Jan 26, 2017

Trump's Inaugural Address - A Philosophical Examination

Like most Americans this election cycle, I closely followed the long campaigns and contests, participating in a number of discussions and observing many more, and voting in our state primary and the national election.  It has been without a doubt the most interesting election cycle of my lifetime, given how many issues were brought to the fore, the situation of cultural, economic, and political crisis and conflicts we remain mired in, and the alternatives offered to us in the form of candidates.  Although one can arguably claim that both main political parties do largely represent a political establishment, a cadre and class of wide-reaching scope and power, both of those alternately ruling elites faced stiff challenges from outsiders, one of whom lost (Bernie Sanders), and the other which won and then went on to upset expectations and secure the presidency by winning the electoral college (Donald Trump).

When I read that Trump planned for his Inaugural Address, delivered last Friday, to be a "'philosophical document' rather than a description of policy plans - in the words of his press secretary, Sean Spicer, I was intrigued.  What would such a deliberately "philosophical" speech look like?  Would it measure up at all to any of the senses that can be assigned that ambiguous term?  And then, I watched the speech - which I argue is indeed a philosophical one - read and reread the transcript, reflected upon its points and rhetoric, and decided to engage in some public discussion - as a philosopher - bearing upon now-President Trump's address.

Earlier this week, I created and released a video in my main channel, President Trump's Inaugural Address - Philosophy and Current Events, providing about an hour of analysis of the speech.  My intention was to write a post here going over much of the same set of ideas as in that video.  I've since decided to engage in something a bit different than that original intention in this post, for several reasons.  Foremost among them is that in the day-and-a-half since I released the video, over 20 comment threads got started on it by viewers - most of which I responded to.  I wanted to continue this important conversation in a more substantive way, and a blog entry seems a good way to do that.

The Elites, The People, and President Trump

One set of main themes of the address turns on a narrative of conflict between elites and "the people" and a promise by Trump to address the people's grievances in a substantive - even fundamental - way. Before rendering his diagnosis, he engages in what is a very interesting would-be performative act, in saying:
Today's ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another -- but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.
This invites the average listener - one of many members of the "American people" being addressed - to view what is taking place both in the speech and through the agency of the incoming administration as a return of "power" from its current holders to its source.  It involves a reference to our oft-invoked origin stories, embodied in the founding documents of the American republic, in which it is the "people" from whom political power and legitimacy ultimately derive.  Regarded in a narrative framework, this amounts to a contemporary reinstantiation of the original mythic moment of the founding of America.

Notice as well that there is a mediating term here - "we" - and that in this case, although there is a larger "We" of the "people" that Trump's consistent performative rhetoric invites us to participate in, this "we" is a different one.  It is not the people that are giving back to - or taking back for - themselves the power that previous administrations have passed.  The "we" instead is the new Trump administration, engaging in its first political action as such.

Why adopt this role?  Why this extraordinary way of framing matters at this time?  That's where a main portion of the overarching narrative - not only of this speech, but of Trump's election campaign - gets elaborated.  The elites - or the "establishment" - have appropriated to themselves what rightly belongs to the people
For too long, a small group in our nation's Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished -- but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered -- but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation's capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
Notice that, in this speech, it is not primarily the economic elites (e.g. the ownership of corporations) who Trump is targeting, or even the cultural elites (e.g. the cultural industries and opinion-formers), but explicitly the political elites.  And he is not simply criticizing the Democratic party as being the "establishment" but also a good portion of the Republican party as well.

What lends the overall narrative the plausibility - or even for many, credibility - it has at this point is that there is arguably such a political elite in America, straddling both parties, involving a network comprised not only of politicians but also their functionaries, civil-service appointees, lobbyists and campaign contributors, partisans and other backers in the media, and many others.  And what they do does indeed require, spend, consume and distribute quite a lot of money.  This has been going on for quite some time, long enough to set out glaring examples of political figures who - if they didn't already come from money - have certainly made it into that soon enough.

Trump has not been the only outsider figure to question or challenge this ongoing arrangement of "business as usual".  Sanders did so consistently from a leftist basis throughout his campaign.  The only two third parties that the major media sources deigned to devote even a modicum of attention to - the Greens and the Libertarians - made similar criticisms about how the "establishment" comprised of various elites had been exploiting and consolidating their privileged positions, leaving non-elites out in the cold, but expecting them to foot the bill.

And the costs have been heavy to those who aren't part of the elite or at least benefitting from the largesse of whichever group happens to be in control at the time.  Notice another key feature of this speech as well.  From the start, this previous dynamic of exploitation and domination principally in terms of administration, of presidential regimes and executive power.  And the remedy to - perhaps even the reckoning for - it will stem likewise from the exercise of presidential power.

What Sort of "Unity" Does Trump Envision?

Another key set of themes from the speech not only highlight the importance Trump accords to unity, but provide outlines of what he envisions by that term.  This is particularly important given that "unity" is not a univocal term, possessed of one single meaning that we can all take for granted.  That was a point one commenter on my video had a great deal of trouble grasping - and I would expect that there would be quite a few other people similarly confused enough to ask: "does not the plural "unities" contradict itself?"

There are multiple ways in which something can be said to be a "unity" When we get to the political sphere, where what is under discussion are complex communities and human individuals, each with their own concrete - and often not entirely coherent or consistent - identities, self-understandings, and histories, this is even more the case.  An ant-colony is a kind of unity, a greater whole comprised of its parts - but that's fortunately not been a particularly attractive model for the sort of unity appropriate to human political communities.  The largely modern notion of a "social contract", in its many different theorized permutations, sets out another sort of "unity" as a model.  References to a "common good" in any serious, not merely partisan sense, gesture towards some kind of unity as well that the political community is supposed to involve or at least encompass.

