Some Speculative Thoughts on the Trump Presidency
The accession to the Presidency by Trump, Clinton’s lead in the popular vote notwithstanding, has most likely many overlapping causes, I am sure. And I am allergic to post-mortem wisdom. My father, a distinguished and pioneering oncologist used to say, with irony, that the most reliable diagnostic instrument would be a “retro-spectoscope”. I am more concerned with what can be done and should be done now.
I had a nagging fear for many weeks that Trump could win. Yet it seemed implausible. I watched the debates with our undergraduates at Bard. They were less taken by Clinton than horrified by Trump. I was attending a visiting committee meeting at MIT the morning after the election and returned to Bard, where on Friday Mark Danner, who was covering the campaign for the NYRB and the two of us held an open, live streamed 2 hour Q and A on the election for the college community. So I witnessed two campuses in the immediate aftermath.
So for what it is worth, I have these speculative thoughts on the coming Trump presidency.
1 The Trump presidency is the consequence of dominant culture of selfishness and greed that has flourished in this country for decades, ever since the Reagan 1980s. In my view, even the collapse of communism helped discredit any value system capable of competing with an Ayn Rand style individualism focused on individual comfort and advantage and therefore money and wealth. Trump is the ideal symbol — the very essence of an American culture that holds that wealth is the only proper measure of human success and superiority. Kim Kardashian style super stardom and fame are close runner-ups. In the eyes of the electorate — particularly those without more than a high school education — Trump, falsely, of course, is the embodiment of the American dream.
One of the unintended consequences of the end of communism is the vacuum of any plausible value system that is not about wealth and mega-fame. The rise in executive pay, and the prominence of the so-called 1 percent have eroded any pride in middle class status, and in modest virtues such as character, service and learning. In a culture that justifies the notion that if one were truly smart, one would be rich, who else should be president other than a Trump, who passed himself as a successful entrepreneur. The consequences of radical inequality are cultural as well as material. Voluntary conformism — the absence of desire to use freedom — is one such consequence.
2 We have systematically eroded any sense of shared citizenship. We prize subordinate identities — by race, gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, and religion — all at the expense of a common notion of the citizen in a free society. What goes along with that is an oppositional attitude to government as a necessary evil, not as an asset or a virtue. As a consequence, there is a decline in the quality of public servants, elected and appointed. Anyone with a career in the public sector is seen as inferior to someone in the private sector. So Trump’s having never served as a public servant, and never paid his taxes, were seen as a badge of honor.
3 We privilege private happiness at the expense of the underlying philosophical meaning of the phrase in the Declaration of Independence, “the pursuit of happiness,” in which happiness was understood as a reciprocal, social and not merely private right. The Clintons’ evident love of money undercut any claim to be motivated by higher values. In this sense, the Hillary Clinton’s use of her career in public positions for private gain — wealth — made her effort to contrast herself with Trump seem hypocritical. Government service is seen at best as a route to lucrative private employment. Trump, by never having served, was exempted from this source of mistrust, ironically.
4 The election revealed the decades-long flight by the elites from public service and professions — including politics the clergy and the schoolhouse — which renders the delivery of government service mediocre. Add to this the over extension of legal reasoning. Our public life is dominated by lawyers, lawsuits, and adversarial remedies. The delivery of services by government cannot be framed and shaped by an overriding concern for legal consequences.
5 The Trump success is a result of a culture of self-absorption encouraged by technology. The addiction to smartphones, to texting and to the Internet has cultivated a turn away from any plausible notion of public space. People drive and walk without looking around them, and do not engage with strangers. This fuels silos of fragmented groups who no longer recognize a common public realm. Even concern for the environment does not inspire a sense of a shared destiny and space that can justify a politics of negotiation, compromise and alliances.
6 Modern media has blurred the legitimate distinctions between fact and fiction. Subjective “narratives” including outright lies command the same respect as facts and arguments based on evidence.
7 The aesthetics of vulgarity have triumphed, not only in the visual sense, but also in the use of language. Trump was effective because his speech and manner were intentionally vulgar and Clinton’s boring and colorless. Style, of the worst kind, became attractive and substance was buried in pure grey. The language of public policy has become intolerably dense, dull and indirect.
8 The absence of vision. Clinton, for example, might have gone back to where she started in 1992 and responded to the unhappy compromise of Obamacare, for example, with a plan for a single payer, broad national health insurance. In general, she articulated no commanding vision of what she would do — apart from, reversing the damage done by the Supreme Court. She indeed offered too much of “more of the same”. She relied on being the lesser of evils. And thankfully, she still won the popular vote.
9 The election also revealed the consequences of how bad the American school system is. The trend, since Reagan has been towards privatization and standardization — both deleterious to any proper schooling, particularly in civic education. This is the result of bad policies through the Clinton, Bush and Obama years.
These are my preliminary thoughts about factors that transcend race, class and gender. I offer them as speculative provocations, not verities.
But the priority now is to think about what should be done now. Unless we include a strategy that addresses values — norms and ideals in the culture — we can expect more of the same. At the core of this view is the need to find ways to honor excellence, and therefore aspects of the “elite” that are on the one hand not in opposition to political egalitarianism, equal rights and social justice, and also not mere objects of snobbery. There have to be virtues we cherish for society and the nation that are neither moral absolutes from religion nor metrical measures of wealth.
Leon Botstein, President of Bard College