Comprising two lectures delivered in November of 2016, Alain Badiou’s short book on Trump arrived in 2019, at the outset of the last election season. It is thus tempting to approach this occasional text not only as a reflection on the immediate aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but also as an intervention in the 2020 election. An intervention on behalf of whom? In the opening lines of his first lecture, Badiou evinces an understanding that his audience positions itself on the left as he appeals to a communal sense of disappointment, depression, and panic over Trump’s victory. While sympathizing with his melancholic listeners, Badiou nonetheless suggests that their negative affects are elicited by the decomposition of the left rather than the rise of the far right. Trump’s success merely confirms Jean-Paul Sartre’s harsh verdict invoked in The Meaning of Sarkozy, Badiou’s response to the 2007 French presidential election: “The left is a stinking overturned corpse.”[i] Badiou demands that his audience confront Sartre’s question, as unpleasant as it may be, in the context of the contemporary political situation: “Do we believe this great upturned, worm-ridden cadaver, the left, can attract the young?”[ii]

To overcome paralyzing negative affects, which serve the state’s aim of foreclosing novel political paths, we must first apprehend the crisis of subjectivity (of which Trump is but a symptom) in topological terms. Politics presupposes a subjective dimension, argues Badiou, to the extent that it entails decisions, principles, and orientations. Once political frontiers evaporate and the left ceases to “supply its adherents a clear and certain path toward the good, the right, and the true,” as Wendy Brown puts it in her influential essay on left melancholy, political subjects succumb to a profound disorientation in their search for a new strategic path leading beyond the confines of global capitalism.[iii] Hence, Badiou declares the titular object of his book, Trump, to be “something obscure and not really interesting.”[iv] It is far more interesting to investigate why the Democratic Party and, broadly speaking, the American left in its present dilapidated state is incapable of offering a genuine alternative to Trumpism.

Undoubtedly, Badiou’s assumption that Democrats serve as official representatives of the left constitutes the weakest point of his argument. In recent years, the Democratic Party has reinvented itself as the party of neocons, the party of “you are either with us or you are a Kremlin asset,” the party of self-appointed guardians of democracy dedicated to combating domestic extremism with censorship and fighting terror abroad with multi-billion military aid packages. However, even if we locate the Democratic Party on the right, Badiou’s thesis concerning the disintegrating political frontiers holds true. Today it is no longer possible to identify the left with universality and equality in opposition to the rightist tendency to identity and hierarchy. In fact, the American left’s acquiescence to identity politics has directly contributed to a fortification of hierarchical systems of power. Once politics is defined as a matter of representation of particular identities, the state invariably expands its capacity to manage the populations, categorize priority groups, and “protect” vulnerable communities by introducing new technologies of domination. Predictably, after the Biden administration introduced a new Disinformation Governance Board into the Department of Homeland Security, the Board’s head, Nina Jankowics, justified this authoritarian move by adopting the quasi-leftist defense of “marginalized communities” from “free speech absolutists.” In so doing, she reaffirmed the liberal maxim of representation formulated in Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State: the domination of the exploited class must be carried out by the exploiting class in the interests of the exploited class itself.

When progressives endorse the strategic alliance of the state and corporate power in the name of combating disinformation, when antiracist activists embrace the statist practice of counting priority populations to ensure a more “equitable” immiseration of the working class, when socialists concede that global capitalism constitutes the sole available choice, the left ceases to function as a topological term orienting the emancipatory path of humanity. This disorientation culminates in what Logics of Worlds terms the atonal world, which only counts governable bodies and admissible languages to the exclusion of subjects and truths.

As I have suggested, the lectures on Trump bear more than a faint resemblance to the argument set forth in The Meaning of Sarkozy. Badiou himself invites such a comparison when he proposes that Trump and Sarkozy represent a new and obscure kind of figure: a politician-as-thug, a voyou. Trump “is in the Republican Party, but he also represents something outside it: sexism, racism, tendencies towards fascism.”[v] One could say that Trump belongs to the right of the right or, to put it in Lacanese, that he is extimate (i.e. at once exterior and intimate) with respect to the right. Hence, Badiou maintains that the 2016 election introduces disorder into the center of the state, which can no longer function normally due to the errant place occupied by Trumpism in the political establishment.

On the one hand, Trump’s victory constituted a traumatic event in a psychoanalytic sense insofar as it staged a sudden confrontation with a harrowing lack in the symbolic order, a dysfunction in the regime of power and knowledge. On the other hand, it did not amount to an event in Badiou’s sense of the term since, as he makes clear in Theory of the Subject, a genuine event takes place not only as the impasse of formalization but also as the pass of the real. In other words, an event not only exposes an inconsistency in the structure of the atonal world, but also engenders radical novelty that summons the subject of change who accepts the consequences of the event. From this standpoint, Trump’s victory does not qualify as an event since it exposed an inconsistency in the political system without creating a new consistency. Instead of summoning the faithful subject, it provoked the wrath of the electoral superego, which calls for a restoration of the crumbling political elite. The quintessential superegoic imperative, “Enough!”, dominates our contemporary pseudo-leftist discourse that desperately pleads for a unified Democratic base prior to every election: This is the most consequential election of a lifetime! Our democracy is under attack! Vote blue no matter who!

