Did Poststructuralism Help Enable Trump?

Since Trump’s election in November 2016, some scholars and writers, most notably among them the American philosopher Daniel Dennett, have claimed that Trump’s victory was in part made possible by the attack on truth and rationality undertaken by French poststructuralist philosophers in the 80s. How much sensibility is there to this claim?

Well, to start with, the most common claim of these authors is that the poststructuralists undermined truth and rationality itself, thus enabling everyone to live in their own la-la land with no respect for facts or truth. But for our part, we don’t really think that’s true: It isn’t so much the critique of science and facts contained in poststructuralist thought that has been influential in the world of politics: No, it is rather the conception of the subject.

Though the poststructuralists differed on method and disagreed on many things, one thing they all had in common was their attack on liberal humanism’s conception of the subject as a universal entity capable of bridging the particular properties of each specific subject: Gender, race, class, and so on were second-order characteristics, so to speak – the most important thing according to the liberal humanists’ conception of the subject was that we are all human beings and as such, entitled to the same political rights and duties, as well as equally capable of accessing and understanding the world through reason.

Broadly speaking, this conception of the subject was the dominant one amongst both left- and right-wingers from roughly 1945 ‘till 2000. But as we said, the French poststructuralists undertook a virulent philosophical attack on this idea of the subject in the 1980s. Even Marxists understood the subject in this universalist manner.

Their attack was successful, but not in the way that they had hoped. Their adherents copied their critical view of the universal conception of the subject, but rather than the erudite philosophical criticism presented by the likes of Foucault, Derrida, and others, the adherents became obsessed with the particular characteristics of each specific subject. Race, class, and gender went from being seen as less important properties of the subject than its ability to reason to being seen as more important.

An obvious example of a kind of thinking that was inspired by the French poststructuralists, yet reworked their philosophical criticism into an obsession with identity is intersectional feminism. Many intersectional feminists are actually completely candid about the fact that they don’t see rational arguments as merely hinging on their own objective validity. To them, the evaluation of what you say is not determined by the content of your sentences so much as by your identity: Whether you’re male or female, white, black, able-bodied, handicapped and so on. The closer you get to the constellation of white cis hetero male, the less of a claim you can make to simply having your arguments evaluated on the basis of rationality.

For example, some intersectional feminists openly state that men shouldn’t attempt to argue rationally when finding themselves in a disagreement with women, but only seek to listen and understand. In the same way, whites should not argue rationally when disagreeing with blacks and so on and so on. The implicit idea is that, rather than all of us being fundamentally the same as human beings capable of accessing reason, a man will never be able to understand a woman’s lived experience, a white person will not be able to understand a black person’s lived experience and so on. By forcing a disagreement to be hashed out on the premises of rational argumentation, the stronger party is marginalizing the unique experiences and perspectives of vulnerable groups. Therefore, as said, the stronger party should not argue, but merely listen attentively and empathetically. As intersectionalists and poststructuralists see it, rationality is not just rationality. It may contain some logic, but it is also to a very large degree created by power dynamics, Western self-glorification, and habitual thought-forms (that is, matrices which only people who are sufficiently aware of poststructuralist philosophy or the particulars of each subject’s identity and the power structures that surround it will be capable of escaping).

The consequence of such a view is that rationality and attempts to be impartial and objective can no longer be seen as the foundation for debates or disputes, that the particular characteristics of each subject can never be bridged by reason and therefore that the perspectives felt by one race or gender can never be falsified, no matter how many facts or counterarguments are presented against them.

Now, as everyone knows, these discourse critiques were primarily used by left-wing groups. That is not to say that that is how all of the left wing thinks, though. In fact, there has been a substantial philosophical conflict lurking on the left wing between what we will here call the left-wing liberals and the progressives.  Liberals are the old-fashioned lefties who saw the subject as something universal and who approached politics by trying to build broad coalitions between different societal groups through the use of reason. What we call progressives in this context are the groups who are more obsessed with the particulars of particular groups and their identities. These are the left-wingers who, rather than building broad political coalitions, seem to thrive on exposing what they see as covert racism and sexism; policing the language of others; no-platforming speakers they don’t like and so on. In their zeal to effectuate their agenda, left-wing progressives have frequently turned on other lefties. Rather than engaging in broad, pragmatic coalition-building, they seem more interested in fighting what they see as oppression of marginalized groups wherever they encounter it – even if it means ruining their own side’s momentum in the grander scheme of things.

