Is Donald Trump seen as a generous person
Donald Trump is not a mistake in American history: What intellectuals now have to chew on
In just four years, the US president has turned political operations on its head. He spoke from the heart of many citizens. And the question arises: what is left to think (and do) in the post-Trump era?
In the corona-depopulated American universities, memories of that period of protest that began exactly four years ago after the decision on the new president had been made - much faster than last week - now come to mind with ambivalent nostalgia. Soon, tireless groups of students and professors were marching from one end of our campus to the other day after day, chanting each other with the popular, revolutionary two-line phrase “El pueblo unido / jamás será vencido” (“The united people will never be defeated”) new high spirits.
In terms of content, these words of generous academic solidarity with the “people” could not have been more inappropriate. Because Donald Trump, despised by intellectuals, had just been brought into the White House by underprivileged voters.
Trump: no mistake
Unfortunately, when the energy of well-meaning indignation subsided, the sharpness of the political analysis hardly increased. Over the past four years, the educated people of our society have seldom got beyond condescending gestures of distancing themselves from their country and calling Trump and his supporters “fascists”.
That is why the self-critical gesture of a recently published editorial in the "New York Times", which had become compulsory reading for all Trump opponents, seemed like the proverbial dawn of a departure that had been postponed too long on the day after the new election. Regardless of the end result, it was read there, given the massive growth in support for Trump by six million votes, it was no longer appropriate to dismiss him as an electoral error of 2016 from the "American soul" that his challenger and now also designated Successor Biden loves to conjure up.
In other words: it was only at the moment of defeat and in view of its political end, much too late in any case, that the figure of Donald Trump became a historical emergency of the present for American intellectuals, which challenges analysis and productive reactions. The delay in particular exposes us professional thinkers to a threefold obligation: First, it is high time we revised our sub-complex explanations for Trump's fascination; Second, we must finally develop plausible hypotheses about the causes and limits of Trump Syndrome; and on this basis, thirdly, we should develop innovative strategies that make it possible to actively involve Trump's supporters in the changed political processes of the future.
Trump: not a fascist
So what exactly is wrong with the almost natural use of the term “fascism” to describe Trump Syndrome? Above all, that it is - as is so often the case in political debates - an expression of indignation behind the mask of a typological comparison.
Anyone who seriously talks about Trump as a “fascist” (or “racist”) is making a self-satisfied statement about himself rather than Trump and may overlook the fact that such implicit comparisons also open up unexpected opportunities for knowledge. Just like fascism as National Socialism, Trump's style traditionally combines elements viewed as “left” and “right” (such as the “populist” demonized opening of politics to educationally disadvantaged groups and tax relief for high earners).
Of course, the incompatibilities between Trump and fascism look much clearer. Saber-rattling militarism à la Mussolini or Hitler did not even belong to the margins of his rhetorical or foreign policy repertoire. And above all, Trump was never out to fix his utterances in the polished coherence of an ideology.
Trump: an animal of resonance
The other common (and biographically correct) reference to Trump's experience as a showmaster in the entertainment industry - which he probably shares with a growing number of other politicians - seems less automated, but perhaps all too witty. The accusation that he handled politics like the episodes of a Netflix series should not save himself from asking how much naivety the assumed alternative of successful public action requires without any staging dimension.
Practical politics has always assumed a contrast between public appearance and resistant everyday problems. And to Trump's rhetorical maneuvers of evasion into the dimension of “alternative realities” there had been highly valued academic predecessors in the philosophical age of “constructivism”, “pragmatism” and the “plurality of worlds”.
If we intellectuals want to hold on to the claim to be perceived outside of our own specialist communication, then we must also consider the development of certain democratic competencies beyond such revisions of the ease of thinking. Of all things, some of Donald Trump's strengths can help as motivation and yardstick.
