President Trump’s drive toward order informs his ideology, policies, and values. This is evident not only in his alternative relationship with facts but also in his need to “make America great again.” Although it was not clear during his campaign which America he was referring to, it is now evident, after his first executive orders, that the “America” he envisions seeks to put as much distance as possible between itself and Karl Popper’s “open society.” The Austrian philosopher developed this idea (first expounded by Henri Bergson) while exiled in New Zealand just before the Second World War — that is, when Europe was falling prey to authoritarian regimes. Popper defined an open society as one “in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions” as opposed to a “magical or tribal or collectivist society.” In the former, no one is in possession of the ultimate truth because it is acknowledged that people have different views, interests, and values. In the latter, truth is imposed by the bearers of power.
Throughout the twentieth-century other thinkers drew on Popper’s intuition to stress a common opposition to the universalistic aspirations of modernity: fundamental political, moral, and cultural concepts functioned to denigrate and marginalize others who didn’t measure up to its criteria of rationality. This aspirational rationality was responsible not only for twentieth-century totalitarianism and colonialism but also, as Zygmunt Bauman explained, for the atrocities of modernity. This includes the Holocaust, presented as the ultimate rational answer to questions framed by the cultural authorities of the time. Against this rational program postmodern thinkers — such as Francoise Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, and many others — called for religious, social, and sexual differences to be cherished rather than rejected in favor of a predetermined, ordered sameness.
Although some scholars believe we have to move beyond postmodernism, it is curious that among the few intellectuals who predicted the “election of a ‘strongman’ … someone willing to assure [voters] that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots,” almost twenty years ago, was a postmodern philosopher: Richard Rorty. According to the late American thinker, one “thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion… All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.” Rorty saw this turn as a consequence of neoliberal Democrats giving “cultural politics preference over real politics,” in other words, ignoring the declining economic condition of American workers.
In line with Rorty’s prediction, the renowned philosopher Nancy Fraser recently pointed out that Trump’s victory is not solely a revolt against “neoliberalism tout court, but progressive neoliberalism.” Over the past decades, forces “favoring financialization, corporate globalization, and deindustrialization succeeded in taking over the Democratic Party… by presenting those patently anti-labor policies as progressive.” In this way, neoliberals not only ignored the increasing social inequality affecting most citizens but also cloaked “their project in a new cosmopolitan ethos, centered on diversity, women’s empowerment, and LGBTQ rights.” The problem now is not that economic globalization is being rejected but that it is repudiated with the cosmopolitanism that accompanied it. This rejection quickly turned into anger at all the politicians, intellectuals, and elites who overlooked social inequality, as economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty point out.
After decades of economic and cultural inequality, Trump has managed to bring to the surface what Friedrich Nietzsche called ressentiment: “a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts.” The greatest emergency today is not only that the president (as most politicians do) is using this irruptive resentment for his own benefit. He has also mobilized it into a call to order, a demand for a “closed” or “framed” society. The wall on the Mexican border, the ban on Muslims, and Trump’s hostility toward the facts of climate change are not meant to create a “state of emergency.” They are meant to create a condition without emergencies — where nothing can emerge from the overwhelming order and difference, change, and predefined others must be avoided or overwhelmed lest they disrupt the safety that order is supposed to represent. If this order reveals itself every day as more authoritarian by reducing civil liberties, it does so because it holds itself to be in possession of the essence of reality, defining truth for all human beings. This appeal to essence is made clear by Trump’s demand that his female employees “dress like women” and his amazement at judges’ different interpretations of the law. “It would be so great for our justice system,” he said, “if they would be able to read a statement and do what’s right.” So how are we supposed to resist now that Trump and some of his European friends (Nigel Farage, Beppe Grillo, and Marine Le Pen) are imposing this order?
Unfortunately, the answer cannot come from the establishment and its intellectuals, who will simply attempt to manage a system that has already collapsed more efficiently. Rather, we must recuperate the same tools that first helped us overcome the closed societies of modernity. Philosophy, Rorty once said, “occupies an important place in culture only when things seem to be falling apart — when cherished beliefs are threatened.” When things once again are falling apart, it is crucial to recall that the so-called chaos brought about by the voiding of meta-narratives does not aim to create a new order but to avoid the external imposition of order. Among the most important things postmodernity taught us is that seemingly fundamental values are not the result of a historical development toward truth but rather an agreement among the social community. We have not entered an age of “alternative facts.” We have returned to the imposition of an order that declares one set of “facts” and disallows the possibilities of different and free interpretation. Perhaps, if Popper was with us today, he would respond to Trump’s latest executive orders by suggesting, again, that we ought to “plan for freedom, and not only for security, if for no other reason than only freedom can make security more secure.”