Postmodernism didn’t cause Trump. It explains him.

We get the term “postmodern,” at least in its current, philosophical sense, from the title of Jean-François Lyotard’s 1979 book, “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.” It described the state of our era by building out Lyotard’s observations that society was becoming a “consumer society,” a “media society” and a “postindustrial society,” as postmodern theorist Fredric Jameson points out in his foreword to Lyotard’s book. Lyotard saw these large-scale shifts as game-changers for art, science and the broader question of how we know what we know. This was a diagnosis, not a political outcome that he and other postmodernist theorists agitated to bring about.

.. Jacques Derrida’s concept of “deconstruction” sought to understand language as a system capable of constantly hiding and deferring meaning, rather than a simple conduit for conveying it.
Another thinker, Jean Baudrillard, developed the concept of the “simulacrum,” a copy without an original, that leads to the “hyperreal,” a collection of signs or images purporting to represent something that actually exists (such as photos of wartime combat) but ultimately portraying a wild distortion not drawn from reality.
.. By the 1980s, conservative scholars like Allan Bloom — author of the influential “The Closing of the American Mind” — challenged postmodern theorists, not necessarily for their diagnosis of the postmodern condition but for accepting that condition as inevitable.
.. Unlike so many of today’s critics, Bloom understood that postmodernism didn’t emerge simply from the pet theories of wayward English professors. Instead, he saw it as a cultural moment brought on by forces greater than the university.
.. Bloom was particularly worried about students — as reflections of society at large — pursuing commercial interests above truth or wisdom. Describing what he saw as the insidious influence of pop music, Bloom lamented “parents’ loss of control over their children’s moral education at a time when no one else is seriously concerned with it.” He called the rock music industry “perfect capitalism, supplying to demand and helping create it,” with “all the moral dignity of drug trafficking.”
.. Kimball called “Tenured Radicals,” in his 1990 polemic against the academic left. At the heart of this accusation is the tendency to treat postmodernism as a form of left-wing politics — with its own set of tenets — rather than as a broader cultural moment that left-wing academics diagnosed.
.. it treats Lyotard and his fellows as proponents of a world where objective truth loses all value, rather than analysts who wanted to explain why this had already happened.
.. If you’re going to claim that Trumpism and alt-right relativism are consequences of the academic left’s supposition about what was happening, you must demonstrate a causal link. But commentators looking to trace these roots play so fast and loose with causality that they could easily be called postmodernist themselves.
.. It is certainly correct that today’s populist right employs relativistic arguments: For example, “identity politics” is bad when embraced by people of color, but “identitarianism” — white-nationalist identity politics — is good and necessary for white “survival.” But simply because this happens after postmodernism doesn’t mean it happens because of postmodernism
.. figures such as “intelligent design” theorist Phillip Johnson and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich cite the influence of postmodernist theory on their projects. Yet, as McIntyre acknowledges — and documents extensively in his book — right-wing think tanks and corporate-backed fronts — like tobacco industry “research” — had already established an “alternative facts” program for the right, long before creative misinformation entrepreneurs came around.
.. because reading postmodern theory is so notoriously difficult — partly because of how philosophical jargon gets translated, and partly because so much of the writing is abstruse and occasionally unclarifiable — an undergraduate (as in Cernovich’s case) or a layperson will almost inevitably come away with misreadings.
.. Hannah Arendt’s 1951 “The Origins of Totalitarianism”: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction . . . and the distinction between true and false . . . no longer exist.” 
.. “The deliberate falsehood and the outright lie used as legitimate means to achieve political ends,” writes Arendt in her 1971 essay “Lying in Politics ,” “have been with us since the beginning of recorded history.”
.. Fredric Jameson’s reflections on conspiracy theory (“the poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age”) aren’t what’s convincing people to believe that climate change is a hoax or that the Democratic Party has been running a pedophilia ring out of a Washington pizza parlor.

.. Likewise, the claim that the Trump-Russia investigation is — as Trump said on national television — a “made-up story,” an “excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election,” is not a postmodernist critique of the evidence the Mueller investigation has gathered. So it’s a massive category error to call Trump’s post-truth politics “postmodernist.” It’s just the say-anything chicanery of the old-fashioned sales pitch.

