Edsall on Trump the postmodernist vs. Trump the liar

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.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/26/2018 - 10:39 am.

    Liar or post-modernist ?Or

    Liar or post-modernist ?

    Or just a sleazy salesman eager for his own enrichment (money/status/power) ? One who will say anything for an advantage and is not bothered by the 90 or 180 degree turns necessary in the eternal search for advantage.

    Personally, I don’t think the conventional term “liar” really applies because I think words mean so little to him–after all words are free, and he can use so many, and create such an impact with simple (free !! free, can you believe it ??)) words, hopefully leading to his enrichment (money/status/power). The realization that words are just puffs of air (he’d be breathing anyway, so why waste it !!) coupled with the idea that the rubes seem to value those puffs of air–that’s the key to his rise in politics.

    He’s the cynical bitcoin of public persona. Where is the there?

    He’s a post-modern post-modernist–a handful of glitter in the air, all the while picking pockets.

    That’s what gives him such trouble when he has been pinned to the record when he’s been deposed in the past.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/26/2018 - 10:40 am.


    Trump isn’t someone who speaks or deals in, truth. Nobody would rely on anything he says in a context where accuracy and veracity is required. His name isn’t one you want to see as a footnote in an academic paper. Instead, For the last couple of years, people like me have been told that we don’t get it. This has led me to ask, what exactly is the “it” which we do not get. I think a lot of that “it”, has to do with literal mindedness; the tendency to take language literally, not figuratively, or metaphorically. Trump doesn’t use language that way, and his supporters don’t hear his language that way. In a sense, they are more sophisticated in that they grasp the subtext to which his text directs them, a subtext the politically correct among us, find ourselves unable to understand or discuss.

    • Submitted by Misty Martin on 01/30/2018 - 11:49 am.

      Mr. Foster, all I can say is that . . .

      I don’t get “it” either and not meaning to be vulgar in the least bit, I’m afraid that the “it” we fail to get, may have a “sh” in front of it, obviously from a master peddler of such, our dear P.O.T.U.S.

      Like so many have stated again and again, about Trump being like the emperor in the old fairy tale we all know so well, I, for one, cannot see the emperor’s “new clothes”. I’ve tried and tried, but I suppose I am wearing the wrong spectacles, those rose-colored ones that his supporters obviously are wearing.

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 01/26/2018 - 10:45 am.

    nothing new…..

    Equally outrages and perhaps even greater illustrations of “post modern truth telling” can be found across the political spectrum.

    The inability to see them or mention them is just old fashion political prejudice that plagues the modern press and taxpayer subsidized “journalism.”

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/26/2018 - 12:20 pm.

      No, Nothing New

      Instead of trying to defend Trump, the right has to resort to “both sides do it, but we never hear about it, because liberal bias!” Is there anyone literate in English who does not see this type of deflection for what it is?

      That’s telling. It means that, on some level, even his supporters realize that there is no defending him. Their only defense is to ignore what he says and does, while going on rants about the media. The old cliche that “both sides do it” raises more questions than it answers (starting with “Why can’t you address what the man you support has done?”).

      PS Who is “taxpayer subsidized?” If that is supposed to be a dig at MinnPost’s status as a non-profit, are you leaving all non-profits open to public criticism for what they do or teach? Like, say, churches?

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/26/2018 - 04:04 pm.

      What taxpayer-subsidized journalism are you talking about? I never heard of the concept (our press is private businesses).

      Name the news sources that the government pays for that we regard as “journalism”.

  4. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 01/26/2018 - 03:53 pm.

    Postmodernism Bears Only Secondary Blame

    As a former grad student who wasted a lot of time grappling with postmodernism, I can say truly that I am no friend of this particular trend in the study of literature and the arts. However, I think academic postmodernists can be declared mostly not guilty in the case of Donald J. Trump’s record-setting mendacity. The true source of Trump’s disregard for the truth lies in fundamentalist Christianism, which Trump and other plutocratic con-men have merely adapted for secular purposes. Trump was never an academic, but he has always loved TV, and TV is where fundamentalist Christianism thrives the best – not in any church.

