The Karma of Donald Trump

[WARNING: VERY LONG]

Let’s talk karma.  Today it’s popularly used as a synonym of ‘comeuppance’, with connotations of cosmic or divine judgment.  To the best of my understanding, the original concept is notably stronger – karma isn’t just punishment, but consequence.  The good or ill of karma may appear only after a delay  (indeed according to some sects and religions it may not be apparent until another lifetime) but soon or not, karma is a direct consequence.  The karma is in the action, the delay only accidental.

What with reincarnation and all, even if I were a Buddhist it would be rather difficult to ask what a karmic punishment is punishment for on an individual level.  Thus this article is not about what Trump might be reincarnated as (rat or insect? inquiring minds want to know!).  I just want to use karma in the stronger sense, with the full meaning that the consequence and action are one.

In fact, I don’t want to discuss personal karma at all.  The subject is the karma of ideas, the consequences that are inherent in the implications of the idea.  This is an infinitely easier topic than the karma of people, because ideas don’t reincarnate (when they seem to, I find it’s usually more of a case of undeath, and an unwise adventurer has blithely opened the unquiet grave of something that then proceeds, vampirically, to suck the life out of contemporary discourse).

Trump, for my purposes here and now, isn’t the cause, or future victim of karma – he is the karma.

What was the biggest story of the last week, the one in all the headlines, in every media source in the country?  Israeli settlements?  Almost never front page news.  Then maybe Chinese naval actions?  Nope.  Then surely it was Russian claims that the (Trump-helmed) US was now cooperating with them on airstrikes, tying in neatly with allegations about the “Kremlin Candidate“!  Oh no, those are small stories, hidden in corners.  The BIG story is Trump’s ‘alternative facts’ and the remarkable question of the inauguration turnout.

The real question is why would Trump even bother with this topic?  It sure is a strange hill to choose to die on.  And what kind of nonsense is ‘alternative facts’ anyway?  With what justification could anyone, let alone somebody in a position of authority look reality in the face and dare to say he has “alternati-

Those who wish to ground solidarity in objectivity – call them “realists” – have to construe truth as correspondence to reality. … By contrast, those who wish to reduce objectivity to solidarity – call them “pragmatists” – do not require either a metaphysics or an epistemology. They view truth as, in William James’ phrase, what it is good for us to believe.

~ Richard Rorty, Solidarity or Objectivity? (1989)

Ok, wow.  That must be out of context, right?

For the pragmatist is not holding a positive theory that says that something is relative to something else. He is, instead, making the purely negative point that we should drop the traditional distinction between knowledge and opinion, construed as the distinction between truth as correspondence to reality and truth as a commendatory term for well-justified beliefs. The reason the realist calls this negative claim “relativistic” is that he cannot believe that anybody would seriously deny that truth has an intrinsic nature. So when the pragmatist says there is nothing to be said about truth save that each of us will commend as true those beliefs he or she finds good to believe, the realist is inclined to interpret this as one more positive theory about the nature of truth: a theory according to which truth is simply the contemporary opinion of a chosen individual or group. Such a theory would, of course, be self-refuting. But the pragmatist does not have a theory of truth, much less a relativistic one. As a partisan of solidarity, his account of the value of cooperative human inquiry has only an ethical base, not an epistemological or metaphysical one. Not having any epistemology, a fortiori he does not have a relativistic one.

~ Richard Rorty, Solidarity or Objectivity? (1989)  [Emphasis Mine]

Yes, he really, really is saying what I thought he was: “drop the traditional distinction between knowledge and opinion”.  He further argues that pragmatists (by his definition) like himself have no epistemology, which makes it somewhat difficult to see how truth can be defined as ‘well-justified’ as Rorty suggests “pragmatists” still can do.[1]  What Rorty calls pragmatists are typically called postmodernists, and by denying justification, postmodernists achieve the very peculiar position of making it impossible to argue with them on their terms, because their terms include the rejection of argument, among other epistemologies.