.. it’s clear that the real enemy of truth is not postmodernism but propaganda, the active distortion of truth for political purposes.
Trumpism practices this form of distortion on a daily basis. The postmodernist theorists we vilify did not cause this; they’ve actually given us a framework to understand precisely how falsehood can masquerade as truth.

This will never be normal

One of the current complaints of the Trump right concerns the treatment given to Alex Jones by Facebook, which has temporarily banned the Internet radio host for videos that violated “community standards.” According to Lou Dobbs of the Fox Business Network, “freedom of speech [is] under attack.” Fox News television personality Tucker Carlson has also come to Jones’s defense, saying sarcastically, “I know we’re supposed to think Alex Jones is way more radical than, like, Bill Maher.”

.. Well, yes, that is precisely what we should think. At various points, Jones has promoted the belief that

  • 9/11 was an “inside job,” that
  • Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a pizzeria, that
  • NASA had built a child slave colony on Mars in order to harvest blood and bone marrow, that
  • the Oklahoma City bombing,
  • the Boston Marathon bombing and the
  • Sandy Hook school shooting were government “false flag” operations, that
  • some shooting survivors were “crisis actors,” that
  • “globalists” are intent on committing genocide and that
  • Democrats are on the verge of launching a second civil war.

.. President Trump has made a great many unpleasant things unavoidable. He has appeared on Jones’s Infowars program and assured Jones that his “reputation is amazing.” The White House briefly gave Infowars a press credential. And Donald Trump Jr. has retweeted Infowars stories.

.. It represents not only a certain approach to political strategy but also a certain approach to morality, pressed to its logical extreme. Trump is not a dogmatist; he is an egotist. He judges others not by their convictions, or even by their hold on reality, but by their fidelity to his person. It is a form of identity politics in which all that counts is one man’s identity. So Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), being faithless to Trump, is an enemy. And the revealer of child slavery on Mars is a friend.

.. Remember when a white man in Boston, spouting Trump slogans, beat up a homeless man outside a subway station? Trump responded: “People who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again.”

.. Remember when a Trump supporter punched an African American man at a rally? Trump said that his follower “obviously loves his country.”

.. Remember when the alt-right provoked violence in Charlottesville? Trump pronounced some white nationalists to be “very fine people.”

.. The president has a nearly impossible time criticizing his fans, even when they are guilty of hate crimes and violence. In Trump’s own private creed, they are absolved of guilt by their loyalty to him.

.. This commitment

  • transforms their cruelty into the proof of passion; their
  • prejudice into an expression of patriotism; their
  • lawlessness into the embrace of his higher order. ‘

Just ask former Phoenix area

  • sheriff Joe Arpaio, pardoned after his abuse of Hispanic migrants. Or
  • Oregon cattle ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, pardoned after defying the federal government.

All were justified and sanctified by their devotion to Trump.

.. Any political movement is defined not just by what it aspires to, but also by whom it excludes. And the alt-right, the Alex Jones right, the white nationalist right know that they are fully included in Trump’s definition of his movement.

.. They know that their loyalty to him has been rewarded with a legitimacy they have craved for decades. And they are full, enthusiastic partners in the Trump project — to delegitimize any source of authority and information but his own.

  • .. Genuine populists are discredited by consorting with people who accuse elites of arming for mass murder.
  • The religious right is caught in bed with a diseased, seeping moral relativism. And
  • Fox anchors come to the defense of a man who verbally defiles the graves of murdered children.

 

How to Roll Back Fanaticism

We’re living in an age of anxiety. The country is being transformed by complex forces like changing demographics and technological disruption. Many people live within a bewildering freedom, without institutions to trust, unattached to compelling religions and sources of meaning, uncertain about their own lives. Anxiety is not so much a fear of a specific thing but a fear of everything, an unnamable dread about the future.

.. Donald Trump is the perfect snake oil salesman for this moment. He lacks inwardness and therefore is terrified by the possibility of anxiety. He has been escaping self-scrutiny his whole life and has become a genius at the self-exculpating rationalization. He took a nation beset by uncertainty and he gave it a series of “explanations” that were simple, crude, affirming and wrong.

.. Trump gave people a quick pass out of anxiety. Everything could be blamed on foreigners, the idiotic elites. The problems are clear, and the answers are easy.

.. The alt-right, which has emerged in support of the Trump administration, is marked by the same conspiratorial epistemology. It provides explanations for complex events that allow its followers to avoid anxiety.

