How metamodernism explains the rise of Donald Trump

Morten Overgaard
Jan 14 · 9 min read

The election of Donald Trump was a watershed moment in American politics. Never before had a presidential candidate emerged so suddenly and so drastically changed the spirit, ideas and rhetoric of the Republican party. In a matter of months, the libertarian neo-conservatism that had ruled the party for years was abandoned in favor of a newfound nationalism. The tone and rhetoric of the party changed too, with Trump himself employing a rhetoric never seen before from a Republican leader. It is a change that polarized the American public and today many still struggle to understand what happened.

In the last two years many explanations have been given for Trump’s unexpected success. Some argue that his victory should be understood as a reaction against globalism and its detrimental effects on the American working class. Others believe that an implicit white nationalism is what brought him into office. While such explanations may each hold a kernel of truth, this article argues that there is another and deeper cause behind Trump’s victory. Because in great measure, Trump and his transformation of the Republican Party should be seen as a symptom of the end of postmodernism and the beginning of the metamodern era.

As such, the entire phenomenon around Trump is part of a significant historical event which will change American culture and politics in the years to come. In the long run, it will likely cause the Republican party to turn towards national-conservatism as its new implicit ideology. Once this new direction has settled though, the party’s rhetoric around its new positions is likely to become more balanced. Such a more balanced rhetoric may therefore in time greatly lessen the intense political division that has currently gripped America.

The beginning of a new era

In current years, most Western countries are undergoing significant cultural and political changes which can be understood as the end of the postmodern era and the beginning of the metamodern one.

Most readers may be unfamiliar with metamodernism as it is a fairly recent term mostly used in isolated philosophical circles. Postmodernism might however be a more familiar term and is often used by intellectuals to denote the cultural period that has characterized the Western world since roughly the 1960s.

In brief terms however, metamodernism is typically understood as a historical and sociological era characterized by distinct collective values and beliefs. Officially, the term was first coined in 2009 by two Dutch art philosophers and University lecturers Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin Van Der Akker. In their studies they noticed a certain “tiredness with postmodernism” in the arts community where postmodern expressions of irony and relativism were being abandoned in favor of a newfound sincerity. Somehow, the apathy of postmodernism was being replaced by a new feeling that it “mattered” — with sincere emotions, optimism and deep meaning once again finding their way into Western art.

Later, the two philosophers also applied the term to describe the upheaval of the political landscape taking place in Western countries in the 2010s. To them, it seemed clear that something profound was happening at a political level and that such changes were connected to the change of sentiment in the arts community. In small intellectual circles across the world the term is gaining traction in this way; as a label for the seismic shifts in Western politics and culture evidenced in recent years.

Metamodernism as a term and philosophical movement is however still in its infancy and as such there is still disagreement among its early pioneers about what exactly the term denotes. In general though it is accepted that the metamodern age — or at least the current transition phase towards it — is associated with a significant departure from postmodern relativism in favor of new sentiments of hope, sincerity and meaning.

If one acknowledges that the age of postmodernism may be coming to an end then metamodernism seems like the next logical step forward. As such it would seem that Western countries are undergoing nothing less than a paradigm change in recent years, with established belief-systems being uprooted and changed dramatically.

A view towards history

It is in this light that the phenomenon of Donald Trump and his transformation of the Republican party should be understood. Because to a great extent, the candidacy and presidency of Trump signals a departure from the cultural values that were established during the age of postmodernism.

Briefly speaking, one could say that the postmodern era is associated with a certain collective “wound” in the Western psyche as it relates to race, white identity and non-Western countries. In great measure, the cultural changes that happened in the sixties made it difficult to speak about such phenomena in ways that seemed hierarchical or which — explicitly or implicitly — affirmed an inherent white superiority.

This, notably, was a radical departure from earlier decades where it was almost mainstream for Western intellectuals to openly affirm an inherent white, Western and male supremacy. With the cultural changes of the sixties however, this entire belief-system crashed and such views were now viewed as deeply immoral.

Such a radical cultural change probably had its root in the moral crimes that preceded the postmodern age. In this way, the terrors of World War II and the depravity of slavery and colonialism were still fresh in the Western mind. The postmodern turn and the new egalitarian values can probably be seen as a reaction against that. “Something else” simply had to be established at a cultural level in order to ensure that the horrors of the past would not be repeated.

The cultural changes of the sixties eventually brought along real-political changes with them, and soon the immigration policy of most Western countries were extended to include non-White and non-Western countries, just as the entire discourse around race, culture and gender changed dramatically.

There are obviously many good things about such changes, yet the postmodern turn also created certain cultural taboos, with hierarchical statements related to non-whites, women and non-Western cultures being viewed with suspicion ever since. The end result probably was that many critics on the conservative Right found themselves unable to criticize the postmodern changes lest they risk their reputation and career. As a consequence, most conservatives largely abandoned their old hierarchical beliefs and instead redirected their energies to focus on civic nationalism, principled traditionalism and foreign policy.