This is where Trump comes in. Just like the progressive leftists, Trump has accepted a particular view of the subject where the subject’s characteristics are more important than the universal ability to reason. Only in Trump’s case, rather than championing the lot of women, minorities, gays, and so on, he takes the heterosexual white man as his favored, quote-unquote, “marginalized” group.  In this way, both Trump and the poststructuralism-inspired progressive leftists favor a certain segment because of its identity, not its arguments. Likewise, both Trump and the progressives portray their chosen segment as anti-establishment underdogs that heroically rise up in revolt against the powers that be: For the progressives, the dominant powers are racism, sexism, and homophobia. For Trump it is political correctness, cultural feminism, and the misguided practice of sucking up to Islam and Islamic interests. The two are in this respect mirror images of each other. And ultimately, both are indebted to the attack on the subject that was undertaken by the poststructuralist philosophers of the 80s.

So the way the poststructuralists contributed to Trump is not – like Dennett and others have said – that it destroyed the conceptions of science and truth and that everyone is now living in their own personal world of alternative facts. For example, most Trump supporters will grant that there were more people at Obama’s inauguration ceremony than at Trump’s, thereby showcasing that the traditional notions of truth and rationality are still very much in place where these can be brought to bear on falsifiable claims. No; the way the poststructuralists contributed to Trump was by dissolving the universalist view of the subject and paving the way for the obsession with identity that we’re seeing today where gender, race, and so on are conceived of as almost mythological entities which the dictates of reason can never bridge or surmount and which function as a type of “ground zero” that precedes each and every political analysis.

Karl Marx once wrote that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. In the case of poststructuralism’s influence on Trump, there is mostly just a farce. Poststructuralism was a left-wing project which set out with the aim of undermining traditional authority and the white man’s ossified forms of rationality. But in terms of actual politics, poststructuralism mostly just ended up causing the left wing a lot of headaches and infighting since, as mentioned, the progressive elements which poststructuralism gave rise to were almost just as likely to turn on other, more old-fashioned mainstream leftists as they were to turn on their mutual opponents on the right wing. Now Trump has picked up a few tricks from the poststructuralist playbook and what mostly caused the left a lot of infighting has, in the hands of this right-wing populist, helped turned the tide of an election that he probably should have lost. If we were to analyze this development through the lens of the identity-obsessed poststructuralist groups, there is, furthermore, an inviting irony in the fact that Trump is a white, male, privileged capitalist – in other words, everything the poststructuralists set out to destroy they have in a sense helped to enable.

In a purely political context, it would undoubtedly have been better for the left wing if it had never accepted the poststructuralist groupings into their midst, but instead focused on the old-fashioned type of coalition building that has traditionally been a source of strength for the left, creating alliances between very different societal groups. Groups who, in spite of their differences, were able to reach each other and rally behind the same causes through a universalist conception of the subject and a common commitment to rationality.

5 Comments

  1. It’s questionable if Poststructuralism as used here is really meaningful at all. It’s worth noting that neither of the two poststructuralists actually mentioned in this article–Foucault or Derrida–are actually cited for any particular argument as they have written it. So we’re dealing with the author’s presupposed and overgeneralized poststructuralism which I, despite studying these thinkers for almost a decade now, don’t really recognize in this article.

    [For my own part I use the term “poststructuralism” simply to refer to a generation of French thinkers, but don’t find it useful; very little intellectual content can be extracted from such a generalization.]

    I’m especially skeptical about this idea of the poststructualist critique occurring “in the 80s.” The major works of Derrida, and certainly the ones that are most relevant for the culture wars, were published in 1967 and 1972. And although Foucault did publish the last two obscure volumes of his History of Sexuality in the 80s, it’s the first volume, from 1976, which has had the most impact on gender and cultural studies. It is as if your argument comes out of having learned about this generation of philosophers through overly-general secondary summaries intended for the generation of cultural studies followers (rather than engagement with the specific texts of these philosophers on their own terms, trying to understand them for the sake of themselves, in their own context).

    Although early in the article you argue that the linchpin here is the poststructualist undressing of the liberal subject rather than their critique of rationality and truth, the question of rationality and truth remains an important rhetorical tool throughout the essay (as in the last sentence). I think you could have done a bit more work fleshing out exactly what the poststructuralist critique of truth is and how it differed from the way that cultural or gender studies academics used poststructuralist arguments. Derrida, for example, has said that he considers deconstruction a natural expansion of Reason and not at odds with it at all. On the other hand, Foucault at times seems more sympathetic with the anti-rationalistic tendencies that you can find in Nietzsche. These are non-trivial differences and trying to blend them into one generalizable poststructuralism is the fault of whoever is doing the unintelligible generalizing, not the alleged unintelligibility of the thinkers themselves.