Even if a crisis of the political elite induces the feeling of a vague disorder that cannot in itself serve as the evental cause of subjectivization, does this putrefaction at the center of the state not offer an opportunity for a political upheaval? Rather than give in to the befuddling negative affects, it is much more productive to follow the lead of militants from Jean-Luc Godard’s Tout Va Bien (a 1972 film admired by Badiou as an allegory of leftism on the wane) and confront political quandaries with the declaration: “The situation is excellent.” There is every reason to celebrate the oligarchy’s fall into disarray because politics originates from a destruction of political legitimacy in the statist domain of representation.

From a psychoanalytic standpoint, a subjective encounter with a dysfunction at the heart of the state (i.e., what Lacanians term “traversing the phantasy” qua exposure to a lack in the big Other) has a potential to induce a separation of the subject. In the present context, separation entails a detachment from the post-democratic space that offers a false choice between two political paths that ostensibly proceed in the opposite directions while leading to the same destination. For the separated subject to be the subject of change in Badiou’s sense of the term, it must occupy the errant site of immanent exception prohibited by the atonal world. Hence, Badiou invites us to think that which insists outside the system of representation that organizes the division between the left and the right, namely the idea of communism.

Badiou emphasizes that, just as fascism belongs on the right of the right, communism is situated on the left of the left. Adopting a topological idiom of Theory of the Subject, we could propose that communism exists out-of-place [hors-lieu] in the place occupied by the official left. A mere existence of the outplace [horlieu], which resists structural placement and statist representation, does not, however, guarantee an event. For the latter to occur, the communist idea must not merely ex-sist at the farthest limits of the left but also insist as a force capable of introducing a novel political path into the atonal world. To designate this force Badiou has chosen the ancient word, proletariat, which has been excised from the contemporary political discourse. On the one hand, as Badiou notes apropos of Marx, the proletariat is absent from the political stage. Indeed, to the extent that the name “proletariat” cannot be conflated with any particular identity group or priority population, it has been abandoned by the American left, which has sacrificed the universalist project of Marxism on the altar of identity politics. On the other hand, proletarian capacity presupposes a materialization of that which is lacking in the bourgeois society. As Jacques Ranciere observes, the Latin word proletarii originally referred to “prolific people” – that is to say, “those who do nothing but reproduce their own multiplicity and who, for this very reason, do not deserve to be counted.”[vi] What the proletariat spawns is the errant excess over places accorded to individuals in the statist order of representation.

One could trace the conceptual shift from the proletariat qua lack to the proletariat qua excess in the interval that separates Badiou’s responses to the 2007 French presidential election and the 2016 U.S. presidential election. On the one hand, The Meaning of Sarkozy conceives of the proletarian capacity in negative terms, invoking the subjective figure of the excluded banished from participation in “one world.” On the other hand, Trump recognizes the excluded social set as the nomadic proletariat, designating its affirmative force as the supplementary bearer of generic humanity. Aside from being exiled from their country of origin, the nomadic proletariat is displaced from what Louis Althusser once described as a “fixed residence” assigned to individuals in the domain of ideology. From this standpoint, the nomadic proletariat is indeed “illegal” insofar as it cripples the statist mechanism of representation, the count-as-one, which classifies and hierarchizes parts of the situation. Contrary to its intended effect of dehumanizing undocumented immigrants, the epithet “illegal” foregrounds their generic humanity, which eludes the predicative grasp of the law.

As the ungovernable refuse of the situation, the nomadic proletariat provides an opportunity for a political process of unbinding and separation that proceeds at a distance from the state. The American left invariably misses this opportunity as soon as it reduces the proletarian capacity for nondomination to a familiar identity of the marginalized victim represented by the state’s benevolent functionaries. Not surprisingly, the Democratic Party’s cause célèbre concerns counting undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Census to ensure their representation in Congress. In so doing, the left’s official representatives subordinate the translegal subjective capacity to the statist process of classification and distribution of determinate parts of the situation.

What matters in the process of proletarianization, which cuts across social and ethnic categories, is a recomposition of the “we” that once stood under the banner of communism in the wake of the left’s decomposition. Badiou’s new internationalism invites us (including the disoriented political subjects who continue to position themselves on the left) to become foreign to ourselves. In this sense Trump takes up and develops a slogan introduced in The Meaning of Sarkozy: “Foreigners are an opportunity.”[vii] Political organization in a new sequence of the communist hypothesis must restore alliances between the youth, the workers, the immigrants, and the intellectuals by submitting these subsets to a negative process of disidentification while simultaneously incorporating them into affirmative becoming of the collective subject. Today the nomadic proletariat constitutes a principal category for egalitarian politics because it plays a central role in resurrection of the communist “we,” which must be expatriated and delocalized to reembark upon a new strategic path.



[i] Badiou, Alain, The Meaning of Sarkozy (London: Verso, 2008), p. 25.

[ii] Sartre, Jean-Paul, We Have Only This Life to Live (New York: New York Review Books, 2013), p. 272.

[iii] Brown, Wendy, “Resisting Left Melancholy,” boundary 2 (1999), p. 22.

[iv] Badiou, Alain, Trump (Cambridge: Polity 2019), p. 27.

[v] Ibid., p. 40.

[vi] Rancière, Jacques, Disagreement (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), p. 121.

[vii] Badiou, The Meaning of Sarkozy, p. 69.