Many people in America and elsewhere are scared of what Donald Trump will do. As I write, some are in the street protesting that he is not “their president”. Type “What did Trump say?” into Google and it will be obvious why.
Many of the same people are also bewildered, still incredulous that he became even the Republican candidate, let alone the president-elect. Never has a candidate in a Western democracy shown such contempt for the conventions upon which democratic accountability depends. Never has a politician seeking office insulted and threatened so many of his fellow citizens. Trump is praised for giving voice to the justifiable anger of a “forgotten” white working class, but in doing it, he encouraged contempt – even hatred – of many of their fellow citizens and reckless disregard of the kind of man he is and what he said he would do.
Commentators now describe him as an unconventional politician who ran an unconventional campaign. Is it merely unconventional to threaten to ban Muslim immigration? To lament the fact you cannot any more just take hecklers at a rally aside and “beat the shit out of them”? To express pleasure at the prospect of torturing suspected terrorists in ways “far worse” than waterboarding them? To lead crowds in the chant “lock her up”, when the person they are referring to is your opponent in the race for the presidency? To display such contempt for women that most prominent Republicans disowned him?
One could go on. To call him unconventional, or even radically unconventional, is to forget how important are the conventions, often unspoken, that enable decency in politics. He has poured a can of excrement over those conventions.
Trump also did something that, while it might seem less dramatic, is, perhaps more dangerous. His demagoguery took political discourse in America to a place where it lost contact with reality. We normally think of demagoguery as a threat to reasonable discussion because it whips up fear, resentment, hatred and prejudice to such pitch that it throws reason into a ditch.
But demagoguery can displace reason – or, as I prefer to put it, the conditions of sober critical judgement – more radically and more dangerously though it is not overthrown by emotion and prejudice. Trump did that. I shall try to explain why I say that.
The end of reason
We know politicians sometimes lie. Indeed, we know that political life would be impossible were that not so. But I do not remember anyone in mainstream democratic politics who lied so shamelessly, so often and so fast, that the fact-checkers could not keep up with him.
Trump’s disdain of facts and argument became so persistent and extreme, that he took his supporters – and America with them – into a place where he eroded the conditions that enable the application of concepts of fact, evidence and argument. Or, more precisely, to where argument can make, or fail to make, evidence out of facts. His demagoguery took from reason, not the calm necessary for its operation, but the concepts necessary for its application.
English writer G.K. Chesterton said that
A madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
He said this in a polemic on behalf of intuition against reason, which I do not support. But his point can be put more generally like this: the proper functioning of reason depends on being in contact with reality, but it cannot secure that contact.
Think of a paranoid. His ingenuity in marshalling arguments, responding to claims that the evidence will not support his suspicions and fears are parodies of reason. Confronted with such a person, we realise that the concept of irrationality cannot capture what has gone wrong. It’s not just too weak; it’s in the wrong dimension. We reach naturally for the idea that he is out of touch with reality, and that reason cannot prevent anyone from being taken there or lead anyone back to reality.
Was Trump at least sometimes mad? Did he take his supporters to the edge of madness? My argument does not require that we conclude that. There are many ways of losing touch with reality – believing that the earth is flat, or even considering it a serious possibility or believing that Elvis is alive and working for the FBI, for example. But that his demagoguery had the effect not only of humiliating reason in the face of extreme emotion and prejudice, but also of taking people into cloud cuckoo land, is, I believe, partly the reason why he won the election. It helps explain the distinctive nature of the bewilderment about the fact that he did.
If someone like Ted Cruz, or someone with more charisma than Cruz, had won on the same policies, then people in America and around the world would also be frightened. Many Americans would also be protesting that he is not their president. But they would not be incredulous in the way they now are because they do not know where they are or how they got there.
In an attempt to explain that incredulity and also why pollsters got the results wrong, observers have said the media and indeed the political establishment on both sides took Trump literally but did not take him seriously, whereas those who secured his victory did not take him literally but took him seriously.
But what can it mean to take someone seriously when he has taken you into cloud cuckoo land, when he lies so often and shamelessly and when he is so often inconsistent and doesn’t care that he is? The distinction these observers draw depend on one’s living in a conceptual, conversational, space in which the concept of sober judgement has not been eroded.
Cloud cuckoo land – out-of-touch-with-reality-land – is not such a space. To believe that someone is serious while believing that to be a virtue is to assume that they are sufficiently integrated as one person over time. That they have integrity in this literal sense – to be accountable, to be answerable to a call to seriousness: “Can you really mean this! How could you say that? How can I trust you when you lie again and again. For God’s sake, think!” And so on.
The trouble, as I said before, is not just that Trump wouldn’t listen or that he would duck and weave. That would merely make the call to seriousness unlikely to succeed, rather than to erode the conceptual space in which it is possible to make it.
The conditions of accountability eroded
It is one thing to be defeated by people with whom one strongly disagrees. It is another to be defeated by someone who eroded the conditions of accountability. Then it seems that one is reduced to babbling. Or shouting. Or screaming. Or, perhaps forced to violence. People are calling for wounds inflicted during the campaign to be healed. There can be no healing until there is a sober reckoning with that fact and what it implies.
