Saturday, June 18, 2016

Ideologies of the Immediate: On the Zeal of Trumpish Populism

With the logic of Capital, the aspect of Marxism that remains alive is, at least, this sense of the differend, which forbids any reconciliation of the parties in the idiom of either one of them.  Something like this occurred in 1968, and has occurred in the women’s movement for ten years, and the differend underlies the question of the immigrant workers.  There are other cases.
~Jean-François Lyotard[i]

            In 1980, Isaac Asimov succinctly expressed a crucial deadlock of intellectual argument in America.  Specifically, he suggested that intellectualism faces dire opposition from those who dismiss the very grounds of intellectualism as something too institutionally complex, something too elitist for the uneducated – and, therefore, something dangerous to the homegrown and obvious existence of patriotic common sense:
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’[ii]
The cult of ignorance is more powerful today than ever, I would suggest – fueled by an engine of populist paranoia and intolerance.  Now, before I leap too quickly and too soon into the cauldron of political squabbling and rhetorical backwash, let me make it clear: I don’t think the left is entirely innocent of this ignorance, nor do I think they’re above the strategies of propaganda.  My concern lies primarily with what I perceive among the contemporary republican base, which has become more radical as of late and which I will refer to as Trumpish populism, as an ideology of the immediate: crudely, the idea that if I can’t understand it, then it’s bad.
            Simply put, Trumpish populism is constructed around an individualistic paranoia, a concern primarily for individual well-being and rationalism.  This all sounds fine until we begin to perceive the consequences: namely, that the Trumpish version of personal well-being and rationalism often results in fervent suspicion of everyone else (ranging from immigrants to Barack Obama himself) and embarrassing rationalizations of highly questionable strategies.  Trump’s populism perceives itself as the contemporary American underdog, a surreal blend of downhome patriotism and Hollywood showboating that promises high-society success via a seriously warped pursuit of “American” values (which include, among other things, isolationism, xenophobia, and political incorrectness).  These values appear, to those who maintain them, self-evident.  Like the truths illumined by the American Declaration of Independence, they need no argument to justify them.  They simply are, and to question them means to identify oneself as a traitor, un-American, or even a terrorist sympathizer.[iii]
            The idea of self-evidence is quite compelling because it means that we need not look any further.  The answer is right there in front of us, it is immediate.  It is an example of the broader institutional notion that Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams label folk politics, a local, tangible, and actionable mentality toward political organization:
At first approximation, we can therefore define folk politics as a collective and historically constructed political common sense that has become out of joint with the actual mechanisms of power.  As our political, economic, social and technological world changes, tactics and strategies which were previously capable of transforming collective power into emancipatory gains have now become drained of their effectiveness.  As the common sense of today’s left, folk politics often operates intuitively, uncritically and unconsciously.[iv]
There is nothing inherently wrong with folk politics, according to Srnicek and Williams; their argument is rather that the current conditions of large-scale social organization exceed the capacities of localized action.  Folk politics may present temporary and limited solutions, but these solutions do not address larger systemic contradictions.  They appear successful, however, because their results are immediately perceptible.  We can see the impact of our actions.
            This is the rhetoric of Trumpish populism: change that affects me, change that benefits me – not Obama’s change, the change of complex systems and institutional augmentation.  Change that, because its effects register on larger scales than the individual, must be bad; and as the ones who champion such change, the intellectuals must be the bad guys.  The political and rhetorical divide that occurs here is profound, and it is powerful.  To those who support Trump, intellectual activities and systemic change can only appear within their vocabulary as resolutely un-American since they attempt to account for energies and entities beyond American borders.[v]  Those who resist the folk political tendencies of Trumpish populism, meanwhile, can only interpret its purported nationalism as xenophobic and intolerant (as I myself often do).  Language is everything in this opposition.  More than we like to admit, terminology dictates how we think.
            There exists between these two groups, I want to suggest, something like what Jean-François Lyotard calls a differend.[vi]  The differend constitutes a rhetorical distinction between two modes of thought, each with their own vocabulary, and between which any settlement or agreement “appears in the idiom of one of them while the tort from which the other suffers cannot signify itself in this idiom” (9).  In simpler terms, power determines language; and when a disgruntled group attempts to express its grievances, it can only do so in the language of the power structure (or structures) within which it operates.  The differend designates an ideological roadblock, as it were, since it effectively sterilizes communication between groups, preventing the transmission of grievances.
            What I’m describing between the Trumpish populism that opposes modern intellectualism is not quite the same thing as Lyotard’s differend, however, since the differend forces disgruntled groups to communicate in a decidedly non-radical voice – yet communication still occurs.  What manifests between Trumpish populism and intellectualism is not a line of sterilized communication so much as miscommunication, or a failure of rhetorical translation.  When one group translates the other’s idiom into its own, it exposes the opposing idiom as premised on political principles in direct contrast with its own.  I claim that these mistranslations boil down to a determining disagreement: the populist, folk-political privileging of the immediate versus the intellectualist privileging of systemic complexity.  A reductive yet illuminating bit of evidence for this disagreement can be extracted from the ongoing debate over global warming, or the more politically viable term, “climate change.”[vii]
            Opponents of global warming often cite localized incidents and events, record-breaking cold winters or notably cool summers, as evidence against global warming.  These details are compelling to those who already distrust the science behind global warming because they resonate with what we as individuals can immediately perceive.  The result, unsurprisingly, is further disbelief in the “hoax” of global warming.[viii]  Yet scientists repeatedly insist that emphasizing such details is misleading, and that global warming, or “climate change,” is part of an observable shift in global levels of carbon dioxide – a shift that cannot be deduced from simply walking outside and noting a particularly chilly summer morning.  It can be difficult to convince people of this, though, especially when they’ve committed themselves to an ideology that privileges common sense.[ix]  If phenomena occur on a scale beyond the human senses, we tend to be naturally skeptical, and with good reason; but in this historical period of considerably advanced scientific procedures, there is plenty of literature and published findings to sink our teeth into.
Unfortunately, anti-intellectualism has already made up its mind on such findings.  In a Boston Globe piece from April 2016, Thomas Levenson communicated to his (hopefully attentive) readership just how dismissive of global warming Trump is.  When asked whether he supported a climate change agenda, Trump admitted that he didn’t believe in it:
“I think there’s a change in weather. I am not a great believer in man-made climate change. I’m not a great believer.” That’s not really an argument, of course — it’s more an evocation of that old Monkees tune. But stripped to essentials, the GOP presidential front-runner’s stance is essentially the same as that of his chief rival, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who says more bluntly that “climate change is the perfect pseudoscientific theory for a big government politician who wants more power.”[x]
This is the party line among Trumpish populism: climate change (an already vague and impotent term) is nothing more than a tactful ploy by leftists.  A ploy for political power.  Such ploys are not limited to climate change, but have become the populist mantra against any and all forms of even the slightest suggestion of intellectual thought.  Attempts to address issues on a complex scale amounts to the malign machinations of an elitist few who see such issues as a means to gain power.
            The regrettable truth is that in some cases such paranoia may not be entirely inaccurate.  Issues such as climate change and gun control have been relentlessly politicized and propagandized by both sides, enough to make it difficult for dedicated intellectuals to defend their positions.  The sad irony of the matter lies in Trumpish populism’s dismissal of leftist intellectuals as sheep enslaved to their political masters, closet socialists with an eerily suspicious Big Brother vibe.  Yet in truth, the majority of such intellectuals are working desperately to construct models of the world that embrace its complexity rather than ignore it, and to offer solutions that in turn get politicized once they enter the wider public sphere.[xi]  The myopia that populists attribute to intellectuals is actually an effect of their own myopia, a glitch in their hardware that they then project onto the external world.  They exorcise their myopia, their blind spot – their ignorance, as Asimov would say – and reimagine it as a shortcoming of the world around them.
            We all suffer from this glitch.  It’s a constitutive aspect of our embodied condition.  The key lies in being aware of it.
            This too, unfortunately, requires more than common sense.

