Is Trump’s communication style obscuring a legitimate political philosophy?
“There is a constant theme to undercut the enormous support he has.”
So said the White House Press Secretary in response to his widely derided, fact-defying first press conference. Sean Spicer claimed the facts he delivered were less important than the frustration the administration felt at the Trump movement not being taken seriously.
This was met with raised eyebrows. It sure seemed like another diversionary tactic. Juggling chainsaws so the audience doesn’t see the big top is on fire (or half full).
But let’s take Spicer at face value for a moment.
Consider his frustration. The startling levels of emotion. The gob-smacking derision of science and fact. Parochial rejection of internationalism. These are these consistent features of the narrative.
We have a responsibility to try to understand the Trump administration, and the international movement they are a part of. Yes, many of the whistle-blowing, anti-humanist, anti-science, visceral policies and behaviours are the ingredients for Autocracy Soup. But surely this is just a stop - the ultimate stop - on the fascism spectrum? It's also the headline that drives the most internet traffic, and alienates the opposition the fastest. Self-fulfilling presidency.
In short, we have a responsibility to also explore the less exciting explanations for the behaviour of T-Pres.
So what's an example?
What if the key to understanding the Trump movement actually lies in German Romanticism rather than in German fascism – more specifically in the roots of the Counter-Enlightenment movement?
(I know, I know: Counter-Enlightenment? What the Kant? Stay with me a sec.)
The Enlightenment unshackled western society from dogma. All the cool kids suddenly stopped getting high on bread, moved out of their parents' repressive feudal systems and were suddenly exploring, drinking coffee, or mapping Venus transiting.
The Enlightenment was not just one big science-party. It came with fewer inquisitions - but more terra nullius-ing. It was built on an instrumental reasoning that was both liberating, but also contained ugly imperfections that the era’s globalising thrill and new wealth papered over. Sound familiar?
A form of counter-Enlightenment grew in response, with one of the movement’s first philosophers being one Johann Georg Hamann – and it is his thinking that may be a deeply useful cypher for today.
Hamann’s response was to completely reject Kantian rationalism and science as a method of proof. Hamann instead believed that knowledge came from reason modified by strong emotion and faith.
Valuable knowledge is only achieved subjectively by exercising heightened emotion, guided by faith.
While Hamann was an influence on Geothe and Kierkegaard, he was dismissed in his time as an irrationalist - which is partly why he has been largely forgotten. However that dismissal itself might flag his utility for contemporary comparisons.
Hamann’s thinking also gave rise to the Durm und Strang literary movement – also characterised by extremes of emotion.
I am no philosopher, and I’m not the first to compare Trump’s tactics to Sturm und Drang. However, it strikes me that previous uses of Sturm und Drang applied it descriptively, as a metaphor for Trumpian bombastic flash rather than considering the movement’s philosophy.
This may be the real insightful value of Sturm und Drang comparisons. We see these concepts reflected in the White House’s emotive discourse, its rejection of science and their advisers use of mind-bending language like “alternative facts”.
If we view Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” through a Hamannic perspective, perhaps we gain a glimpse (through the post-truth fog) of a kind of political philosophical justification, rather than just pure unpalatable expediency.
At the very least, Hamman reminds us that all social movements are a pendulum swing. The Enlightenment swung away from magical dogma, just as internationalism was a swing from the horrors of the mid-twentieth century. In turn there will necessarily be counter-counter swings that may seem incomprehensible, but still contain a philosophical validity. This recognition might be essential to maintain the respect necessary for ongoing dialogue.
If I’m grasping, these are straws worth stretching for. There is clearly a stunning breakdown of communication built on an inability to understand opponent’s views. And we have a way to go before this wave crashes.
Only then is there even a chance to find common ground, to empathise. For with that dash of empathy, as Neil Gaiman said, “you can start building people into groups, to become ever so slightly more than self-obsessed individuals”.