Not another poll, not another chart, not another breakdown of demographics and subgroups, not another battleground state survey, not another taco bowl, not another Nazi frog meme. The rudest American presidential election in living memory has been fought almost entirely without substance, and now, at its exhausting conclusion, the very survival of the republic is being assessed only through the narrowest neopositivist lens. Rather than add to the endless stack of hot takes or self-aggrandizing endorsements, we at Even have turned to philosophy to fix a larger frame on these last days of the election — to understand how we fell this far, and whether we can climb back out.
Susan Neiman is a moral philosopher and the director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany. Born in Atlanta in 1955, she earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard, where she studied under John Rawls and Stanley Cavell. Among her many books are The Unity of Reason (1994), Evil in Modern Thought (2002), Moral Clarity (2008), and Why Grow Up? (2014). In 2010 she delivered the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at the University of Michigan. Neiman's work on the Enlightenment and moral ideals had a particular resonance in the Bush years; today, her study of the force of values and ideas in secular culture has even greater urgency.
This interview is the third and last in a series of efforts to engage with the 2016 American presidential election beyond media prattle. In Even no. 5, the architect Thomas de Monchaux explored Donald Trump's history as an architectural client, and whether the future candidate's brutality was reflected in his earlier designs. And on October 25, I moderated a debate at the Ace Hotel in New York on the aesthetics of the election with Thomas de Monchaux; Jesse Reed, a designer at Pentagram and co-creator of Hillary Clinton's campaign logo; and Josh Barro, senior editor at Business Insider and co-host of Left, Right & Center on KCRW. You can listen to that debate here. —Jason Farago
Before turning to philosophy, I wanted to ask about your personal experience of this wild election as an American abroad. Have you found yourself forced to make sense of this election to Germans and other Europeans? And has this year been harder than previous ones?
Of course, and it’s been one of my informal responsibilities since I took the job at the Einstein Forum to explain American politics and culture here, which I’m asked to do with particular intensity every four years. Is it harder than others? I’m not sure. I have to say, the Bush regime was very difficult to explain, and we oughtn’t to forget, as President Obama is reminding us, that Trump is only an aberration in the sense that he’s particularly vulgar and particularly grotesque. And perhaps particularly ignorant and particularly narcissistic. But there are certain things that have been constant, and this is worth pointing out to Americans and not just Germans.
This anti-intellectualism is a trend that started with Ronald Reagan, and we’ve forgotten this. Reagan has gone down well in the history of not just American but world politics because he projected a sort of kindliness, which is of course not a trait of the current Republican candidate, but also because he had the dumb luck to stand in front of the Berlin Wall and say “Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev,” and two years later the wall came down, having nothing whatsoever to do with Ronald Reagan. His aides were embarrassed by him. A new book is out [The American President, by William E. Leuchtenberg] that shows that he was so ignorant, so uninterested in finding things out, in reading anything, that when his aides wanted to brief him on something important they would make a little movie for him. So I think we need to remember that the dumbing down of American politics, and its transformation into a media sensation rather than any attempt at serious discourse, began there.
The other thing that began there is the racist dog-whistling. Reagan began his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and he didn’t scream, he smiled, he did the kindly grandfather number, but basically the two really fatal features of Trump — one, covering a fundamentally racist message with an appeal to something called conservative values, and two, not even bothering to make an attempt at serious discourse — those things began there, with Reagan. I was actually in Berlin when Reagan was president. My God, was that embarrassing.
You mention the appeal to conservative values that sugarcoated some of the brutality. But one of the most interesting features of the Trump phenomenon, particularly given his continued support among evangelical Christians when other members of the conservative bloc seem to have abandoned him, is that certain moral claims that people on the American right used to make — about family values, about being an upstanding citizen, about Mom and apple pie — have fallen by the wayside.
It’s interesting, because it fits in with something that Pope Francis is doing in a positive way. You used the word “moral,” and I think the most important idea of Francis’s papacy has been to disentangle two moral strands that run through all the western religions. One strand is claims about sexuality: who covers what part of their body and when, who sleeps with whom and how often and under what circumstances…every religion has a set of prohibitions like that. And every religion also has a component of social justice. What Pope Francis has done, which hasn’t been sufficiently recognized, is to claim that what sits at the heart of religion are moral claims about social justice, and the other stuff, you know, you guys can figure that out. And you may see a reflection of this in the Trump phenomenon. It turns out that evangelical Christians are quite willing to drop these things that seemed crucial to them. On the other hand, Trump is using the rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement, and that’s one thing they’re not willing to drop. But they are willing to ignore things that would have been unthinkable a couple of generations ago.
