Donald Trump and the Political Philosophers

Two volumes, over 650 pages of text, and 33 essays, in which academics channel eminent political thinkers from before Aristotle to after Max Weber for their thoughts on Trump and his supporters—there’s a lot to digest in the collections titled Trump and Political Philosophy.[1] Having done my readerly duty, I offer a classificatory framework, with some observations and comments interspersed. Then I draw a few conclusions. Prompted by the arresting combination in the titles (“Trump and political philosophy”), my guiding question as I read was, how best to think about Trump and contemporary America? Can political philosophy help? If so, how? The answer was, yes, but it depends.

In these essays we learn how not to do it, as well as better ways to go about it.  Not all august political thinkers are equally apropos, and not all of the academic mediators were able to avoid partisan studium et ira. More contributors to the second volume crossed the threshold of plausible analysis than did those in the first.  To some extent that may be a function of the difference in their assigned topics. The first volume—subtitled “leadership, statesmanship, and tyranny”—focused centrally on Trump, the second (“patriotism, cosmopolitanism, and civic virtue”) focused on his supporters and on the American context that begat him and them. Trump is a lightening rod and nerves of steel are required to keep one’s wits in considering him. Not all possess that quality.  

Another difficulty is that this division of topics was not, and could not be, strictly observed.  Those who think that Trump is a racist and xenophobe believe that many of his supporters are too, while those who find in Trump a defender of genuine American values paint his supporters in very different colors. The distinction therefore is more for reasons of writerly convenience, than dictated by the complex subject matter. The editors themselves suggest keeping in mind a three-element configuration: Trump; “Trumpism”; Trumpists. My suggestion will be that Aristotle and Lincoln are the most helpful thinkers for analyzing the full Trump phenomenon. That their joint guidance does not predetermine the result is indicated by the fact that supporters and detractors of Trump appeal to both authorities. I will try to extract from that awkward situation what seem to me certain sine qua non’s of credible analysis.  

Criss-Crossing Classifications

In their judgments of Trump, the essays somewhat mirror the views of the American public, although as one might suspect (given that the contributors are academics), in the aggregate they are tilted much more to the portside than the general public. On the Left side of the spectrum are contributors who see in Trump a racist and xenophobe, a white nationalist, with equally benighted supporters. They see in him someone who is a thoroughly vile man, with character flaws that would disqualify from decent society, much less the presidency. His attitude towards truth combines the sophist’s exploitation of the prejudices of his audience with the tyrant’s mad claim to determine truth itself. In volume one devoted to Trump the man, the candidate, and early political leader, Confucius, Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon, Lincoln, Carl Schmitt and others are adduced to add intellectual clout to these charges and characterizations.

On the Right are two sorts of analysts: pro-Trump and anti-Trump, each dividing into subgroups. Among the pro’s are the (almost) unqualifiedly and the qualifiedly so.  Another division among the pro’s is those who defend the man directly and those who do so contextually—that is, as the lesser of two evils. Among the anti’s are those who are adamantly against him and those who are more mixed in their negative assessment. On the right, the pro’s invoke Aristotle, Hamilton, and Lincoln to appreciate Trump, while the anti’s invoke Aristotle and Lincoln to criticize him. The Republican divide between Trump supporters and Anti-Trumpists is thus reproduced at a rarefied intellectual level.   

Both sides are aware of the need to justify invoking these august points of reference, more so with Aristotle, but the American giants as well. As a result, one hears about the relevance of historical perspective and philosophical learning. In some important respects, this is borne out. I will speak of these at the end. But the significant disagreements in judgment dividing these learned writers who appeal to the same authorities also indicate what the medievals knew: that Authority has a wax nose. Or more seriously, that learning needs to be complemented by other intellectual and moral qualities, dispassion and judgment.   

Still, in this internecine debate we can recognize that the right has its canon of authorities, one different from the left. When a member of the Left (John Burt of Brandeis) seeks to apply Abraham Lincoln to today, he reads Lincoln through Kantian and Rawlsian lenses. That distorts Lincoln, and in this volume it distorts Trump. “Mutual recognition” is not equal natural rights and “multiculturalism” is not “Toward a more perfect Union.” And merely applying them critically to Trump is a petitio principii.

Other criteria make for other sorts of categorization. A number of contributors make no serious effort to understand Trump or his supporters as they understand themselves.  They practice eisegesis and projection. Their “analyses” therefore are models of tendentiousness, briefs for the prosecution. In reading them, we learn more about their (usually binary) thinking than the contemporary subject of their essays. As one might expect, most in this category are found on the left, but the right has its derelicts as well.     

