Trump and Public Discourse

The most telling feature of Trump’s presidential run was the supposed exchange between Donald Trump’s son, Donald Jr., and a Kasich advisor discussing the possibility of Kasich as a vice president. When apparently Donald Jr. approached the Kasich team with the offer that Kasich can be the most powerful vice president in history being in charge of both foreign and domestic policy, the Kasich advisor, puzzled, asked: “What is Trump going to do?” Donald Jr.’s response: “Make America great again.”

In the media and on comedy shows, this exchange got the usual response of how crazy Trump’s campaign is. But there is more going on here than just a delusional candidate. What this exchange, and Trump’s campaign in general, shows is that there are two levels to public discourse: what we can call the rational level and the trust level.

Trust is the foundation of rational discourse. For two people to see what the other is saying as reasons, there has to be a certain implicit, unarticulated, taken-for-granted trust that the two people are living similar lives, with similar concerns.

What the Trump phenomenon is bringing out is that for all the distrust and anger for the past several decades between the Clinton democrats and the Bush republicans, they were both generally centrist enough to have sufficient trust so as to see each others’ reasons as reasons. They disagreed deeply with each other’s reasons, but didn’t question each were giving reasons.

Trump, in contrast, is tapping into a pervasive sense of distrust among Americans, where there isn’t enough trust in place to engage in rational discourse. Hence Trump’s popularity is for a great part based on his refusing to play the game and to seem rational in the way that is expected of politicians. The more “irrational” he seems, the more he seems to his supporters to be speaking to the truth that the lives his supporters are leading and the lives the educated, city-dwelling, cosmopolitan politicians, celebrities and intellectuals are leading are not the same. That behind the veneer of rational discourse, there is a pervasive sense of us versus them, and what is needed, from his supporters’ point of view, is to affirm that sense of us. That sense of us has to be affirmed prior to any reason giving can take place.

This is what Donald Jr. meant by saying Trump will focus on “making America great again.” Meaning: Trump’s main job, as Trump himself sees it, is basically a cultural one. To be a culture warrior for the old-fashioned, white, 1950s ways of life and for the America that way of life highlighted. As Trump and his supporters see it, if this cultural battle is lost, so will any rational argument – for the loss of the cultural battle will morph what counts as acceptable reasons.

Donald Trump is the more evolved version of Sarah Palin, and what they have in common is that they are both at root, steeped in contemporary pop culture. In a way far more than traditional politicians than the Bushs or the Clintons or the Obamas, or Paul Ryan or Nancy Palosi. Trump and Palin are using the discourse and methods of contemporary, celebrity culture to prop up the culture war as the foundation of public discourse.

And in this Trump and Palin are ahead of the more traditional politicians. If Trump wins the presidency, it will be because he is combining contemporary pop culture with the old fashioned sense of America as a white, Christian country in a way so as to make the combination seemless, and so give that old-fashioned sense a genuine, new uptake. In contrast, most politicians, Republicans and Democrats, are still playing the old game of giving reasons assuming the country is united in a deep way.

This is the irony of the Trump campaign. The very fact that Trump is making the implicit distrust explicit shows that the old America of his childhood is officially dead and gone. For in that America which he pines for, white Americans were able to affirm their way of life as the American way for the most part implicitly, just by relying on institutional structures which already privileged them. If a person has to tell his spouse that he loves her every ten minutes, for fear that otherwise the relationship will crumble, then the relation is pretty much already crumbled.

Trump is a demagogue, who, if elected, will become dictatorial; this is inevitable. For a person running as a cultural warrior who denies that the society has enough to common to have rational debates, there is nothing at the rational level to guide him to exchange reasons with others. His platform is that he will be a cultural shaman, protecting a way of life. If he becomes president, and the opposition to him grows more fierce, that is all the more reason for him to ditch engaging at the rational level of public discourse and embrace the pure, trust level of gut instinct and a sense of us versus them.

One way or another, American is headed in the coming years for serious internal conflict. Much worse than the 60s during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war protests.

If Trump becomes president, the battle lines in the culture will explode even more, with mass protests and Trump using police forces against American citizens. If Trump doesn’t become president, the battle lines in the culture will still explode more. In this case because most of the people voting for Trump will be upset that the system is rigged, and soon there will be internal “terrorism” of white Americans against the US government.

Public discourse in America is going to become even more fractured, with the distrust growing more pronounced. Simply trying to engage in rational conversation doesn’t help. For accepting reasons only works if there are background practices which foster trust – minus that background, “reasons” themselves come to seem as just intellectual ways of controlling each other.

What then can help?

We need to foster new practices, modes of living together and conversations which work simultaneously at both the trust level and the rational level. Focusing only on the trust level, as Trump is doing, is working bottom up but without any sense of being guided by an end goal of shared reasons. But focusing only on the rational level, as we are doing in our classrooms, is working top down but without any sense of building bridges at the trust level.

We need modes of action and thought which are completely interconnected. Where we work on reasoning together not just by giving arguments back and forth, but by, at the same time, changing our habits and institutions and modes of listening and talking so that we can foster the trust required for hearing each other as rational beings.

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