In metaphorical terms, postmodernists lock themselves out of the house, declare standing in the rain to be an intellectually superior position relative to being sheltered by some nonsense concept of ‘house’ which after all is merely an social construct in name and artificial in construction and would collapse without constant maintenance and is therefore not real even if one could produce an incontrovertible definition of a house vis a vis not a house, follow that up by proudly proclaiming that having escaped the so-called “house” they can no longer be trapped in the bathroom, and spend the rest of the night reaching through the window to throw the kitchen sink at you.  One begins to hope it gets cold enough for them to go find a hotel or something…

Anyway, to respond to Rorty, yes I can in fact believe there exist people who deny truth has an intrinsic nature – that’s where we started, with a President discussing alternative facts.  I’m not the one denying reality by claiming there aren’t people who deny reality.

I just think they’re being stupid.

Lest one think this is just a single rogue philosopher:

In America, the most famous pragmatist and self-proclaimed postmodernist was Richard Rorty.

~ Wikipedia, Postmodern Philosophy

Well alrighty then – he’s an acclaimed representative of the whole school of thought.

Such reality as there is, according to postmodernists, is a conceptual construct, an artifact of scientific practice and language.

~ Encyclopedia Britannica, Postmodernism

Further, denying objective reality and reason is in fact a central part of that school of thought and not just some heresy or bizarre refinement of Rorty’s.  Joy.

So it is that Trump’s alternative facts apparently do not deserve those nasty little scare quotes – Trump’s alternative facts are an alternative narrative, but really the distinction between narrative and fact is a traditional one that should be dropped.  Trump is operating according to an extensive body of philosophical thought – he is the first Postmodern President!  A clear triumph over those realists and objectivists and empiricists and foundationalists and so on.

Here’s the expanded version: via Rorty, Trump’s narrative is indeed valid – it is a narrative that he, the President and leader of the country, is in fact backed by the nation, which makes it Good for Him (and his supporters).  It’s a narrative that claims that the nation is united and that there is no reason for the fractious politics that prevent the government from getting stuff done.  Since by his and his supporters’ narrative his supporters are innumerable, the narrative is thus Good for Them as well.  The ethical good of a unified country protects the narrative from mere epistemological or metaphysical criticisms involving ‘reality’ or ‘observable facts’, which quite possibly makes it Good for Us (writ large over even his opponents).  Trump’s narrative is a narrative of national solidarity behind himself, and as Rorty answers the question his essay’s title proposes, Solidarity is the measure, not Objectivity.  Solidarity in favor of Trump gets no particular privilege over solidarity in favor of, say, Clinton, and even the popular vote point is a matter of so-called objective reality that is in turn subject to narrative (can you say ‘voting fraud’?).

Those dang crowds are an irrelevant ‘fact’ that matters only in obsolete schools of thought.  A ‘prepostmodern’ relic as it were.  If Trump’s narrative triumph, then his alternative facts triumph.

This is karma because postmodernists are unlikely to be Trump supporters.  Wikipedia cites Foucault as being associated with Marxism and/or Left Libertarianism, and of the site’s list of influential figures in postmodernism, Fredric Jameson, Jean Baudrillard, and Douglas Kellner are all described by Wikipedia as belong to the Western Marxism school of thought.  Wikipedia also describes Postmodern Philosophy as sharing “political similarities with modern identity politics” – which it hardly needs to be said is typically associated with the political left.  Finally, to return to the founding figures, I cite the following quote:

Deconstruction never had meaning or interest, at least in my eyes, than as a radicalization, that is to say, also within the tradition of a certain Marxism, in a certain spirit of Marxism.

~ Jacques Derrida

In short, postmodernism as an academic school of thought is left-wing (usually radically so), and I challenge anyone to find a postmodern philosopher or thinker who would remotely approve of Trump.  The philosophy of narrative and perspective as dominant over an unknowable and therefore irrelevant and meaningless objective reality has come around to attack those who created such philosophies – karma, the consequence upon the actor that is intrinsic in the action.[2]  Pity everyone else has to feel the chill as well.

