Postmodern Trumpism

If Trump lied, he would not be as dangerous as he is as a bullshitter. Frankfort writes, “By virtue of [not paying attention to the truth], bullshit is the greater enemy of the truth than lies are. . . . Through excessive indulgence in

[bullshit]

, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person’s normal habit of attending to the ways things are may become attenuated or lost.”

There may be many causes for Trump’s bullshit—his narcissistic ego may be the prime reason, but there is at least another one. “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.” Those of us concerned with the truth should give up the notion that Trump will learn what is true and what is not and that the falsehoods will decrease over time. As long as Trump continues to talk about things he knows little to nothing about, the bullshit will continue.

The real issue is not why Trump excretes so many falsehoods, it is why so many people accept, even desire, his bullshit. This is where postmodernism comes in. In a postmodernistic world, we don’t have to go to the trouble of ascertaining what is true because what matters is what is true for me. Many of his supporters surely know that what Trump says is not only false but errant bullshit, but he says what the Trumpistas want to believe. The important thing is that what he says feels true to his audience. And if it feels true to them, then it is true. Postmodernism, once a leftist phenomenon, has found its zenith in a conservative world.

The appeal and power of accepting falsehoods because they feel right, because they are true for me, should not be underestimated. We might think that when everybody has their own truth individuals are separated from each other and the world is atomistic. It is true that in the postmodernist world I don’t have to engage with those who hold other truths and I can remain segregated from them, but believing in falsehoods also brings people together. What Lawrence Wright, in Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, wrote about a new religious movement has broader applicability: “Belief in the irrational is one definition of faith, but it is also true that clinging to absurd or disputed doctrines binds a community of faith together and defines a barrier to the outside world.”

Wright’s insight helps explain our modern world. Many who believe that we should distinguish truth from non-truth in order to formulate policies and action have their own faith in rationality. They are surprised that as the breadth, depth, and frequency of Trump’s bullshit became increasingly apparent that Trumpistas have not fallen away. These rationalists see the falsehoods as a negative for Trump, but in fact they are a source of the president’s strength. His falsehoods have produced a feeling that such utterances must be true, ought to be true, are at least emotionally true. As a result, they have bound his supporters together, helping to define a needed barrier with the rest of society.

Something like this postmodernism has also affected some who do not support Trump. I have several friends, not Trump supporters, who have said that whatever you think about the president, you have to concede that he has kept his promises. I begged to differ, although a bit more forcefully than that. I referred them to the factchecking website Politifact’s Trump-O-Meter which tracks 102 promises made by candidate Trump in 2016.  It reports that he has kept 18% of his promises, broken 17%, compromised 11%, and the rest are “stalled” or “in the works.” This hardly indicates that he has kept his promises unless keeping less than one in five looks like a promise-keeper to you.

But all promises are not equal. Perhaps he has kept the important ones. All may not agree on what should fall on this list, but Politifact’s list of Trump’s top five promises concludes that only one has been kept, and that was to suspend immigration from terror-prone places. Two are rated as compromises: “Everybody is getting a tax cut, especially the middle class” and “The Trump Plan will lower the business tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent, and eliminate the corporate alternative minimum tax.” (These ratings raise the question: Can you compromise a promise or is a compromised promise a broken promise?)

The other top Trump promises, according to the fact-checkers, were to repeal and replace Obamacare and to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it. Politifact lists both these promises as stalled. That begs the question of how long a promise can be stalled before it is broken. But whether the stalled characterization is correct, it seems clear that these promises have not been kept.

Even so, my knowledgeable and non-conservative friends say that Trump has kept his promises. When confronted with the information showing that he has kept few of them, my friends reply that the specific things he promised do not really matter. The attitude he projects about immigration, Obamacare, taxes, and the like show that he is keeping his promises. My friends are really saying that the truth of promise-keeping does not matter as long as it feels as if promises have been kept. How post-modern of them!

(Concluded January 15)

Postmodern Trumpism (continued)

          The postmodern view that truth is subjective has important epistemological consequences. We no longer have to listen to each other: we don’t have to try to reconcile competing claims and information. If you maintain that thousands were massacred at Wounded Knee on that day in 1890 while I contend that no one was killed, if we believe that there is an objective truth, we would engage each other. We would investigate what support there is for the competing positions, and perhaps do more research. As a result, we might abandon or modify our original assertions. If, however, truth is subjective, if truth is what is true for each individual, we will not undertake this shared enterprise seeking a better understanding of the truth. Thousands dead is true for you. Nobody died is true for me. End of story. It’s all relative.

          The notion that truth was relative wedged its way into a wider world and crept into many areas of thought outside of academia. For example, Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard wrote: “What is true is what is true for you. No one has any right to force data on you and command you to believe it or else. If it is not true for you, it isn’t true. Think your own way through things, accept what is true for you, discard the rest. There is nothing unhappier than one who tries to live in a chaos of lies.” (Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.)

          It also entered an Ivy League seminar room. I don’t remember the topic discussion for the class I was recently leading, but when I called on one student, she said, “Don’t you want to know what my opinion is?” I snapped “No!” The bright young woman had a shocked look. Surely her opinion was valuable. Others around the table were concerned. Many looked as if this was the first time a student opinion was rejected. I went on to say, “I want your facts; your information. What relevant experiences have you had? Then you can tell me how your opinion arises out of those data.” She went silent. But in a world where truth is subjective, all opinions are equally valid, and she probably thought that I should have allowed her to present her truth no matter how it was derived. (I got one bad teaching evaluation from this seminar. I assume that it was she, but that is just my opinion; I don’t have facts to back it up.)

          Postmodern thinking has affected diplomats. Michiko Kakutani’s book The Death of Truth quotes a Russian propagandist. “All narratives are contingent, Surkov suggested, and all politicians are liars; therefore, the alternative facts put out by the Kremlin (and by Donald Trump) are just as valid as everyone else’s.” Surkov “invoked Derrida-inspired arguments about the unreliability of language—to suggest that Western notions of truthfulness and transparency are naïve and unsophisticated.”

          Postmodernist thinking even invaded science. On The Big Bang Theory it is a laugh line when Penny’s not-overly-bright boyfriend says to Leonard and the rest of the Caltech crowd: “Agree to disagree. That’s what I love about science. There’s no right answer.” But supposedly bright people began to maintain that science was merely socially constructed and that science could not claim to be neutral. Science could not seek universal truths because it was fatally affected by a scientist’s identity and cultural values. (Tell that to the scientist spouse and watch her seethe!)

          One of my leftist academic colleagues adopted this anti-science position. The United States Supreme Court had written an opinion about what scientific evidence could be admitted into trials. I appeared with my colleague on a panel at a neighboring law school discussing this decision. My colleague denigrated the decision by glibly saying that science like other knowledge was merely “socially constructed” and subjective. On the other hand, I knew that she had taken an elevator to the conference room, and I wondered if she truly thought that the principles that allowed that lift to ascend and descend were mere subjective social constructions. If we truly believed that there was no objective scientific truth, we could not operate in the world. No one really believes what she was trying to peddle. Instead, a more sophisticated approach might have allowed that science does not produce absolute truths because it is always trying to refine its knowledge or that scientific funding, which influences what gets studied, can be affected by cultural and society forces. But we all know that there is a universal truth behind the physics of gravity and friction.

(continued January 10)