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The Populist Right Freely Deploys Philosophies It Deplores on the Left
The aim is to disable truth as a weapon in the struggle against populism
John Bolton, Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, and Judith Butler, the Berkley University gender theorist, have reached a rare consensus: Trump has no philosophy. Bolton asserted that, “Everything else flows from that. Donald Trump has no philosophy,” adding, “It’s not a conservative philosophy; it’s not philosophy at all. It’s performance art. That’s what Donald Trump is.”
Butler and Bolton are right about Trump. More generally, contemporary populism did not have philosophical origins comparable to John Locke’s influence on the American Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s influence on the French Revolution, and Karl Marx’s influence on communist revolutions. Nor after gaining power did populism attract major philosophical fellow travelers comparable to Giovanni Gentile’s legitimization of Fascism, Martin Heidegger’s support of Nazism, or Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s excuses for Stalinist terror and Jean-Paul Sartre’s support for communism.
Still, some philosophical positions, against the intentions of their authors, have functioned as accessories after the fact to populism.
Philosophy Really Is Peripatetic
It is a common stereotype that populists do not read. But it is truer of some populist leaders than others. Benjamin Netanyahu and Boris Johnson, for example, benefited from superior education and are well read. Though no major philosophers have associated themselves with populism, some marginal intellectuals have gravitated from the “paleoconservative” and Nouvelle École right to populist “greenfield opportunities” in speech writing, think tanks, internet magazines, podcasts and book publishing, where they have faced little competition from established public intellectuals or academics. They bring with them the education and ideas they have acquired and use them to serve populist passions and movements. For example, the term “Alt-Right” was invented by the Yale-educated political theorist Paul Gottfried and was picked up by another student of political theory, the racist Richard Spencer.
The intellectual genealogy of practically all the populist intellectuals traces back to Friedrich Nietzsche and his continental intellectual progeny before it (d)evolves into more esoteric authors. The references to “Foucault,” “Derrida” or “structuralism”—and not just “Nietzsche”—in contemporary populist publications like American Greatness demonstrate that populist authors are at least familiar with philosophical ideas in the Nietzschean tradition. Though populist authors often associate post-structuralism with constructed populist bêtes noires like “wokism” and “critical race theory,” they also borrow some of their ideas for their own purposes.
Populists have a unique “emotive” concept of “truth” as emotional authenticity. The “truth” is not about the world but about the expression of the passions of the speaker. These passions can receive narrative representations. For example, if the populist hates somebody, the “truthful,” authentic representation is that the hated person runs a pedophile ring from a pizza shop; the absence of evidence does not matter. Similarly, if the populist passionately desires that a populist leader be elected, that leader must have been elected, and any claim to the contrary is false and fraudulent: It does not correspond with the populist’s authentic passions.
Competing populist truths are then decided by their authenticity, and the more extreme representation of the passions wins. Online populist “echo chambers,” for instance, not only reinforce passions and their narrative expressions, but augment them, with each echo “louder,” more passionate and more extreme than the one before it, until we get the absurd, evidence-free myths of the QAnon cult. Their followers consider these claims the most true because they are the most passionate, the most authentically emotive.
Three off-the-shelf philosophical positions can be particularly helpful for this emotive populist concept of truth: perspectivism, constructivism and dialectics.
Perspectivism, originating with Nietzsche, denies there is truth and replaces it with interpretations. Applied to historiography, it denies true or probable historiography and replaces it with interpretations from different perspectives, as if history were an observable object that can be described from different points of view. For example, when populists in Hungary, Poland, Israel and elsewhere write their own historiography, they do not claim that it is universally true, only that it represents their perspective. They do not object to other nations having different perspectives; they insist on their perspective’s dominance only in their own realm. When local historians dissent, they are not accused of playing fast and loose with the evidence or making false inferences from it, but of not sharing in the national-populist perspective, of being inauthentic traitors—not truly Hungarian or Polish or Israeli.