Are we ready to leave the ritual complaint about the division of our societies into two irreconcilable camps behind us by initiating talks with fellow citizens whom we have previously condemned as “fascists” or “racists” and kept at a hygienic distance to have? Is consensus the imperative of a political society? Joe Biden's friendly promise to become a “President of all Americans”, which, apart from Trump, all predecessors in office made, will by no means be sufficient for lasting changes.
Better, because more concrete, was his remark that he could "understand the frustration of the supporters of President Trump over the election defeat from the experience of his own defeats". But right now we «left liberals» don't even know where to find those «other Americans», quite apart from discussions with them. Above all, and with a view to the coming weeks, we should be prepared for the fact that it is the unpleasant right of a politician like Trump - for his opponents - to unscrupulously and with Machiavellian rationality exploit the practical possibilities of maintaining power. Here, too, indignation only amounts to mental comfort and existential renunciation.
However, anyone who seriously questions the reasons for Donald Trump's success with his regular voters must arrive at the diagnosis of an acute and succinctly describable crisis in the institutional form of parliamentary democracy. According to her style, one can characterize Trump's attention to strata of Americans who for decades have literally felt “left behind” by developments in everyday life as “resonance communication”. “Resonance” because its effect is not fulfilled in specific content and its respective perspectives, but solely in the impression of being heard by this President in his own - mostly vague - affects, taken seriously and also taken along. For his followers, Trump embodies an authenticity that they believe to be lost in public.
Trump: symptom of a crisis
This need for resonance and closeness arises on two different levels, both of which have to do with functions of "representation" as the basic structure of democracy. From 2016 onwards, Trump won over most of his voters through the motive of a discontinuity vis-à-vis the professional politicians formed at the country's elite universities, by whom they - arguably rightly - no longer feel understood and represented.
The first appearance of the undoubtedly highly qualified Kamala Harris as elected Vice President in a festive white trouser suit may only have confirmed this impression. There are numerous reasons for the frustration that sets in here, among which the asymmetry between the discourses of the academically educated with regard to identity politics and the rather harsh class experiences (economic disadvantages, social hierarchies) of citizens without a college degree is in the foreground.
The increasing dominance of electronic communication in everyday life has only intensified the collective impression of not being represented. Instead of opening up new opportunities for participating in public debates, as was hoped during the short phase of the “pirate parties” in Europe, unimagined distance, coldness, isolation and loneliness have come together in the world of cell phones, laptops and search engines to form the core of a new way of life . Hypercommunication creates more freedom, more contingency, and more everyday complexity at the cost of a decrease in presence and warmth, and this void was also filled by Donald Trump's political style.
Almost half of American citizens no longer feel at home in public as a space of representation, which explains why they hesitate to reveal their needs and preferences - and thus make the classic empirical surveys unreliable. Perhaps the same distrust of representation is behind a new fascination for family structures as political structures. After the Kennedys of the 1960s, the Bushs and Clintons have awakened memories of monarchical genealogies that Donald Trump could easily reactivate.
Rightly convinced of the irreplaceability of the principle of the separation of powers, we intellectuals tend in times of crisis to cling to the classic forms of parliamentary democracy as a kind of orthodoxy. We should not give up this position because problems of the structures of representation - since the implosion of the Roman Republic into the Empire - have repeatedly led to phases of dictatorship. But constitutional conservatism alone does not help - and even less does the short-sighted proposal to increase the number of judges on the Supreme Court in order to establish political equality in a body based on legal rationality.
Critical - and self-critical - thinking, on the other hand, has to be practiced on the question of which new institutional forms can lead to broad trust in the effectiveness of representation. This question is all the more urgent as no one currently has convincing answers. It is clear that the decision not to listen to educated fellow citizens alone and to take them politically seriously would be the practical beginning of such an answer for the government of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht is the Albert Guérard Professor in Literature, Emeritus, at Stanford University. His translation of Baltasar Gracián's “Oráculo manual” has just been published by Reclam and the German translation of “Prose of the World” - Denis Diderot and the periphery of the Enlightenment ”has been published by Suhrkamp.
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