Trump Exists Outside the Traditional Left-Right Framework

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tags: election 2016, emotion, Trump

Ed Simon is a PhD candidate in English at Lehigh University, where research focuses on early modern literature and religion. He has written for several academic and general publications, and can be followed at edsimon.org

This past week’s story that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemingly violated judicial impartiality to deliver a blistering attack on presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been largely framed from the wrong perspective. The issue isn’t that Justice Ginsburg’s pronouncement supposedly flouted generations of unspoken protocol concerning the role that the Supreme Court plays in elections (after all, justices have to varying degrees made their electoral sympathies public before) but rather that the consummately proper, dignified, and appropriate justice felt the issue important enough to speak publically about it at all. In an interview with the New York Times, Ginsburg said, “I can’t imagine what this place would be — I can’t imagine what the country would be with Donald Trump as our president.”

That Justice Ginsburg thinks that Trump is such an incredible threat to the democratic health of the Republic that she is willing to overlook decorum and possibly threaten her own legacy is what’s notable, not that she simply broke some presumed precedent of neutrality. That’s because Justice Ginsburg understands something that the mainstream media, the majority of the Republican leadership, much of the rest of the country, and seemingly even the Democratic opposition are unwilling to acknowledge: Trump’s candidacy is not a normal one, and it does represent the most concentrated threat to American democracy operating today.

As if the notable story was that Ginsburg chose to speak, rather than considering the content of what she actually said, editorialists across the United States have seemingly reached for their smelling salts in a display of umbrage that the Justice dared to call such a threat by its proper name. On July 13thThe New York Times published an editorial which said, that Justice “Ginsburg needs to drop the political punditry and the name-calling,” and a day before The Washington Post said that her comments “fall into that limited category of candor that we can’t admire.” This week Trump falsely claimed that Black Lives Matter activists have asked for moments of silence in honor of the Dallas cop killer, and he has asserted without any evidence that there are eleven major American cities on the verge of exploding in racial violence. Trump’s campaigning has been marked by bizarre lies, completely fabricated claims, and belligerent attacks on anyone who dares to question the candidate. In this political context, the most important story isn’t that Ginsburg told the truth (no matter how impolitely she may have phrased it), but rather that Trump seemingly never does.

One member of the mainstream media who understands what Justice Ginsburg does is Charles P. Pierce at Esquire, who wrote on July 14th “damn all members of the media who treat this dangerous fluke of a campaign as being in any way business as usual.” In that brilliant and scathing article Pierce lays out as well as anyone the sheer threat that Trumpism represents for the United States. In Trump’s campaign we’ve seen the normalization of white supremacist ideology and the deployment of openly fascistic rhetoric, to pretend that Trump is simply another regular candidate is to bury our heads in the sand, it’s an act of irresponsibility. The journalistic class no doubt wishes to largely hold onto the myth of impartiality, but morality demands that we are honest about the danger that the nation faces. To perseverate on perceived breaches of propriety by Justice Ginsburg is to miss the forest for the trees.

I would argue that in part this inability to fully wrestle with the full implications of Trumpism are because the events of the past year are simply so hard to believe. For all their ridiculousness elections are normally more rational affairs, which go by a fairly predictable script. But Trumpism is not amenable to normal means of analysis; even the far left errs when they assume that the candidate’s appeal is reducible to economics and class frustration. Again, as Pierce wrote, “Damn all the thoughtful folk who plumb his natural appeal for anything deeper than pure hatred.” It’s natural to look for some sort of rational schema to explain Trump’s naked appeals to bigotry, and no doubt there are cognoscente explanations for some of his support. But ultimately looking for a purely logical explanation for who Trump is and what his supporters admire in him is a fool’s errand, for Trump does not speak the language of reason but of emotion.

And that is the central problem with all rational explanations of Trumpism, they consciously or unconsciously ignore how much of Trump’s appeal goes beyond reason. You see it in editorials that treat this election year as if it’s any other, you see it in left-wing explanations of Trump which reduce his allure to white working class grievances, you see it in Republican establishment hacks who admit that Trump says dangerous things, but that this danger can somehow be harnessed. In logical left-wing analysis of Trump one sees shades of the Frankfurt School for Social Research who interpreted fascism simply as capitalism by other means, or in the GOPs capitulation to Trumpism there are echoes of German and Italian establishment conservatives of the 20’s and 30’s who incorrectly hoped that fascism would be their rhetorical servant and not ultimately their literal master. What all of these positions share is the hope that the authoritarian impulse can be corrected by reason – a dangerous mistake.

Liberalism, conservatism, socialism and so on are all intellectual children of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and in varying and different ways they all in some sense recognize the authority of reason as it relates to politics. Where they fall short is in supplying a method of interpreting political ideologies that shun reason, which is why they perform a category mistake in trying to understand irrational political philosophies like fascism according to the rules of reason, which those systems reject. A more useful means of interpreting how totalitarian politics operates is supplied by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (guilty perhaps of his own totalitarian impulses), who in his 1872 The Birth of Tragedy identified two central aesthetic forces in classical drama – the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

The Apollonian, true to its namesake, is an aesthetics of reason, logic, elegance, and order. The Dionysian, also true to its divine namesake, is one of chaos, irrationality, emotion, and intoxication. This bifurcated classification of aesthetic experience is also useful in being applied to politics, perhaps just as helpful as the more traditional left-right divide. All of the normative modes of political thought in western democracy from the Enlightenment on – as varied as socialism, libertarianism, mainstream liberalism and conservatism – are in some sense Apollonian in their abiding faith in the ability of reason to order and structure society. But Dionysian politics (and they need not be right-wing; anarchism can have a bit of the Dionysian about it) operate according to their own rules, and it does us no good to try and interpret their actions using our rules. It’s as if wondering why a soccer team doesn’t try and get more home runs – a misunderstanding of the very game that is being played. Nietzsche writes that as “Dionysian emotions awake … they grow in intensity.” Prefiguring the befuddled attempts of those who try to explain Trumpism purely through reason, Nietzsche write “There are some who, from obtuseness or lack of experience turn away from such phenomena … with contempt or pity born of … their own ‘healthy mindedness.’ ”

Like those whose “healthy mindedness” Nietzsche sarcastically mocks, I too recoil at such phenomena. But I also fear that the traditional ways of talking about politics in America as they relate to Trumpism are inadequate to the task, precisely because this Dionysianism can’t be easily contained. We’ve been interpreting Dionysian phenomena with the language of Apollonianism. So what is to be done?

Trump speaks in a language of myth, where facts and the truth are irrelevant. Myth is powerful and potent, it can have the ability to set people free and to provide meaning to their lives, which is precisely why malevolent myth is so dangerous. We can write our own myths, which are more noble, fair, true, beautiful, and egalitarian, or we can reaffirm that national civil mythos of America as land free from those old world obsessions of blood and lineage which Trump so obscenely rejects. Or perhaps we double down on numbers, arguments and reasons, praying that in this circumstance our rational Apollonian angels are stronger than the raw anger of our Dionysian demons.

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