How do I know that partisanship and passion distort their vision? The quickest way to see this is to juxtapose their denigrations and demonizations of Trump and his supporters with fair-minded critics, not to mention defenders. The omissions and biases of the denigrators cannot be denied against the fuller record brought into evidence by the latter. The key is the phrase “the fuller record.” In general, where there is an aporia to be deciphered (say, how Trump’s intemperate tweets and his considerate speeches go together), partisans cut the Gordian knot, either fully for or fully against. Complexity and contradiction are not allowed to exist or to provoke thought.

Leslie Rubin—to whom the first volume is dedicated—pens the golden words in her (largely critical) essay: “To be fair, … .” Just above, I indicated one baseline of fairness:  the full range of Trumpian discourse. To that one could add: treating his supporters as citizens with understandable objections to the status quo. In other words, an intelligible political offer accepted by those who evaluated the offer, the offerer, and the alternatives.  These elementary propositions, alas, are too often honored in the breech than the investigation (more so in the first volume, less so in the second). One Trump critic from the Right, Middlebury College’s Murray Dry, ends his Lincolnian cudgeling of Trump by chastising those who voted for him: “The presidency is too important an office for a protest vote.” Professor Dry, however, does not deign to mention that Trump’s opponent was Hillary Clinton. That may have affected the electoral calculus of many.

Thus, B.J. Dobski gets threshold credit for the following nuanced observation:

Trump, in some of his more public statements on behalf of national sovereignty, candidly denounces those calls by ‘citizens of the globe’ to set aside particular national loyalties and embrace a rootless cosmopolitanism. American advantage, not airy abstraction, is Trump’s calling card. But Trump’s more articulate defenses of national sovereignty often get muddled by the nativistic tones of his outbursts on social media and at political rallies.

Here is ambiguity that one can credit, as well as prompting thought:  How do they go together? Do they?

Not surprisingly, his defenders here largely ignore or downplay the tweets and slurs and focus upon Trump’s considered statements and speeches. In so doing, they bring to light important substantive content ignored by his port and starboard opponents, but they also decline to make a whole of his discourse (which means, of his mind and his character).  Aristotle taught that the rhetorical triangle includes a speaker’s ethos, or character, as well as his various forms of speech. (The third element is pathos, the affective response of the audience.) We will return to this point.

Nonetheless, in this company of academic analysts, the defenders of Trump provide the necessary and useful service of displaying just how tendentious and unjust the unmitigated defamers of Trump and his supporters are. Their tone-deafness, their partisan thinking, is made clear when brought up against speeches he actually gave, as well as well-disposed exegesis thereof. Neither is the whole truth, but the defenders belie the attackers more than the attackers score points against the defenders. What one finally sees is that even academics are partisans and moved by hopes and fears as much as dispassionate judgment. Perhaps not a surprising conclusion.

Aristotle and Lincoln

To this point I have probably reinvented the wheel (if not stirred a hornet’s nest).  Let me draw a few lessons from the better essays, whether pro-or-against. As I said earlier, Aristotle and Lincoln stand out as the most helpful eminent thinkers for orienting oneself toward the Trump phenomenon. Several essays in both volumes invoke and apply Aristotelian teaching. Leslie Rubin enlists him to think about demagogy, and about the middle class in its health and its decline; Ken Masugi invokes the Stagirite on rhetoric and on the art of politics, which is to combine the noble and the necessary, duty and interest, in a common good of civic friendship; while Carson Holloway applies Aristotelian teaching about disgruntled, because dishonored, parts of the polity in order to understand Trump’s appeal and supporters.   

There are good reasons for returning to Aristotle. As an ancient, he doesn’t have a dog in our fights and he can help us escape presentism and partisanship. As the political philosopher, he raises our sights, so we can see have a broader, and deeper, perspective on today.  To begin with, he defined man as the political animal, because the logos-animal, joined with his fellows in discussing the advantageous and the just. So he turns our attention to the speech of political agents. Moreover, he provided expert, one could say, classical, guidance for analyzing such speech in his Rhetoric. As I indicated earlier, he observed that effective political speech was a triangle involving the speaker’s discourse, his character (ethos), and his audience’s reception, especially affective (pathos), but eventuating in action.  