To return to the ‘alternative facts’ case at hand in a concrete sense, my first impulse is to say that the attention on the crowd size and alternative media and by all the critics of Trump is evidence that postmodernists do not have as much influence on society as they think, or at least that postmodernists do not actually act according to the belief of the primacy of narrative (namely by appealing to facts when narrative goes against them).  However, there’s an alternative explanation [3] – the focus is on Trump’s crowd size issue is because postmodernists are common, influential, and do act according to their philosophy, and as a consequence winning the narrative is of primary importance.

I mention this latter theory because it would do quite a bit of work in explaining why the actual ACTIONS of Trump seem to be overshadowed by this inauguration crowd size scandal, and in general why his actions get less coverage than his language.  According to postmodernism, the facts and actions don’t matter and so aren’t worth fighting over, but the narrative does matter and should be fought over.  Thus Trump’s narrative is challenged and Trump’s opponents fall ever further behind in dealing with his actions – his appointments and the executive actions he’s already signing.  I began by questioning why Trump was willing to die on this hill – it should also be asked why the media is.  It typically takes two to decide the place of battle – or one and an incompetent loser.  Place your bets now.

I assume the going assumption of politically-minded postmodernists (apparently: ‘all of them’) was that the philosophy’s transgressive, revolutionary nature was a perfect tool to undermine the status quo, i.e., the reactionary, bourgeoisie, patriarchal, conservative, oligarchical, religious, whichever (depending on their precise ideology).   Now, of course, the popular meme is “reality has a liberal bias”, which is either a concise rejection of postmodernism or a postmodern admission that the political left is the status quo and/or dominant postmodern narrative.  In either case, as postmodernism is fundamentally transgressive it remains against the status quo, which now means attacking the political left, not defending it.  Postmodernism survives, but the postmodern Marxists are consumed by their own creation.

Up until Trump’s “alternative facts”, conservative politics has generally avoided this mistake.  The religious right claims the real and objective existence of the more than the empirical, and even Ayn Rand’s much-criticized capitalist, areligious Objectivism takes a realist stance so strong it appears in the philosophy’s name.  When in a minority, even (perhaps especially) when wrong, right wing affiliated philosophies have typically held reality was on their side – alternative media for the facts, as opposed to alternative facts for the media.  Their opponents could counter that by holding with objective reality and then being wrong they too sowed the seeds of their ideological destruction in a similar pattern as I describe for the postmodernists, but I find it far more reasonable and honorable to hold there is a right answer and be wrong than it is to hold that there is no necessarily right answer and then attack other people for being wrong.

Please note I don’t think the left or the right as usually defined fully have reality on their side, and my only point at this time is this wholesale dismissal of reality as a meaningful concept is not among the mistakes conservative-affiliated philosophies tend to make.  This, of course, asks the question of what to make of Donald Trump, the postmodern right-wing populist.  A few options, none of which are necessarily mutually exclusive:

  • He, like many politicians, has no actual ideological commitment to the various conservative ideologies he nominally represents.  His supporters are either deluded, or don’t care about ideological purity as long as his actions confirm to their ideology.  As long as he needs his current base he’ll toe their policy line, and as long as he toes the line his supporters don’t care what he says.[4]
  • He is not a conservative or a right-wing leader in the traditional sense, but instead is as he is accused of being – a fascist, an autocrat, or a would-be dictator – and consequently has far less commitment to objective reality than the objective-morality religious groups and realist think-tanks who stupidly support him.
  • He is the final, inevitable collapse of conservative thought, which in the face of a contradicting reality has abandoned reality.  Trump’s postmodern relation with facts is the only way to defend the indefensible conservative positions.

I tend toward the first option, that Trump is a pragmatic leader that far more principled supporters see as an ally of convenience, or the ‘least worst option’.  Some of his supporters do honestly admire his methods, as a pragmatic methodology in which the end justifies the means, and for them concerns over methods and means are traitorous or signs of weakness.  These last are the problem, not because they deny reality (they don’t, they are not postmodernists, not yet) but because as I have been arguing at some length, Trump’s postmodernism is eating the postmodern Marxists.  Those who actually approve of Trump’s willingness to indulge in a questionable grasp of reality must beware, lest they become the next generation of postmodernists, and the philosophy eats them too, in turn.