    The difference between what the generation of French philosophers themselves variously did and what their cultural studies and gender studies and postcolonial followers variously did is also non-trivial. Although a distinction is gestured towards, this essay often seems to be pretty inconsistent about whether “poststructuralism” refers to this earlier group or the later group in addition to them. It seems to me that if multiple generations of English-speaking academics in cultural studies used a watered-down and caricatured version of irreconcilable arguments of an entire earlier generation of thinkers, the blame lies with the new abusers, not on the earlier generation. The gap between how Derrida uses rhetorical effects to be very precise about what he means, and how many intersectional feminists use superficially similar techniques to excuse themselves from any semblance of rigor or responsibility, is a gap as large as the one between Nietzsche’s conception of the superman and that of the Nazis. That you say the poststructuralists launched this critique in the 80s makes me think that you are lumping in the French poststructuralists with the American/English cultural studies academics, since that was the decade by which most of the major texts had been translated into English.

    I’m not one of those who think that Trump is a complete idiot. However, to imply that he may be taking techniques out of the playbooks of Derrida or Foucault, if that is the implication, is sloppy on numerous levels. It takes years and years of study, even by highly erudite readers, to even begin to know what Derrida in particular was really about, to distinguish what he seems to say from what he really says. The likelihood that Trump–who is known to have no patience for reading–is even accidentally doing something that is similar in any meaningful sense amounts to little more than a trolling provocation. And anytime I can think of where Foucault critiques received ideas of Truth (or Justice or Equality) it’s because he wants to open up the discussion into areas of more complication and difficulty; it’s a way of starting more conversation. When Trump says “Fake News” he’s simply trying to stop conversation.

    I’ll admit that Derrida is very difficult and that one can’t expect anyone to try and understand him before they are allowed to critique the way he has been used by the cultural studies left. However recently it seems that all manner of otherwise intelligent people are happy to propound endlessly on what is wrong with Derrida or “the postmodernists” without having done their homework. Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Gad Saad, and Noam Chomsky have all admitted that they find one or more of these thinkers unintelligible; and yet they still feel qualified to critique them somehow.

    If you don’t want to read Derrida’s texts but still want to cite him, I would recommend Benoît Peeters’s biography so that at least you can get a serious and sympathetic (but honest) portrait of the man and his work. This will clear up damage from the popular tendency to come to his work through the lens of big sexy categories like “postmodernism” or “poststructuralism” which Derrida (and the other thinkers, for that matter) didn’t necessarily endorse.

  2. Thanks for this comment which we’re glad to have on the site.

    Some rejoinders:

    1.
    You say that we can’t really lump these thinkers into these broad PoMo/PoStru categories at all, since the differences between them are too big. In one sense, this is correct, just like when speaking of rationalists, empiricists, idealists, etc. If you engage with these thinkers on the micro level, their thought usually contains a wealth of nuance that is lost once one switches to looking at them at the macro level, i.e. in terms of what they have in common with their contemporaries and closest philosophical kin. Nonetheless, while the claim that PoMo/PoStru aren’t really meaningful categories at all is often voiced, I’m not quite sure it is correct: It seems to me that they all wanted to go beyond traditional forms of rationality and the universalist values of the enlightenment (which they identified as metaphysics), albeit they attempted to do so in different ways. This brings me to another point that I wanted to put in the main piece, but couldn’t develop sufficiently: Namely that PoStrus in my opinion are relying on a kind of double standard: On the one hand, they posit broad generalizations with abandon; on the other, they claim that generalizations are meaningless or themselves an instrument of habit, oppression, etc. – so why should they be allowed to make generalizations while everyone else is faulted for it? Plato refuted this kind of relativism with the peritrope argument and I don’t think any of the PoMos/PoStrus have adequately countered that.

    One could even take this point further with regards to the main piece above: The adherents of PoMo/PoStru thought are usually the first to throw themselves howling at any right-winger who doesn’t employ a universalist conception of the subject: “How dare you suggest that races, genders, sexual orientations, etc. are not the same? How dare you posit stereotypes about them?” But at the same time, the same people will turn around and say that blacks, women, trans people and so on are oppressed and we should therefore privilege their perspectives. Well, that’s *also* a stereotype; this time it’s just a positive one. So how come one side of the debate can be allowed to use stereotypes and generalizations while condemning their counterparts for doing the same? “Non-universalism for me, but not for thee.”

    2.
    I agree with your point that the timing about the 80s can seem imprecise. I guess the 80s were when PoStru thought really took hold of Western universities at the international level.

    3.
    You say that the piece doesn’t properly distinguish between the philosophers themselves and the adherents who were inspired by them to use similar arguments but of a lower philosophical quality. However, you also acknowledge that the piece does mention such a distinction (“…but rather than the erudite philosophical criticism presented by the likes of Foucault, Derrida, and others, the adherents became obsessed with the particular characteristics of each specific subject.”). I think the point of contention here is that you seem to think that the article is blaming Foucault, Derrida, and others, whereas what it’s really saying is that they unleashed a dialectic which then ended up somewhere that no one could have foreseen. Secondarily, the piece argues that in terms of realpolitik, lefties should probably just have refrained from allying with anti-rationalist groups.

