I spend the better part of my professional life teaching “Great Books.” This semester’s lineup so far has included Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Second Discourse (1775), Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), and Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532). I’m committed to the proposition that these old books continue to speak to us, if only we have ears to hear.
My students don’t always agree, but they really perked up when I speculated about how Adam Smith would approach the phenomenon—the yuuge phenomenon—of Donald Trump.
In Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith offers a modified version of the rational, self-interested individualism articulated by the classical liberals Thomas Hobbes and John Locke (whose works my students read in the first semester of our sophomore core curriculum sequence). We understand ourselves, Smith argues, as both agents and spectators, agents acting in the full awareness that we have an audience and spectators constantly observing, evaluating, and sympathizing with (or not) the actions of others. Among the things each of us self-interestedly wants—indeed, one of the most important—is the sympathetic approval of others.
This has the potential, Smith believes, of transforming our self-interest in a good way:
Upon these two different efforts, upon that of the spectator to enter into the sentiments of the person principally concerned, and upon that of the person principally concerned, to bring down his emotions to what the spectator can go along with, are founded two different sets of virtues. The soft, the gentle, the amiable virtues, the virtues of candid condescension and indulgent humanity, are founded upon the one; the great, the awful and respectable, the virtues of self-denial, of self-government, of that command of the passions which subjects all the movements of our nature to what our own dignity and honour, and the propriety of our own conduct require, take their origin from the other.
A substantial portion of human excellence, in other words, flows from this interest in what others think of us.
But there’s a problem, identified most perspicuously by Smith’s contemporary, Rousseau. While Smith seems to regard this phenomenon as largely benign, Rousseau treats it as the beginning of the end of human happiness and goodness. When we lead our lives in the light of what others think of us, the French philosopher argues, we not only trade our “authentic” feelings for some factitious group sentiment, but we become competitive for attention in ways that are destructive not only of our own happiness but that of the entire community.
With those two ideas in mind, here’s a way of conceiving the issue: On the ground, in real life, our concern with others’ opinions, with gaining their sympathy, leads us to adjust our sentiments—not, as Smith suggests, to accord with some rigorously moral and highly principled observer who would want us to restrain ourselves, but to satisfy an audience of people like ourselves, an “in group” or an “us” that is opposed to “them.”
This is where Trump comes in. Numberless times he has said or done things that I regarded as outrageous, as crossing some line of good taste or political prudence, whether it was denying that John McCain is a hero, or misogynistically insulting Fox News host Megyn Kelly, or saying that his supporters would continue to be behind him even if he shot someone. All seem to be missteps—indeed, in some cases campaign-ending missteps—in ordinary political life. But not for Trump. His audience loved it; those of us on the outside were left scratching our heads.
Stated another way, Trump is playing what one observer has called a “hollow, Euro-style identity politics,” articulating the views and seeking the approval of a group that defines the world “politically” (as German political theorist Carl Schmitt would have it) in terms of “us” and “them.”
When I say this, my students voice their approval. They for the most part—unsurprisingly—don’t seem to like Trump.
They tend to resist, however, what I say next: that Trump is not the only one playing identity politics. This has been the bread and butter of thinking about the so-called “new social movements” of those who culturally construct their identities, ever since the abject collapse of orthodox Marxist theory. What Trump does for his people, the Black Lives Matter movement does for a certain portion of the African American community, the LGBT groups do for their adherents, and Hillary Rodham Clinton does in an effort to mobilize her supporters.
By the time I make this point, my students are squirming. I suppose it would be possible for them to embrace some version or other of this agonistic vision of politics, under which we acquiesce in our human tendency to divide the world into in-groups and out-groups, that no one is really morally superior to anyone else, that we all have our socially constructed identities, as do our adversaries, and that, in the end, perhaps Hobbes was right, and it’s ultimately a war of all against all.
But they resist that, and I’m quite glad they do. They want a ground for saying that someone is right and someone else is wrong; they care about justice. And here is where Smith can be brought back in. His conception of “the impartial spectator” is a mental construct far removed from the actual people around us, “the coarse clay of which the bulk of mankind are formed.” Smith believes that this imagined “conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct” will work to correct our partial, selfish, idiosyncratic passions and positions.
The problem is getting there from here, from the warm and passionate approval of “us,” as opposed to “them,” to the construction of the spectator within who doesn’t play favorites, who tells us that “when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration.”
Smith’s rough equation of the impartial spectator to conscience offers, I think, a clue. While he doesn’t fully embrace traditional religion, let alone traditional Christianity, the “sacred canopy” it provides offers a cultural milieu in which this sort of impartiality can be cultivated.
But what was relatively unproblematical in 18th century Great Britain—where one could safely presume the cultural hegemony of Christianity even as one sought to refine or redefine its import—is much more difficult here and now, in a “post-Christian” America. Do we have moral and cultural resources common enough, inspiring enough, and powerful enough to resist the comforts of confining ourselves to our special identity groups?
It doesn’t seem that the bloodless cosmopolitanism of our intellectual and commercial elites will serve, especially since in many cases it simply seeks to accommodate some of the loudest of our many identity groups. In that sense, the anything-but-bloodless Donald Trump, by purporting to stand up for America, may be right. He has tapped into Americans’ disgust at political correctness.
But in the end the America he should stand up for is a country founded on universal principles which everyone can understand and to which everyone can subscribe. Ours is not a nationalism of blood and soil, but rather of self-evident truths and propositions to which we as a people can be dedicated.
Trump is not the poet or the philosopher that we need, but the power of his appeal indicates the urgency of that need.