as he was tailing Trump. What, I wanted to know, had he heard about Trump’s lissom missus, Melania? The former Slovenian citizen, I told Rundle, was likely a student at the University of Ljubljana at the same time that school’s most notorious alumnus was employed as a teacher. Could you please find out if Melania had ever met, married or messed with the world’s best-known living Marxist philosopher, Slavoj Zizek?!
Imagine, I said, if Trump, speaker of the Western world’s most brutally simple political rhetoric, had some kind of link with Zizek, speaker of the Western world’s most frustratingly complex political analysis! What if Melania, reportedly the daughter of a communist (here’s a fun snap of dad) and avowedly a woman who keeps her political opinions a secret, was an entryist, a fifth columnist, a Zizekian candidate!? What if this Leninist lass was set to undo the American work of centuries?
Rundle was briefly tickled by the question but, rather sensibly, didn’t chase its answer. Our correspondent was, after all, fully engaged with the work of watching America commit a slow suicide assisted by fast if flimsy speech. In any case, it was my stupid problem and its resolution demanded my stupid work.
And, if you think this puzzle is the sort of thing an idle mind develops to distract itself, you are almost entirely correct. After polite refusal by two of Zizek’s publishers to provide me with the timeline and interview I wanted, I realised it was a pretty silly thing to wonder, too.
It was silly right up until that point we learned that in her well-received address to the United States Republican Party convention in Cleveland, the third Mrs Trump had apparently lifted great chunks of another lady’s speech. That of Michelle Obama’s made to the Democratic Party convention in 2008. The similarities between the speeches from the wives of two putatively opposed men are not only striking. They hit us, and the Trump campaign, right in the ginger.
If you are unfamiliar with Zizek, you’re going to have to trust me that this is a very Zizekian moment. I’ll explain that in a bit. For the moment, we’ll just consider this act of political theft and why it’s a little different to most others.
Plagiarism is, of course, common in political speech and is certainly not peculiar to the US right. In his 1988 presidential campaign, Dem VP Joe Biden swiped form then UK Labour leader Neil Kinnock. In his 2008 presidential campaign, US President Barack Obama appropriated a speech by then Massachusetts Dem governor Deval Patrick. Vladimir Putin, it is alleged, redistributed the wealth of somebody else’s thesis for his own, and GOP presidential hopeful Rand Paul seems to have lifted some stuff from Wikipedia.
Here in Australia, Anthony Albanese presumably lost his block at a speechwriter with the bad taste to pilfer from an especially bad Michael Douglas film, and the former Treasurer Joe Hockey may have plagiarised himself. Perhaps it’s our Prime Minister who beat all with his burglary of the meaningless slogan “continuity and change” from the HBO comedy Veep.
[Rundle: the roll call confirms it -- the monster is real]
It seems that a practice that’d get a student thrown out in first semester is no real threat to a politician’s term. Perhaps we reason that our representatives go on with fairly undifferentiated old rot anyhow, so let them recycle each other’s worst. So long as no one pinches bon mots from the opposition, it’s not that big of a deal.
But it is a big deal in the case of Trumpette v3.0, because the speech she wrote "with very little help" was taken from a team against which her husband has hotly opposed himself. Trump has described Obama as a "dumbo President who smokes" and as one who should "resign in disgrace" after the Orlando shootings for which Trump, inscrutably, holds the President to account. The Lord of the Birthers continues to make reference to what he still believes is Obama’s uncertain origin and he stands opposed to healthcare, same-sex marriage and just about anything loathed by a bunch of minds failed by American education.
Melania has spoken very infrequently and, in this moment, at first received well by the GOP faithful, she has spoken with recourse to her husband’s declared opponent. And I can’t help fantasising that this was if not an order from Zizek, then something of which he would at least entirely approve.
Zizek, a thinker loathed almost as much by the new mild left as he is by the old hard right, is perhaps the only devout Lacanian-Marxist to have ever bothered explaining himself outside academic journals. In his popular speech, he has not only a gift but a preference for vulgarity, which he uses not only to get laughs but to make the point to a sensitive left that the true vulgarity is not in his speech, but in the foreign policies and domestic practices of capitalism.
“This is the true obscenity!” he will often say in one of his many speeches, after finishing some blue tale about screwing your mother. “The true obscenity is the way the iPhone is made by slaves!”, he will say, or similar.
Over a range of popular essays and books, Zizek has theorised the interdependence of financialisation, or economic liberalism, and cultural liberalism. He considers the tolerance of the putative left an ideology that not only fails to challenge neoliberal economic practice, but creates the conditions for it to prosper. In short, he sees no dint of material difference between the Obama-style liberal leader, whom he often describes as the nice daddy who says “but don’t you want to go and see your grandma?”, and the Trump-style patriarch, who commands, "you will go and see your grandma". He urges the left to see this sameness.
Which is why I still like to fantasise that he’s working with Melania who, sure, may have left the University of Ljubljana in her first year of study, contrary to claims made of a degree on her website. Nonetheless, I can’t think of a better way to illustrate the truth that Obama is as much of a friend to the finance sector and corporate interests as any conservative than to have a putatively conservative woman repeat the words of his wife.
Zizek has written many times that the true vulgarity of Trump is a relief and a boon to the material left. Better the cruel patriarch too artless to conceal his motives than the understanding dad. Better the outright racist than the institutionally racist power that claims to have a human face. Like Martin Luther King Jr whose famous letter from Birmingham Jail reached the:
"... regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not ... the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice."
America has its KKK clown, and now, a mistress who comically demonstrates just how close her husband and his opponent are politically situated. It might not be Zizek, but it feels like Zizek. Anyhow. I’ve got to call Rundle.