Postmodernism is a revolutionary ideology, perhaps the ultimate revolutionary ideology.  The problem with revolution as the goal is that one never has an endpoint and will ultimately never achieve anything.  As a better writer than I says,

Now here comes in the whole collapse and huge blunder of our age. We have mixed up two different things, two opposite things. Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit the vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision. It should mean that we are slow but sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy: a wild page from any Prussian sophist makes men doubt it. … let us suppose a man wanted a particular kind of world; say, a blue world. He would have no cause to complain of the slightness or swiftness of his task; he might toil for a long time at the transformation; he could work away (in every sense) until all was blue. He could have heroic adventures; the putting of the last touches to a blue tiger. … But if he altered his favourite colour every day, he would not get on at all. If, after reading a fresh philosopher, he started to paint everything red or yellow, his work would be thrown away: there would be nothing to show except a few blue tigers walking about, specimens of his early bad manner. This is exactly the position of the average modern thinker. … Let beliefs fade fast and frequently, if you wish institutions to remain the same.

~ G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

And so it is that postmodernism, skeptical of everything, can be used to argue the end of every belief, and as ideals come and go, all that remains is postmodernism, eating one group of eternal revolutionaries after another.  The Marxists who fell for it, for all their other faults inherent in being Marxist, really shouldn’t have fallen for it and nobody else should either.  Maybe those Trump supporters are right that they can ride the Trump-colored postmodern “alternate facts” tiger and keep it under control given they personally are not postmodern in the least, but that’s a risky proposition.

Marxism certainly didn’t start out as postmodern, it started out as a positive claim as to the natural order of things.  As per the Derrida quote above postmodernism was of interest as a tool to further the cause.  This is working out really well for the political left right now.  Those of Trump’s supporters that defend or appreciate his postmodern rhetoric should be very, very wary, or else just as they think they’ve won, they too will find the tiger’s color has changed on them.  There is, in short, karma in riding the tiger, not in what color you try to paint it.

[1] This is worth unpacking (at, I fear, essay length) because I think Rorty is trying to do something very slippery related to this point.  The Most Revered O.E.D. defines epistemology as “The theory of knowledge and understanding, esp. with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion; (as a count noun) a particular theory of knowledge and understanding.”  Unless Rorty is using an unheard of definition of epistemology, denying the need for one is denying any meaningful sense by which something can be well-justified.  One can claim justification based on BAD epistemology (and merely be wrong, or right by accident), but Rorty flatly refutes ALL epistemologies, which must include all forms of rational, empirical, consequentialist, or other justification (the totality of this rejection is backed up by the Encyclopedia Britannica’s list of the concepts postmodernism rejects, which appropriately includes objective logic).  A lack of any means of justification makes his ‘commendably well-justified and ethical but not real’ opinion-truths just as nonsensical as the opinion-truth conjunction might imply.  However, this nonsense is buried within a passage in which Rorty makes a tremendous show of discarding indefensible nonsense, making his words sound far more reasonable than they actually are.  To re-quote:

So when the pragmatist says there is nothing to be said about truth save that each of us will commend as true those beliefs he or she finds good to believe, the realist is inclined to interpret this as one more positive theory about the nature of truth: a theory according to which truth is simply the contemporary opinion of a chosen individual or group. Such a theory would, of course, be self-refuting. But the pragmatist does not have a theory of truth, much less a relativistic one.

This is a near straw-man paired with a definitional point, which is to say, a tautology.  The straw man is apparent in the numerous realists who criticize postmodernism not for positing relative truth but for denying objective reality – realists don’t just attack straw man postmodernists.  I say near straw man as realists are somewhat guilty of conflating relativists and postmodernists, a conflation that is in turn partially vindicated by the tendency of relativists and positivists seem to hang out in the same circles and come to similar conclusions – more on that in a bit.