Democracy as we know it depends on an ideal that one could always, in principle, call one’s fellow citizens to seriousness if they voted for polices that one found unjust, or demeaning or that simply affected one’s interests badly. In modern times it shows in the way we engage one another on talk back radio. But to call someone to seriousness assumes they can rise to it, that unless they are children they do not need more education to do it. It is not controversial that hostility to what are generally called “elites” is widespread amongst Trump supporters. It showed also in Brexit, and now shows in Europe where quasi-fascist parties have taken heart form Trump’s victory. It shows, here, in Australia, though its political consequences are far less dangerous.
To be very poor is one thing. To be unjustly forced into poverty is worse. To be forgotten is worse still. But to be looked down upon, to be treated with disdain, can inflame a rage so fierce that it cares nothing for the consequences of its expression. Hillary Clinton said that half of Trump’s supporters were “deplorables”.
She apologised, but those who felt they were her targets did not believe she meant it. Many of the people who voted for Trump were referred to as “non-college educated”. Who could resist the inference that the deplorables were also the non-college educated and that really they were, simply, uneducated.
Political theorist Hannah Arendt said that one should never engage with one’s fellow citizens as though they are in need of education. That would be arrogant, smug and incipiently authoritarian. University education does not of itself make one wise, or even very critically minded. If it did, there would not be such uniformity of opinion amongst its beneficiaries.
Nor does it of itself develop in its beneficiaries a concern for truth over the many vices – vanity, the need for approval, cowardice, careerism – that subvert a serious pursuit of it, the kind of pursuit that people like John Stuart Mill hoped would lead to a more enlightened politics. From the perspective of the uneducated, the deplorables, it is more likely to make you “politically correct”. Or, one of the chattering classes, in the derogatory sense of that expression. Those expressions are weapons in the culture wars.
I do not want to discuss those wars here. In their aggressive, mean spirited refusal to grant that behind the sometimes foolish expression of an opponent’s opinion, there is something serious to consider, often supported by a tradition of some depth, they poison everything they touch. But there can be no doubt that Trump won the culture wars, or at any rate a very important battle in them, decisively, as the Brexiters did before him.
Which is not to deny that the education systems here and in America failed to teach the elementary aspects of good argument – of being conscientiously attentive to relevant, factual evidence and of thinking logically, patiently careful about how to move from one thought to another.
Developing a capacity to think critically
But the capacity to think critically requires also that we develop an ear for tone, for what rings false, for what is sentimental, or has yielded to pathos and so on. The development of such a sensibility is not optional in reflection about the human condition, indeed about anything that matters ethically. Without it we are easy prey for demagogues, especially in turbulent times such as we now live in.
Education in the more basic forms of argument and the sensibility whose character I have just sketched should begin at primary school. This education should be conducted in such a way that someone who does not go on to university can never for that reason be suspected of being in need of further education in order to be fully respected as a fellow citizen, possessing all that he needs to be deserving of that respect.
Australia is not likely to produce a demagogue like Trump. We are, as someone said recently on Q&A, a “better society”. But in Australia, disillusionment with politicians is deep and turning to cynicism. Australians vacillate between disillusionment and cynicism.
The difference between cynicism and disillusionment is important. Disillusionment is informed by standards, holds politics to account to those standards, but reckons it has failed to be accountable to them. Cynicism has given up on the standards as even applicable to politics. At its worst, it mocks and even despises them.
To such people, the expression, “the dignity of politics”, or “morality and politics” are oxymorons. The sources of our disillusionment and cynicism are many, but one, I think, is our justified belief that politicians constantly insult our intelligence. Thankfully, if my ear for this is right, dismay about this crosses cultural, educational and economic boundaries. This is one reason why Australia will not find its Trump.
Some years ago when I returned to Australia after living in London under Tony Blair’s government, it struck me that though Australians tended to be cynical about certain aspects of politics, they believed they had the measure of their politicians. They expected them to lie, and provided that the lies did not seriously affect their material interests, they were not too bothered by this form of mendacity.
They felt they had their feet firmly planted on the ground. By contrast, it seemed to me that after being subjected for many years to very sophisticated spin, Britons could no longer locate the ground in order to plant their feet on it.
Spin is a form of mendacity more dangerous to politics than lying, unless the lying takes on Trump-like proportions. That will not happen in Australia. But spin can have a similar affect, as Britons realised. It does not, of itself, make one lose touch with reality, but it can make contact with reality less secure.
A few weeks after September 11, 2001, together with a specialist in Greek Philosophy, M.M McCabe, I conducted a seminar on Plato’s dialogue, Gorgias, at King’s College London. In that dialogue, Socrates announces his affirmation that it is better to suffer evil than to do it. It has haunted Western thought about the relations between morality and politics.
The atmosphere in that seminar was electrifying. Everyone knew what was at stake in that affirmation. Recommendations that we should make torture lawful were already making ground. The dialogue begins with an attack on oratory (read spin). Orators, Socrates says, lose touch with reality and with themselves. Oratory (again, read spin) could never be neutral means to be used for good or ill: it is rotten though and through.
How astonishing, but also wonderful, that a little book written over two and a half thousand years ago, could teach us so much today.