America’s First Anti-Modern President

It’s modernism’s fault, not postmodernism’s

Politics is indelibly downstream from culture, and so its always impressive to see them synthesized as in David Ernst’s Donald Trump is the First President to Turn Postmodernism Against Itself. Ernst argues that postmodern TV primed us for Donald Trump through moral relativism and anti-hero protagonists. Ernst cites The Soprano’s Tony Soprano, as he tells a bunch of country club WASPs:

But now also hear Trump as he says:

Like Pavlovian dogs, we were primed by postmodern culture to venerate the ‘honest thug’. This is what Trump modeled as he swore to fight lobbyists, China, while also flashing his money.

Since 2017, Ernst’s article has been central to the idea that Trump is a postmodern phenomenon. The narrative goes that Derrida, Foucault, and other Frenchmen immigrated to America to convince its citizens truth doesn’t exist. Through their infamously complex writing but elegant French, they turned a generation of intellectuals away from the Enlightenment and modernity. This created ‘social justice warriors’ and — downstream — a generation primed for Tony Soprano or Breaking Bad.

But as one reads these articles, they wait for the other shoe to drop. The Modern West has been the pinnacle of culture? Yet a bunch of Frenchmen simply toppled it over? We attempt entire pathologies for cancer to ask if the patient smoked, was exposed to radiation, or lived stressful lives. How did ‘Western Civilization’ so easily crumble under Derrida’s pen? What predisposed Trump’s base to overlook his various sins?

In this respect, the ‘postmodern president’ meme has been negligent or dishonest. From one front, they grossly misrepresent postmodernism. Correspondingly, they totally overlook modernity’s shortcomings preceding Trump. Simultaneous to accusing Trump of scapegoating Mexico or China, these journalists scapegoat postmodernism to distract from modernity’s crumbling edifice.

Understanding Perspectivism

Protestant Sweden sacks Catholic Prague in the Thirty Years’ war of the 17th century. Same book but different perspectives and different structures at play.

The main confusion is over what Nietzsche, the proto-postmodernist, called ‘perspectivism’. For any apparent fact, there are multiple perspectives of it.

If I wanted to see the Empire State building, for example, there could be multiple angles to view it from across New York. I could see it in Midtown, an Upper Westside balcony, or even in Hoboken. Still, calling the Hudson River the Empire State building would be an invalid perspective. Perspectivism doesn’t mean all perspectives are equal or possible — and has never been argued as such. It argues truth isn’t a binary yes or no. Rather, any given truth has a broad though limited spectrum of possibilities.

The central column of these journalist’s arguments is misrepresenting perspectivism as absurd moral relativism. Jordan Peterson sprung onto YouTube arguing postmodernism ignores evolutionary psychology (‘the Lobster Question’, as Zizek remarked). Even leftist salon.com argues:

“If there are really no facts and only interpretations, and if millions of Americans are ready to unthinkingly embrace your perspective, then why bother adhering to a rigid line that separates fact from fiction?”.

Or consider popular right-wing author Peter Hicks as he writes triumphantly:

“Deconstruction has the effect of leveling all meaning and value. If a text can mean anything, then it means nothing more than anything else — no texts are then great.” [1]

It’s just a simple fact check that no postmodernist ever claimed this. Jacque Reynolds, in his entry on Derrida in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“[deconstruction] is committed to the rigorous analysis of the literal meaning of a text, and yet also finding within that meaning, perhaps in the neglected corners of the text (including the footnotes), internal problems that actually points towards alternative meanings” [2]

Foucault corroborates this view by saying some interpretations have higher validity than others and that institutions are functionally required to transmute these interpretations. At some point, a school teacher is required to exercise power to transmute knowledge to children. Lecturing in the 1990s at Duke, Postmodern Philosopher Rick Roderick finally summarized:

“The converse is what people find so outrageous…since there’s no right way then anyway is as good as any other. Derrida is not compelled to hold that view and he doesn’t. Not every way to speak and or read is as good as any other. And let me just put it simply: no one holds that view.” [3]

If these ‘intellectuals’ had researched in good faith or were peer-reviewed, they would’ve quickly found these sources. Likely, this negligence or dishonesty is why almost none of their articles or videos contain any actual citation.

