Trump’s Postmodern America?
So this has been a weird week.
Between the inauguration, the first several (largely unnerving) acts of our new president, trying to make it to the Iowa’s Women’s March, getting lost and not making it to the march but instead calling the cops on a guy who was threatening a woman while several other people stood by, it’s opened up a… lot of opportunities for important political discussion.
So it was the other day I found myself in a Facebook discussion about philosophy and Trump, two topics I would never expect to find in a room together because one is an attempt to define truth, and the other wouldn’t notice if he accidentally signed an executive order banning it from Twitter.
Hang on, I can do better than that. One is an attempt to define truth, and the other wouldn’t recognize truth if he grabbed it by its unmentionables (which, statistically speaking, he probably has).
Okay, okay, give me one more try. One is an attempt to define truth, and the other’s top advisor honestly just used the phrase “alternative facts.” I’m getting distracted, hang on…
Sorry. Anyway, the important part is, there are a lot of people trying to link the rise of Trumpism with the rise of postmodernism. There’s this article, which kicked off our discussion (and which my brother described as reading like it came from someone who “learned [philosophy] from the back of a cereal box”). This one, which is much better-written and more informed, but seems to oversimplify things (something we never do here at The Total Depravity of Mannings especially not in this post in a few minutes). And then there’s this, which probably makes the best point and, quite frankly, made me question everything I thought I knew about MTV.
And yet, there’s just something about all of these that seems off to me.
Full disclaimer: my knowledge of philosophy comes almost entirely from a few things I read years ago in college and a few master’s-level essays I’ve proofread for a friend of mine. All of these writers (including Ernst, whose article I publicly mocked) are likely much better read on this subject and it would no doubt behoove me to stick to topics I know about (which I will totally do, as soon as I figure out what they are). But.
I don’t think this is a connection that can be made, for one (probably overly simple) reason:
Trump supporters seem largely the least postmodern group active today.
We’re going to be speaking in broad terms here, so please bear with (and forgive) me. The popular view of postmodern thought, that it holds that nothing is true and morality is dead, is very much false. Such a belief would be not only ridiculous, but also untenable.
While there are many schools of postmodern thought, and a lot of depth to all of them, one thing they tend to have in common is the value of the subjective experience. The idea that, because all of our experiences are subjective, none of us can ever claim to be an “objective observer.” So we need to listen to, and take seriously, the subjective experiences of others.
If I could sum up my understanding of postmodern philosophy in one sentence, it would be this: “My experience does not define reality” (which is a bit ironic because the popular understanding of it is the opposite).
And if there is one group who acts as if their experience does define reality, it would almost have to be those who practice Trumpism.
Now, those are, admittedly, four of the least charitable sentences I’ve written in a long time. Not all Trumpers criticized the WM/BLM; not all who criticized were Trumpers. But given that data on that sort of thing is difficult to attain, I’d be amazed if there wasn’t at least a strong correlation there.
So what do we make of this? Well, either I’m completely off in my understanding of postmodernism (very possible, though if true I will renege on everything I’ve said here and explain how “that’s just what postmodernism represents to you, man!”) or there’s something else at play in Trump’s historic rise.
I’m inclined to go with the latter. Philosophy is important (to paraphrase a wise man, if you don’t think philosophy matters, try to explain why, without using philosophy), but it feels unnecessary to reach for abstract explanations when there are far more concrete and immediate explanations for Trump’s… nuanced relationship with truth and meaning, or why a significant portion of the population followed along.
When the choices for explaining Trump are citing a shift in philosophical approach or accepting that 4 in 5 white evangelicals put their loyalty to party ahead of their loyalty to faith, it’s tempting to blame philosophers. But it’s probably more accurate not to.