Three Philosophers on Trump

Bonevac for Trump

We can start with the most straight-forward piece, Daniel Bonevac on why he voted for Trump. (There’s also an earlier piece in the Washington Post, on “what it’s like to be a college professor who supports Trump“.) As Eric Schliesser has previously noted, Bonevac’s Trump is somewhat unrecognizable: Bonevac describes him as a Lockean defender of natural rights and the constitution, an upright supporter of freedom of speech, a fighter for the dispirited and left-behind; claims that Trump peddles racism or crude conspiracy theories, Bonevac suggest, are false or overblown.

It’s easy to nit-pick Bonevac’s piece in this way. One wonders, for example, about the following passage:

[Obama] has mostly ruled by decree, by executive order and especially by the rule-making of executive branch agencies. Clinton promised to continue the trend. She would have ruled more or less as a monarch with little Congressional limit to her power. The Constitution would have been a dead letter. She would have been able to impose her own moral vision on the entire country. That vision, moreover, rests on a narrative with limited correspondence to reality. And she would have removed the checks and balances of the American system designed to keep narratives and reality in line with each other.

It’s not hard to change “Clinton” to “Trump”, and one gets a decent summary of the first days of Trump’s presidency, and his general style of governing. (To his credit, Bonevac’s piece dates from before Trump’s inauguration, so he might well have come in for a nasty surprise.)

More interesting is Bonevac’s invocation of the Asch experiments. The experimental subjects in these experiments were presented with a simple visual test in which they had to identify whether one line was longer than others. When subjects were presented with (clearly false) claims by others that a given line was equal in length to others, they surprisingly often yielded to the judgment of others. So, it seems, our judgments can become easily distorted even in simple matters.

For Bonevac, it’s the political elites who have for years had a distorted perception of the realities of American society. It’s with Trump that the masses reassert that the lines are not, in fact, of equal length:

How often have we encountered statements like these over the past eight years? “Islam is a religion of peace.” “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.” “Obamacare will bring down the cost of health insurance.” “The economy is in great shape.” “Raising the minimum wage doesn’t cost jobs; it creates them.” “Iran can be trusted not to develop nuclear weapons.” “America is stronger and more respected today than it was eight years ago.” These are not only false, but obviously false.

The metaphor is hardly helpful. It’s a standard political move to accuse your opponents that they don’t see things the right way, that theirs is an undertaking of tremendous delusion while yours is one of level-headed common sense. Because matters are so perfectly symmetrical, the metaphor doesn’t convince anyone. (The further irony, of course, is that we have a real-world Asch experiment at hand, and it turns out that Trump can’t identify the larger inauguration crowd in a simple visual test.)

We should be suspicious, furthermore, of anyone who invokes the metaphor of direct, perception-like access to the political truth. The problem in politics is precisely that truth can’t be had in these simple ways. To put it in standard philosophical terms, politics is characterised by thick and reasonable disagreement. Our disagreements are reasonable because well-meaning, rational, well-informed people will have different political views. And furthermore the disagreement is thick because there is no agreed-upon method (like sense perception) which could resolve these disagreements.

Žižek for Trump

Žižek’s public persona in some ways is similar to Trump’s: he’s an old man with silly hair with a disjointed rhetorical style. Both men are famously against political correctness, and enjoy crudity and vulgarity. Many suspect that despite their successes and media presence, both men are intellectual charlatans. Lastly, Žižek as well as Trump have a sure sense for the attention-grabbing.

Žižek is not someone who would let a good crisis go to waste. So it’s true to his style that we find clickbait headlines that Žižek “endorsed” Trump. Once you subtract Žižek’s idiosyncratic style, his argument is simple enough:

In this situation in which we are now, only some kind of a shakeup can save us […]. And one good thing about Donald Trump – and it’s an obscenity to call this a good thing – is that he put [the system] into great disarray; it almost fell apart.

He is not a dangerous guy who is appearing to be polite. All his violent outbursts – completely vulgar, tasteless statements – mask the fact that there is nothing extraordinary about him.

Žižek has elaborated on this view elsewhere. He sees Clinton as continuing the damaging inertia of elite dominance; Trump has shaken up all this complacency. The leftist hope should be that this will ultimately pave the way for a Sanderite “authentic left”: “the good thing about [Trump] is that he really scares liberals”. In short, better a genuine right-wing disaster like Trump than the continued dominance of the Clintonite faux-left. (In another interview, Žižek warns that remaining in the status quo could lead “to a possible new world war, economic catastrophes, etc.”)

So Žižek wants things to be different; chaos is the ladder. But just like Bonevac desperately wants to find a Lockean natural-law conservative in Trump, so Žižek desperately wants to see Trump as a stepping stone in the dialectic development towards the revival of the left. This significantly underplays the dangers of Trump and the faults of Clinton, and severely overestimates hopes for a rejuvenated left.

In the case of Žižek, one also needs a rather hardened, cynical attitude towards the injustices that Trump will incur for the thin hope of a better society. Still, there is an open (and interesting) question here: should we welcome—or at least accept—chaotic and morally regressive changes if they bear the possibility of carrying us away from a morally subpar status quo? Žižek seems to think yes, but he is characteristically vague on the precise conditions on when we should accept this answer.

