“A FLAT, WITLESS, disgusting, revolting, ignorant charlatan, who, with unexampled impudence, kept scribbling insanity and nonsense that was trumpeted as immortal wisdom by his venal adherents and actually taken for that by dolts, which gave rise to such a complete chorus of admiration as had never been heard before.”
Momentarily wipe the Trump campaign from your mind. We’ll return to that shortly.
Contemporary aptness aside, the true subject of this quotation was German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel — not Donald Trump (nor any Drumpf ancestor). Arthur Schopenhauer penned the original insult; it was one of many on Hegel, whom he almost invariably lambasted as a “charlatan,” though historians consider the hostility to mostly be the result of jealousy towards Hegel’s professional success and popularity amongst students. Attacks on his intellect notwithstanding, Hegel’s theory on historical progress continues to have utility today.
Hegel thought a lot about history and its processes — as did his German colleagues — searching for an explanation of its underpinning and development. Hegel’s chief philosophical work on this question, Science of Logic, defined the unfolding of history largely in terms of an intellectual evolution according to which ideological forces emerge from one another through a three-part “dialectical” process: Being – Nothing – Becoming. A force exists. A radical force responds. The two clash. This “Aufheben,” or synthesis, is the stuff that composes history.
Hegel’s work arose from a time when philosophy and science were largely conjoined in academia. Though beginning to divorce during this era, it was not uncommon for philosophers to consider their academic pursuits as akin to science, producing results that, like the scientific process, would provide a dependable answer to the future’s mystery. Hegel’s theoretical work (and even more so, its progeny) sought to do this quite explicitly: the philosophy proposed a linear of conception history, with movement from point A to B. Its vintage and density aside – as well as the modern realization philosophy is quite distinct from science – the theory retains an analytic elegance and importance that shouldn’t be overlooked by contemporary thinkers.
But, back to present day, and across the Atlantic: Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is, to many, a bewildering success. Despite calls for a Muslim ban, a great wall of Mexico, and even contemplating support for America’s WWII Japanese internment camps, Trump has captured a spectacular, devout following.
Trump’s success should not, however, be considered historically inexplicable: its runway was paved by a headless liberalism that has abandoned the self-applied critical theory formerly associated with the Left. Between the collegiate pursuit towards the elimination of the newly-coined “microaggression,” and a string of events that, by all appearances, are counterposed to free speech — including Yale students erupting into protest against a professor calling for freedom of expression, as well as a University of Missouri professor caught on film calling for the violent expulsion of reporters from “safe spaces” erected on public property — the strange and regressive political movement subordinating well-earned civil rights is palpable. It has placed historically liberal values, like free speech and political correctness, directly at odds with one another, with a heavy thumb on the scale towards the latter.
Prior to the election cycle, media coverage on the hypersensitive student movement was consistent and enduring. Though many on the Left critiqued the movement as an enemy of free speech, the right wing — such as Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly — seemed to share this objection. While the entire political spectrum may have wondered if the movement was the product of coddling educational forums, the Right’s overarching response appeared to characterize the quixotic demand for absolute political correctness and sensitivity as proof that historical struggle for racial equality and social justice had not simply been achieved, but now ascended into absurdity, actively seeking out micro-injustices to rectify.
In that context, it should come as no surprise that the Trump campaign has experienced an explosive success. Trump’s bombast and xenophobia quench a right wing desire for unfiltered defiance, seeking to destroy that sensitive, crafted liberal lexicon constructed over decades past. In Hegelian terms, Trump represents the Nothing – that is to say, the radical rejection of preexisting political attitudes. On the other hand, one should not conclude that Trump’s campaign represents a sort of free speech battalion, calling in reinforcements for defense of the First Amendment. Indeed, Trump has failed to posture as an advocate of free speech, going so far as to speak to his supporters with a starry-eyed nostalgia for the days when unwelcome protesters from opposing parties would leave rallies “on a stretcher.”
Of course, the Trump campaign shouldn’t be reduced to a dichotomy between free speech and the suppression thereof, nor should it be characterized simply as backlash against sensitivity. Still, the campaign has undoubtedly been energized by both a right-and-center repulsion towards political sensitivity that delves into bizarre rhetoric, essentially unseen in American politics for years. For instance, despite the fair assumption most Americans do not consider hand or penis size to be a qualitative measure of political capability, recent dialogue between Mr. Trump and Marco Rubio invoked debate on such personal anatomy, and — its shock and awe aside — is clearly insufficient to derail his campaign. Intead, that’s precisely the sort of language that propels Trump’s success.
Hegel, speaking to the final component of his triad said, “this movement of the immediate vanishing of the one into the other: Becoming, a movement in which both are distinguished, but by a difference which has equally immediately resolved itself.” It is this idea that from first that we derive the second, and through their conflict we derive the third that provides an analytical framework that may offer insight and explanation into existing social and political trends. But, philosophy is not without fault. Despite being largely nonscientific, it often expects an exactitude in its results that its internal mechanisms are incapable of producing. That said, the extent and severity to which Trump’s Nothing remains is unpredictable – human agency is a real thing.
Whether or not philosophy can precisely place the latest chapter of American politics into a larger conception of linear history, or rather simply help decrypt a momentary, puzzling movement, it nonetheless provides a reasonable understanding to both current events and the consequences of past political action. As to the future – particularly if Trump is elected – we should expect to see continued conflict between these opposing forces. A synthesis between these does not necessarily suggest that either side will dissolve entirely; the furthest fringe of both sensitivity and crass vulgarity are likely here to stay. But the conflict will determine, as Hegel might say, our coming Zeitgeist.
Ultimately, time will tell our next Becoming, but we can be sure it will not be the making of Donald Trump alone.