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Trump and the Conman Theory of History

“The owl of Minerva,” Hegel wrote, “takes flight with the setting of the sun.” He meant that the true meaning, the correct interpretation, of past events becomes evident only in retrospect.

It was a dogma of the “post-modern” era from which we are, at last, emerging, that there are no correct interpretations, no “master narratives” — only perspectives that reflect differential power relations, “identities,” or whatever.

The sun may finally be setting on post-modern relativism; the time for that is long past due.

But whatever happens on that front, it is well not to lose sight of the fact that everyone involved in the debate about master narratives agrees that the past, some of it anyway, does call for interpretation, not just description; that its means something.

The debate was and still is over whether accounts of these meanings are or are not ultimately arbitrary; whether there is, as it were, a God’s eye perspective, a view from nowhere in particular, or only the particular perspectives of particular persons or groups.

Perspectives on what? Surely not on everything, but only on big, important things – major historical transformations, not yesterday’s lunch. This raises complicated, theory-laden questions about what has meaning and what does not.

Answers depend on views about history’s structure and direction. The most widespread view among practicing historians is that even if there is a defensible theory of history as such, an account of history’s structure and direction, it has little or no bearing on explanation of past events and historical trends; that it is, as it were, of philosophical interest only.

Like Hegel, Marx disagreed. But, unlike Hegel’s, his account of history’s structure and direction was austere. For Marx, changes in “modes of production,” fundamental economic structures, were of fundamental and objective importance; nothing else was.

In much the way that the periodic table of elements represents the different forms matter can take, Marx took his account of successive modes of production to be an account of the ways human societies can be organized.

The difference is that in his account there is directionality, movement from one form to another. In chemistry there is nothing like that; no inherent tendency, as it were, for matter to change, much less advance.

Many of Hegel’s followers took a more expansive view than Marx about the relevance of historical theory for the kinds of explanations practicing historians provide. Among them were proponents of “great men” (always men) theories of history for whom historical change was the work of particular individuals in positions of power. More often than not, the changes they brought about were unintended consequences of actions motivated by passions and interests of many sorts, but never even remotely as ignoble and worthy of contempt as Trump’s.

Hegel led the way. For him, history moved forward to a determinate end, the realization of a certain idea of Freedom. Hegel held that view for reasons inherent in the philosophical tradition his work completed, the tradition of “classical” (essentially Kantian and post-Kantian) German philosophy.

In Hegel’s account, the Cunning of Reason, working through the undertakings of great men, ultimately brings this end to its fullest realization. The underlying rationales were different as could be, but the general idea is of a piece, say, with Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” which, on Smith’s telling, works through the self-interested activities of economic agents to bring about the best possible allocation of economic resources.

To be sure, no one in his or her right mind would call Donald Trump a great man; relativisms extreme enough to countenance that thought would be of clinical interest only.

But the political transformations Trump’s presidency has helped bring about now seem to have brought the United States to the threshold of changes of a depth and magnitude comparable to those discussed by proponents of great man theories of history; changes not seen in American politics for many decades.

Nearly everything Trump touches changes for the worse. His role in making America anything but “great again,” would be difficult to overestimate.

To be sure, the GOP’s decades long rightward drift, and its moral and intellectual decay, helped too; as have the vicissitudes of the irrational capitalist system we live under. But we got to where we now are, as rapidly as we have, thanks in large part to Trump’s ignorance and ineptitude, and to his narcissistic purchase on the office he is so manifestly unfit to hold.

Just by being in so far over his head, he has turned our politics into a theater of the absurd.

This is why, if the world survives his tenure in office, future historians, looking back upon the impeachment drama now unfolding, will likely find themselves befuddled. They will wonder, as we do now, WTF was going on. And they will marvel at how shallow the answers are; how far short of anything that proponents of great man theories of history would ever have dreamed of countenancing.

Trump is not like the founders of the world’s great religions or world transformational military leaders like Alexander the Great or Napoleon. Unlike with them, with Trump there is no appearance to penetrate beneath, nothing to interpret, no meanings to lay bare. There are only causes, as there are with everything else in nature.

