There was a moment a fortnight ago when the real world of global politics and the parallel world of political satire joined perfectly. President Donald Trump took the stage at the US Boy Scouts Jamboree to deliver a presidential address. By tradition, this is usually centred on a virtue: courage, service. Trump devoted it to a celebration of his own 2016 victory, and then proceeded to regale the Scouts with tales of parties in New York in the 1970s: “I have to tell you the hottest women were there. The hottest.” We have long since passed the point where reality resembles a Saturday Night Live sketch. The US presidency was now a Harold Ramis movie — Caddyshack Three: Eighteen A**holes at the White House. Only Bill Murray, as President Bozonger, the Hollywood pool cleaner elevated to the highest office by a clerical error, could have done justice to that Boy Scouts speech. There’s nowhere to go after that. SNL when it comes back from summer break, will find that, to be actually satirical, it will have to be more serious than the presidency it is mocking.
But that is of course the danger. The temptation to kick back and just enjoy the comic spectacle, and to treat everything real that Trump does as just another plot point. Witness the current North Korea crisis. Of course, if you were doing Caddyshack Three, you’d have President Bozonger at a breakfast about Careers in the North, noodle out a few lines that put the whole world at a new level of nuclear threat. “Well uh you know, Northern Careers that really really is a big problem, we uh we uh, you know, we have to deal with that”, he says, staring at his briefing paper which conceals a K-Mart lingerie catalogue. Cut to Kim Jong-un (Peter Sellers, in his finest role, reprising The Mouse That Roared) ordering the missiles armed.
See? Hard to stop doing it, because it has actually happened, this absurd moment, in which a particular function of sovereignty — the fact of the sovereign’s words having the weight of power — can lead us to a situation of genuine crisis, in which the fiery deaths of millions of people becomes a less remote possibility than it was a week or so ago.
North Korea has played that sovereign game before, its many thousand loudspeakers along its borders bawling out threats to roast the US in a stomach of flame, etc. But that’s the sovereignty game: the power that doesn’t have power resorts to the power of language. It’s only because we know that any attack by North Korea would be a suicide attack on a national scale (auto-genocide by misadventure really) that such threats have been something we could tolerate. Real power means that the weight of words are incalculable.
Trump’s two episodes of intemperance may have had one or many purposes — the “mad dog” approach favoured by Nixon to persuade the North Vietnamese to take a bad peace deal, sounding like a tough guy for the approval of his base, distraction from the encroaching Russia connection investigation — but they have served to really bring us closer to war. It’s a simple and obvious point to make. But my point in making it so simply, is that we are using amusement, humour, distraction by other stories and issues, to ignore this plain and simple fact (the Guardian and Jason Wilson outdid themselves on this, with a peak Guardian think piece about popular culture in an era of Trump and nuclear chaos: ah, Guardian, cultural studies grad students’ common room of the Western world).
We resort to a notion of residual rationality in thinking about this issue. We do that by ignoring the fact that we live in a world structured by an earlier episode of irrationality on a global scale, the World War of 1914 to 1945. What began with cavalry charges was ended with the nuclear destruction of two cities, Europe, Russia and China lying in ruins, a Holocaust, mass famine, and mass political murder by a supposedly humanist movement of revolutionary socialism. North Korea and South Korea themselves are a product of this early irrationality. What’s rational about half a country run as a Stalinist/fascist god ancestor monarchy? (Or for that matter, about a South Korea whose wired hyper-capitalism is becoming so hideous that defectors are now trying to return to the North?)
The simple fact of the “other”, of game theory tells us that not only can a static notion of rationality not be relied upon, but that rationality is a fluid concept. There is a point, in a street confrontation, when it’s rational to throw the first punch against a much-larger opponent. There’s a point at which that may be by far your best option. Trump’s words of “fire and fury” move us closer to that situation, syllable by syllable. And beyond that, there is simply a point where madness becomes prior to reason. The Holocaust tell us that. It’s the black hole at the centre of modernity, around which our enlightened world turns. If that can be produced from within modernity, a nuclear exchange is a doddle.
These are obvious points, made repeatedly over the course of the century. But we are in a time for making obvious points over and over, and for beating back our own tendency to distract — distraction being something that this panto horse issue of same-sex marriage and the postal plebiscite appears tailor-made to provide. What Trump has done is to remind us that the issues we tackled for decades — starting with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and moving through the disarmament movement of the ’80s — have not gone away. We live in a world of sovereign disjuncture. Presidents are elected kings, prime ministers only slightly less so. Elected versions of absolute rulers from an era of the horse, longbow and musket, they preside over the means of mass death, in a system that simply cannot persist in equilibrium. We have to presume that nuclear war, of unknowable dimension, is in our future, and that the only way to combat it is to transform the form of sovereignty that links words to missiles and mass death by a single, unbroken circuit.
That means for Australia, at the moment, we need peace rallies, good old-fashioned peace rallies, in every capital city. Organised by the Greens, as de facto leaders of the left, together with the churches and other peak faith bodies, and political and social groups. We might, in other circumstances, have had a prime minister who could speak from the crux of Asia and the US, who could push back against the bogus threats of North Korea, but more importantly against the real threats of the US. That would not remove the need for rallies, but its absence makes them all the more urgent. And if you’re reading this, and saying, “But this will draw energy away from the postal plebiscite,” I would suggest you repeat those words slowly to yourself.
We are in the blast zone. Literally, but also figuratively. This movie doesn’t end well for us, unless we can absolutely understand and act on the fact that this ain’t a movie.