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.