With Trump, it is possible to discern relatively stable patterns of behavior, just as it is with animals and animal populations. But there is nothing like the passions and interests of the world historical figures through which, in Hegel’s view, Reason advances towards its prescribed end. World historical figures have depth. Trump is shallowness incarnate.

There is, however, one thing at which he is a past master: conning his marks and keeping them on board even in the face of evidence that would make anyone not under his sway bolt. He does this not just by generating absurdities, but also by normalizing them.

Trump is not a great man, but he is a pretty good conman. The task therefore is not exactly to interpret him in the context of some overarching theory of history, but only to expose his hoaxes and deceits. This would be the case both for those who think a rationally compelling account of history’s structure and direction is possible, and for those who think that all perspectives are ultimately arbitrary.

***

Western philosophy was born in Greek antiquity on the realization that there is often a difference between how things are and how they appear.

A similar understanding is foundational in other philosophical traditions as well; and throughout the sciences. If nature were as it appears, what point would there be in looking for underlying principles or mechanisms? It would be enough just to describe whatever we are able to observe.

This is how it is with Trump and all things Trumpian.

Thus it is plain as can be, except perhaps to Hillary Clinton, that Trump won in 2016 because Clinton ran an inept campaign — ineptitude is her forte, after all — and because enough people, in the right places, decided to sit the election out or to take a chance on a risible, third-rate real estate tycoon, gambling impresario, and reality TV personality.

That is how disgusted they were with the neoliberal politics that Clinton, and other leading Democrats, including her husband, have been promoting for decades, and by the contempt that she and many of them showed for the working class.

Clinton and her apologists have spent the past three years blaming her defeat on everything and everybody – Russians, James Comey, Sanders loyalists, and so on – but herself.

They are dead wrong, of course. Clinton and Clintonism made Trump inevitable; we don’t need any sun to set to figure that out. All we need are honest descriptions of what anyone could observe in real time.

Similarly, we don’t need retrospection to come to the realization that supporting Trump is and always has been a bad idea. This was clear three seemingly interminable years ago; it is even clearer now that more pertinent evidence is in, and it is likely, for just that reason, to become clearer still as the years go by.

But even in 2016 hardly anyone to the left of, say, Mitt Romney actually voted for Trump except perhaps because they saw no better way to protest Clintonism.

Back then, those who had had enough of the Clintons and their politics, or who were unaware of or indifferent to Trump’s erratic and unseemly behavior and to his obvious unfitness for the office he sought, could still convince themselves, if they tried, that, compared to Clinton, Trump might actually be the lesser evil. They were wrong, of course, and should have known better, but at least the choice they made was not obviously indefensible. Now, it is, and so it will remain.

Nevertheless, it is a fact that, to this day, Trump’s views on trade seem more worker-friendly than Clinton’s or the Democratic Party establishment’s; and that his “isolationism” – though hardly internationalist or anti-imperialist in spirit or in fact – can sometimes seem less noxious than the fondness for never-ending, regime-change wars that Democratic politicians and “liberal,” anti-Trump media relentlessly promote. Trump’s opposition to Cold War mongering can even seem refreshing, or rather it would if it were not so sporadic and if it amounted to more than idle talk.

It doesn’t because it can’t; because it is all part of his con. But every good con contains at least a grain of truth. If it didn’t, it could hardly take hold or long persist.

One grain of truth in Trump’s con is that most Americans, not ninety-nine percent but not a whole lot less, could do a hell of a lot better than they are doing now under the neoliberal trade policies of the past several decades, policies Clinton championed.

Another is that the American empire, a prized concoction of our military-industrial complex, our foreign policy establishment, and the pillars of our bipartisan “donor class,” does most Americans considerably more harm than good.

Its effects outside America’s borders are worse still, by many orders of magnitude, not that Trump cares one bit about that or even bothers to pretend that he does.

But even if, in this respect, the more odious duopoly party, under Trump’s thumb, can seem more reasonable than mainstream Democrats, the fact remains that Trump’s isolationism is nativist, racist, and Islamophobic.

Mexicans and Central Americans have so far borne the brunt, but with white supremacist ideology for its guiding principle, others are similarly vulnerable; indeed, no one is really safe. The longer Trump remains in office, the greater the danger becomes.

