Trump’s Election and the Rupture of Reason
It appears that all of us on Vox Nova have been on hiatus for the past month. This is in part due to the natural rhythms of the season – for those of us affiliated with universities, this is a hectic time. Speaking for myself, however, all I can say is that I have felt at a loss for words. One month ago today, half of the country was rejoicing, while the other half felt shocked, appalled, and aggrieved. If you’ve read my other blog posts, it probably won’t be hard for you to guess which side I was on. For the next three days I felt absolutely numb with grief. A wide array of acquaintances – from old friends in Canada to the Saudi Arabian students I’m currently teaching in Iowa – tried to console me with the same phrases I imagine some Vox Nova readers might offer: “Let’s wait and see what he does,” or “It won’t be that bad.”
But for me and many others, the lamentation and dismay at Trump’s victory is more than that of seeing our side’s candidate lose. Many of us liberals would not be feeling this distraught if Kasich, Bush, Rubio or even Carson had been the Republican nominee and gone on to win the election. For me, as for many others, a major problem with Trump is that he won on an agenda rampant with racism, demagoguery, and a desire to turn back the clock to a time most of us would not want to live in (the Gilded Age of the 1880’s, it seems)
As the month of November wore on, most of us got over our initial shock and moved through the stages of grief to some form of acceptance. “What do we do now?” and “Where do we go from here?” are the questions we’re asking as we take stock of the situation. Many of us have faced the reality that we were complacent; somehow, we thought voting and posting comments on our social media echo chambers were all we needed to do. We were flagrantly out of touch with our Trump-voting fellow Americans. And now, we are struggling to discern what to do – whether to get involved in the environmental battles that are sure to come in the next few years, or to work in solidarity with undocumented migants, or to become more engaged in politics at the local level. For those of us who believe that climate change is real, that the loss of biodiversity is a tragedy, and that no human being can deem another one “illegal,” the coming years will be tough to say the least.
My fellow Vox Nova contributor David Cruz Uribe (who has been swamped with work and promises to return to VN very soon) recently shared on Facebook a very astute analysis of the times we are living in. In “Welcome to the Age of Anger,” Pankaj Mishra places the starting events of 2016 – Trump’s victory, Brexit, the rise of right-wing radicalism in Europe, the growing hostility toward immigrants and refugees, and ongoing problems of war and global terrorism – in a three hundred year context. It is very interesting to me that Mishra, a writer from India, draws almost exclusively on European historical sources to make his argument – he cites Rousseau, de Tocqueville, Weber, Nietzsche, and Freud to make his arguments. But perhaps it makes sense that, due to colonialism, European thought has become a central component of most philosophical frameworks. The Enlightenment signaled a distinct move from a God-centered worldview to a man-centered one, a belief that humans are primarily rational beings who act with their own material self-interest in mind. “The dream of the late 18th century, to rebuild the world along secular and rational lines, was further elaborated in the 19th century by the utilitarian theorists of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people – and this notion of progress was embraced by socialists and capitalists alike,” Mishra explains.
According to Mishra, the educated elites of this world – the academics, the journalists, the New York Times subscribers – are shocked by what is happening because we expect human beings to act rationally. But this is simply an unrealistic expectation:
According to this worldview, the dominance of which is now nearly absolute, the human norm is Homo economicus, a calculating subject whose natural desires and instincts are shaped by their ultimate motivation: to pursue happiness and avoid pain. This simple view always neglected many factors ever-present in human lives: the fear, for instance, of losing honour, dignity and status, the distrust of change, the appeal of stability and familiarity. There was no place in it for more complex drives: vanity, fear of appearing vulnerable, the need to save face. Obsessed with material progress, the hyperrationalists ignored the lure of resentment for the left-behind, and the tenacious pleasures of victimhood […]One revolution after another since then has demonstrated that feelings and moods change the world by turning into potent political forces. Fear, anxiety and a sense of humiliation were the principal motive of Germany’s expansionist policy in the early 20th century – and it is impossible to understand the current upsurge of anti-western sentiment in China, Russia and India without acknowledging the role played by humiliation.Yet a mechanistic and materialist way of conceiving human actions has become entrenched, in part because economics has become the predominant means of understanding the world. A view that took shape in the 19th century – that there is “no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest” – has become orthodoxy once again in an intellectual climate that views the market as the ideal form of human interaction and venerates technological progress and the growth of GDP. All of this is part of the rigid contemporary belief that what counts is only what can be counted and that what cannot be counted – subjective emotions – therefore does not.