In traditional journalism, there had been a clear division of labor and placement between news and editorial content, even when media outlets had a clear editorial line. True, the demarcation between the two was never entirely clear, because the choice of which (true) news was fit to print and the prominence these (true) news items received was always affected by the values of the editors. But the new populist media have abandoned even the pretense of presenting evidence-based news that’s distinct from editorials: Anchorpersons simply present their perspective as the news.
Since perspectivism is not absolutist, it does not attempt to become universal or convince the other side that has its own perspective. FOX news, for example, does not try to reach viewers of MSNBC, let alone convince them. They simply have a different perspective and focus on viewers with that same “authentic” perspective. By contrast, during the Cold War, universalist ideologies on both sides of the Iron Curtain invested in efforts to convince the other side of their universal truths. This just doesn’t work with perspectivism, which rejects universality. When Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to send his populist messages through the old-fashioned propagandist means of Russia’s international RT news network, he failed because its perspective has no chance of becoming universal.
Constructivism holds that, as Hayden White put it in his 1978 book The Content of the Form, “Historical narratives … are verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms of which have more in connection with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences.” White concluded that the choice between competing historiographic narratives is undertaken on aesthetic grounds. Populists cannot and do not use constructivism to exclude alternative narratives as totalitarians have done; they are “pluralistic” and hence bombard the internet with “alternative” constructs.
For example, when Trump constructed the masses who supposedly came to his sparsely attended inauguration, he and his facilitators did not do what a North Korean regime would have done: forge photos of mass attendance, censor the actual photographs and kill the photographers. Rather, Kellyanne Conway presented Trump’s “alternative facts”—his alternative construction of reality.
Populist constructivism attributes to the populist leader the divine power of world creation by the word. The leader and his enablers in the populist media, whether it’s controlled by the populist state or friendly oligarchs like Rupert Murdoch, construct an alternative reality for their followers without evidence and without attempts to recognize and refute contrary evidence-based accounts in other media outlets. Trump’s construction of reality is right not because he gives reasons, but because he says so, thereby creating a world that reflects the populist passions authentically, as indeed he had previously created a world through carefully scripted “reality” television.
Conceptual dialectics identifies, or eliminates distinctions between, conceptual opposites—for example, totalitarianism and freedom, or in the populist case, democracy and authoritarianism, or liberalism and illiberalism or absolutism. Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s populist prime minister, called his regime “illiberal democracy,” for instance, and then proceeded immediately to identify illiberal democracy with its opposite: the liberal authoritarianism practiced in Singapore, which has robust liberal institutions and the rule of law, but elections that fall short of being free and fair. In the same way, at the beginning of his presidency, Donald Trump responded to interviewer Bill O’Reilly’s attempt to distinguish Putin’s regime from American democracy by identifying the opposites. When O’Reilly objected, “He’s a killer, though; Putin’s a killer,” Trump replied: “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?” The implication was clear: Putin is a killer, and the U.S. is too.
Another common populist identification of opposites is between “common sense” and the passions. Hence, it is “common sense” to react to a country’s economic downturn by blocking young foreign workers and entrepreneurs from immigrating there, despite their ability to create jobs and stimulate economic growth. Populists also identify liberal views and concerns for human rights and social justice with their opposite—a constructed intolerant and purges-prone “wokism.” Hence the populist creates a false choice between populism and a constructed “woke” bogeyman that represents fears more than social realities. Dialectics undermines the ability of language to represent reality or history and to criticize descriptions of them: If everything is like everything else—if there are no distinctions between rationality and self-destructive passions, or between democracy and authoritarianism—then there is nothing left to criticize.
Perspectivism, constructivism and conceptual dialectics challenge truth from different directions. Perspectivism considers all “interpretations” equally legitimate, since there is no truth to distinguish between them. Constructivism denies that any narrative is truer than any other, because they are all constructs that may reflect their builders’ more or less authentic passions or identities. The dialectical identity of opposites, in turn, disables truth by holding that any claim is indistinguishable from its opposite.
The uniquely populist strategy, not shared with authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, is not to censor truth or historiography, but to drown it in a Niagara Falls of alternative narratives, a confusing cacophonous polyphony, such as the alternative and mutually inconsistent narratives about who committed the alleged election fraud that deprived Trump of his favorite presidential apprentice job, and how and why it was achieved. If narratives cannot be distinguished as less and more probable, people come to believe their “gut feelings” and listen to the siren songs of the passions.
