Let me start with a confession: I am as fallible as anyone to succumb to the lure of what I want to call our liberal stupidity. To subsist through the insanity that is the Donny T (as my teenage kids call him) presidency, I need a regular dose of late night comedy—Colbert is my favourite, closely followed by Seth Meyers and John Oliver. On nights with especially egregious revelations—as on Jan 3, when first excerpts of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury were released by the media, offering confirmation by Steve Bannon and others within the White House of the degree of incompetence, incoherence, emotional instability, and, yes, sheer stupidity of the president and some in his inner circle—on such nights, I too cannot resist feasting on hours and hours of cable news. CNN is my channel of choice for its staunch belief in the efficacy of facts, and for peppering the soap-operatic staging of disbelief, moral indignation, intellectual superiority, and rectitude with just enough honest concern and Schadenfreude to temper the self-righteous pathos and thespian gravity inherent to this particular genre of news entertainment.
Yes, I surrender regularly and with passion to these guilty pleasures. Along with sanity, they reaffirm a sense of community, of belonging, of friendship, and even of purpose that has grown only stronger as the absurdities of Donald T’s political and social media behaviour keep piling up. The liberal media coverage, comedic or not, even manages to instil hope in these dark and dangerous times: The hope of an expanding consensus that the behaviour by the Jokester-In-Chief is unacceptable not only to Democrats, but increasingly also to Independents and Republicans. Surely this consensus must ultimately lead to a political backlash, to a wave that will sweep Democrats into political office around the country. Will we ultimately have to thank Donny T for so thoroughly exposing the moral hubris and elitist economic priorities of the right, and thus for making possible the implementation of more liberal policies (perhaps even a version of Bernie Sander’s single-payer health insurance plan) that were unthinkable before his improbable ascent to the presidency?
I doubt it, and not just because my political instincts have been consistently wrong. Let’s just remember 8 November 2016, when many of us woke up quite confident that FiveThirtyEight’s calculations, which had Hillary as a 71.4% favourite, were conservative. How could Hillary, a flawed candidate no doubt, lose against the outrage that is Donny T? Who in their right mind, and with a minimal moral compass, could ignore his dangerous rhetoric, his xenophobic and outright racist policy proposals, the sexist views and chauvinistic boasting that accompanied his intellectual ineptness, moral disorientation, let alone his lack of eloquence, poor taste and lack of style? And yet, who looked utterly stupid the next morning?
This feeling of stupidity most of us with liberal inclinations experienced at the time is far from subsiding. Despite the continued barrage of outrageousness from the White House, Donny T continues to enjoy what to me is an unfathomable level of support. According to the first Gallup pole of 2018, Donny stands at 39% approval ratings overall, 82% among Republicans, 34% among Independents, and 8% among Democrats. If nothing else, these numbers show that his support comes not just from the ultra-rich, or from cranky old men, crazy nationalists, racists, and xenophobes who let Fox News channel their spiteful emotions and scared views of the world. He also finds approval from quite regular folks, such as the moms and dads I meet every week alongside the soccer field, where we watch our kids play.
There is no shortage of explanations for Donny T’s continued approval, especially among Republicans. The purpose of this column, however, is not to rehash the many reasons for his success, but how, despite the many explanations that are at our disposal, so many of us liberals continue to feel fundamentally dumbfounded about Donny T. Colbert’s visible shock on election night, when it became clear that Donny might actually win this thing, was symptomatic in this regard. For a moment there, written in his face, there was no more laughter, no more ridicule, no more explanation that could have satisfied. All that was left was disbelief. And this feeling continues to haunt us, as Colin Jost observed, when he quipped, in a recent SNL Weekend Update (13 Jan 2018) that ‘just repeating a phrase’ (the initial reference was to Donny T’s signature ‘no collusion’ proclamations) ‘doesn’t make it true. For example’, Jost continued, ‘ever since Trump has been elected, half the country has been repeating the phrase: “This can’t be happening”. And yet somehow it is’. SNL continued with this theme the following week, with a skit about a game show where an utterly jaded host drove home the point that no matter how outrageous a scenario of political behaviour, it simply did not matter anymore.