***

Trump has not just bleated out campaign promises about America’s role in the Middle East that run counter to decades of “bipartisan” efforts to undergird American domination of the region; he has also done much to accelerate the decline and fall of the American empire there and around the world.

He has also done more to reestablish Russia as a world power than Russia could have done on its own, thereby enhancing the global power and influence of Vladimir Putin, the man our media cannot demonize enough; and he has strengthened Iran’s influence throughout the Middle East, largely at Saudi Arabia’s expense.

These are not good things in themselves, but it is far from obvious, except to the talking heads on the liberal cable networks, and to most of the columnists at the New York Times and Washington Post, that they are worse than what the United States has been doing in the region or than what they would have it continue to do.

Putin is no prize, but at least, unlike Trump, he is not unhinged, ignorant, or stupid. And unlike Obama, the Clintons and their many co-thinkers, he is generally respectful of international law and generally inclined to prefer peace to perpetual war.

Also, awful as the theocrats in Iran may be, the Saudis are even worse, and so are their allies in the region.

Trump has also weakened NATO or at least he has tried – not least by driving Turkey into Russia’s arms.

Whatever his motives – if indeed there is anything in his big and |very stable” brain that rises to the level of a motive — this is hardly the misfortune liberal pundits make it out to be. NATO ought long ago to have gone the way of the Warsaw Pact.

Post-World War II Atlanticism of the kind NATO epitomizes has been a curse on the United States and its allies. Does Trump really want to that? More likely, he has no idea what he wants, except to get reelected, and no idea what he is doing?

Were he to succeed in changing America’s role in the world along the lines his words sometimes suggest, would we actually be better off? Inasmuch as it is practically a law of nature that he makes everything he touches worse, the answer to that, more likely than not, is a big resounding: No.

But, I for one, cannot entirely shake the thought that in this most absurd of all possible worlds, the world Trump’s presidency has brought into being, that something like a Cunning of Unreason is at work.

How ironic would that be!

It is tempting not even to try to make sense of it.

Years ago, when The National Lampoon was funny and all the rage, they ran a story, basically a parody of hard-boiled detective stories, about a philosopher detective named Jean-Paul Sauvage. I recall “The Critique of Pure Murder” or maybe it was “The Seven Deadly Syntheses.”

The plot line was complicated, and the text was replete with philosophy jokes – accessible to any undergraduate philosophy major and perhaps to liberal arts students generally. An important clue was that a key character was carrying a copy of Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy. That was how Sauvage figured out that she was an imposter – because, at the time, no self-respecting philosopher would deign to be seen with that very popular book. It would be like an English major carrying around The Reader’s Digest.

The plot revolved around the Russians kidnapping a Viennese philosopher who was about to deliver a speech to the Logical Positivist Society refuting Hegel. The Russians didn’t want that to happen – Marx’s reputation and therefore Communism itself somehow depended on it.

Half a century later, the Russians are again the foe and there are some still waiting for the Owl of Minerva to take flight. For decades it seemed that what would do them in was not logical positivism, but its extreme opposite, post-modern relativism.

But then along came Trump and an insanity even more manic than The National Lampoon’s took hold.

And so it is fitting, aesthetically if not philosophically, to think that instead of the Idea of Freedom emerging out of the passions and interests of great men, that the venality and vanity of a mountebank perpetrating a con will, if not stopped soon, give rise to degree of domestic and global instability that could put civilization itself in jeopardy even faster than global warming is already doing.

America’s role as the “indispensable” hegemonic power is doing America and the world in. But what is needed is an alternative, more rational world order, not an America shaped by the passions and interests – or, more precisely, the venality and vanity — of a third-rate mountebank, perpetrating a con.

Perhaps there is no remotely adequate philosophical purchase on a world as absurd as the one Trump and his minions have brought into being; perhaps the level of absurdity is too much even for the likes of a Jean-Paul Sauvage to navigate his way through.

But this is the world we must live in at least until January 2021. We have no choice, as Mick Mulvaney would say (before unsaying it), but “to deal with it.”

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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