35 thinkers on “what Trump showed us about America”

Politico assembled a group that includes Northwestern historian Leslie Harris, First Things writer Mark Bauerlein, public intellectual Francis Fukuyama, American Conservative editor Helen Andrews, The Bulwark editor Charles Sykes, Hoover Institution fellow Larry Diamond, writer and professor Tom Nichols, and UW-Madison political scientist Katherine Cramer.

Here is the introduction to the piece:

The world has spent the past four years obsessing over President Donald Trump: his biography, his ideology, his speech, his tweets, his moods, his health, his hair. But what did the Trump era teach us about ourselves, and the country he was elected to lead?

Trump’s presidency has been a four-year war on many people’s assumptions about what was and wasn’t “American”—what a leader can call people in public, which institutions really matter, whether power lies with elites or masses. And it has forced serious arguments about what information, and what version of our history, we can even agree on.

With four years of Trump nearly behind us, Politico Magazine asked a group of smart political and cultural observers to tell us what big, new insight this era has given them about America—and what that insight means for the country’s future.

Many were alarmed to discover that our political institutions and norms are more fragile than they thought. Others pointed out the blind spots that members of the political and cultural elite have for the deep sense of dislocation and injustice that their fellow citizens feel. Some wrote optimistically about an America that is steadily becoming more diverse and inclusive, or one that has retained a powerful role in the world. Yet, even in the face of a common enemy—a once-in-a-century pandemic—“patriotism became a blunt instrument that Americans wielded against one another,” as one contributor put it.

Others questioned whether the disruptions of the past four years have really shaken us out of old patterns, and whether the political establishment has really been diminished. “The house always wins,” one wrote. And then there was this conclusion from another contributor: “At the end of Trump’s term, what I’ve learned is that I really don’t understand America well at all.”

Read the rest here.

*Harper’s Magazine* publishes “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”

Harpers

 

This letter will appear in the October 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Signers include Anne Applebaum, Margaret Atwood, David Blight, David Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Gerald Early, David Frum, Francis Fukuyama, Todd Gitlin, Anthony Grafton, David Greenberg, Jonathan Haidt, Michael Ignatieff, Gary Kasparov, Mark Lilla, Damon Linker, Dahlia Lithwick, Greil Marcus, Wynton Marsalis, John McWhorter, George Packer, Nell Irvin Painter, Orlando Patterson, Steven Pinker, Claire Bond Potter, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Paul Starr, Gloria Steinem, Michael Walzer, Sean Wilentz, Garry Wills, Molly Worthen, and Fareed Zakaria.

Here is a taste:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

Read the entire letter here.

Where Does History Go From Here?

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Over at the Boston Review, historian and essayist Maximillian Alvarez argues that both pro-Trumpers and anti-Trumpers are still operating within Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” argument.  Here is a taste:

Fukuyama’s take on the “end of history,” to be fair, has been questioned for decades. And for a number of reasons: from its Eurocentrism to its unshakeable faith in the world-historical stability of a neoliberal apparatus securing and enforcing the global marriage of “free trade” and Western liberal democracy. The past decade alone would seem to pose as great a challenge as we have seen to the Fukuyaman conceit. From the 2008 global financial crash to the rise of authoritarian-minded, far- right, Trump-style “populism,” the neoliberal order has shown quite a lack of, well, stability. 

The very same empire that is supposed to lord over this end of history, forever and ever amen, can no longer seem to keep its story straight. Even as Donald Trump lauds himself as the very best president ever—an end-of-history sentiment if ever there was one—his presidency is nonetheless anchored to the message that the United States must be made great again. Something has slipped; the end of history has gone too far, and we must try to go back, it seems—to Reaganism, to the cradle of the Greatest Generation, to the Confederacy, to Jacksonianism, and on and on. 

It is no coincidence that, in response to the historical recidivism of the Trump-led right, all that the amassed forces of the Resistance™ have been able to muster is a Fukuyaman defense that, in many ways, mirrors that of their opponents. From Hillary Clinton’s proclamation that “America never stopped being great” to the milquetoast Democratic obsession with being on the “right side of history,” the essence of the great political slap-fight of our day seems to amount to a debate between Democrats and Republicans over when, exactly—not if—history ended, which parts of our society are still stuck “in history,” and what they need to do to catch up. Either way, the presumption is that, regardless of what happens over the next two to six years, the great historical edifice of neoliberal rule will hold.

This is why the Democratic and Never-Trump Republican resistance has been largely incapable of challenging Trump’s wrecking-ball presidency on any grounds that would directly implicate the neoliberal apparatus of which they, too, are a part. Instead, the horror and hysteria unleashed by the ascendancy of Trump has been couched in pearl-clutching fear over what “norms” and “traditions” the MAGA movement has destroyed and expunged from our social world. If the neoliberal world order remains the embodied truth of the “end of history,” then, for all its concerned showmanship, the neoliberal establishment has yet to demonstrate any widespread belief that history, as such, is at stake.

Read the entire piece here.

Francis Fukuyama on Identity Politics

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The Chronicle of Higher Education has published Evan Goldstein’s very interesting  interview with Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama, author of the famed 1989 essay, “The End of History?”

Here is a taste:

Q. To what extent is this fragmentation in our politics exacerbated by certain tendencies on campus?

A. This is a complicated question because specific incidents are picked up by conservative media and blown up to be representative of higher education. Friends of mine say: It’s obvious there is no freedom of speech left in universities. That seems excessive. The question is important, however. What happens in universities sets the tone for a lot of other elite institutions. What happens on campus ultimately does filter down to the rest of society.

Q. You tie some campus developments to a therapeutic turn in American life.

A. It began to unfold back in the ’60s and ’70s, when identity came to the forefront. People felt unfulfilled. They felt they had these true selves that weren’t being recognized. In the absence of a common cultural framework previously set by religion, people were at a loss. Psychology and psychiatry stepped into that breach. In the medical profession, treating mental health has a therapeutic mission, and it became legitimate to say the objective of society ought to be improving people’s sense of self-esteem.

This became part of the mission of universities, which made it difficult to set educational criteria as opposed to therapeutic criteria aimed at making students feel good about themselves. This is what led to many of the conflicts over multiculturalism. This played out in a vivid way at Stanford.

Q. In the book, you quote a leader of Stanford’s Black Student Union in the late ’80s arguing that the university’s Western-civ curriculum “hurts people mentally and emotionally in ways that are not even recognized.”

A. Instead of saying we want to read authors that are outside the canon because they’re important educationally and historically and culturally, the way it’s framed by that student leader is that the exclusion of those authors hurts people’s self-esteem: Because my people are not equally represented, I feel less good about myself. That is part of the motive that drives administrators and professors to expand the curriculum, to fulfill an understandably therapeutic mission. But I think it can get in the way of universities’ fulfilling their educational missions. What makes students feel good about themselves is not necessarily what’s most useful to their education.

Q. You have an unusual background for a political scientist. You majored in classics at Cornell, then did graduate work in comparative literature at Yale, where you studied with Paul de Man. Later you spent time in Paris sitting in on classes with Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Any memories from this journey through deconstruction?

A. I decided it was total bullshit. They were espousing a kind of Nietzschean relativism that said there is no truth, there is no argument that’s superior to any other argument. Yet most of them were committed to a basically Marxist agenda. That seemed completely contradictory. If you really are a moral relativist, there is no reason why you shouldn’t affirm National Socialism or the racial superiority of Europeans, because nothing is more true than anything else. I thought it was a bankrupt way of proceeding and decided to shift gears and go into political science.

Read the entire interview here.