    4.
    You assume that for Trump to use any of the PoStru-inspired tricks he would have to study the original thoughts himself. But there is also the possibility that people in his campaign have studied these things. You likewise assume that he would have to understand what he is doing on a philosophical level, whereas my point is rather that this obsession with particularity and identity politics has crept into mainstream culture so that it is now a trope that everyone understands intuitively. The youngsters ardently practicing identity politics across the land hardly understand the finer points of Derrida either.

    5.
    Throughout your comment you keep implying that we haven’t sufficiently read or understood Foucault, Derrida, etc. But aside from maybe the point about the 80s, no actual mistakes are pointed out. This is a bit like the Hegelians, Heideggerians, etc. who have a habit of always implying that the people who disagree simply haven’t understood the thinker(s) in question sufficiently. I’m pretty sure Foucault would see this as a repressive technique (if employed in favor of the reigning orthodoxy at least). Besides that, I’ll say what we said when someone commented on our Piketty video to the effect that we probably weren’t really economists: (a) Maybe this piece *was* written by someone with a degree in philosophy who *has* read Foucault et al., but (b) it makes no difference for the argument as presented either way.

  3. 1. I can basically agree to your definition of post-structuralism here. It’s important to understand that they wanted to go beyond and show the vulnerabilities of historical Englightenment ideas of reason. Some critics seems to speak as if they were trying to destroy reason itself and wanted us all to regress into primitive, emotionalistic argument. The best way I can summarize it is that they believed the Enlightenment forms of rationality did not adequately account for the possibility that logic is nested within rhetoric, rather than the other way around (as analytic philosophers are more likely to think). In this sense Derrida at least is justified, I think, in his claim that deconstruction is an expansion of the spirit of the Enlightenment.

    I think I know what you’re talking about when you bring up their use and condemnation of generalization in the same gesture. I think Derrida usually did a good job of putting in (exhausting amounts of) disclaimers to indicate an awareness of the kind of double-bind one finds oneself in when trying to get at these difficult problems. If there’s a specific example from Derrida you would like to go into I could give you my thoughts on it, although if that’s too far afield that’s also fine.
    2. —

    3. This is my mistake. I admit I was a bit quick to criticize your piece due to the popularity of a lot of public intellectuals right now who are, imo, abusing the term and laying all the blame for the current campus wars at the feet of Derrida (though they usually say “postmodernist” instead.) What you are doing is much more specific and measured. (I still think I disagree with the piece’s overall contention, and would argue that if anything, the left is not Derridean enough.)
    4. This comes back to my question of whether “poststructuralism” refers to the ideas of Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, etc or to the later generation of identitarians who cited them. I don’t recognize an essentialist privileging of identity in the Trumpist vein (or the Judith Butler vein) as a properly poststructuralist move; quite the opposite, in fact. My understanding of the development of cultural studies and gender studies in the humanities is that these identity-essentialist techniques were well underway in the American academy before the poststructuralist techniques and justifications were adopted. If you look at a book like Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence from the 1970s, you see academic leftist attitudes that are quite similar to those of today when it comes to this focus on counter-hegemonic ideas of race and identity, but have not yet incorporated the poststructuralist maneuvers. So I don’t really agree that there’s any real connection just because this identitarian tendency has at times used PoStr gestures. I agree that most of the SJWs of today who even bother to use the word “différance” most likely don’t really understand it.
    5. It’s really difficult to point out specific mistakes in your readings of Derrida or Foucault when these two are lumped into the same category and you make this category speak throughout the essay rather than those specific philosophers themselves. My response is, in fact, an attempt to see if you could ground these claims in actual ideas from Derrida (I admit I only have a dilettantish understanding of Lacan, Foucault, and others so I wouldn’t try to correct you when it comes to them; although I have enough of an understanding to realize that their projects were significantly different from Derrida’s). I can understand if you see my implication as repressive but I’m really just trying to prompt you to be more specific if you can.

  4. (BTW, I think your typing of Derrida as an ENFP may be correct. Maybe I have a bias against ENFPs as I tend to associate their cognitive style with being high on inspiration but low on thoroughness. I will just say that when I am in the process of reading Derrida, his work tends to have the weightiness and thoroughness I tend to associate with the works of INFPs or INTPs who have tertiary [rather than inferior] Se. For me it’s very different from Zizek or Foucault who feel to me much more at the whims of their own Ne. As for his judging functions I don’t really know because I’m still trying to learn how to distinguish them.)

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