Who Wouldn’t Get the Joke?: Vile Sovereignty, Vanishing Mediators, and Trump

Simon Orpana, Evan Mauro


This article considers Trump as an example of “vile sovereignty,” a concept Michel Foucault put forward in the mid 1970s to describe “the exercise of power through the explicit disqualification of the person who wields it” (2003b: 35)—a “childish discourse” that disqualifies the speaker at the very moment that they are being appealed to as a figure of authority (36). We argue that this concept helps illuminate contemporary US politics, where Trump’s carnivalesque flaunting of political decorum and morality paradoxically seem to buttress the power of his Republican Party. Building upon our theorization of the role vile sovereignty has played in recent Canadian politics (Orpana & Mauro 2013/14), our contribution considers Trumpist popular representations, focusing on Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019). The film speaks directly to the cultural and racial politics of an exhausted progressive neoliberalism, and offers a neo-populist vision in response—both markers, we argue, of contemporary vile sovereignty. From there we turn to the conjuncture and consider vile sovereignty as a Jamesonian “vanishing mediator” to a new legitimation of power: an authoritarian populism interested primarily in maintaining and extending planetary extractivism and in staving off attempts at the democratic socialization of energy production.


Critical Theory; Trump

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.32855/fcapital.202001.011


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ISSN: 1930-014X