Homo Faber: The Triumph and Perils of Narcissistic Politics

These last two weeks of the Republican Presidential nomination race have been eventful, as they have seen Donald Trump accumulate enough delegates for most pundits and the Chair of that Party, Reince Priebus, to declare him its likely nominee. Indeed, Trump’s delegate total is adequate to have prompted his two remaining rivals to depart the contest, leaving him the proverbial last candidate standing. And so it now appears that the Republican Party candidate for President this year will be a demagogic, nativist, race-baiting narcissist who has promised his followers little more than that he is smarter than everyone else and can will the outcomes he declaims. Trump’s success has many in his party more than angry and concerned for the GOP’s electoral fortunes in the fall, and some have refused to embrace him as the inevitable nominee. That list includes former Presidents H. W. and George W. Bush as well as House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan. Former Massachusetts governor and GOP standard bearer Mitt Romney has also not endorsed Trump. But many of the real estate businessman’s former rivals have done so, including Ben Carson and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and former governor Rick Perry of Texas. Other Republican leaders have lined up to lend him their support as well, including, perhaps most notably, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. These individuals apparently have no difficulty embracing so anti-democratic a figure in the name of party “unity” to secure a victory (power) in the fall. Given that Trump continues to make the same essential arguments he has made since the start of his campaign, one must accept that these officials are willing to take their chances and dance with a demagogue if it means they can gain or retain political power. Meanwhile, during this same period I have read countless stories and opinion pieces warning journalists not to “normalize” Trump and treat him in the same manner as the yet to be determined Democratic Party nominee (neither of those candidates have engaged in a race baiting and nativist campaign, nor stooped to playground rhetoric to belittle their rivals as Trump has routinely done). Nor, on the evidence at least, has either Democrat deliberately lied repeatedly by repudiating statements made previously on the record, leaving supporters to decide what to make of so blatant a disregard for truth, as again, Trump has done. Perhaps the most important argument for not “normalizing” Trump is his patent and prideful ignorance and his lack of relevant experience for the presidency. The eminent physicist Jeremy Bernstein, for example, recently examined Trump’s comments on nuclear policy and declared him a “colossus of ignorance” on that vital concern.[1]

Other experts on fiscal and monetary policy, trade policy and immigration, among other topics, have similarly declared Trump’s version of reality to be both fanciful and dangerous. Nevertheless, his supporters have handed him an improbable victory and apparently see his constant evocations of superior will and intellect as sufficient to whisk away all of their fears, trials and travails. These individuals appear to take Trump at his word that he will attain his often outrageous claims by sheer force of his “smarter than everyone else” boasting. It is all deeply unsettling, frightening and sad for the devotee of freedom and democratic governance, but perhaps to be expected in light of at least a share of modern philosophic tenets and our nation’s dominant public philosophy. What follows is a brief reflection on how these set the stage for this apparent triumph by a demagogue—for his likely victory has not changed what he is or how he attained that turn—irrespective of how many GOP officials now decide to support him in the name of power.

Prior to the 17th century certainly, as Hannah Arendt has observed, philosophers saw human thought as a direct way to consider and attain the truth of situations and concerns. Knowledge was thus the handmaiden of contemplation, as philosophy was then seen as the servant of theology. Certainly since Francis Bacon argued in the early 1600s that knowledge was power, however, Western civilization has moved ever more fully toward the position that thought is, and should be the agent of doing and not to be undertaken for its own sake.[2] Nonetheless, despite our broad approval of this stance as a population today, when knowledge serves production it cannot also serve as a guide or restraint on that “making.” Instead, the apparently useful bends knowledge to its will as it becomes the lone rationale for contemplation. This strained logic is far advanced in American universities today, for example, where the only legitimate form of knowledge is fast being defined as that which can be instrumentalized, commodified and made imminently “productive.” Today, students are told by friends and family and the media to eschew classes and disciplines that are perceived, incorrectly, as not being immediately useful, and state governors almost daily issue demands for more “job ready” curricula and propose not allowing students who enroll in “unproductive” majors to assume loans to help defray the costs of their education. There is, in principle, no end to the demands on knowledge that can (and in this view, must) occur in the name of the instrumental or of production, just as there is, in principle, no arbiter available to discipline such claims. They may become as limitless as human will can make them. This situation can become dangerous for democratic politics, when citizen desires linked to production and utility devolve into arbitrary willing.  That is, this understanding allows individuals to require that knowledge “produce” certain outcomes, irrespective of whether those demands bear any relationship to reality.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should, as it is a near perfect representation of current GOP nomination politics. Donald Trump has presented himself and his personal will as sufficient to bring the world’s complexities, pain and woe to heel, suggesting to voters that he alone is capable of controlling and overcoming all of the challenges now confronting them. According to Trump, he will shape nations, economies, events and all else to his will because he says he can. Trump’s voters want security, and the narcissist has promised it to gain the approbation he requires. Each actor in this play obtains what they need as both embrace the supposed promise of the unfettered will’s power to control knowledge to “produce” change. In a Faustian bargain, voters hand off the hard challenges, and their power, to an individual arguing that all knowledge will hew to his will. In so doing, citizens give that person the status he craves. With the redefinition of knowledge as instrument of a will’s production, nothing remains to prevent a fearful and undisciplined population from absolving itself of responsibility for its own freedom and governance, and giving those rights to a proponent of his own unfettered desires. Thus it is that a demagogue can come to popular approval in his Party, and thus it is that GOP leaders must decide whether to sanction this outrage or accept it. It now appears that for many of those officials, the latter will obtain.

Even at this stage in the evolution of political thought in modern life, our nation’s governing imaginary concerning the role of knowledge need not be so conceived. Roughly 100 years ago, Robert Frost wrote a sonnet as a young man that argued that an individual’s work, in this case a metaphor for a citizen’s responsibility to act in ways that preserve the rights and freedom for all in the polity, could in fact serve to expand his or her locus of awareness and understanding beyond the merely instrumental, and beyond a vision of life as simply the result of will, production and consumption. That alternative vision could in itself tie the individual to his or her place in the world and create an ontology of meaning and knowing that was architectonic and broader than the useful, and that did not pretend to human control of all exigencies and circumstances. Perhaps our politics today needs nothing more or less than so sweeping a change in its ontological underpinnings, if we are not to fall prey recurrently to crowd pleasers promising the impossible and claiming that one human’s will personified is able to harness all necessary knowledge to conquer our collective challenges. It is clear, as a demagogue prepares to gain a major political party nomination in our nation, that this rethinking and refashioning must come soon. Here is an excerpt from Frost’s answer to the perilous epistemic and ontological possibility that Trump embodies and represents.

Mowing[3]

There was never a sound beside the wood but One, And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground. …

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor Knows. My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

The poem describes a joining of knowing and producing, with production serving knowledge and not the reverse, and with each creating a greater whole together. Self-governance requires just such a foundational guiding vision if it is to escape serving as the architect of its own destruction.

 

Notes

[1] Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, London: Cassell and Company, Ltd., 1893, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/5500/5500-h/5500-h.htm

[2] Jeremy Bernstein, “The Trump Bomb,” New York Review of Books, May 16, 2016, 32-33 at 33.

[3] Robert Frost, Selected Poems, New York: Random House Publishers, 1992, 61.