The rise of Donald Trump

This, however, would eventually change. Because in many ways, the success of Donald Trump and his wider platform is a symptom of the Republican party’s confrontation with its postmodern wounds.

In this way, what is happening in these years can be understood as nothing less than a conservative “rebellion”. Conservative voters and the intellectuals who support Donald Trump are rising up to challenge postmodern trends and narratives that they feel have spun out of control and remained unopposed for too long.

As such, many of the postmodern truths established in the late 1960s are now under full attack from both Trump, his voter base and the intellectual conservative community. The critique of chain migration; the deconstruction of social justice; the reaction against fourth-wave feminism — all such contemporary discourses represent renewed conservative efforts to tackle postmodern effects that they feel earlier generations have failed to address.

It is in this light that Donald Trump and his movement should be understood: Not as a resurgence of white nationalism or as a phenomenon fueled by economic grievances only. But as a conservative rebellion against the effects of a late-postmodern society. As such, the rise of Donald Trump symbolizes a deep and significant change in American conservatism, and perhaps even a significant change in American culture itself.

It is from this perspective that many fears about what horrors the Trump presidency may result in can be dispelled. Because Trump is not a white nationalist and neither is his voter base or the intellectuals that support him. Instead, their reaction against postmodern phenomena is simply an expression of dissatisfaction over social trends and trajectories that they feel have become too extreme.

Admittedly the rhetoric of Trump in this regard can be a bit excessive. I am not completely unbiased in this regard since I am mostly conservative myself and would have voted for Trump had I lived in America. Yet I understand how many of his detractors can feel that there is an angry undertone to his rhetoric, just as his general way of speaking can seem rather unhinged and emotional. To a certain extent, this may just be Trump’s intuitive nature — him being the brash and self-made businessman that he is. On the other hand, it may be a symptom of the latent anger with which many conservatives view postmodern phenomena. There simply is an inner, aggressive drive with conservatives to confront that which has remain unopposed for too long.

In the long run though, the rhetoric of Trump and others like him can be presumed to moderate a bit as it is the reasonable trajectory when looking at any transformational event in the big picture. In this way, political transition phases are often volatile and dramatic with new political opinions being driven forward by a sense of urgency and indignation. In time though, tempers are probably going to settle and a more defined national-conservatism with immigration-skepticism and economic nationalism as its main principles will likely remain. The rhetoric around such positions will probably moderate a bit though once the movement comes to know its new self. Perhaps the beginnings of this can already be seen as Trump’s tone has indeed calmed a bit since his rhetorical heydays of 2016.

A view towards the future

In the Nordic countries, this development has already happened in largely the way described above. Here, the national-conservative turn of the political right started more than ten years ago. Today, the entire right wing — political parties, voters and intellectuals — lean towards a mostly national-conservative line with immigration-skepticism and critique of globalization as some of their main tenets. This tendency is probably mostly visible in Norway and Denmark where immigration-skeptic parties receive almost a fifth of all votes and have secured the electoral success for several conservative administrations. In my own home country of Denmark, the intellectual resistance against postmodern phenomena began in earnest fifteen years ago, with key public intellectuals speaking out against non-Western immigration and its associated phenomena. Today, this trend has become almost institutionalized in Danish politics to the extent that even the Social Democrats support the immigration-skeptic line held by the center-right coalition.

Western countries are reasonably similar and often mirror each other’s meta-political trends. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the same transformation will occur in the United States once the current culture war against late-postmodern phenomena has abated. As such, the future of the Republican party is hardly found with overt white nationalism or with a 1930s discourse as it relates to race or gender roles. Instead, the future of the Republican party in the short and medium run will likely be found with national-conservatism as the party’s main ideology and with immigration-resistance and anti-globalization as some of their main principles.

In many ways, the current transformation of the Republican Party is inevitable as it is a consequence of an era coming to an end a new one beginning. As such, the conservative half of the American population is simply changing its beliefs by opposing and readdressing what they feel have been buried for too long.

In the Nordic countries, this exact development seems to have finalized in the past few years. As such, the Danish People’s Party and Norway’s Progress Party also started their political trajectories with a fairly confrontational rhetoric. In later years though such rhetoric has softened in favor of a more balanced tone. Many of the core political positions of these parties remain but their rhetoric has become less antagonizing. Over time this has led to a less divisive political discourse and less alienation between the two political blocs in general.

Given the similarities of Western countries one may expect the same thing to eventually happen in the United States. Much good could therefore come from the Republican party’s current transition phase. Perhaps it could lead to a future in which the political conversations between the two parties become more relaxed and understanding. To a great extent, the two blocs may slowly begin to better understand each other’s positions. With a little bit of optimism one may even imagine a future in which the two parties can cooperate more constructively on solving the country’s actual problems.

For anyone who worries about the political future of America this should be a heart-warming prospect indeed.

Morten Overgaard

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Metamodern writer and thinker. Author of the upcoming book “National Collective Intelligence“.