The tautological point is that truth here is (in a surprising demonstration of scholarly integrity) still being used in the objective sense, which means Rorty is absolutely correct when he says truth as opinion is self-refuting (via truth defined as independent of opinion) – but note he doesn’t believe in truth, so all the supposed ‘truths’ that individuals and groups argue over in the real world aren’t actually truths at all and so can contradict, not because contradicting truth is acceptable, but because there’s no meaningful truth to contradict.

This brings me back to the straw man Rorty accuses realists of attacking.  Namely, where relativism says “each individual’s truth is equally valid, and only objective in the sense that widespread agreement can make it appear to be objective”, postmodernism says “each individual’s “truth” is equally valid, which is to say, not valid, except in the sense that widespread agreement makes it appear to be valid”.  In the end, contrary to Rorty’s dodging and weaving, the practical difference between what he is defending and the relativism he is not defending is quite small, and subsequently the nonsense he defends is practically coincident with the nonsense he makes a tremendous show of disavowing.  To revisit what all of this weaseling is trying to cover up, he’s still trying to talk about ethically or otherwise justifiable views while discarding the concept of justification.

Having wandered aimlessly this far out on the limb, I find myself wondering if Rorty’s trick here is the key to postmodernism: a rejection of ridiculous things that are in fact so clearly ridiculous and in need of rejection that the reader assumes all the big words being proposed as the replacement for the nonsense must in make sense.  If this interpretation is valid, then the counterarguments to postmodernism can not be found the ridiculousness that postmodernism rejected, i.e., the response to postmodernism is not to be found in modernism.  I’ve found people who do claim this, but it’s an entirely different topic and this footnote is far too long already.

[2] Of course I can’t draw a line from, say, Foucault to the election result (just try to picture Trump pouring over Discipline & Punish!), but I have found the ideas and concepts of postmodernism in the strangest places – it has indeed been very influential.  As per the unknowable indirectness of the original concept of karma, I merely claim Trump is in some sense karma for the postmodernists without actually claiming Trump is himself a postmodernist in any official sense.

[3] There is a third, non-philosophical explanation for the obsession over narrative above fact – that the media’s problem is the media’s problems.  To put this in a less verbally paradoxical way, Trump’s relationship with reporters and what gets reported and how is a preeminent consideration of … reporters.  Shocking!  In comparison, what China or Russia does is merely a story with no personal relevance to any of the editors, reporters, fact-checkers, and story-getters.

Or, to borrow Trump’s words as reported by the NYTimes:

“You know, the only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters, O.K.?” the president-elect said. “They’re the only ones who ask.”

“You don’t think the American public is concerned about it?” Ms. Jackson asked.

“I don’t think so,” Mr. Trump replied, before laying down the political equivalent of a mike-drop: ”I won.”

By this explanation, Trump is perfectly happy to die on infinitely many hills on silly things like crowd size and now-irrelevant voting fraud investigations because it ties the media in knots, thereby allowing him to get things done without his opponents hearing about it and mobilizing.  If this seems too strategic for Trump, such seemingly suicidal rhetorical stands are also a source of endless schadenfreude for his supporters (the most recent media approval rating I can find with minimal work is a Gallup poll from September 2016, which put the media at 32%, notably lower than Trump’s “historically low” inauguration approval of 39% – in the battle between the media and Trump the polls say the country is more on Trump’s side than not).

While more practically descriptive, this explanation does not affect my main thesis here: that Trump puts every postmodernist I’ve ever heard of in a very, very awkward position with respect to their philosophy and political ideals, and as a consequence at least they somewhat deserve this presidency.

[4] At this point it’s hard to see how Democrats will ever be willing to work with him, which means Trump has no reason to expect he can shift his base of support in a centric direction, which means he probably won’t try lest he upset his current base, remain unforgiven by centrists and democrats, and consequently be left with no base.

 

 

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