  • .. The world is secretly controlled by the globalists.
  • The Sandy Hook school shooting never happened.
  • There’s a child abuse ring run by Clintonites out of a pizzeria in Northwest D.C.
  • All the ambiguities of life can be explained by pointing to the malevolent webs of secret power

.. If the alt-right thinks the globalists secretly and malevolently control society, the neo-Nazis go back to the original version and believe that a conspiracy of Jewish bankers does. For them, tribalism is not only a way to feel some vestige of pride in their own lonely selves, it’s also an explanatory tool.

.. The world can be a bewildering place, but not if you see it as a righteous war between whites and blacks, between straights and gays. The neo-Nazis are not the first group to discover that war is a force that can give an empty life meaning, even a race war.

.. The age of anxiety inevitably leads to an age of fanaticism, as people seek crude palliatives for the dizziness of freedom.

.. I’m beginning to think the whole depressing spectacle of this moment — the Trump presidency and beyond — is caused by a breakdown of intellectual virtue, a breakdown in America’s ability to face evidence objectively, to pay due respect to reality, to deal with complex and unpleasant truths.

.. In fact, the most powerful answer to fanaticism is modesty. Modesty is an epistemology directly opposed to the conspiracy mongering mind-set.

.. Progress is not made by crushing some swarm of malevolent foes; it’s made by finding balance between competing truths —

  • between freedom and security,
  • ‘diversity and solidarity.

There’s always going to be counter-evidence and mystery.

The Disruptive Career of Michael Flynn, Trump’s National-Security Adviser

In Afghanistan and Iraq, Flynn ordered jsoc commandos to collect and catalogue data from interrogations, captured electronic equipment, pocket trash—anything that could yield useful information. By analyzing these disparate scraps of intelligence, they were able to discover that Al Qaeda was not a hierarchical group after all but a dynamic network of cells and relationships. As I learned while doing research for my book “Top Secret America,” Flynn and McChrystal dramatically increased the pace of jsoc attacks on enemy hideouts by devising a system in which commandos on missions transferred promising data—cell-phone numbers, meeting locations—to analysts, who could then quickly point them to additional targets to hit. Multiple raids a night became common.

.. Flynn was one of the few high-ranking officers who disdained the Army’s culture of conformity. But McChrystal also knew he had to protect Flynn from that same culture. He “boxed him in,” someone who had worked with both men told me last week, by encouraging Flynn to keep his outbursts in check and surrounding him with subordinates who would challenge the unsubstantiated theories he tended to indulge.

.. But they described how he lurched from one priority to another and had trouble building a loyal team. “He made a lot of changes,” one close observer of Flynn’s time at the D.I.A. told me. “Not in a strategic way—A to Z—but back and forth.”

.. But, without loyal junior officers at his side to vet his facts, he found even more trouble. His subordinates started a list of what they called “Flynn facts,” things he would say that weren’t true, like when he asserted that three-quarters of all new cell phones were bought by Africans or, later, that Iran had killed more Americans than Al Qaeda. In private, his staff tried to dissuade him from repeating these lines.
..Flynn’s temper also flared. He berated people in front of colleagues. Soon, according to former associates, a parallel power structure developed within the D.I.A. to fence him in, and to keep the nearly seventeen-thousand-person agency working. “He created massive antibodies in the building,” the former colleague said.
.. He wrote a book with Michael Ledeen, a controversial neoconservative foreign-policy analyst, about defeating terrorism. Islam is not a religion, Flynn and Ledeen wrote, but a political ideology bent on destroying Judeo-Christian civilization.
Flynn began saying that he had been fired because President Obama disagreed with his views on terrorism and wanted to hide the growth of isis. I haven’t found anyone yet who heard him say this while he was still in the military. In the past, I’ve asked Flynn directly about this claim; he has told me that he doesn’t have any proof—it’s just something he feels was true.
..He led the crowd in chants of “Lock her up! Lock her up!” His former colleagues say they were shocked by what they saw.

What Flynn saw was corruption: Clinton, the media, the Justice Department, the intelligence community—they are all corrupt.

.. He led the crowd in chants of “Lock her up! Lock her up!” His former colleagues say they were shocked by what they saw.

What Flynn saw was corruption: Clinton, the media, the Justice Department, the intelligence community—they are all corrupt.