[i]              Appeaing in 1982, Lyotard’s comment is uncannily perceptive.
[ii]             Isaac Asimov, “A Cult of Ignorance,” Newsweek, 21 January 1980.
[iii]             Of course, one of the most successful elements of America’s founding documents is the suggestion that the rights they promote somehow preexisted the composition of those documents.  In other words, that the right to bear arms is somehow an immutable, universal, and absolute right, when in fact it was the Constitution itself that created this right.
[iv]             Srnicek and Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, New York: Verso, 2015, p. 10.
[v]             Consider, for example, attempts to discuss ISIS and other forms of non-Western extremism (the West has its own fundamentalist firebrands, of course) in terms of geopolitical history and foreign diplomacy.  Almost immediately, the premises of such a discussion are accused of embracing a terrorist apologetics.  In other words, this kind of terminology appears to rationalize (and thereby excuse) the existence of terrorism.
[vi]             Lyotard, “The Differend,” 1982, Political Writings, trans. Bill Readings and Kevin Paul Geiman, Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993, p. 8-10.
[vii]            For some insight on the weak construction “climate change,” see Timothy Morton’s short blog post on why he insists on using “global warming”:
[viii]            Conspiracy theories like this one are powerful among Trumpish populists.  See for example this article on the “documentary” Climate Hustle:
[ix]             Common sense being a historically conditioned and fluctuating concept, despite contemporary common-sense attitudes that tell us otherwise!  It’s easy to see how such a limited, myopic, and solipsistic view of the world feeds its own presuppositions.
[x]             Levenson, “Doubting Climate Change is Not Enough,” Boston Globe, 17 April 2016:
[xi]             I don’t want to suggest that this is a simple, one-way causal route.  It is definitely true that intellectuals and academics are influenced by political agendas.  The point I would stress is that our form of social action is politics, and we have a limited amount of platforms to choose from – platforms that inevitably place restrictions on our epistemological vision of the world.  Everyone sacrifices something when supporting a political agenda.  Hopefully, we remember what that something is.

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