Thus, we have a first template for understanding the Trump phenomenon. Campaign speeches, tweets, and considered speeches all enter into his logos or logoi. They all must be taken into account, and they must placed into a whole that gives them proper emphasis or de-emphasis. “Seriously, but not literally” is the supporters’ reading of many egregiously offensive comments, while his opponents assign the decisive truth to “the Mexican judge” (who wasn’t Mexican) or “I alone can solve” (a tweet-phrase found in the title of an essay [in the first volume] written by Feisal G. Mohamed, a venomous opponent, who reads Trump through Schmittian lenses, that is, as a “commissarial dictator”). Both have to deal with the charge of “fake news” directed at the MSM (examples of which are too numerous to list), but also at Trump himself (ditto).  

Not surprisingly, it is two Trump supporters, one a qualified supporter (Arthur Milikh), the other rather fulsome (Ken Masugi), who pay the most attention to the content of Trump’s speeches.  They carefully display the central elements of his normative understanding of America. For those for whom “nationalism” necessarily means “white nationalism” this will be a bracing challenge. Trump speaks in the idiom of an older America. To be sure, it has been subject to root-and-branch critique by progressives and others. For them, citizenship, the nation, patriotism, sovereignty, and so forth need to be put in quotation marks, radically critiqued, and radically redefined. This difference of understanding is the cause of great malentendus and animosity between the parties; it is also the debate that political philosophy should clarify and, perhaps, adjudicate. Hence the threshold obligation to bring Trump’s view of America and the world to light by attending to its considered expression. Aristotle took political speech in its natural sense, then deepened it, Milikh and Masugi follow that lead; we can too.

Aristotle of course was not a naïf, he linked speech with character: the latter is essential to the credibility of the former. Trump’s character was, and is, a major partisan bone of contention. Two anti-Trump essayists here characterize Trump’s as a compound of “ignorance, greed, and intemperance” and of the sophist’s pandering to the démos and the tyrant’s hubristic claim to determine the truth. It (almost) goes without saying that they deem him a racist and xenophobe, leading fellow “white nationalists” to a possible “regime change.” This, of course, is an extreme, and extremely partisan, take on his character. It does not go without saying (except in certain quarters). Other assessments of his character are certainly possible.  

On the other end of the political spectrum, the decisive facts for his supporters and defenders were that he is an American patriot and that he understands the concerns of those ignored and denigrated by globalist elites and bien-pensant opinion—Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables.” The other parts of his character—his past womanizing, his shady dealings, his habitual hyperbole and lying, his incuriosity, his second nature to counterpunch whenever attacked, all that was secondary. In the case of the last trait, it was a positive in today’s dire circumstances, when the MSM are ranged against not only him but his supporters, along with the Democratic Party and cultural elites. In a context construed this way, any combatant will be given the benefit of the doubt—of many doubts, in fact.

With the last point we have arrived at the final element of Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle, the audience, in this case, the receptive and responsive audience. In their second introductory essay, the editors usefully distinguish between the audience’s rational assessment of their situation and of Trump’s rhetoric and a passionate or emotional one.  Aristotle would counsel the need to consider both dimensions. More broadly, he would observe that, save the rare noble-minded individual, effective political rhetoric has a dual appeal, to nobility as well as necessity, to the duty that tempers and elevates self-interest. Mere idealism will be ineffectual, while mere interest will demean, as well as block the path to any common good.

Perhaps the worst, though, is interest cast in terms of idealism. This dubious combination seemed to many to characterize the Democratic party’s identity-politics, as well as cultural and corporate elite’s diktats. Trump’s supporters preferred his older, more straightforward, articulation of American idealism and interests.  

To simply say that in this they were duped by a huckster, or blinded by economic anxiety, or, worse, followed a xenophobic Pied Piper, as a number of essayists do, starts low and doesn’t even entertain higher or defensible motives; it thus reveals more of the one who imputes such characteristics than it does its maligned target. Aristotelian political philosophy in contrast begins by making the best case of, and for, the partisans in their disputes, before showing their limits. In his essay, Carson Holloway performed this Aristotelian role, just as Milikh and Masugi did for Trump. Despite her impeccable Aristotelian credentials, when Leslie Rubin begins with demagoguery to understand Trump, she doesn’t start where, or as, Aristotle would.