That our constant attempts to rationalize and humourize the current situation cannot dispense this feeling of disbelief and shock, therein lies the key to understanding our stupor. At stake is the very failure of reason itself. Behind the feelings of shock, astonishment, and dismay that hit us every time Donny T achieves a new low (as I am writing this, Donny T calling African nations, Haiti, and Guatemala ‘shitholes’ is making the rounds) lies, this is my thesis, the subconscious recognition that one of the most cherished of liberal principles, the belief in the efficacy of reason itself, is being undermined, challenged, and proven wrong, right under our noses. What the Donny T circus shows us, in short, is that the hitherto thought reasonable belief in reason—is unreasonable.
Not to downplay the importance of this belief for Western thought—it is, after all, how we explain why we invest tremendous amounts of resources into education, into science, into technology, why we defend freedom of speech, transparency in the legal system, an open economy, environmental protection, fight for equality, and so on—a brief look at the history of Western thought will quickly reveal that the trust in the efficacy of reason has not been without its distractors. From Machiavelli to the French Moralists, from German Romanticism to Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, on to poststructuralism, postmodernism and now post-humanism, there have been plenty of schools of thought that have challenged the belief in the efficacy of reason. They point out inherent contradictions and ethical shortcomings behind the lofty rhetoric, cherished ideals, and some of the values of the Enlightenment and the humanist traditions it follows.
Let me hone in on two lines of argument that challenge the ethical idealism at the heart of our liberal convictions. The first concerns the insistence on the universal applicability of a set of values, and of reason and reasonability itself. The idea is, to put it broadly, that the pursuit of reason can serve as a disinterested arbitrator that ultimately (as soon as it is adhered to by all of the involved parties) will allow us to iron out any disputes, tensions, or conflicts among different interest groups. The point of critique that, in recent decades, has reached a wider, educated audience, is that such hopes merely disguise as universal goods a particular set of interests, a specific agenda, a perspective, and the privileging of certain values, individuals, classes over others. As Marx pointed out in the mid-nineteenth century: The Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, its ethics, and idealistic values work particularly well in representing the interests of the bourgeoisie. Its stern belief in education and civility have helped maintain the bourgeoisie’s privileges and pocket books.
But there is a stronger point of contention that sceptics have raised against the liberal affirmation of reasonability and civility, one that spots not only a blindness toward the interestedness of universalized positions, but finds a more intricate and dangerous contradiction at the heart of liberalism. The point is that universalist assumptions about the efficacy of reason and its pursuit of humanist values threatens to compromise the latter, creating a sphere of the ‘inhuman’ (Deleuze) and monstrous that ultimately undermines the Enlightenment’s own (humane) intentions.
The argument, in a nutshell, goes as follows. Let’s assume that agreement is never fully attainable. This proposition might be argued on anthropological grounds (as Nietzsche and Freud did), on the conviction that homo homini lupus est; it can be just as well argued to be the result of societal structures that create continued tensions, e.g. as they prevent equality among its members; the case can also be argued philosophically, e.g. with reference to the undesirability of a society dominated by overarching consensus; one might also argue politically that the insistence on consensus and the abolition of strife is a totalitarian venture that would have to come at the expense of democracy, as democracy rests on the institutionalized legitimization of opposition with disagreement as its basic modus operandi.
Viewed against the backdrop of such considerations, one might well argue that the liberal ideal of a society based on reason and the belief in the possibility of an overarching consensus (Habermas) is neither reasonable nor necessarily desirable. Moreover, the continued invocation and (direct or indirect) idealization of such grounds create a problematic, and fundamentally dangerous contradiction for liberal thought: It carries the risk of radicalizing political opposition, by placing those who disagree with what are viewed as universalized human qualities (reasonability, civility, kindness, etc.) into the sphere of inhuman Others who no longer deserve the respect and protection afforded to those who agree with these standards.
