If liberal democracy is to survive in the age of Trump, it needs to be rehabilitated in the political arena—the arena of opinion—not outside it, in the discourse of objective facts. We are all-too-human, to nod at Nietzsche. Fallen, we are pulled by illiberal tendencies and attracted to despotism, so long as it serves our tribe. No recitation of scientific knowledge, no appeal to historical facts, and no clever philosophical argumentation is alone going to bring us back to accepting liberal democratic principles. And we do need to get back to them, posthaste. The political vision of Trump and some of his supporters is abhorrent, in part because of how recognizable its ugliness is. Nothing is new under the sun.
I have turned to Arendt because she invites us to remember that politics is where the action is and it’s a game where deception is an important move. Elsewhere in “Truth and Politics” she points out that even the American Founders knew this. “We hold these truths to be self-evident” is a sales pitch of the first order. As Arendt observes, it’s an interesting statement, implying that the Founders were choosing to hold certain things which aren’t self-evidently true as self-evidently true. She’s spot on, in my opinion. Conceiving of ourselves as political equals, protected by rights, and engaged in a project of self-governance is not a natural view. Our problem has always been that rights and equality are not self-evident and recalcitrant facts of the external world. They gain reality and power—they become the real cause of greater freedom and flourishing—only through a widely shared elective vision.
We need artists, we need entertainers, we need salespersons, and we need politicians to bring us back to the opinions that constitute that vision, to help us endorse and consent to them. The business of politics, of opinion, is messy at times, because it does occasionally involve spin, deception, and manipulation. But if we won’t undertake this business, others will, and a different vision will be sold. We’re now seeing what that vision is, and it seems to portend that winter is coming.--Christopher Robichaud "Facts are not enough to save Liberal Democracy" @Niskanen [HT Jacob Levy]
I have quoted the concluding passage of Robichaud's essay in order to criticize it. I do so, in part, because our views -- which are greatly indebted to Arendt*-- are very similar (recall this piece). In what follows I hope to avoid the narcissism of small differences, but I wish to stress two areas disagreements: first, Trump's supporters may not (wish to) see his "ugliness," in part, because they are taken in by Trump's aesthetics. Second, while I agree with Robichaud about the significance of the embrace of opinions that lead to the right sort of vision, I object to his reliance on commercial tropes ("this business;" "sold"), not because I reject commerce as such, but because I reject commerce as a guiding metaphor for politics. These two features are connected, because they are fundamentally about the nature of liberal rhetoric and politics.
First, as I have noted before (recall), after Trump's victory speech (recall), that in his political rhetoric, Trump regularly employs the pursuit of "beauty" as part of his vision. In his inaugural address, he does not merely invoke 'American carnage' but he contrasts industrial blight disfiguring the landscape ("rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation") -- the policies of the past produced ugliness and did not serve the American people-- with the wasted potential of "our young and beautiful students." And as he turns to the climax of his speech, he subtly evokes (without a trace of irony) one of the favorite American, presidential tropes (America as a shining city on a hill) with its nod to the Sermon on the Mount:
In Trump's hands the trope becomes one of dazzling greatness in which "striving" and "loyalty" constitutes "unity," which, in turn, encourages emulation in others.
Trump's glittering business and personal aesthetics are, in its embrace of the gaudy, characteristic of Kitsch. Kitsch sells and in its opposition to refined taste, may well be thought democratic. One aspect of Trump's political aesthetics is that without renouncing -- and, in fact, periodically engaging in -- the glittering business and personal aesthetics he has also embraced the more sublime aesthetic of greatness and shining dazzlement. During his inaugural address he nods to the sublime in, perhaps, the most poetic sentence of the speech (which, simultaneously, evokes the political heartland): And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty creator. (That the "urban sprawl" is ugly and "the windswept plains" beautiful needs no saying.)**
I mention all of this because while the "political vision of Trump and some of his supporters" is undoubtedly (as Robichaud suggests) "abhorrent," it is a mistake to assume that its "ugliness" is "recognizable." In fact, it will take a lot of effort to call attention to the ugly in this vision because we will be bombarded with and distracted by aesthetic spectacle and our 'free press' lacks the discipline and inclination (perhaps because there is no profit in it) to report on the ugly.
Second, Robichaud makes a mistake to treat politics in commercial terms. While this is a recurring temptation among liberals, it is one that needs to be resisted for tactical and strategic reasons. It is a tactical mistake because it plays into Trump's own narrative in which he is the deal-maker-in-chief for a zero-sum (crony-riddled) environment. As I have noted before, when people assume that the institutions are not impartial many prefer to have a crook on their side than the hard work of institutional reform. Trump's inaugural address plays to this perception by insisting that the benefits of trade are zero-sum, that world politics is one of wins and total defeats ("eradicate completely from the face of the earth") and that other politicians are hypocritical rent-seekers.
It's also a strategic mistake because it subtly misunderstands the nature of the political from a liberal perspective. To be sure, the problem is not the emphasis on rhetoric and persuasion. Rather, the proper form of political persuasion is not commercial. Commercial persuasion appeals, at bottom, to self-interest. As Adam Smith wrote in Wealth of Nations "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love." So, Smith (who was a professor of rhetoric) recognizes different forms of persuasion: one based on self-interest (to be sure, not selfishness), and one based on common humanity. For Smith both are, in fact, moralized discourses (being prudent is a species of morality for Smith, whereas Smith's thin, universal morality is grounded in humanity [see here for the argument]). But these two species do not exhaust the kinds of rhetoric available to us.
In context of the Wealth of Nations passage just quoted, Smith is explicit that such commercial mutual persuasion occurs among "fellow-citizens." The market-place is grounded in a larger political structure, one ideally governed by the impartial rule of law. It is one of the jobs of liberal politics to secure this impartial law. In fact, the whole passage starts with the recognition that in hierarchical politics, there is a morally objectionable, but ever-tempting "servile and fawning" rhetoric. By implication, Smith suggests that in a liberal polity, what's needed is a mutually respectful rhetoric, one in which politics serves better ends. I think Jefferson understood this, and his hold “these truths to be self-evident” is not so much an act of deception (I don't have Arendt nearby but I don't think that's her main point), but rather an explicit embrace of a constitutive, democratic rhetoric (equality, right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness). It is constitutive because these values are taken to be axiomatic, that is, not up for negotiation or sale.***
Let me close with a final point. A commercial rhetoric is also inappropriate to politics, even liberal politics. For liberal politics also requires a commitment to a species of political unity--a unity that is constituted by practices, narratives, and public understandings that facilitate some dispositions conducive to minimal, political union.
Donald Trump's rhetoric understands the significance of this latter point, but redirects it to illiberal ends:
The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity. We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.
Here union is sanctioned by revelation (recall my treatment of Isaiah 32) and is constituted, in part, by sincerity, honesty, and most notably solidarity (to which disagreement is subordinated). These are noble values, but they are are energized by an immoderate and a-moral (even blasphemous) end: "total unstoppability." If one is totally unstoppable one can do as one wish with others and one's environment. That is, this is a rhetoric of total control, if not domination. Even if he could sell us this for a bargain, conscience demands we refuse the offer.
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