Moving on, then, entertain that knowledge is implicit in power. Consider, for example, the Bible. One perspective is that the Vatican is descended from Peter and Paul’s evangelism. Another is that ‘faith alone’ matters and that the Pope is the anti-Christ. These perspectives clashed in the Thirty-Years war of the 17th century, which killed 50% of Germany’s population in many regions and was the war of independence for bourgeoisie culture in Protestant Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany. Same book, different perspectives, and correspondingly different power structures.

Alternatively, consider the bastion of hard science: physics. Besides the inane ‘1+1=2’, physicists in any regular and healthy academic board have violent disagreements. Quantum physicists believe the universe is quarks. String theorists believe it’s strings. Computer scientists are starting to think it’s VR. Defending their life’s work, each scientist from each field does its best to influence the academic journals, shake the right hands, and secure the limited amount of funding a university has. One of them will inevitably predominate to diffuse the truth we ‘secular moderns’ receive downstream.

Though all sought to deconstruct this relationship between power and knowledge, the postmodern conclusion varies broadly within the field. Some, like Fredrik Jamieson, believed a total deconstruction of culture would lead to creative sterilization and capitalist dominance. Others, like Jean Francois Lyotard, believed total deconstruction would be liberating and honest. This divergence is why labeling postmodernism as a subversive unit is negligent.

Modern Failure

Locke and Kant’s project realized. A political body unifying Europe and ideally the world in one market place.

Demonizing postmodernism, these journalists offer a cushy and ultimately destructive account of modernity by contrast.

By modernism, I mean the process of striving to a global market place of consumers. That may seem rhetorical, but it’s implicated in the Enlightenment’s essential premises. John Locke’s assertion that we are all differentiated only through the environment (‘tabula rasa’) fundamentally negates pre-fixed familial or cultural identities. In conjunction, Immanuel Kant’s stress on universal ethics (‘categorical imperative’) fundamentally negates familial, class, or national duty. The only political and economic translation of these two is the striving towards globalism we see today.

This manifests as Bill Clinton and Bono buddying up at the United Nations in promotion of capitalism and peace. It’s the EU Headquarter’s cryptic resemblance to the Tower of Babel. It’s the New Age arguing all traditions are costumes to one transcendentalism and ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’. It’s America’s ultimate tagline as ‘the land of opportunity’ and advocating this ethos to the traditions in Europe and the Middle East.

Consider Trump’s voting base in this context. In point of fact, it’s mostly working-class white families. They’ve seen their manufacturing jobs auctioned out to China and Vietnam. They’ve seen their downtowns ruined by Walmart and Amazon. Their wages haven’t budged since 1973. Most GDP growth since then has been credit their children will have to pay off. Repeatedly, they’ve seen the banner of progress ruin their communities.

Lacking community, identity, and meaning, this has translated into immanent despair across working class and bourgeoisie America. Consider:

11 million Americans abused opioids, costing taxpayers $78.5 billion. 47,000 Americans committed suicide, up 25% from 1994. 94 school shootings murdered 55 children, a record high since 1993. A third of the middle class is hooked on psychiatric medication to deal with all this. Innumerable others cope with weed, alcohol, porn and entertainment.

These are all statistics that were growing preceding Trump and indicate a culture that was willing to try something anything to escape its pain.

If Trump is postmodern, it’s only insofar as he was elected in response to this fallout. Against a global, abstract, and ultimately meaningless identity, he offers ‘America first’. It may be pastiche or plebian, but the overwhelming affirmation that America is a land for people — not commercial opportunity — inspires hope in a community repeatedly disappointed by elites pursuing GDP abstracts.

Modern Hypocrisy

Obama helping to spread the ‘light of democracy, equality, the Enlightenment’ — by supporting the Saudis. Not an Obama specific critique, since the Saudis have been our allies since the end of WW2.

While misrepresenting postmodernism, these journalists are equally willing to ignore how thoroughly modernity has abused ideology. They paint postmodernism as ‘post-truth’ even while ignoring gross hypocrisy in essentially every modern political movement.

The most glaring example is in our foreign policy. Ostensibly, we’re champions of democracy and equality pitted against Russia and Syria. Meanwhile, we support the most theocratic and patriarchal regimes in the region like the Pashas in Egypt, the various Emirate families in the UAE, and Saudi Arabia — where finally allowing women to drive was championed as ‘feminism’ last year by the New York Times. Even Israel, in point of fact and to their own admission, is a theocratic and ethnically defined state. Especially abroad, the global community knows this multi-trillion dollar project is about oil and power, but it’s become too large to even think beyond.

