Previous attempts to explain the rise of Donald Trump have come up with a familiar narrative. But, says ALEXIS PAPAZOGLOU, there is another way to understand it
It’s almost a year since Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the USA and, whatever you think of him, his presidency is an historic event that will reverberate in the country’s, and maybe the world’s, future.
But the way we’ve been thinking about Trump’s rise to power, as well as his potential legacy, represents only one way of reflecting on history.
Most accounts of how this unlikely candidate became the president are versions of some causal story: Something happened in the past (globalisation, technological advances, Obama’s election, Hillary Clinton’s e-mails story, stagnant wages, fake news) that led to where we are today.
That is in fact how we usually think of history, as a causal chain of events where the past can be seen to have brought about the present. However, there is another way of thinking about history, one introduced by the 19th century German philosopher Hegel.
Instead of thinking of history causally we can think of it teleologically, that is in terms of what events in history aim towards. Hegel saw history as aiming at nothing less than self-knowledge and freedom. Having achieved complete self-knowledge, its implementation in our political and cultural institutions would result in us being free.
This conception of history offered Hegel a new metric of major historical events: those that contributed to this final realisation of knowledge and freedom. Each major episode of history, then, was seen as an improvement on the previous episode by virtue of overcoming the internal tensions and contradictory commitments of the era left behind.
Hegel speculates this historical progress continues until we finally find ourselves occupying a cultural and political landscape that is in complete harmony with itself, allowing us the ability to lead truly free lives and feel at home in the world.
Few historians or philosophers today believe in Hegel’s conception of history. We see history as much more contingent than Hegel did and not as progressing through the resolution of contradictions towards some bright future. But we don’t need to think of history as having an ultimate aim in order to make use of Hegel’s teleological approach to it.
We can instead think of events in history as fulfilling, or failing to fulfil, the projects and ideals that a culture set out for itself in the past. In other words, a teleological account of history allows us to judge whether a country, or a project like that of the EU, is on track given what it set out to achieve in the past.
What project a state or a culture set out to achieve is usually to be found in foundational documents where key principles are set out, or in past historical events that are seen as cementing the identity of such a project. Europe, for example, looks back at Ancient Greece, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment period as defining historical moments of Europe’s identity, and when our current practices are seen to stray from, say, the ideals of democracy, the rule of law, liberty, religious tolerance etc. we see ourselves as failing to live up to the principles that define us.
We can see ourselves as being true or not true to our aims without having to think that there is some ultimate aim down the line we are striving towards.
American presidents, perhaps more so than European leaders, often make reference to their country’s founding principles and ideals: the American constitution, America as a ‘shining city on the hill’, the American dream, and so on.
These are seen as defining the identity of America and as the things to aspire to preserve. ‘I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining ‘city on a hill’ as were those long-ago settlers’ proclaimed Ronald Reagan.
At the same time, any deviation from these ideals is cause for alarm: ‘The American dream is dead!’ announced Trump in his speech officially announcing his presidency. ‘Make America Great Again’, his presidential slogan, also hinted at the idea that the American project had taken a wrong turn, it had become an ‘American carnage’, as he said in his inauguration speech, and needed to be brought back on track.
Understanding this recent bit of American history, then, has to involve an analysis of how Americans understand their country’s project, and why some of them identified with Trump’s proclamation of its derailment.
One of the keys to figuring out the different interpretations of the American project is the way that Americans think of their country’s past. An understanding of what the past was all about tells you what the present should be like. According to one view of America’s history, a defining moment was the overcoming of racial segregation. What was profoundly important about this event, and indeed what was one of Martin Luther King’s most powerful arguments, was the realisation that racial segregation had been fundamentally at odds with the founding principles of the American project as that is explicitly set out in its constitution.
The claim that ‘all men are created equal… endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights’ offers a conception of America that unambiguously demands racial equality. On the occasion of Obama’s inauguration, George W. Bush paid homage to the fact that this was the continuation of a ‘journey [that] represents a triumph of the American story’ and ‘a testament to optimism and faith in the enduring promise of our nation’. Seeing the overcoming of racial segregation as a historical event defining America’s identity, allowed even an ultra-conservative Republican president to see the very occasion of a black president as a sign of success of the American project.
Those words of the constitution, furthermore, can be seen to extend beyond a demand for racial equality, and act as a guide as to what America’s attitude towards immigration and the rest of the world should be. After all, human rights, according to the American constitution, are universal, not belonging only to those who are American citizens.
According to a different conception of America’s past, however, racial equality is not a defining feature of America’s past and its identity, and certainly not something to be celebrated and used as a guide for action today. Trump did not celebrate Obama’s presidency, instead he challenged the very idea that Obama was in fact American. According to Trump’s ex-senior advisor, Steve Bannon, America is defined instead by a different past, by what he sees as the economic nationalism of the 19th century. ‘America was built on her citizens… Economic nationalism is what this country was built on’ Bannon retorted in an interview after being challenged on his views on immigration.
According to this conception of the American project, immigrants, whether the black slaves of the past, the so-called Dreamers of the present, or new-coming immigrants, have had no part to play in defining what America is about. And this ‘America first’ ideal of course also acts as a guide to the attitudes that the country has towards the rest of the world, seeing it not as a global community of human beings with equal rights, but as different, competing nations.
A recent article in the New York Times by the 42nd president, Bill Clinton, was entitled ‘America Must Decide Who We Really Are’. In urging an answer to that question, he too makes reference to the ‘Constitutional framers’ command, to form a more perfect union, to constantly expand the definition of ‘us’ and to shrink the definition of ‘them”.
But Trump’s presidency has been all about shrinking the definition of ‘us’, the true Americans, and broadening the definition of ‘them’, whether that includes racial and religious minorities, immigrants, an unidentified ‘elite’, or simply the rest of the world.
Many Americans recognised Trump’s division of their country and of the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’ as their own, and hence Trump’s vision of why America needed to become a place that was, once again, a great place for them, not for the ‘others’.
But it seems clear that this conception of America is at odds with at least some of its foundational principles. There is a tension, therefore, at the heart of America’s identity. A conceptual battle between on the one hand the vision that Trump sold to his voters, and on the other key founding ideals of the country.
When we think of Trump’s legacy we again tend to think of it in causal terms: something will happen, he might be impeached, the economy might end up booming temporarily, the country might go to war, etc. that will determine his legacy. But what will define Trump’s legacy is best thought of in teleological terms: whether his vision of America will be the one to survive, whether it will become the dominant ideal that its citizens aspire towards. If that’s to be avoided, Trump’s critics must show why his conception of the country’s identity is ultimately un-American.
• Alexis Papazoglou is lecturer in philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London