Chandra Mukerji (UC San Diego)
Donald Trump’s lies galvanize his base. His followers cheer the loudest for outrageous claims. The crowds are energized by his hubris, treating his fantasies as exciting rather than misinterpretations of facts. Asking epistemological questions about his statements may be important to politics and journalism, but it is bad sociology. It does not explain how clear fictions could be so politically effective and so horribly destructive.
Here I will argue that Trump uses political forms of speculative fiction to engage his followers through imagination rather than reason. His outrageous claims serve as what Foucault called prophetic truths, self-fulfilling prophesies with political effect. Foucault argued that prophetic truths work outside political debate or legal reasoning but are essential to state power. They serve as scripts for collection action that motivate groups and draw them together to build (or destroy) political institutions.
The use of prophetic truths in politics and in relation to institutional power is something I have been studying in a different time and place: 17th-century France. Louis XIV gained power by being entwined in oracular visions of the Sun King, Apollo. The Sun King was a godlike figure from the past, capable of bringing France a new dawn. He carried the Gallic heritage from the classical past and offered visions of a glorious French destiny — if the king was given the powers to revive that past. As the Sun King, Louis XIV achieved levels of power unmatched by his predecessors. He became, arguably, the most powerful king in Europe. Critics ridiculed him for his hubris in enacting the role of the Sun King, but he still made France a modern state, using this device. Even nobles who subordinated themselves to the king and court followed the Sun King because he offered dreams of a glorious future based on a great past that seemed plausible, if outrageous.
Trump is no Sun King, although he would like to be with his opulent residences filled with gold and mirrors; neither does he act like the monarch. Louis XIV believed in good manners and thought a great leader should build a civilization on a foundation of science and art, bringing out the best in all his people. Trump has never been so generous. But Trump has used speculative fiction just as effectively to reconfigure relations of institutional power, terrifying allies, and enemies alike with fictions that he seems intent on making come true.
Like all speculative fiction, Trump’s claims are most entertaining when they are counterintuitive, freeing the imagination with what seem to be impossible twists of fate. They are speculative in the sense that they are thought experiments. “What if” he could get Mexico to pay to build a border wall? “What if” he could lock her up, or lock up all his enemies using the DOJ to do it? “What if” he could prove that China engineered Covid-19 maliciously to destroy our economy? “What if” his followers who refused to wear masks would not get sick. And “What if” he could convince people that the democrats stole the election? The speculations may seem to be paranoid delusions, but that is not why they work. They provide a narrative basis for Trump to exercise forms of agency that his followers lack. They are stories in which his powers are almost unlimited. They are expressions of a freedom Trump offers his people by association. In their narrative purpose, these fantasies are speculative fictions more than lies. They are not truth claims about the present, but rather outrageous dreams of possibility.
It is ironic to use the concept of speculative fiction to understand Donald Trump’s political fantasies, since the term has frequently been used to describe feminist science fiction and hailed as a medium for overcoming the repressive effects of a sexist society. Trump’s campaign slogans and feminist speculative fiction may not share political content, but they have the same political force: a capacity to draw people away from common sense reality and to an alternate political world. Feminist speculative fiction is meant to illuminate by contrast to fictional spaces the domination of the mind resulting from everyday misogyny. Trump’s speculative fiction offers his followers a view of their irrelevance to most systems of power by offering futures in which they matter to government. In both cases, disempowered audiences are purposefully stirred to anger and motivated to assert their power.
Trump is particularly dangerous because he seems to understand the links between institutional power and speculative fiction and uses them to undermine the state. He enjoins his followers to believe that freedom is not a matter of law— the Constitution, Declaration of Independence or Bill of Rights. It is an inheritance of white, Western men that has been squandered by corrupt governments infiltrated by minorities. Trump offers freedom by opposing the state rather than claiming rights through legal standing. Making America Great Again is a restoration of an inheritance that has been stymied by institutional power.
Foucault explains how this kind of speculative fiction works politically. Prophetic truths are not lies, he argues, because they are claims about a future that can be neither proved nor disproved. They predict the future like an oracle or prophet, fashioning expectations beyond common sense. Prophetic truths may not hold up against the results of scientific enquiry or the exercise of reason, but they can nonetheless galvanize people to seek the reality in the prophecy.
According to Foucault, prophetic truths are key to building (or tearing down) forms of institutional power. Both legal and political discourse is open to debate, he argues, and as such, is too fragile to serve as the foundations of states. We may think of states as systems of laws, but they depend on speculative purposes that are inscribed in laws but not encompassed by them. Only dreams of collective futures can hold together the diverse institutional domains of states (schools, post offices, legislative bodies, etc.). They are coordinated around forms of collective desire and are vulnerable to speculation about the underlying truths of political practice. Trump has exploited the oppositional power of oracular speculation in talk about the deep state and corruption, threatening democracy and the pursuit of equity not as principles but as guiding speculative fictions of America.
The violence in this mode of governance turned on itself is not far beneath the surface. When Trump says the Proud Boys should stand down but stand by, he is writing speculative fiction in which destruction is the point. The intended action is never articulated because it might be seriously debated; but the future is being described.
All the threats that Trump engenders in his followers are designed to give Trump greater power, increasing his effectiveness in getting what he wants. His agency becomes their purpose and the way for them to claim power. Lock up immigrants. Get Mexico to build a border wall. Ruin the Chinese economic rise. Force the democrats out of office. These scenarios are speculative fictions about forces unleashed, “what if” stories that Trump uses to bind his followers to him with his agency. His accolades know his stories are fictions, but they embrace his counterintuitive desire to realize outrageous desires just to show it can be done. They capture freedoms vicariously through him that elude them alone. They know that what he says is outrageous, like proposing drinking bleach to stop Covid. They simply want to stop the numbing sense of helplessness experienced by self-identifying victims who see themselves in Trump.
Foucault argues that prophetic truths only work if they seem plausible, but plausibility only requires projecting events from the past into the future. MAGA as a slogan does that. “Again” is the key term in “Make America Great Again.” It means restoring the power of white, Western men — the ones who see themselves left behind in rural towns, in schools, in the job market or even just in paying taxes. They can believe that the future could be different, seeing in the history of Reconstruction the pattern they want to repeat. Immigrants, foreigners, minorities, and women could all be put in their place like freed slaves were in Reconstruction. Trump uses racism and immigration restrictions to animate his base around memories of white minorities dominating black communities by force and voting restrictions. In this way, he makes his speculative fictions about restoring the political inheritance of “real Americans” seem plausible.
The idea of the prophetic truth has roots in Heidegger’s “object” and contemporary use in Latour’s “matter of concern.” It embodies a sense of collect possibility that draws people together, giving them a basis for common action. Trump can deny Biden’s election as president not because it is true, but because it gives his base something to do.
The power of speculative fiction to politics may seem disheartening to those who believe in the authority of the state, the power of law, and the democratic principles of American, but these are the speculative fictions that have been drawing us together. They are the dreams that animate ideas of social justice and belief in the government’s ability to combat climate change. They drive speculations about the future that are no more guaranteed than building a wall. But Christian ideas about stewardship of the earth, belief in science as a guide to policy, and the American commitment to equity have long histories that still can draw us together.
We know that fictions are subject to fashion, and Trump’s bravado will go out of style. His followers get more violent as the cause falls apart. But the brand will fail as all do. In the meanwhile, Trump has invigorated many people who had given up on government, motivated by those that have spoken out for the democratic process. They have decided to dream again of America as a democratic country rather than just a neoliberal one. A long-standing prophetic truth seems to be finding new form, attached to concerns about racism and social justice that give ideas of equality new significance.