This hypocrisy is likewise with our modern politicians. Publicly, Hillary Clinton denounces Russia as corrupt. Privately, she sold the Kremlin control over our uranium plants and deposits for a $3 million contribution to her foundation*. Bill Clinton tweets about feminism. He relies on our amnesia over how he raped Monica Lewinski, Leslie Milwee, Paula Jones, and hasn’t sworn off his late child rapist friend Jeff Epstein. Of course, there are also too many scandalized Christian Republicans to list. None of this should be surprising and that’s exactly the point: modern America’s default expectations are for hypocritical politicians.

*: The Politifact source corrects the claim that the Kremlin literally bought uranium from America, but ‘in a complex tale’ grants Clinton did exercise political influence in exchange for a contribution for Russia to gain influence in our uranium refineries.

This applies likewise to the economy. The most lucrative jobs are in finance and tech where you’ll find the largest apologists for ‘common sense capitalism’ or even Ayn Rand. Yet finance relied on radical socialism in 2008 through a $700 billion government bailout. It also uses the Federal Reserve to control, just like a faucet, how much cash flows into the financial sector by adjusting inflation, interest rates, and ultimately prices.

In turn, this bloated and corrupt finance sector can subsidize unprofitable tech companies like Twitter or even Amazon who go on to become entrenched monopolies.

America was once the economy of Detroit’s cars, Houston’s oil, and California’s agriculture. All we offer now are digital advertising and financial simulacra off of the taxpayer’s dime.

These journalists completely neglect the disgust America had towards its leadership preceding Trump. The average American has enough EQ to know when a politician is reciting a script. Compared to this, Trump’s affair with Stormy Daniels is less an addiction to ‘post-truth’ than the catharsis of knowing ‘he’s our thug’.

Reflection

Jacques Lacan offers the analogy of adultery to understand how ideologies compete. Even if a husband is correct about his wife having an affair, argues Lacan, his jealousy is pathological. Frustration over being lied to is one thing. Jealousy or rage, on the other hand, implicate deep insecurities and obsessions being triggered.

These modern writers totally misrepresent postmodernism, but Lacan’s analogy describes their veritable wrath. What is indicated, for example, when Jordan Peterson alleges postmodernism is archetypal Satan? Does David Ernst evoke ‘modern rationality’ as he writes:

If our opponents are going to accuse us of being evil-minded bigots, regardless of what we say or think, then what’s the point in bothering to convince them otherwise? Let’s play by their own rules of relativism and subjectivity, dismiss their baseless accusations, and hammer them mercilessly where it hurts them the most: their hypocrisy. After all, if there is no virtue greater than authenticity, and no vice worse than phoniness, then the purveyors of contrived PC outrage are distinctively vulnerable. [4]

Rhetoric to spice up the writing is one thing. Non-ironic use of ‘evil’ is another.

While postmodernism admittedly offers few specific prescriptions, it has tangible lessons to teach us. It humbly suggests that there may be trade-offs to modernity’s singular focus on material progress. It offers actual systematic answers to ironies like epidemic first world suicide, opioid abuse, or psychiatry. If this is subversive, it’s only in so far as postmodernism makes us aware of hard, inconvenient, structural problems we’d have to address. In light of America’s veritable millieu and growing polarization, the proper response should be to consider these critiques seriously, not to fight boogiemen who don’t exist.

Image Credits

Abandoned Warehouse: Pixabay

Sack of Prague: Wikimedia

EU: Wikimedia

Obama and the Saudis: Wikimedia

Works Cited

[1] Peter Hicks, Understanding Postmodernism pg. 199

[2] Jack Reynolds, “Jacques Derrida” in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy — https://www.iep.utm.edu/derrida/

[3] Rick Roderick (1993) “Derrida — The Ends of Man” in The Self Under Siege: Philosophy in the Twentieth Century — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LvAwo...

[4] David Ernst “Trump is the First President to Turn Postmodernism Against Itselfhttps://thefederalist.com/2017/01/23/donald-trump-first-president-turn-postmodernism/

Director of Programs at an EdTech startup. Studied philosophy at Columbia (CC’18). Likes Nietzsche a lot. Favorite Sci-Fi is Dune. All views are my own.

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