In Evil in Modern Thought, you turn to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem as a starting point to think about how we judge evil: whether on the content of a person’s beliefs, or, as you seem to conclude, on the actions themselves. Trump offers an interesting extension of this thought problem. There’s been in American media lately quite a bit of debate about whether an accidental fascist is really a fascist. Does Trump really believe in the things that he’s saying, or is he ginning up certain prejudices that he is merely capitalizing on and doesn’t necessarily hold? What sort of philosophical assessment do you make of that dichotomy?
It’s hard to get into the mind of someone who’s as foreign as that. Even getting into the mind of someone like Eichmann, interestingly enough… There’s a terrific recent book on him by a brilliant German philosopher [Eichmann Before Jerusalem, by Bettina Stangneth] that shows that, although Arendt was right about the banality of evil as a way of understanding what drove many thousands of people to join the Nazi party, she turned out not to be right about Eichmann. There were documents and tapes discovered, and Stangneth shows how brilliantly and how cleverly he lied. So getting into the head of someone as different from anyone I’ve ever met as the current Republican nominee is a challenge, but as far as I can tell, I don’t think he believes in anything. Everything that he seems to say and do is so vapid and empty a claim about his own strength, power, or appeal that it would embarrass you if it was anybody you half-liked. If you had a friend, or an uncle, who went around with a quarter of the narcissistic disturbance that this man had, you would be embarrassed for him.
The philosopher Harry Frankfurt used the word “bullshitting” to describe speech for which the very distinction between truth and lies no longer seems to hold. Trump, though, seems to go even beyond that — when I listen to Trump, it’s as if he doesn’t even use language in the way that most of us use language. He isn’t actually expressing claims, beyond the matter of whether those claims are “true” or “false.” He’s merely competing at any given moment to win the exchange, to be dominant. If a statement contradicts something that came before, or even if there’s video evidence of him saying the exact opposite, this seems not to bother him.
I think that’s right, and it’s part of something larger. You asked about beliefs versus actions, and of course what counts in the public sphere is actions. Words can be forms of actions, but politically, what matters is what one does. With that said, I don’t think we have fully realized how deeply and thoroughly a certain postmodern denial of ideas like truth has seeped down into the media. The fact that it took the New York Times until about three weeks ago to use the word “lie” — and the fact that that very fact was a news item — is, I think, extremely interesting.
For about three decades we have been hearing, precisely among well-educated people who went to good liberal arts colleges, who are inclined to go into the media, and who consider themselves progressive, that there is no such thing as truth, that it’s all a question of perspective, that claims to value are really claims to power. If they read anything in college, and I know this from young people, it’s Foucault.
For whom power and knowledge are equated, of course.
And where truth is basically seen as an attempt to assert one’s own power rather than to find something out. It wasn’t only poststructuralists or postmodernists; Richard Rorty, in a certain sense, had these kind of views too. You always get, then, a straw man as the opposite term. “We’re against Truth with a capital T.” Or they’re against, I don’t know, some Platonic heaven where ideas have some perfect reality. Not even Plato was a Platonist in that sense! But it is the view that has won out, and it’s won out, unfortunately, in progressive and well-meaning circles. Now, do people who work at the Times sit around and think about Foucault when they’re writing a piece? Of course not. But the dominant assumptions have become totally hostile to claims about truth, and claims about good and evil. Moral Clarity was an attempt to take back that kind of language from the Bush administration.
In journalism today, one does see a lot of cynical statements or dishonest statements that are reported as if they are “bad but effective.” Statements that are wrong, or dishonest, or deceptive, are treated as if they are moves in a chess game; the journalist is the person who knows how the game is played, and gives you a value-free state of play.
But then at the same time, we have seen in the last few years a positivist streak in political journalism: the endless polls, the sifting of demographics, and now the rise of “explainer journalism,” in which statistics and charts — facts, if not truths — are treated as holy, holy, holy. Could you help me unpack that seeming contradiction?
I think they’re almost two sides of a coin. I volunteered for the first Obama campaign, and I was passionate, very committed. I kept being told that, by demographics, as a middle-aged white woman, I should have been a Hillary supporter. I got extremely angry at that assumption, and that the questions that the papers were pursuing were all questions of demographics and of polls. Rather than: Does this candidate have ideas that are better? Are there reasons?
And I think that’s part of the same idea. Any attempt to give reasons for voting or preferring or supporting one candidate rather than another seems like fluff. Whereas of course we all vote our interests, where interest means my tribe versus somebody else’s tribe.
Of course, this is being discussed, as you certainly know, in the current election. Is this cohort voting, is that cohort voting? You’re right that it has a positivist glow, a positivist framework. But at bottom it’s part of the same idea, which is that ideas don’t matter, truth doesn’t matter, what matters is the interests of particular groups, defined in either ethnic or generational or gender terms. That’s also a Foucauldian or a Schmittian line. I’m simplifying wildly: Foucault is a far more interesting thinker than Carl Schmitt the Nazi. But the idea that reasons in politics, political decisions, really can all be reduced to attempts to assert the power of the group with which one is most aligned: that is such a deep assumption, and we get it from so many different sources. I do think the statistics are part of that.
