In this final post in our symposium on Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge, Cynthia responds to her interlocutors. You can read the other posts in the symposium here.
On November 8, 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States of America. His campaign was marked by extreme racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, ableism, and homo/bi/trans*phobias. In light of this election result, I will depart from the usual format for a symposium conclusion, in which I would engage point-by-point with the generous, insightful, critical commentaries of Joan Cocks, Antke Engel, Cyril Ghosh, and Dianne Otto. Instead, I will put the analysis I developed in Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Power and the correctives to it offered by the commentators in this symposium to work to address two urgent questions: ‘How did this happen?’ and ‘What is to be done?’.
The argument I make in Queer IR is that sovereignty, sexuality and all political scales from the intimate to the international are inseparable. So, too, are the intersectional ways sex, gender and sexuality function in relation to and through, for example, race, class, ability, religion, ‘civilization’ and colonialities. One cannot understand sovereignty without understanding how sexuality functions intersectionally at every scale, and one cannot understand sexuality without understanding how sovereignty functions intersectionally at every scale. This means my queer IR analysis is never fully distinct from those found in Critical Race Studies, Black Studies, CRIP Studies, and Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies. Yet it always insists on focusing its analytic lens on the function of sex, gender and sexuality, which is not necessarily the case with other critical traditions. As Antke Engel points out in this symposium, my idiosyncratic formulation and articulation of a queer IR has its pitfalls. But, as she and Cyril Ghosh discuss, these choices are what allow me to mobilize queer strategically, especially in relation to the Discipline of International Relations that has long ignored queer scholarship. This neglect of queer scholarship is as much because of how Disciplinary IR conceives of proper contributions to the Discipline as it is to how Disciplinary IR fetishizes particular kinds of IR methods.
In Queer IR, I take sovereignty as the critical object of my analysis. Like Joan Cocks (see her illuminating discussion of sovereignty in this symposium), I understand sovereignty as a ‘political delusion’ that is powerfully – and performatively – expressed not just as a theoretical absolute but as a practical will. My focus in Queer IR, as it is here, is on how political delusions about sex, gender and sexuality are combined with political delusions about things like race, religion and ability to make impossible sovereignties and the impossible figurations of ‘sovereign subjectivities’ that ground them appear to be possible.
I do this by examining how traditional either/or logics of what Richard Ashley calls ‘statecraft as mancraft’ and and/or and neither/nor sexed, gendered and sexualized logics of what I call ‘queer logics of statecraft’ construct sexed, gendered and sexualized ‘sovereign subjects’ and ‘sovereign nations’ to order the world in particular ways. Dianne Otto’s astute critique in this symposium of the gendered figuration of ‘sovereign man’ is important. As Otto points out, I too quickly gloss over this critique in the book. And Antke Engel’s wonderful discussion in this symposium of the similarities and differences between what I call ‘plural logics’ and what she calls ‘queer paradoxes’ stretches and complicates how I think about queer logics. Their ideas – as well as those of Joan Cocks and Cyril Ghosh – inform what follows.
How did Trump win the Presidency?
The Trump campaign used three interrelated ideas at the heart of a US conception of sovereignty to figure a particular ‘US sovereign subject’ who could authorize a Trump presidency. These ideas are patriotism, the melting pot myth, and the American Dream. The resulting ‘US sovereign subject’ the campaign figured was as sexed, gendered and sexualized as it was marked through registers of race, religion, (dis)ability and class.
Rooted in Trump’s longstanding politics of sexualized anti-blackness (from his stance on the Central Park jogger case to his spearheading of the Birther Movement), the Trump campaign drew heavily upon a long US tradition of fear-based patriotism, which had an unfortunate resurgence in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In addition to marking some kinds of ‘foreigners’ outside the state and ‘illegals’ inside the state as dangerous, fear-based patriotism groups US Americans into trustworthy, loyal citizens vs. risky, (potentially) disloyal citizens.
