An autopsy of Donald Trump’s presidency can proceed from an early example of his memorable utterances. On his 13th day in office, Feb. 1, 2017, the first day of Black History Month, he said: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”
His word salad was interesting not because it revealed pristine ignorance concerning the African American leader, who died in 1895. Neither was it notable because of his ignorance about his ignorance. Rather, his statement about Douglass revealed, beyond his notorious laziness — forethought? preparation? unthinkable — his nonchalance about his ignorance.
This gave him an immunity to embarrassment, an immunity that was the crucial ingredient of his political magnetism for scores of millions of Americans mesmerized by the strange but undeniable charisma of Trump’s serene obliviousness regarding reality. Clad in his armor of insouciant indifference about information, he displayed a jaunty disdain for facts that struck his supporters, not wrongly, as a rare kind of strength. It also made him more akin to many of his cultured despisers than he or they recognize.
He began his political career spouting birtherism and concluded it — he will not be back; like vaudeville, he is yesterday’s entertainment — raving about an election-rigging conspiracy so vast that it involved legions in many states, and so cunning that it left no evidence of itself. As Trump skittered across the surface of public life, many of his critics were too busy savoring their superiority to him to recognize their mental kinship with him.
They consciously, and he by cultural osmosis, are participants in the postmodern rejection of reason. He and they are collaborators in the rising rejection of the Enlightenment that produced classical liberalism and this republic.
Postmodernists say, with Nietzsche, that there are no facts, only interpretations — alternative “narratives” about reality. As Andrew Sullivan writes at Substack, to be “woke” is to be awake to this: All claims of disinterestedness, objectivity and universality are bogus. So, reasoning is specious, and attempts at persuasion are pointless. Hence, society is an arena of willfulness where all disagreements are power struggles among identity groups. The concept of the individual disappears as identity becomes fluid, deriving from group membership. Silence is violence; what is spoken is mandatory and must accord with the mentality of the listeners. Welcome to campus.
In a world thus understood, life is a comprehensively zero-sum struggle. Postmodernism rejects, as Adam Garfinkle writes, the Enlightenment belief in a positive-sum social order in which human beings, who are both competitive and cooperative creatures, can prosper without making others poorer. Hence, the Enlightenment belief in, and Trump’s disbelief in, free trade. Postmodernism is the ill-named revival of a premodern mentality: The social order as constant conflict, unleavened by trust and constrained only by the authoritarianism of the dominant group.
In “The Darkening Mind,” written for American Purpose, Garfinkle says that “the farther we look left or right, we see the erosion of the” Enlightenment aspiration of institutionalizing positive-sum relationships. This aspiration, which gives dignity to modern politics, undergirds the case for capitalism — a spontaneous, consensual order of freely cooperating individuals.
In zero-sum thinking, Garfinkle says, “the consent of the governed” is “an empty piety” because legitimacy attaches to whichever group imposes dominance. And as American culture and politics increasingly reveal, “in the zero-sum mentality, no neutral space can exist in what is by definition a totally conflictual environment.”
Postmodernism’s politics is, as Garfinkle says, an agglomeration of reheated Marxism (only conflict is real, and it is ubiquitous) and crypto-theology, including secularized original sin (of the nation: see the New York Times’ 1619 Project) and Christian martyrology recycled in competitive claims of group victimhood. Increasingly, mass-market entertainment features cartoonish characters with teenage vocabularies because, as Garfinkle says, “plots need to be simple”: For minds steeped in zero-sum nonthinking, simple-minded us-vs.-them stories “work better than positive-sum, more nuanced portrayals of human relationships.” And, Garfinkle plausibly argues, “the cacophony of zero-sum shouting between right and left extremes,” amplified by “clickbait-oriented commercial media,” spreads zero-sum thinking nationwide.
As Trump’s four-year snarl ends, recognize that the least intellectual president had a mentality — such is the seepage of intellectual fashions into empty receptacles — akin to that which has closed the academic mind. To people whose social theories and politics are infused with postmodernism, Trump has been like God — not because of his perfect goodness and infinite mercy, but because he is the explanation of everything. Actually, postmodernists are part of the explanation of him.