This goes beyond questions of media and into a more general suspicion among Americans who think of themselves as progressives. The return of identity-based claims to knowledge over the last few years in American discourse recalls the Sophist idea you were mentioning: that justice is about helping your friends and hurting your enemies. This mode of treating politics as a story of interlocking oppressions has become a basic political gesture.
It’s disastrous, yes.
Well, then, how does a person who understands the claims of an organization like Black Lives Matter, or who understands the disadvantages of women in the workplace or in the public sphere, make political claims at a moment when every statement has to be inflected with what sort of person you are when making that statement? You lay some blame here at Foucault’s doorstep, but even Foucault mistrusted that kind of subjectivity – he said “D’où tu parles?” was a question for the police.
I’m actually writing a book at the moment where I’m trying to work some of this out, but I really think this has been an absolutely fatal development. Something like it happened in the civil rights movement, in the 1960s. Initially there was this idea that I grew up with as a child: all men are slaves until their brothers are free. That is, the claims of the American civil rights movement were moral claims, and they affected all of us. In the same sort of way, Arendt argued, successfully I think, that Eichmann should have been tried for crimes against humanity, rather than crimes against the Jewish people.
The civil rights movement split quite strongly in the mid-60s over this question, and I think began an absolutely fatal descent into a way of thinking that is poisoning politics today. It really does go back to this pre-Socratic idea which keeps being reinvented. You see it with Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic. You see it with Carl Schmitt, who mysteriously became an icon of the left, I suppose because he’s seen as deconstructing liberal bullshit. You see it in all kinds of people. You see it in practical politics.
I think this is tragic. I support Black Lives Matter as a human being, as an American, and as somebody who acknowledges a historic set of crimes towards African-Americans. Perhaps therefore there is a historic sense of responsibility in the same way that Germans feel they have committed a historic crime against Jews and have a historic responsibility. The new book that I’m working on is going to talk about parallels in those two cases.
That’s the problem, it seems to me, with this claim “all lives matter.” All lives do matter, but we have a historical responsibility to one set of lives, and particularly since they’re being shot at higher rates than anybody else is. But black lives concern me as a human being, as an American, as a moral philosopher, even though it’s not my tribe. I would hope that these are issues that concern everybody.
It seems to be the case that 1989 signaled not just the end to universal moral claims, but the end to principles altogether, and to acting on principle. I had a conversation with a friend of mine, a white woman doing wonderful work on race relations in Mississippi. A feminist lesbian. She ticks all of the boxes on a contemporary progressive ticket, and really is doing fantastic work. We were having a conversation on Skype recently where she said, “Of course, I don’t believe in truth.” I responded and she said, “You’re calling me a Trump enabler?” I said, “Yeah, actually.”
I suppose the other big component of this anti-truth discourse, beyond the influence of French theory and its American interpreters, is evolutionary biology.
One reads the Times or the Washington Post, and half the articles tell you: it’s your genes’ fault. I’m interested in that as well when it comes to Trump. God knows there have been lots of armchair medical diagnoses of this man. But beyond that, evolutionary biology gets trotted out — a kind of cod-Darwinism — to make moral claims or claims about truth seem, if not invalid, then at least an epiphenomenon of some greater explanation.
I agree with you 100 percent, and that is at least as much doxa as postmodernism, perhaps even more so. The idea that absolutely everything you do in the world is about multiplying your gene pool is quite ridiculous. Not even parenting is about multiplying your gene pool! It’s interesting to tie that to Trump, who you could see as evolutionary-biology-gone-wild: this is what life is about, me, me, me, me, expanding my power, multiplying my enterprises. Even Hitler at least believed in something besides himself. I’m not saying that he’s preferable, I’m just saying that is the weirdness of this election, that you just have the feeling there’s no interest in any content whatsoever.
Let’s talk about that vacancy, then. For Trump is not only an individual of immense narcissism, but also an empty vessel who functions a lot like others in the west. The Brexit vote, and the rise of populist parties in Germany, France and the Netherlands, also have a racist and xenophobic character, but what they all have in common beyond that is a pure rejectionism; voting for Trump or for Brexit or for the AfD is an anti-political gesture, not a positive statement of policy preferences. I wonder if you have any sympathy for someone who might vote for Trump or might vote for Brexit, regardless of whether they hold racist or xenophobic views, as really a vote for none-of-the-above.