The Trump campaign activated a version of anti-Muslim, post-9/11 fear-based patriotism, while expanding the scope of US fears. Not only was a ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ that Trump claimed described all Muslims – including US American Muslims – to be feared by US Americans (thus justifying Trump’s initial promise to ‘ban all Muslims’ from entering the US). The campaign drew upon a long-established historical intertwining of racisms, ableisms, misogynies, homo/bi/trans*phobias as well as religious biases to figure ‘the underdeveloped’, ‘the un-developable’, ‘the unwanted im/migrant’, ‘the terrorist’, and some ‘LGBTQs’ as dangerous perversions of and threats to ‘the real America’. As it did so, it cultivated anger about a loss of white (male) privilege, and it refused to disavow white supremacists like the KKK who endorsed the campaign.
By inciting these connections, the campaign encouraged white US Americans in particular to fear, hate and/or otherwise dismiss and disparage immigrants, women, queers, Mexican Americans, African Americans and other people of color, and ‘the disagreeably disabled’. They were also warned that progressive activists who did not share their views and career politicians who had ‘crippled America’ were against them. These warnings were played out over and over again on the #realDonaldTrump twitter feed and at Trump campaign rallies. Rally anti-immigrant chants of ‘Build the Wall’ and anti-Hillary Clinton chants of ‘Lock her Up’ were consistently accompanied by individual comments like ‘“Fuck that ni**er!” about President Obama and “Get out of here, you f*g!” to a protester’.
The effect was not only to tell US Americans who they should fear, distrust, dismiss, and disparage. The effect was to craft a specific figuration of ‘the fearful US citizen’ who could authorize a Trump presidency. This ‘fearful, patriotic sovereign subject’ was generally a white, US-born, Anglo, Christian, heteronormative, able-bodied man or woman, who was groomed to respect striding masculine forms of white authoritarian leadership (like those of Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin) more than the ‘rigged’ democratic process. The campaign figured the most trustworthy patriots of them all as white working class men who had been sold out by the Clintons and by President Obama.
By propagating this particular form of fear-based patriotism, the Trump campaign stripped post-9/11 US patriotism of any pretense that it values ‘American diversity’. In so doing, the Trump campaign rewrote (as others had many times before) the US melting pot myth. The melting pot myth claims US Americans value all US citizens equally, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity or national origin. That is what allows all US Americans – particularly immigrant US Americans – to melt together into one harmonious, homogenous nation.
But the liberal tolerance ideology that informs the melting pot myth always allows for some US Americans not to be tolerated, because they are unmeltable or improperly melted US Americans. And it allows US leaders and ordinary citizens to change their minds about who is meltable and who is unmeltable at any time.
The Trump campaign explicitly marked all Muslim US Americans and all Mexican US Americans as intolerable and unmeltable, whether through Trump’s comments about how the Mexican heritage of a US judge made him biased or how the silence of a Muslim Gold Star mother was an attack on the USA. The Trump campaign also marked many of those who bear the traces of prejudicial intersectionalities of race, religion, disability, gender, and sexuality as potentially intolerable and unmeltable.
This explicitly happened with many groups, including ‘homosexuals’. Many of those close to Trump espoused overtly homophobic positions. As I write this one week after Trump’s election, Ben Carson, who compared homosexuality to pedophilia and incest, is being considered for Secretary of Education in Trump’s cabinet. Newt Gingrich, who called the push for LGBTQ rights ‘the new fascism’, is being considered for a Senior Advisor post. The leader of Trump’s domestic policy transition team is Ken Blackwell, who compared homosexuality to arson and kleptomania. And Trump’s Vice President elect is Mike Pence, who claimed that marriage equality will lead to ‘societal collapse’. More troubling is Pence’s long-standing opposition to LGBT rights, including his signing as Governor of Indiana of a religious freedom bill which prioritizes religious beliefs over equality for LGBTQ people.
Trump himself has been consistently inconsistent on this front. On the one hand, he claims to accept ‘the gays’ and same-sex marriage. On the other hand, he has pledged to sign the First Amendment Defense Act which ‘would effectively legalize anti-LGBTQ discrimination across the board, including among employers, businesses, landlords and healthcare providers, as long as they claim to be motivated by a firmly held religious beliefs’ (sic). (Cyril Ghosh’s commentary in this symposium on ‘gay rights as human rights’ offers a thoughtful perspective through which to think again about these issues). At the same time, Trump is staffing his transition team with the gay, white, male, Silicon Valley libertarian Peter Thiel, and Trump is staffing his administration with Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist. Thiel’s disavow of ‘The Diversity Myth’ includes having called women’s experiences of rape ‘seductions that are latter regretted’ (a comment for which he and his co-author David O. Sacks recently apologized). Bannon was the executive chairman of the Breitbart News Network, which the Southern Poverty Law Center called a ‘white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill’. All this suggests that while there may be a place at Trump’s table for the likes of Thiel, the place of especially non-white, non-entrepreneurial, and non-male-identified LGBTQ people in Trump’s America is more precarious.
