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A Limited Case for Trump

He's far from perfect, but Trump carves out a space for free thought as the rest of the world grows increasingly hostile to it.

Is there anything that could be more expedient than expressing vitriol for Donald Trump? It is one thing to offer legitimate critiques of a President, and not a few come to mind with Trump. And yet, is it not something else, different in kind, to offer an unrelenting and constant stream of disdain and disgust? No knowledge of the subject matter is required, or even presumed. The vast ocean of opinions is what we are wading in, and many are desperately willing to jump in for the swim. 

The mention of opinions and knowledge with respect to politics is reminiscent of an ancient quarrel that is worth calling to mind, as it may be of certain help in our present time. The specific quarrel I am referencing is that between politics and the practice of philosophy. The tradition of classical political philosophy, illuminated by Plato and Aristotle, inaugurated this political problem that is still with us: what will be the status of the philosopher (or philosophy) before the politician? 

For classical political philosophy, the activity of philosophizing was considered to be the highest good, or the best life, for human beings. It was through philosophy that one would come to know the the whole of nature and the causes of things, of what is. This tradition of philosophic inquiry affirms that the purpose of the human mind is to know the order called reality, independent of the mind. The claim to know entailed the connection between the mind and the order of things as they actually are. Such an alignment is called truth.  

Among other things, the central implication of this means that the mind-independent order of reality is not something which properly belongs to the political realm. In other words, it does not fall to politics to determine what nature or justice is. Aristotle, thus, rightly observed that politics does not make man to be man, but accepting man as he is, looks to make him good. What it means to be human is a question whose answer lays outside the authority of the political. It was precisely this point of departure that classical political philosophy makes the ultimate declaration: philosophy alone will save us. If only philosophy will save us, then we must affirm that politics cannot. Here, in summation, is where we can hopefully see why it is worth pondering this relationship over the political character of philosophy. 

The precise nature of the problem was articulated well by the 20th century political philosopher Leo Strauss. According to Strauss, democratic citizens, in general, did not have much of an affinity for philosophy.

According to Strauss, it is modern liberal democratic regimes that could be better than any other at fostering philosophy. More than anything else, liberal democracy has a strong capacity for staving off the worst political (or apolitical) conditions imaginable, namely, tyranny. To stand against the threat of tyranny is to openly acknowledge that the horrors of arbitrary and oppressive rule are not conducive for human flourishing. Regardless of one’s conception of the human good, what John Rawls coined as a “comprehensive doctrine,” democratic citizens can certainly agree upon this truth. Understood from this angle, democracy appears decently equipped to thwart an individual or collective Thrasymachus, whose philosophic modus operandi is to equate “justice with power.”

Although this is a rather caricatured account of the classical tension between philosophy and the city, it is offered to serve as the foundation for the main thrust of a larger argument. The argument put simply is the following: a Donald Trump presidency is a rather strong case in support of staving off the political threat of tyranny. How could such a case be made?

Various answers can be given, and the question is worthy of much more insightful reflection than will be offered here, but I want to zone in on the particular context of Trump’s presidency, and the possibility of a second term. 

The political left in the United States does not have, deep down, a political philosophy in the strict sense of the term. More accurately, it is an ideology whose motto is derived from Thrasymachus (mentioned above): the aim of politics is to attain and maintain power. The riots and civic unrest experienced since the end of May are coordinated attempts to cause social instability and political decline. And because the actions of the rioters are being intentionally portrayed within the category of identity politics, then it is undeniable that their framework is, and will be, that of the contemporary Democratic party. It does not seem much of a stretch to equate “being woke” with “being a Democrat.” This admission is no longer something requiring proof, but is overwhelmingly self-evident.

As this alignment between rioters and the political left has solidified, we can also affirm the unconventional success of President Trump. For whatever one thinks of his various strategies, it seems incontestable now that since taking office, the President has had a singular focus in getting those on the political left to reveal their cards. I agree with the assessment of the political philosopher Joshua Mitchell, who contends that Trump’s use of Twitter is like a “sixth sense.” The President’s tweets act as a kind of sonar sent out into the cosmos. He is waiting for a kind of reverberation, a bleep on the radar of public discussion wherein he can gauge some real sense of various dialectical narratives surrounding a said issue. 

Trump’s tweets may be vulgar, crass, and un-presidential. But a limited defense of Trump does not rest upon his virtue, or even lack thereof. The fundamental concern within the tradition of classical political philosophy is not whether everyone can be a philosopher, even a sitting president. Instead, the issue is whether the very conditions of philosophy would still be possible. For Strauss, this was the political status of philosophy. Will the philosopher, or those who seek those truths that transcend the current political orthodoxy of mere opinions, be allowed to live in the liberal democratic regime? To put this more poignantly: would a President Trump bring a Socrates, or Christ, before him and threaten them with death if they did not give unfailing allegiance? Is hemlock or the Cross really possible in an America where Trump is President?

The answer to these latter questions would seem to be a resounding “No.” Of course, Trump is neither a philosopher, nor a rhetorician. The ad nauseam attacks that he is not are beside the point. What we should seek, at one level, are the social and political conditions whereby truth is still allowed to be voiced and heard. The tension before us as democratic citizens is whether nuance in thought is permissible. The dialectical squabbles over COVID-19, especially the ever increasing attempts to silence and snuff out dissenters, is providing disturbing answers.

Will a second term for President Trump ensure a victory for philosophy against tyranny? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps there is no better public visual of this classical tension incarnated in our time than in the recent congressional hearing with Attorney General Bill Barr. Like the rioters we see on the news, Barr’s interlocutors at the hearing were not interested in that thing called speech. The goal was much more sinister, and direct. They simply sought to smash, not his arguments, but his capacity to speak. 

The 2016 election was ever the humble reminder that human affairs cannot be predicted, as much as our scientific political models may desperately try. Yet, Michael Anton might be right once more, with Flight 93 in the air again.

My hope would be that a continued Trump presidency, if it might be anything, can continue to support those conditions where truth can be uttered and heard. The alternative will not be a world of peace and rationality, of open dialogue and speech ordered towards grasping the truth. Instead, we will witness those political and social conditions wherein we come to worship in the only religion left, namely, the despotism of our own opinions.

Brian Jones is a Ph.D Candidate in Philosophy in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.

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