The perspectivist, constructivist and, to a lesser extent, dialectical tenets are easy to comprehend and apply, and they have consequently penetrated the public sphere (or “the cloud,” where public discourse resides these days). It does not take philosophical training to claim that everything one’s opponents say is just their point of view, that there are “alternative facts and narratives,” and that reality and history are political constructs of opposing identities. And it takes only a bit of extra sophistry to claim that everything is like everything else—indistinguishable—and that criticizing one is criticizing all, so there are no meaningful alternatives.
A Philosophical Injustice?
It may be argued that the populists’ use of perspectivism and constructivism is unfair—as is any purported association between populism and those concepts—because it does not correspond with the intentions of at least some of the philosophers who defended them. The French theorists—Foucault, Jean François Lyotard, and so on—were mostly (eventually) affiliated with the French Socialist Party and developed the political aspects of their philosophies in opposition to the doctrinaire Marxism of their elders or of their own youth. Similarly, Hayden White was a West Coast Marxist, and it is difficult to tell when Slavoj Žižek’s dialectics is serious or simply toying with populist and even totalitarian ideas, because like many of today’s populist trolls, he presents some of his politically dangerous ideas in ambiguously humorous guise.
Still, philosophies may have unintended consequences that nevertheless follow from their assumptions. For example, Karl Marx wanted to end alienation, free the workers and achieve the withering away of the state. It is quite probable that had he lived to see the Soviet Union, he would not have been a fan.
Yet Marxian theory called for the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and as Mikhail Bakunin wrote to Marx, sensibly, a dictatorship cannot be used as a means to install another regime, including a Communist regime, because dictators do not give up their power voluntarily. So while Marx did not intend the consequences of his philosophy, aspects of Marxian philosophy are likely responsible for some of the atrocities that followed the establishment of dictatorships with Marxist ideologies. Similarly, while many perspectivists and constructivists did not intend to bring about populism and did not support Trump or Orbán, their assumptions have had consequences that facilitated the lifting of philosophical and historiographic guardrails against the politics of the passions, most notably a concept of truth that applies to a world independent of perspectives; historiography that is founded on evidence rather than identity and passion; and the ability of language to understand and analyze the world by making clear conceptual distinctions between opposites.
Still, despite their similarities, there is a historical difference between the political repercussions of the philosophies of Karl Marx and Hayden White: Lenin came to power with a copy of Marx. Marxian philosophy, via Georgi Plekhanov, affected the Soviet Revolution. But when Trump and Jair Bolsonaro assumed office, they did not carry with them copies of White’s Metahistory or the collected works of Foucault. Perspectivism and constructivism did not cause populism, as Marxism caused the Soviet Revolution and Locke influenced the American Revolution. Rather, once the populists assumed power, these ideas proved to be philosophical “accessories after the fact.” Successful populist political leaders are surrounded by educated enablers who articulate their passionate outbursts in speeches and defend their logical contradictions in public. These enablers use off-the-shelf ideas like perspectivism and constructivism to argue for alternative facts and narratives. Notably, they use these ideas not so much to promote populist narratives, but to disable truth as a political weapon in the struggle against populism. Everything is then, confusedly, equally true and false, and the passions decide. The opponents of false populist narratives are disarmed, and their intellectual armory loses some of its most effective intellectual weapons in the war of ideas.
The banner of the Czech president, designed by the philosopher Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, declares Pravda vítězí: “The truth shall prevail.” Masaryk was unapologetically anti-populist in a populist age, fighting against such populist conspiracy theories as the truth of demonstrably forged medieval Czech heroic poetry and of purported testimonies to blood libels against Jews.
Masaryk’s slogan, translated from the Latin veritas vincit, leaves out an explanation, however: Why will the truth prevail? Masaryk relied on 19th century progressivism combined with Hussite religious faith. Both have not fared well in the century since Masaryk founded his state. Today, Pravda vítězí expresses defiance and hope more than it does faith in historical progress.