    I believe fundamentalist Christianism is to be credited with the discovery that there are two ways to get to an Age of Faith that triumphs over reason. If you can’t simply elevate your own religious sect to the status of an official and exclusive state religion (as imperial Christians did back in the Middle Ages), there is another way: You can disparage science, history, and research in general until your view of the world seems to become purely a matter of personal preference. Once you have assumed this perspective, it is easy to satisfy yourself that you and your religious sect prefer the Good and that the preferences of all other religious sects are Evil. A favorite fundie trick is to declare that science, history, and research are only another religious sect, namely the sect of the “intellectual (or liberal) elite.” Once you have persuaded yourself that science itself is only another personal preference or “faith,” who can persuade you that you are wrong? This is the pseudo-philosophical outlook which, when popularized, creates a post-truth society. I believe our fundamentalist Christianists have been working to create this kind of society for some time now, and it is not a game with them; they are deadly serious about it.

    In contrast, academic postmodernists – who built their ivy-tower careers disparaging science, history, and research – had no shared ulterior motive in doing so beyond playing games. They simply enjoyed and continue to enjoy the feeling of total freedom that they get by imagining that there is no reality behind their esthetically mediated experiences of it. Although we can rightly point out that this postmodern notion of freedom, being purely imaginary, is no substitute for ACTUAL freedom, which REQUIRES an understanding of science, history, and research, postmodernism is mostly harmless as long as it is applied to the study of literature and the arts and NOT to the study of the reality in general.

    At worst, academic postmodernists weakened the ability of several generations of journalists – many of them nursed on the milk of postmodernism during their college days – to recognize lies as lies and to fight against them with facts, rather than regard them as harmless entertainment. This is why I say that academic postmodernism may bear some blame for the emergence of Trumpiain post-truth, but only secondarily – that is, not as its originators, but as its enablers.

    Christopher Douglas of the ATLANTIC recently wrote a very thoughtful article on this topic (“How America Lost Its Mind. Hint: It Wasn’t Entirely the Fault of Hippie New-Agers and Postmodern Academics,” 9th of August 2017), and I am happy to post a link here because I agree with him so well.


  5. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/26/2018 - 09:30 pm.

    The web they weave

    Lets us answer the question: How would we proceed if we all wove a similar or same web of deception and lies? (Philosophical truths must function in all or near all circumstances) Could a business run?, Could a contract be written and enforced? Could a car be assembled? Could produce arrive at market, Could a legal system function when the definition of a law was open to a 360 degree interpretation 24/7/365? None of the above, we would have chaos and mistrust, look familiar? We cannot build a society based on deception and lies, nor does science and technology function. EJ brings a noteworthy point, if religion disavows science, perhaps they can explain how that TV broadcast works, if not on science and technology? I think NR hits it spot on “sleazy salesman”. RG long time ago my mother told me saying just because Billy did it doesn’t make it right, didn’t make it valid then, doesn’t make it valid today. No Eric I’m not buying the postmodernist, I am buying the “nihilist” and “to corrupt the system beyond repair. Trump is determined to leave the destruction of democratic procedure as his legacy” .

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/28/2018 - 09:35 am.

      It is turning out exactly how one would expect when the person at the head has been sued many, many times for fraud, breach of contract, non-payment, discrimination and sexual harassment. Further, Trump had sued many times to intimidate and shut down unpleasant disclosures.

      What’s past is prologue.

  6. Submitted by John Evans on 01/27/2018 - 08:21 pm.

    Postmodernism Baloney

    No, academic postmodernism has never had much influence off-campus, and American religion is probably no more invested in denial now than it always has been.

    Our social conversation happens mostly through commercial media, and I think that’s what’s changed the most. It wasn’t just technological change that decimated the profession of journalism; it was the changing structure of ownership, and the objectives of the smaller, richer batch of new owners.

    Young journalists see what gets rewarded and what doesn’t, and the either quit to get real jobs or they become Roland Hedleys. Veracity and probity only matter to the extent that they are marketable — which is to say, not a lot.

    But the corruption didn’t start at the bottom, it comes from the top.

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