Lincoln, one could say, was an Aristotelian in his bones. Speeches mattered, they were among the highest forms of political action, while other forms, including political organization (establishing the Republican Party) and, ultimately, military action, were essential as well. The context and lodestars of action were important too. For Lincoln, the relevant context was the ominous advance of pro-slavery sentiment in the country and the lodestars were the Constitution and the Declaration, properly understood. In these areas too, partisans differed significantly in judging Trump.

His opponents judged him to be a constitutional ignoramus as well as a budding fascist.  Even Trump’s supporters had reservations about his understanding of the principles and structures of government. After giving Trump a Hamiltonian thumb’s up for his understanding of commercial greatness’s contribution to the strength and well-being of the republic, Arthur Milikh wondered if Trump sees its necessary link to republican self-rule. His essay therefore ends up being a qualified endorsement, a tutorial, and a caveat: Trump needs to read his Publius.   

This acknowledgement of constitutional illiteracy on Trump’s part does not mean or entail that he is a dictator or tyrant, actual or potential, but it does forebode problems of effective governance, not to mention deficiencies in explaining the legitimacy and propriety of his actions and aims. Similarly, unlike Lincoln who worked tirelessly at party organization and created the Republican Party to resist slavery, Trump was an outsider to the party that elected him. He had no standing in, or with, the party, and cooperation with its (in many ways rejected) leaders would, predictably, be a problem. Combined with the character formed by his free-wheeling business career, his extra-party status would mean that he was singularly unequipped for executive tasks such as oversight and would lack the institutional knowledge to tap into party talent.

His supporters either ignored these things or had fantasies in their regard.  In their eyes what mattered was elsewhere and was more important. He fought against political correctness (often offensively), he validated their straightforward patriotism, he recognized and privileged citizenship over other statuses, he extolled the nation in the face of, and against, globalism and internationalism. He understood them and he was fighting back for them.  

In this vein, he talked about “draining the swamp” and about “taking back” control. In other words, he appealed to the experience of ordinary Americans that they were excluded from consideration by their purported “representatives” and “betters” and denied a voice in determining the direction and meaning of the country. Their country.  Their country. Constitutional niceties therefore were secondary. Both parties’ leadership had demonstrated that they didn’t count. Here was a life-vest, a champion.      

So, what might Lincoln say today? First of all, I’m struck by what he couldn’t say. In his day, he could appeal to the Declaration, to “the faith of the fathers,” and to the mysterious ways of the Almighty. He could appeal to the Constitution, properly interpreted. In our day, natural rights are largely a dead-letter and Christianity, a source of division, not union, humility, and repentance. For a determinate part of the country the Constitution is “living,” and for another it is “in exile.” To what can one appeal today to bring together Americans as Americans?

Can the Political Philosophers Teach Us Anything?

As for what he might say about the Trump phenomenon, here one must necessarily be speculative (and be aware of partisan selectiveness). In this collection, one could compare and contrast the pro-and-con essays that invoke Lincoln, and judge better and worse applications, if not a clear winner. What both groups agree on is that Lincoln masterfully dealt with “the crisis of a house divided.” Our house is quite divided today. Trump, however, is far from the sole or prime cause, he is a symptom and galvanizer of existing divisions and tensions. And he will pass, whether in 2020 or 2024. A Lincolnian would therefore say that the deeper contemporary need is for a credible Americanness and for a statesman and party that credibly articulate it. I don’t know if such is possible today, but it certainly is a great desideratum.

For its part, political philosophy could make (at least) two contributions. It could conduct a review of the constitutive American debates over national identity from the Founding to today. America, one will (re)discover, is just such an ongoing debate. That may be grounds for hope. Furthermore, in an Aristotelian spirit, it could lay out the best cases for, and the limits of, today’s major partisan views, and remind each party of the necessity and nobility of civic friendship.  

Given the hornet’s nest which is contemporary America, however, anyone speaking to the partisans about such things would have to embody the lessons of Aristotle’s Rhetoric and model himself after Lincoln. Alas, given these utopian requirements, I strongly suspect that political philosophy’s main task for the foreseeable future will be to analyze and chronicle the ongoing division and fracturing of America. I only hope that it doesn’t lead to the bloody dissolution of 1776 or the bloodier dissolution of 1861.

[1] The full list in Trump and Political Philosophy includes Confucius, Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, Plutarch, Alfarabi, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Publius, Kant, Burke, Tocqueville, Hegel, Lincoln, Nietzsche, Weber, Schmitt, Adorno, Horkheimer, Gramsci, Strauss, Kojève, and Deleuze.