Not only did the campaign scapegoat ‘unmeltable’ individuals and groups; it stoked anger and resentment of them and encouraged violence against them at, for example, Trump campaign rallies where Trump encouraged his supporters to physically attack and remove protesters.
The campaign’s dangerously vitriolic fear-based patriotism and its rewriting of the melting pot myth were accompanied by an equally dangerously positive portrayal of Trump himself as the embodiment of the American Dream. The American Dream is a sovereign dream. It tells US citizens that they can become sovereign over their own destinies though individualistic wealth creation, which is as good for them as individuals as it is good for the collective US sovereign-state’s capitalist project as a whole.
Trump appealed to white, Christian, male, working class voters in particular by acknowledging their failure to achieve or to retain their American Dreams and by reassuring them that their failures were the fault of domestic and foreign enemies who had stolen this Dream out from under them. Domestically, these enemies were immigrants, Muslims, Mexican Americans, African Americans, and anyone else who was getting an unfair advantage in the politically-correct, rigged system or anyone who was channeling those unfair advantages to undeserving groups. Internationally, it was countries like China who were ‘raping’ the US through its trade practices, with the help of career politicians like the Clintons who Trump blamed for the neoliberal free trade agreement NAFTA (which, when it passed the Senate in 1993, had more support from Republicans than Democrats).
By portraying himself as the politically incorrect, self-made, ruthless, ‘art of the deal’ bullying businessman who – like them – knew who America’s real enemies were, Trump not only convinced these mainly white voters he was on their side. He persuaded them that he alone could ‘make America great again!’ by, for example, championing protectionist trade policies that he claimed would bring manufacturing jobs back home. At the same time, Trump convinced middle and upper-class mainly white voters that the economic benefits of neoliberalism they had long enjoyed would continue and be accompanied by further tax cuts for them under a Trump administration.
The more Trump employed misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Mexican and anti-black rhetoric in his campaign, the more his base seemed to embrace Trump as the maverick genius they needed to stand up for ‘the real America’ and restore US white (male) entitlement. This means that Trump did not win the presidency in spite of his vile comments about and vile behavior toward women, ‘the gays’, ‘the blacks’, ‘the Mexican rapists’ and ‘the radical Islamic terrorists’. He won the presidency because of and/or in spite of these comments and actions and because of how his campaign mobilized them to create a coalition of fear-based, misogynistic, Christian, patriotic whiteness.
Other factors also affected the outcome of the election. Clinton was a deeply unpopular establishment candidate. FBI Director James Comey’s letter to Congress about Clinton’s emails was the ‘October surprise’ that dampened Clinton’s support in the poll and may have depressed her vote. And the repeal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act – which created legal protections to insure the votes of African Americans – was likely felt in this election, as it will be for years to come. Trump lost the popular vote by some two million votes, but he won the electoral collage by winning the white vote nationally and in key states across the gender spectrum. This gave Trump the Presidency.
This is not to say that every Trump voter consciously identified with the Trump campaign’s bigoted, chauvinistic structures of understanding and social relations of power their votes legitimated and further embedded in the US. Nor is it to say that Clinton’s brand of neoliberalism was by any stretch of the imagination an ideal alternative to what the Trump campaign proposed. For it, too, used sex, gender, and sexuality as well as race, religion, class and ability to figure a contentious ‘US sovereign subject’ (Cyril Ghosh’s contribution to this symposium nicely elaborates this point). Rather, it is to say that sex, gender and sexuality played crucial roles in making Trump’s ‘US sovereign subject’ a figure who was appealing to and who could be inhabited by mostly – but not exclusively – white US Americans.