Along these lines, Chantal Mouffe warns against the danger of universal humanistic ideals being politically (ab)used to justify inhumane means (On the Political. London / New York: Routledge, 2005); and Juliane Rebentisch, to mention another example, who expands the argument historically, argues that antagonistic, rather than consensual, political models support democratic virtues. Both writers draw on Carl Schmitt’s concept of the political where this idea found its perhaps most radical (and controversial) articulation. In a nutshell, Schmitt criticizes individualistic liberalism for denying the nature of the political. For Schmitt, the political is not about building consensus, about reasonability, or about ‘doing what is right’, but about distinguishing between friends and foes, wherever there is disagreement. Assuming that agreement on pressing issues will remain elusive—and again, realistically, how can we not assume continued strife in this world?—the humanist conceit does not abolish, but threatens to radicalize, Schmitt points out, the distinction between friend and foe. It opens the door for ‘the absolute last war of humanity’. He argues that such a war would be ‘necessarily unusually intense and inhuman because, by transcending the limits of the political framework, it simultaneously degrades the enemy into moral and other categories and is forced to make of him a monster that must not only be defeated, but also utterly destroyed’. (The Concept of the Political. Chicago / London: Chicago UP, 2007; 36) Schmitt expands on this logic, pointing out that the ‘concept of humanity is an especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion, and in its ethical-humanitarian form it is a specific vehicle of economic imperialism’. (Ibid. 54) Schmitt invokes the French anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, for having claimed that whoever invokes humanity wants to cheat. Schmitt continues: ‘To confiscate the word humanity, to invoke and monopolize such a term probably has certain incalculable effects, such as denying the enemy the quality of being human and declaring him to be an outlaw of humanity; and a war can thereby be driven to the most extreme inhumanity’. (Ibid.)
These are stark accusations that must appear especially bothersome, if we consider that Schmitt developed his concept of the political in 1932, at the brink of the Nazi takeover that led to the most catastrophic end of political civility and reasonability. If nothing else, it shows how easily a universalized concept of humanity can be appropriated and ‘specified’ to apply but to a particular set of values, racial markers, ideas on gender and sexuality, a national identity, and so on. We can see these dynamics also at play outside the doings of totalitarian and fascist regimes: Merely think, for example, about the continued ‘war on terror’, where humanist principles are continuously invoked to justify acts of extreme inhumanity.
What lessons might we draw from these traditions of thought for our (so far, at least) less tragic times? What can we learn from Schmitt’s concept of the political or from Freud’s, Nietzsche’s, or Marx’s scepticism about the efficacy of reason in and beyond politics?
For one, it shows that behind our stupor about the world of Donny T, there lies indeed a blind spot, a moment of ignorance, and yes, a form of stupidity. It is an avoidable stupidity, as there is a long line of sceptics who have taught us to understand better the limits and inherent contradiction that lie in our appeal to reason.
More importantly, though, might be to understand that the constant articulations of dismay and disbelief, which communicate disagreement in a language that insinuates intellectual and moral superiority, is not without political consequence. It hardens, as Schmitt would put it, the line between friend and foe. Let’s be clear here: I am not against calling policies or tweets or even certain people and their actions by their name (racist, xenophobic, petty, misguided, or even stupid); what I find problematic, however, is when political critique is presented on the high horse of reasonability dressed in universalized ethical garb that looks down upon anyone who might pursue a different agenda, different interests, different political goals.
Taking the intellectual and moral high ground—a strategy Hillary Clinton borrowed from Michelle Obama—might help rally one’s own political camp; by typecasting the opposition as stupid and ‘deplorable’, however, it also distracts from the political issues, dismisses the diversity of opinions and concerns within the opposition, and hardens not only the divide, but also, I suspect, the resolve of those who find themselves in disagreement about this or that liberal position. Put more simply: Stupid or not, no one likes to be called stupid for holding a differing opinion. It is, in any case, the kind of tone that I suspect does little to help sway even the most righteous of conservative soccer parents here in the Midwest to do the right thing. As a strategy, it carries the risk that come November 2018 or 2020, we liberals once again wake up in one big stupor, unable to believe what is happening.