Reading these words, I cannot help but think of the moment when my mother, a devout Catholic and almost equally devout Fox News watcher, informed me that she was “in love” with Donald Trump. When I asked her why, she responded, “Because he speaks from his heart.” Of course I immediately wanted to respond “What heart?” But by now I have learned that I must pick my battles with my septuagenarian parents, and I knew that nothing would stop my mother from voting for Trump. Now, reading Mishra’s article, I am beginning to understand what she meant when she said that Trump “spoke from the heart.” Unlike the emotionally detached, policy-focused discussions Clinton offered during her campaign, Trump spoke plainly and with deep emotional appeals. His simple promises to “make America great again” through expert deal-making and a revived economy clearly appealed to many – not only to poor white Americans, but to middle class and wealthy ones, as well as a small but not negligible of African American and Latin@ citizens. Emotion fueled his campaign.
At least since the time of Plato, humanity seems to have had a problem finding the right balance between reason and emotion. In certain intellectual movements – the Enlightenment, the positivism of the late-nineteenth century, and technology-based neo-Enlightenment of our own time, when STEM subjects are seen as the most legitimate hallmarks of an education, when enrollment in university humanities departments as well as membership in the mainline Christian churches continues to fall – rationality is enshrined as the supreme power.
At the same time, throughout history another current has run alongside this worship of the rational. Medieval mysticism, certain strands of seventeenth century thought (metaphysical poets John Donne and George Herbert come to mind), the Blakean and Wordsworthian romanticisms of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the critiques of industrial capitalism in works by such writers as Dickens and George Eliot, and the advent of modernism and postmodernism in the twentieth century all suggest that reason isn’t everything. Indeed, if Freud and the psychoanalysts are right, it is not even the main thing.
Mishra suggests that our model of homo economicus is missing something important: an attention to our emotions. Among these Mishra mentions many negative ones – envy, resentment, fear. But there is one emotion he fails to mention which, in my view, is just as strong: spiritual craving, a desire for transcendence that makes us yearn, like Augustine, for the divine: “My heart is restless until it rests in thee.” I am convinced that on some level all of us (even the most committed atheists) yearn for communion with that entity traditionally known as God. However, since the Enlightenment disenchanted our world and made atheism – or at least agnosticism – the default belief system among the European educated elites, this drive has been sublimated into other negative forms, like excessive national pride, or an addiction to mind-altering substances, or a desperate search for love…or else, as we saw in the first half of the twentieth century, blind faith in a strongman ruler. For me, one valid interpretation of this 2016 election is that it was motivated by a desire for transcendence in the form of a messianic savior – alas, one that only our consumer capitalist society could have produced.
Reflecting on this article, David Cruz Uribe commented, “The diagnosis is really quite good, but the solution–a revival of Freud, Nietzsche, and Weber—is weak. I would propose that Catholic Social Teaching, grounded in an understanding of the human person that captures the sublime, the rational and the base, is the way out. We had our chance in the 19th century and we blew it. We need to try again.”
When I asked him what he meant by us missing our chance in the nineteenth century, he responded that this time saw the development of unbridled capitalism.
This led to, among other things, the socialist movements in Europe, representing the needs of the new urban proletariat. The Church could have allied itself with them, and built up a credible intellectual alternative to free market liberalism that was grounded in and spoke to the people most affected. Instead, still beholden to a world-view that refused to accept the consequences of the French revolution, we allied ourselves with the Ancien Regime and with established powers […] By the time of Rerum Novarum, it was too little, too late. Leo XIII wanted to respond to the newly emerging world order, but rather than engaging with it, he resurrected Thomistic philosophy and theology, and neo-Scholasticism simply did not have the intellectual vitality to engage (rather than simply oppose) 19th century philosophical trends. I want to make clear that I do not see the Church as solely to blame—it takes two to tango, as it were. But there was a chance and we did not take it.
Could we really have another chance now? At times, as I glance around the church during Sunday Mass in search of others in my age group and find very few, as I struggle to get my students to turn off the smartphones and recognize the value of reading a writer like Shakespeare or Blake, as I struggle to free myself from the consumerist model of success, which I have absorbed as much as anyone else in this society – it is hard to determine what 21st century Catholicism in its current state might bring to the table. But then, I remember that while for many people 2016 will be remembered only as a year of discord and global unrest, for Catholics it was the Year of Mercy. The official year may be over, but through Pope Francis’s preaching, writing, and the amazing World Youth Day Celebration I was so blessed to be a part of last summer, he has planted a seed needs to take root. Like so many others I am confused about which path to take through this scary reality that looms ahead. But at least I know where I must begin: mercy for Trump’s supporters as well as his opponents, and even greater mercy for those who stand to be affected by his policies. As we begin a new year, mercy is the mantra I’ll keep on repeating. In the words of my old friend Margaret Thatcher, “There is no alternative.” Except, of course, for anger, resentment and despair.