Two years ago, I was wondering about the phenomenon of young women going to join ISIS. I understand very well why a young man might do it, but I was trying to figure out why a young woman would do it. That was just about the moment that Kim Kardashian, with this very silly pose, vowed she was going to "break the Internet." It wasn’t even obscene, it was just silly. Here’s somebody who has made it to the apex of western secular culture, not only in terms of more money than anybody needs, but when she and Kanye get married, they rent Versailles. You can now buy the monuments of western culture. I can perfectly well imagine a young woman looking at all that and saying, “Look, if that is the ideal of the western consumer culture that I live in, I’m putting on a hijab and going to fight it.” So not only do I understand nationalists of various stripes, I understand religious fundamentalists, too.
This is part of the post-1989 reckoning that you were mentioning earlier.
I think it’s extremely sad that up to now, the most popular opposition to the commonplace that there is no alternative to global neoliberalism has been either religious fundamentalism or nationalism. They’re easy, because they’re old. They’re tropes that have been around. You are, though, getting a genuine revival of the left in the sense of conceiving alternatives to a world run by global corporations. Occupy was important for that. Thomas Piketty was important. Bernie Sanders was important. You’re getting some pushback, thank heavens, but so far only as protest movements.
Donald Trump and the leaders of ISIS are both, of course, masters of the terrain of new media — media that were initially imagined as democratizing forces, but turn out to be something quite different. Trump’s use of Twitter has literally brought Nazism to the United States, or at least Nazi discourse. Both cable news and social media have profited from this, and it’s astounding to see, first, that social media algorithms do not privilege truth, and second, that an entire media ecosystem has arisen to propagate lies. Not even for political aims, but just for money.
That is what is so depressing. I have to out myself as old-fashioned enough that I refuse to do social media. I just feel like I spend so much of my damn time in front of a screen anyway. Even apart from Twitter and Facebook, though, when you have a for-profit television company that’s basically spewing lies 85% of the time, that’s about enough. I was in the South, mostly Mississippi, for a month this spring for research on this new book. Fox News was turned on absolutely everywhere. It’s impossible to escape.
Now, more than one media executive is on record as saying, “He’s good for our ratings.” If there were, after the election, a genuine soul-searching about that fact, I would be a lot more optimistic than I am at this particular moment, in the long term. We’re all complicit. I may watch with a feeling of nausea, but we’re all complicit in his ratings. As long as that’s driving the media, I don’t know, because I’m not exactly optimistic about armed revolution. I honestly can’t imagine people voluntarily, in the United States, moving to the view that NPR and PBS should be the main sources of news, rather than niches.
In Europe vast amounts of money are spent on subsidized public culture, and that also means public news media, which isn’t to say people here don’t have Facebook and Twitter, too. But you have a sense of a responsible media as being crucial for democracy. In Germany there was a law that ensured, and still does with some success, that books be affordable to everyone. How can you have a democracy without books being within everybody’s reach?
That was an idea that animated the foundation of the United States — a Jeffersonian idea.
Maybe we can conclude on this point, then. American democracy, in its initial conception, was predicated on a well-informed citizenry that was going to be sovereign. Has the media capture you describe made that kind of exercise of sovereign democratic power more difficult? Do you ever worry that you’re becoming a bit of a Burkean — that somehow the exercise of power by a democratic citizenry might have been too big of a dream?
Oh, this is the question about whether the current Republican candidate is a reductio of the whole idea of democracy. No, I don’t think that’s the case. But as you rightly point out, American democracy was not founded on the idea of all power to the corporations, and the educated citizenry is an old Enlightenment idea. I don’t actually think the answer is less democracy, but I certainly think it’s very odd: growing neoliberalism makes people feel increasingly powerless to determine the events of their own lives, and simultaneously, they want media to find scapegoats for the fact that people are really not in control. Malala asked this question, God bless her, as sort of the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes: you could educate every child on the planet for 12 years if you simply took the profits of the arms industry for eight days. Now, by what political mechanism could we even raise this possibility, much less do it? We all feel powerless.
There’s a late essay by Kant that you’ve written about more than once: “On the Old Saw ‘That May Be Right In Theory but It Won’t Work in Practice.’” Are you more pessimistic about bridging theory and practice than you were before? Is Donald Trump not proof that sometimes the gap between “is” and “ought” can get so unbelievably broad that even thinking about the relationship between them is a fool’s errand?
What makes me slightly less pessimistic is that people from vastly different backgrounds are beginning to realize that the neoliberal system that we thought inevitable 25 years ago is not going to work. We’re realizing that about the climate, for a start. Various voices, from Pope Francis to Thomas Piketty to even business leaders, know this can’t continue. It’s interesting that we’re slowly reaching a consensus from such different sources.
Look, I think it’s never the case that theory won’t serve. I don’t think that there’s ever a point when it’s right to give up on thinking about things properly. What I do think is that theory alone is not enough to break the tyranny of global neoliberalism, which has this amazingly wonderful ability to adapt itself and to co-opt things and people. If we don’t break that, we’re lost.