My suspicion is that Žižek is right in some respects, but wrong in the more important ways. Trump’s success might present a fruitful opportunity to shake neoliberal elites out of complacency, and to remind cosmopolitan elites that nationalism is a powerful force to be reckoned with. Trump’s assault on the explicit and implicit conventions that hold a constitutional democracy together might also paradoxically heighten awareness of their importance. But by and large, Žižek’s bid seems to me like the proposal that exploding the nuclear bomb in the living room will provide a great opportunity to buy new furniture: there simply won’t be enough house left.

Gaus on the Open Society

Jerry Gaus has also touched on Trump’s success, though a lot more obliquely. Gaus tells a sweeping philosophical story. At its core is a conflict between two visions of liberal society, the figureheads of which Gaus finds in Hayek and Popper. Hayek, Gaus claims, sees the open society as an evolving, spontaneous order:

For [Hayek] the core of the open society is free and willing cooperation of strangers on the basis of rules that allow each space to effectively pursue her aims and values. He repeatedly insisted that in an open society we must take tradition seriously, and must resist the temptation to overestimate our ability to rationally understand, much less guide, such a society.

On the other hand, there is Popper’s “sectarian” vision of liberalism. Popper’s liberalism is one of supreme trust in reason, and our ability to establish the normative desirability of the liberal order through abstract moral argument. On Gaus’s story, this Popperian, rationalist approach to liberalism has dominated political philosophy since Rawls, and it has been implicit in the thinking of political elites ever since. The rationalist, for example, is very confident in the ability of economic experts to predict and plan the economy.

But, so Gaus’s story goes, the Popperian approach is deeply flawed—it suffers from a peculiar kind of “epistemic arrogance”:

I believe that the Popperian, sectarian, vision […] is deeply flawed, inadvertently encouraging a retreat to the very reactionary tribalism it opposes. When we reflect on the disaster of 2016 we should not just smugly look at the enemies of the open society […] but its friends, and the arrogant and condescending stance they have too-often taken up.

Gaus sees Trump as a moral and political disaster, though he elaborates little on the specifics. But part of the blame (or at least responsibility) for this disaster, he thinks, should be placed at the hands of the rationalist elites who overestimated their ability to understand and plan society.

This is a sweeping story with a surprising villain, but does it hold up? Let me start with two initial worries. First, there is the suspicion that Gaus finds nails because he has a hammer. It’s not hard to guess that Gaus’s ideological sympathies lie with Hayek. There’s a sense to Gaus’s piece that he nitpicks the pieces of evidence that support his view, and ignores others. (I’ll present some pieces that don’t fit the puzzle in a moment.)

Second, we should be generally sceptical whenever academic intellectual movements are blamed for particular social ills. The motivating forces behind political changes tend to be much more mundane, and the direct (as well as indirect) influence of philosophical ideas limited, for better or worse.

For these two reasons alone I am rather sceptical of Gaus’s account. The moving forces behind political changes tend to be much more mundane. It’s tempting to read phenomena like Trump or Brexit as reflecting more fundamental intellectual or cultural changes, but we must also seriously consider the null hypothesis that they don’t. This doesn’t mean that such developments are arbitrary, but rather that they reflect much more mundane economic or cultural forces.

But let’s turn to Gaus’s story. As I can discern it, its major elements are the following:

  1. because liberal elites were/are epistemically arrogant, their sectarian attempts at social planning through centralised institutions were/are inevitably doomed to fail, or to be inefficient or insufficiently sensitive to local conditions,
  2. these ill-adjusted policies lead to a backlash from the non-elite part of the electorate who find themselves increasingly alienated from the coercive institutions ruling over them.
  3. there is an On-Off switch in voters’ political psychology that makes them think in more tribalist, authoritarian and irrational ways if they think their way of life is threatened;
  4. this switch is eventually triggered by decades of bad policies, in which case it leads to disastrous results (like Trump).

We can grant (2): there is some kind of backlash against elites (though the fact that Clinton won the popular election and Trump is deeply unpopular should make us pause). Claim (3) also seems to accord well with some findings about authoritarianism.

However, almost all other parts of the narrative I find unconvincing. We can start by pursuing Gaus’s argument into one example he discusses at length, the supposed epistemic arrogance of the economic profession. Gaus offers a series of complaints against the expertise of economists, broadly following the work of Philip Tetlock. Gaus takes the well-known view of economics as the “dismal science”, and suggests that economists should show more Hayekian humility regarding the predictive and explanatory capacities of economics. This assessment of the accuracy of economics is by no means uncontroversial, but we can accept for argument’s sake that economists have overstated the scientific prowess of their own discipline.

A first problem is that most stories of failures in economic policy-making are as much stories about the epistemic arrogance of economic experts as they are stories about political elites wilfully ignoring those experts. For example, when French-German policy makers insisted on a common European currency, they were disdainful or even completely ignored expert worries. Similarly, the Republican pursuit of supply-side economics has at best fringe academic support going for it, as do austerity policies as a reply to the financial crisis.

