Many people are afraid of what faces us with Donald Trump as president. Nonetheless, I recommend keeping a cool head.
My area of research should be useful for analyzing and understanding politics, namely political philosophy. This is the branch of philosophy that investigates political ideas and attempts to put them in context.
The political philosopher asks questions such as the following, related to our communal life:
- Where are we going and where do we come from?
- What is most important?
- What are the boundaries of politics?
- What is the role of laws and of the state?
- What is the value of a human life?
- And who in a society should have the greatest decision-making power?
What is Donald Trump’s political philosophy?
From a political philosopher’s perspective, Trump is difficult to place. He wants more central government and less central government; more military power and less military power; more public spending and lower taxes; the abolition of Obama’s healthcare reforms and universal healthcare; more guns and less crime. The list of contradictions is long.
Nor has his political position been consistent over the years. He has been both a Democrat and a Republican. He is the gambling and beauty-contest magnate who embraces (and is embraced by many) socially conservative Americans. Who is he? Is he simply Chance the gardener – as immortalized by Peter Sellers in the movie version of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel – in other words: is he the empty vessel that the rest of us fill with precisely what we want or fear?
The philosopher Socrates, in his dialogues as reported by his student Plato, often says that politics also requires competence. Just as a cobbler, army general, builder or doctor obviously needs a particular kind of knowledge in order to do his or her work, a person who is to make laws and lead a society must also have knowledge about what they are doing. What is this knowledge? It is not easy to describe. This is precisely why politics can become an arena for charlatans.
Politics is about things that concern everyone, and everyone wants to have their say. This means that the person in charge – or who aspires to be in charge – may be tempted to tell people what they want to hear, or what they would have said themselves, and in doing so may give the impression of possessing the necessary kind of competence. In addition, politics is often complicated. Accordingly, even a person with real insight and experience may make serious mistakes – and be accused of not having any insight at all.
This may sound like the story of how a moderately successful (some would say unsuccessful) businessman, with an undisputed ability to earn money from his own celebrity status, has become the president of the United States. Many of us did not see it coming. Alistair Cooke, that elegant and inimitable commentator on America, considered it a mystery that Americans, “some of them beautiful, many of them intelligent” (1), could have voted for Calvin Coolidge as president. What Cooke would have said today, we can only imagine.
Nonetheless, we must take Trump and what he represents – however unclear that may be – seriously. He has touched a nerve that neither liberal nor more conservative elites have succeeded in touching. He has got voters to feel as though he is talking to and about them. A good many blatant lies, what was presumably Russian manipulation, errors on the part of the Democrats and, of course, enormous media coverage explain much of his success. But these factors do not explain everything.
Against this background, I would give the following humble advice to people who are anxious today, three days before (2) the inauguration of President Trump:
Keep track of what is going on – but to a reasonable extent and with a certain amount of filtering. Everyone who wants Trump to fail will fixate on every single idiotic word he says. (And there are many to choose from.) People who adore Trump, however, will fixate on every gleam of light and every political success. With Trump as president, the world – including the interested observer and politicians worldwide, including those in China, Russia and the EU – must learn to filter. It may seem absurd: should we not take the American president at his word? But things must be filtered, and the levels of emotion and aggression must be taken down many notches. It won’t be easy, but a short-tempered, nervous and angry world will serve no one’s interests.
In fields where many people outside the United States fear both change and regression – in everything from the credibility of NATO to the battle against climate change – we must remember that the United States is not the whole world. People who disagree with Trump must fight resolutely and with conviction for what they believe is right. We don’t want to end up with a world with less cooperation, more conflict and enduring suspicions. That is the conscious goal of all extremists – and perhaps the far less conscious goal of Donald Trump.It is not only up to him whether that goal is reached!
And similarly, we must not allow Trump to overshadow everything else. Yes, Trump’s victory is one of the strangest things to have happened in politics in many decades. But that is precisely why it may also turn out to represent a trend that is far from enduring. Trump may rapidly lose the explosive fuel that has driven his success. Accordingly, we must be ready to protect what he may manage to threaten in the worst case scenario – the rule of law, international cooperation and peace, and forward-looking and fair economic and environmental policies – without brushing aside all the voices that have brought Trump to where he is now, and without ourselves representing an alternative that is equally rickety and inconsistent.
“Let not your heart be troubled,” says Jesus in the Gospel of St. John. These are wise words right now. We must supplement our loud objections and moral indignation by staying calm and keeping a clear head.
- The full quote from Cooke, where he attributes this expression to H. L. Mencken, is the following – warm thanks to Piers Schreiber for digging it out for me: “My old irascible guru, H L Mencken, writing in the 1920s, when the population of the United States was just about half of what it is today, defined democracy as ‘that system whereby a population of 110 million people, some of them beautiful and many of them intelligent, choose Calvin Coolidge as President‘.” Link to quote.
- This text was first published nrk.no’s Ytring: ‘La ikke hjertet bli grepet av angst‘ just before the inauguration of President Trump, 17 January 2017
Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext