Originally published in The Conversation magazine (March 2, 2017)
A colleague recently asked me how I would define “Trumpism”. Where do you start? Is it a new political ideology, or a revival of dangerous old populisms? A flash in the pan, or a draining of the swamp? Are we seeing the beginning of a new era of social media politics, or just a descent into pantomime?
There has been much concern over what the Trump era has done for our ideas about truth and falsity, but viewed philosophically, the problem with Trump is something more fundamental still: it’s a problem not of establishing truth, but of making sense.
This distinction is technical, but it matters. Trumpism is both a bigger threat and a bigger opportunity than we might imagine. It’s a threat because it breaks with the standards by which truth is commonly judged, but it’s an opportunity because the ignorance and incoherence that Trumpism expresses are, properly understood, very clear calls to work harder as we try to make sense of our complex world.
The most dominant theory of truth in the history of philosophy is the “correspondence” theory, which asserts that our thoughts, expressed in statements, are true or false according to whether or not what they represent exists. For example, the statement “the cat is on the mat” is true if the cat is on the mat, and false if the cat is not.
But to be true or false, statements have to make sense – that is, to judge the accuracy of their correspondence, it must be possible to understand them independent of their truth or falsity.
This distinction is less tricky than it might sound. All fiction depends on it; it explains why we can make sense of Hogwarts and Harry Potter without worrying about whether they really exist. This is what makes Trumpism unusual: more often than not, the president’s pronouncements and speech resist our attempts to make sense of them before we can assess their veracity.
Foot in mouth
This makes Trump very different from George W Bush, who set a new high (or low) for distinctive presidential speech. His distinctive struggle with language took him from vivid malapropisms such as “misunderestimated” to strange, tangled sentences: “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.” Examples of this peculiar style became known as “Bushisms”
Unlike Bush, Trump is not a specialist of any rhetorical genre. Instead, he is truly a jack-of-all-trades. Whether on TV or Twitter, he pronounces in soundbites which suppress premises or simply don’t add up, and regularly judges other people and nations harshly and emotively.
There are all sorts of ways to express this technically. We might say that Trump uses non sequiturs, speaks paratactically (in short, uses disconnected statements), and relies on enthymemes (makes arguments without stating a premise) – but none of these things are the point.
What Trumpism represents, fundamentally, is the rejection of sense in the first place. To judge George W Bush a blooper specialist, it was necessary to presuppose that he was in fact trying to make sense, as measured by received standards, at least some of the time. With Trump, it’s not clear that he wants to observe those standards at all.
When espoused from the very top of the global power structure, this is a shocking thing to confront. What Trumpism is forcing us to recognise is that the conditions for making sense of the world have palpably shifted in the past ten years or so. It is no longer (and never was) enough to laugh or rage at clowns on platforms like Youtube or Twitter. Instead, each and every one of us is being provoked to learn about the networks of power, money, and influence that make these platforms possible, and which created the incoherent, dangerous spectacle unfolding before our eyes.