Philosophers Discuss Trump

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a “Trump Issue” (may be paywalled) in which several academics, including three philosophers, comment on the U.S. presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump. They include Jason Brennan (Georgetown University), Aaron James (UC Irvine), and Matthew Meyer (University of Scranton).

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From Brennan’s “Pox Populi“:

How did Donald Trump become a serious contender for president of the United States? It’s the question everyone is asking, but it’s the wrong question. Instead, given how ignorant and irrational voters tend to be, we should be asking how it is that someone like Trump—a candidate seemingly as ill-informed as he is uninterested in policy—hasn’t already made it to the Oval Office… The rise of Trump should challenge our faith in democracy. That’s because the presumptive Republican nominee is not an anomaly so much as a symptom of a disease deep within democracy’s bones…

Brennan is a proponent of epistocracy, not because it is problem free, but because he thinks it is a better alternative to democracy, which is plagued by the following problems:

In general, scholars have found that voters are ignorant, misinformed, and irrational…

Experimental work in political psychology reveals that most people process political information in a way that is biased and partisan, not dispassionate and rational. They pay attention to evidence that confirms the views they already hold…

Decades of social-science research suggest that political engagement tends not only to fail to educate or ennoble us, but also often to stultify and corrupt us…

Contrary to what Mill expected, getting citizens to deliberate together typically backfires. Deliberation does not bring us together; it leads to polarization and anger…

Though Americans are better educated, and though political information has never been easier to acquire, people are as ignorant about politics today as they were 40 years ago….

Voters are dumb because democracy makes them dumb. Democracy spreads power among a vast number of people; everyone gets an equal but tiny share — expressed through our vote — so small that none of us have an incentive to use our power wisely.

From James’ “The Jerk’s Political Moment“:

[Trump] doesn’t see that his claim of being a brilliant businessman might invite the question of whether selling steaks for $50 a pound (he even touted the high price) at the Sharper Image was a sound business proposition. (Jerry Levin, former CEO of the Sharper Image, has said, “We literally sold almost no steaks.”) Plus he was so serious. Oblivious and very serious. Behold the ass-clown, who is telling the joke but somehow not in on it.

The ass, among types of persons, is slow to understanding. Perhaps he’s dull, stubborn, entrenched in his position, or just plain stupid. The clown, by contrast, seeks to entertain an audience with playful pretending or comedic exaggeration, with sharp sensitivity to what others find amusing or delightful or shocking. Putting these two types together, there is such a person as an ass-clown, someone who seeks an audience’s enjoyment while being slow to understand how it views him.

Trump is amusing, and we can all relate to feeling like an ass. This makes the man relatable, as a fellow human, and even likable, for a moment. His display of the asshole arts—as schoolyard bully, as cut-down boxer—is unrivaled, and its own spectacle. This is part of his appeal for many. The question is why we—enough of us—are not flatly revolted. The answer is that we—most of us—really like an ass-clown. Trump the ass-clown is partly oblivious, and this is genuinely funny, and in a way all too human; he’s like slapstick, a pure form of comedy. We are thus drawn to him even in revulsion, and his supporters forgive or overlook his transgressions. Our pleasure in the spectacle, and our confusion about his type, leave us unsettled in our feelings and him free to do pretty much as he likes…

Trump, surely without intending it, has been a wake-up call to the republic. He has forced us to reckon with much that was previously hidden. He has brought what used to be implicit racism out into the open, for sunlight and criticism, ending (for the moment) the dog-whistle racist politics invented by Richard Nixon. Despite our real insecurities, Trump’s depiction of Mexicans and Muslims is vile and has been rightly condemned. That condemnation has in turn upheld their status as moral equals, affirming publicly the inclusive principles on which our country was founded. However mixed our feelings, we can be grateful that the fog has lifted. I must say, the clearer air is rather pleasant. William Burroughs captured our time of rueful clarity in his definition of “naked lunch”: “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”

From Meyer’s “I, Donald“:

The ancient Greeks… were less ambivalent about the threat narcissism poses to democracy—and one figure in particular deserves close comparison with Trump. In The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides narrates the decline of Athenian democracy at the hands of Alcibiades, the Athenian general and playboy. In Plato’s Republic, a regime ruled by benevolent philosopher kings undergoes a steady decline until democracy finally breeds a narcissistic tyrant—left unnamed in the text, though the allusions throughout suggest that it is Alcibiades.

Robert Garland, a classicist at Colgate University, has recently argued that Trump and Alcibiades are a lot alike. Both were born into positions of privilege and power—Trump the son of a wealthy businessman, Alcibiades the nephew and ward of Pericles, the ruler of Athens. As children, both loved to fight and win. As an adult, Alcibiades excelled as a military general, while Trump supposedly mastered the art of the deal. Both are known for boasting of their sexual exploits, and both show little loyalty to anything beyond themselves. Indeed, Alcibiades is said to have wanted his name and influence to extend to everything. The parallel to Trump—with his Trump Plaza, Trump Tower, Trump Entertainment Resorts—could not be more evident…

For Plato, democracy merely creates the conditions for tyranny. The cause of democracy’s downfall, however, is a narcissism that animates figures like Alcibiades or Trump.

Those concerned about the fate of our own democracy ought to be worried about the narcissism Trump embodies—and that our culture has increasingly embraced. This gospel of self-love has many of us falling for ourselves. It could, in turn, have many of us falling for another Alcibiades.

Discussion welcome.


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