I am not elaborating some general theory about various types of "unity" here.  I am just noting the point that there are multiple ways one might understand that term, or suggest it as a good to be achieved, protected, or restored.  My main interest is pointing out how Trump articulates it in his speech, particularly in relation to the individuals comprising the "people" he pledges his administration to protect.

There is a tension between two key ways in which this relationship - that between the larger, encompassing unity, i.e. the American people, and the particular individuals composing the people. On the one hand, there is a rhetoric of long-traditional democratic respect for, and even restoration of the importance of the otherwise neglected, pushed-aside individual.  Look at this passage:
What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. 
Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before. At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.
Someone listening to this, or reading it, is invited by the end to buy into a point of view that quite likely corresponds in part to his or her experiences.  You have been forgotten by the government, by the elites, by those you actually know and interact with who take their cues about what matters from those elites, rather than looking at you as a person who matters as an individual.  Now, for once, you won't be forgotten - the promise goes - you will be listened to.

And in that assertion about the purpose of the nation, one could easily draw the inference that this means that the nation exists not only to serve all of its other citizens, but also - and equally - me.  And those people I - or rather one (notice how easy it is, how naturally one shifts, going from the impersonal and universal to the particularized and personal with these sorts of pronouns!) - care about, those one is close to, those whose sufferings and setbacks one has witnessed, those people matter as well.  Serving them is the rightful purpose of the nation itself, and its government.  Trump mentions a number of ways - one could tally up many, many more - in which people have not only not been so served, but have instead been deprived, harmed, abandoned.

The Primacy of the National Community

The suggestion is that we - and is it at this point that upper-case "We", the people? or is it the lower-case "we" of the incoming administration - now ought to do something to remedy the years of exploitation, selling-out, and neglect - the "carnage".  This requires a recognition of our interconnections.  But notice how this gets framed by Trump:
We are one nation -- and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams; and their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.
Why do these relations of sharing or even what in other contexts one might call solidarity exist? Because the basis for our commonality here is the nation, belonging to the same political community, America.  That trumps (pun intended) any and all other relationships.  The importance of the other individual is that he or she is also an American, like oneself.

Differences are - at least in the American envisioned by this speech - eclipsed and overcome by the "sharing", the unity of having the same, the "one" heart, home, and destiny.  Trump goes on to assert:
At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.
Again, it is important to keep in mind which "we" or "our" is the referent here.  Is Trump affirming that this will be the stance of his administration, which thereby effects these intended changes?  Or is the setting this out as his hope or plan for what all of us are going to do?  It is equally important to highlight that he explicitly envisions us rediscovering what our proper relationships to each other are through the larger whole we belong to.  Loyalty to the nation comes first, and loyalty to others, particular individuals develops afterwards.  

One clear motivation for envisioning a future unity of the political community, comprised of particular persons, along these lines is the fact that we really are - as an American country or nation - deeply divided, even factionalized in the classic sense of the term, along all sorts of intersecting fault-lines. And over time there has developed a maelstrom of negative and reactive affectivity - anger, rancor, resentment, fear, anxiety, envy, self-centeredness, and hatred (just to get started) - sometimes coming out into the public light, sometimes churning away submerged, drawing in many on every side of the partisan divide.  

Look at two passages in particular from the speech that suggest one way to move past our manifold divisions and conflicts:
When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us, "How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity."  We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. 
A new national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions. It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag. And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty Creator.
Once again, the understanding of unity, the relationship between the political community and individual persons, is one that clearly places the community (the American country or nation) first.  It is through what we might well call a political mystique of national renewal that the very real and longstanding divisions and conflicts separating us as Americans will be reconciled.

Reflections on This So Far

I'll end the analysis that I am really just beginning here by stressing two points that strike me as absolutely critical from the perspective of fundamental political theory.

The first of these is that Trump's vision expressed in the speech is really quite remarkable in its wholehearted embrace of nationalism as the main way forward.  This is American nationalism, to be sure - it uses a common language, refers to a set of concepts and traditions, that Americans can relate to - but it also seems at odds with the very emphasis upon the individual person as a locus of his or her own freedom and agency (for better or for worse), that has been part and parcel of American political discourse and even policy.  There is really no mention of lower-level associations, institutions, or communities as playing any role in the process of renewal, rebuilding, or reconciliation.  Instead, individuals are invited to leave behind their particularities, only to receive them back from the nation towards which they devote their loyalty, their pride, their blood and patriotism.

The second thing that must be kept in mind - and in constant view - is that this isn't just an aspirational set of suggestions for a new direction that would develop of itself, from the ground up, in some kind of organic fashion within the nation.  This is instead a blueprint for what the Trump administration intends to bring about - if we are to take Trump at his word.  And, most importantly, the agent of that transformation of the nation is precisely the Trump administration and what allies it manages to bring along (i.e. receptive party Republicans, some traditionally Democratic constituencies, a portion of the media and culture industry who want to maintain their access, etc.) This is the "we" of the administration that claims to now speak and act for the "We" of the people, against the elites and the people's other putative enemies.

Is the loyalty of individual citizens to the greater unity being advocated then a loyalty primarily to the American nation, and only secondarily to the Trump administration?  Or will the administration - an elite that is supposed to be taking the side of the people against the other elites - inevitably coopt the American nationalism they advocate?  And if so, to what ends?  These remain open questions at this point.