Donald Trump and the post-modernists

George Will sees a relationship between Donald Trump’s lack of regard for the truth and the left’s post-modern lack of regard for the notion of objective truth. Of Trump, Will writes:

He began his political career spouting birtherism and concluded it — he will not be back; like vaudeville, he is yesterday’s entertainment — raving about an election-rigging conspiracy so vast that it involved legions in many states, and so cunning that it left no evidence of itself.

In between, there was also a fair amount of making stuff up.

At the same time, says Will:

[M]any of [Trump’s] critics were too busy savoring their superiority to him to recognize their mental kinship with him.

They consciously, and he by cultural osmosis, are participants in the postmodern rejection of reason. He and they are collaborators in the rising rejection of the Enlightenment that produced classical liberalism and this republic.

As Will describes it, postmodernism holds, with Nietzsche, that there are no facts, only interpretations — alternative “narratives” about reality:

Hence, society is an arena of willfulness where all disagreements are power struggles among identity groups. The concept of the individual disappears as identity becomes fluid, deriving from group membership.

I think Will is conflating postmodernism with identity politics. They represent separate academic movements. As Peter Berkowitz has explained:

From the mid-1980s through the first decade of the 21st century, campus orthodoxy revolved around a form of dogmatic relativism that antedates the emergence, but frequently goes by the name, of postmodernism. Identity politics supplanted postmodernism’s dogmatic relativism with a dogmatic dogmatism. . . .

Postmodernism declared — and humanities departments and many professors in the social sciences dutifully drummed into their students’ heads — that truth was a fiction, reality was socially constructed, and “grand narratives” were dead.

(Emphasis added)

By contrast:

[I]dentity politics wears its heart on its sleeve. It regards its own grand narrative as comprehensive and unimpeachable.

It declares — without any apparent felt need to marshal evidence or examine alternative opinions — that the history of Western civilization is marked by a structural racism and sexism, and by a systemic persecution of the powerless by the privileged. The sister doctrine of intersectionality adds that all crimes and sins committed by the unjustly privileged oppressors — typically white men — are indissolubly connected while righteousness inheres exclusively in the oppressed, comprising people of color and women.

(Emphasis added)

Trump is neither a post-modern relativist nor an identity politics dogmatist, though one can detect, in his occasional wanton disregard for the truth and his grievance-based dogmatism, traces of both.

I believe Will is also wrong in saying that Trump has absorbed post-modern thinking through cultural osmosis. There have always been politicians who stretch facts nearly beyond recognition and, when that won’t do the trick, simply make things up. And there have always been people who blame their setbacks on vast conspiracies

These tendencies stems from a personality defect, not from academic trends. Trump didn’t need the academic left to be Trump.

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