Indeed, as Simon Wren-Lewis has continuously stressed, economic policy-making happens mostly by appeal to “media macro”, an almost unrecognizably bastardization of the academic discipline characterised more by symbolic gesturing than careful economic argument. So whatever the supposed epistemic arrogance of the economists, it’s not clear whether it was an important driving force behind policy-making. Indeed, a much better story seems to be that economic policy-making is normally guided by contradictory political imperatives, lobby groups, and the electoral short-sightedness of political parties. These ingredients, in some combination, would suffice to explain the elites’ failings.

Moreover, Gaus’s story seems to get things exactly backwards in at least one respect: after all, the economic rationalists that Gaus so loathes have been on the back foot for the last thirty years—if not academically, then at least insofar as they had policy-makers’ ears. It’s after all broadly Hayek-inspired, intervention-sceptical, deregulationist, neoliberal economists who, starting from the 1980s, had the biggest impact in shaping America’s and the global economy. These economists and politicians are more likely to agree than disagree with Gaus’s warning that “the arrogance of the illusion of control is a danger, which we must constantly seek to mitigate”.

A second part of Gaus’s story concerns the supposedly “sectarian” moral values that liberal elites hold. Gaus traces the original sin of sectarianism back to Rawls, in whose wake “[m]oral and political philosophy overwhelmingly degenerated into a sectarian, ideological project, dismissing religion as superstition, traditional norms as bigoted and oppressive”. Guided by epistemically arrogant theories of this type, liberal elites try to impose their sectarian values through institutions like the Supreme Court; again, this eventually leads to tribalist backlash.

This story is even less believable. First, it relies on an implausible view of the impact of academic philosophical thinking on political practice. Even if political thought has become more sectarian in the way Gaus describes, it is hard to believe that this is because of an army of Rawls-inspired policy-makers. Second, the argument relies on a curious understanding of “sectarianism”. Conservative views which elevate religion to part of the public culture and sanctify traditional norms are as sectarian as progressive norms, but seem to not be classified as sectarian by Gaus’s definition (at least the bit I quoted).

We should also ask what the alternative to “sectarian” policy-making is. Gaus unsurprisingly suggests a variety of the public reason liberalisms he favours:

A moral and political philosophy truly suited to the defense of the open society does not begin by supposing a correct perspective on justice, but takes as its foundational insight that the admissible perspectives are many and varied. The aim is not to vindicate a specific, or even a narrow family, of perspectives, but to understand the conditions under which diverse perspectives on justice, morality and religion can share a moral and political framework that participants can understand as consistent with their deepest convictions, and which all can see as beneficial. In such a society we must accept that few, if any, will see their society as perfectly or ideally just, but the overwhelming number can deem it sufficiently just in light of their own perspectives, and sufficiently accommodative to their deepest beliefs.

There are many open philosophical questions about the desirability and coherence of this project—just ask yourself, for example, how we know what an “admissible” perspective is, how political theory could be done without supposing some correct beliefs about justice, and why we should forego possible gains in justice merely to accommodate political beliefs we know to be mistaken.

The politics that Gaus imagines are precisely of the kind that try to avoid the tragedy of truth about which I have written previously. I think this view is mistaken: you can’t and shouldn’t accommodate everyone in politics. Even if Gaus is right that “tribalist” backlash is a risk of the pursuit of partisan (“sectarian”) policies, perhaps this is a risk we must simply accept.

Putting aside these worries, it’s not clear to me whether Gaus’s alternative liberalism would have fared that much better. It is impossible to find policies on certain issues—e.g., abortion or social redistribution—that do not offend the deepest beliefs of large parts of the electorate in sectarian societies like the US.

I’m also not convinced that contemporary liberal politics has been overly partisan, if we understand partisanship in a broad sense. If anything, most Western democracies have seen their major parties huddle around the political centre for a long time, at least if we think about the time frame from the early 1990s up to the financial crisis. It’s hard to think of the Obama administration and Clinton’s candidacy as intensely sectarian, Rawlsian or otherwise.

Three Impressions

We can find three very different interpretations of Trump and America in these three pieces. Each interpretation, however, has as much (if not more) to do with the ideological blinkers of the interpreter than with Trump. This is most obvious for Bonevac, who desperately wants to find a constitutional conservative in him.

Žižek, at the other end of the ideological spectrum, should be more capable of seeing the dangers and absurdities of Trump, but instead insists that he is mostly harmless. Instead, Žižek the rabble-rouser prefers to see in Trump an opportunity to “heighten the contradictions”. Žižek has carefully cultivated a public image of an iconoclast, and coming out in favour of Clinton would have been a painful choice for Žižek for purely stylistic reasons.

Gaus comments little on Trump directly, but it is clear he considers him a disaster. Instead, Gaus offers us an elaborate story of the supposed (intellectual) failings which made Trump possible. But this story I found even less believable than Bonevac’s or Žižek’s. Gaus brings the biggest philosophical gun to the game, but to me he also seems to miss the most.

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  1. Iason says:

    This is really helpful analysis Matthias – keep up the good work!

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