I’ve previously expressed my admiration for Thomas Edsall’s weekly column in the New York Times, but his latest, headlined “Is President Trump a Stealth Postmodernist or Just a Liar?” has just blown my mind, both because it is so smart, drawing on the direct input from professors and other smarties from around the country, but also because it drags me into the confusing topic of “postmodernism.”
What little I know about postmodernism gives me a headache. Journalists believe in facts as the basic coin of the realm of informing the citizenry. But the facts must be at least “accurate” if not “true” in the most abstract or philosophical sense. Facts may not be the highest truths, but I have a hard time with the (postmodern?) idea that perhaps lies like the kind Trump tells might be a path to a higher truth.
One of the key innovations of postmodernism is to accept that the concept of truth and even basic factual accuracy can “evolve,” which gets us pretty close to a place where so many Americans found themselves accepting that so many things that Trump says — things that an old-fashioned journalist like me would call “false” and even “lies” — are accepted as a kind of it-feels-true-to-me truths, or, perhaps, “alternative facts.”
(There could be alternative — in the sense of extra, additional — facts that are true, or at least not false, but seem to be in tension with other facts. As far as I can tell, that’s not what the new Trumpian concept of “alternative facts” — that were introduced in a TV interview by Kellyanne Conway in the first week of the Trump presidency — are all about.)
I won’t go there. I don’t think I can go there. I have struggled to understand or accept that many Americans choose to treat Trump’s lies as truths, or at least something other than lies. My own instinct is that there are some truths that some people find unpleasant, so much so that they would rather embrace a falsehood that they find more pleasant.
But it’s the conflict between that view, and the alternative postmodern view that Edsall’s column explores via email exchanges with an astonishing and brilliant array of professors and other smartypantses.
Edsall asks, as the headline on the column suggests, for the philosophy profs to take on whether we should view Trump as a plain old liar, or a product of the postmodern age in which the idea of established truths and facts has been called into question. For example, from Edsall’s column:
Gary Gutting, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, focuses on the crucial role of power in postmodernism — the power to defy norms and the power to determine the veracity of competing claims. He emailed me (meaning Edsall):
The “modern” in “postmodern” refers to the idea that we should seek truth by the objective methods of reason and science — not by appeals to emotion or tradition. “Postmodern” is often used to refer to those who think there is no objective truth, just various devices we use to con people into agreeing with us. In this sense, Trump is postmodern.
Edsall cites a Washington Post poll finding that most Americans believe that Trump “regularly makes up false claims,” but another survey finding that “a plurality of voters, 46 percent, believe the media fabricate stories about Trump.” How likely is it that those who say the former dislike Trump and the latter are those who say they like Trump and dislike the “mainstream (also known as the fake) media.”
By the end of the column, it was pretty clear to me that neither Edsall nor many of the philosophers and ethicists he interviewed believed that Trumpism is akin to postmodernism. Postmodernism might be called an elevated level of skepticism about whether the truth can be discerned or told, and maybe whether there is such a thing as “truth.”
Maybe that’s sad. Maybe it gets in the way of relatively honest politicians trying to argue for their version of the truth. But a healthy skepticism arms one with caution about falling for lies. That seems to have little to do with the Trump phenomenon.
Philosophy Professor Colin Koopman of the University of Oregon responded to Edsall’s inquiries with an email arguing that what is disturbing about Trump is that “he does not value truth in the sense of offering justifications and reasons to those at whom he speaks or tweets.”
As a result, Koopman wrote, “only those who are cynical about truth itself can take [Trump] seriously. His style is not ‘postmodern’ at all, but is rather cynical.”
Edsall ended with this summary of what he had learned from these exchanges, which will stand, for those who accept it, as an answer to the headline question about whether Trump was a postmodernist or just a liar:
Trump’s success, such as it is, has been to accelerate the ongoing transformation of traditional political competition into an atavistic struggle in which each side claims moral superiority and defines the opposition as evil.
These developments have been unfolding for decades, but the 2016 election was a turning point that appears to have the potential to corrupt the system beyond repair. Trump is determined to leave the destruction of democratic procedure as his legacy. Instead of granting him the title of postmodernist, let’s say instead that Trump is a nihilist who seeks to trample, to trash, to blight, to break and to burn.
If that makes you want to read the full Edsall piece, here’s another crack at it. Either way, have a great weekend.