Crucially, the Trump campaign didn’t just roll out its vision of this ‘US sovereign subject’ by employing either/or logics, even though much of the time this seemed to be the case. Yes, Trump pitted ‘trustworthy’ and ‘untrustworthy’ US citizens against one another. But he constantly flip flopped on who these trustworthy and untrustworthy citizens were, whether in the case of women, ‘the blacks’ or the first black President of the United States of America. The campaign also rolled out Mike Pence to deny many of the things Trump said. And Trump made a lot of inherently contradictory statements that suggested he was for and against some groups or policies at the same time. For example, Trump said, ‘There can be no discrimination against gays. I’m against gay marriage’ (although in his 60 Minutes interview, Trump said gay marriage was a legally settled issue). Trump also made inconsistent statements about the anti-trans* bathroom law in North Carolina. Comments like these were implicitly and explicitly made in the register of sex, gender and sexuality throughout the campaign, and they were more consistent with and/or logics and neither/nor logics than they were with either/or logics. These statements demonstrate how some of the paradoxical figures and logics found in queer discourses were coopted by the Trump campaign for its own purposes.
All of this left many politicians, pundits, and ordinary US American citizens wondering if Trump was a clown who should be laughed off or an existential threat to the American democratic project. Trump positioned himself as either and both and even neither as it suited his ambitions. And he will likely continue to do so as the 45th President of the United States.
What is to be done?
As the US and the world face up to the realities of the impossible Presidency that the Trump campaign made possible, there is no shortage of recommendations circulating in critical camps about what is to be done. These include:
- Organizing new coalitions and devising experimental techniques to make them effective;
- Disarming the specific modalities of citizenship, governance and reason that make (un)reasonable identifications with a will to Trump possible; and
- Resisting all xenophobias, forms of racism, misogyny, homo/bi/trans*phobias, and other oppressive ideologies and social relations that violently order the world in whatever name – be it white supremacy, rightwing nationalism, conservatism, or neoliberalism.
I am less hopeful than Joan Cocks might be that these new political alliances and institutions will be forged ‘without sovereign aspirations, delusions, or pretensions’, whatever their scale. And I may be more persuaded than Cocks is that the counter-Trump re-imaginings of the US that will support these political alliances and institutions are an essential part of what makes radical change possible, even if these re-imaginings fail to escape the ‘delusion of sovereignty’ and its corresponding delusions of things like sex, gender and sexuality. This, it seems to me, is something Trump’s radical re-imagining of the US as his platform for winning the White House underscores.
As we all move forward and ready ourselves for some difficult conversations, this queer IR analysis suggests we keep the following two points in mind.
First, connections between sovereignty, sex, gender and sexuality are neither academic nor trivial. Nor are they separable from racisms, xenophobias and other systems of power. How sovereignties are specifically sexualized, racialized, classed and otherwise configured to authorize the defense of particular nationalisms and internationalisms has real effects on real people. This is as true in relation to the hate speech and physical violence authorized in the name of Trump as it is for the policies that will emerge from a Trump administration.
Second, exclusively anti-normative, always contrarian, somehow liberating understandings of ‘queer’, ‘queers’, and ‘queer logics’ can obscure the fact that ‘queer’ – just like any (dis)position, strategy, or tool – can be captured, mimicked, and mobilized to map the world in despicable ways. Alt-Right offers one important example of a white supremacist organization adopting techniques of the left for such purposes. How the Trump campaign mobilized what (otherwise) might appear to be queer logics of statecraft to de-normalize Clinton’s ‘neoliberal US sovereign subject’ on behalf of Trump’s (re)normalized ‘repressed, entitled, white US sovereign subject’ is another. There is no reason to believe that, as President, Trump will abandon the very logics and tactics that helped win him the Presidency.
These are among the stakes a queer IR analysis of a will to Trump makes plain.
For me, opposing a will to Trump starts by reminding myself that – like ‘queer’ – a ‘state’s sovereign subjectivity is…”[i]llusive, always on the move.” It is “at best like something, but it never is that something”’. Trump is of some ever-changing United States of America, but Trump is not the United States of America. The same can be said of the ‘US sovereign subject’ Trump’s campaign strategically figured to authorize Trump’s will to power. It is in these gaps and fissures where I will pitch my political tent and stage my practical political resistance to a will to Trump.