Trump and Heidegger

Donald Trump and Martin Heidegger


Howard Adelman

After a short bout of the news last evening, we took a break from my current obsession with the American election, the outcome of which I believe is so crucial to the future of the world. We first watched Tom Hanks in A Hologram for the King. Though we always enjoy the acting of Tom Hanks, this updated and light comedic version of Death of a Salesman (Alan Clay) in both a career and a life crisis that is set in Saudi Arabia, and that is also an updated version of a road movie with Yousef (Alexander Black), was a movie in which the delays and frustrations Alan Clay experiences as he tries to meet the king in a scheduled appointment matched our own frustrations as we waited for the movie to get on with the story. It turned out that Alan Clay had more patience than we did, and we finally turned the movie off to watch a documentary.

Being adrift in a strange place in an encounter with others outside your normal experience can be discombobulating, but imagine this experience taking place, not in a man entering a world which is a marriage of tradition and ultra-modernity that is really a modern version of a culturally arid desert, but by a tribe in the Amazon rain forest reserved for non-contact tribes as the tribe emerges to test contact with a perimeter of the civilized world with its cameras and its guns, its clothes and its medicines? This is the theme of the documentary, The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes.

The exploration of the ideas and presumptions in protecting such tribes in their natural environment in the reserve area on the borders of Peru and Brazil as a tribe emerges to make contact with “civilized” society is explored with sensitivity, nuance and honesty in this film. If you think Tom Hanks trying to sell a 3-D hologram system for convention meetings to Saudi Arabia is an exploration of the interaction between one world and another, an exploration of interculturalism in a 3-D way, imagine what it is to live in a small isolated tribe in the Amazon jungle and make your first steps into “our” world. The most important lesson we learn from the gentle and sensitive work of the Brazilian medical doctor and anthropologist is how the Rousseauian fantasy of the noble savage untouched by civilization living in a Garden of Eden of moral innocence is such BS.

This is what it is like to live in a state of nature. They are often cold. They never sleep well. They often go days without food. They are deathly afraid of panthers. Yet they encounter the same discomforts of infidelity exacerbated by the continuing fear and experience of death of their children, their friends and their parents. Though pleasant, curious and often smiling, they are NOT happy campers. Except for the contact with germs to which they have no immunity and voracious businessmen who have aspirations to exploit the natural wealth of the reserve, escaping the isolation of the rainforest is not so much a seduction by modernity as an escape from a raft of insecurities and a very short life span.

The effects of the clash of cultures is apparent as the Trump world of unreason and resistance to reality, of incoherence and the conviction that personal opinion is superior to considered opinion, as it comes in contact with the uncertainties of a world of compromise and cooperation, of caring and compassion that has to be realized through very imperfect governmental and bureaucratic institutions. Monday evening’s presidential debate was, indeed, surreal. It had both a nightmarish, disorienting quality of a bad dream in which unreal fantasies clash with realities along with the exhilaration and delight, in spite of cynicism, in the tremendous benefits of an ameliorative society of civility.

The first unreality encountered is how the Trump forces tried to spin a clearly disastrous debate from the Trump side into a victory, citing unreliable online polls as contrasted with polls that make an effort at scientific objectivity. According to one example of the latter, two-thirds of Americans thought that Hilary won. Less than one-third, 27%, thought Trump won in a poll that seemed to confirm that one-third of the voting public is immune to counterfactual proofs and detest theories of evolution, conclusions by science of climate change and dislike the benefits of good governance. This is the core of the Trump support as it expresses the gradual deformation of the Republican Party as it increasingly compromised with the voices of unreason in an effort to retain a popular base. This was akin to the compromises the Democratic Party once made with the Dixiecrats that retained American institutions of repression for so many decades.

In a perverse world, doing one’s homework and being prepared are equated with acting that is rehearsed and scripted. This conclusion is not only drawn by Trump supporters, but by liberals who, like Trump supporters, prefer raw authenticity to studied argument. Trump was expressive – sometimes aloof and at other times stressed and irritated, sometimes smug and at other times condescending, but at all times increasingly irritated and somewhat out of control. As one strong but intelligent Trump supporter expressed it, Trump, in winging it, may have appeared more genuine, but his performance was more “tangle and rumble,” more jangle and less humble so that the “authentic” Trump was onstage without the energy of a mass following in a mass rally cheering him on and reinvigorating the performance artist that he had become. The format was truly rigged against him to help bring out who he is when placed in a very different context not under his sole control.

So how did Hillary perform. From the perspective of those who opt for authenticity, whether from the right or the left, she was intelligent and sharp, but also rigid and mechanical. But Trump failed because he had tried to marry his own bluster and indifference to truth presented as telling it “like it is,” with a weak and unconvincing effort to appear presidential, and I stress “appear,” for leaving the panther and going for the throat only left Trump stranded in the desert of Saudi Arabia with all its glitz of modernity but none of the underpinnings. The result – an inability to hit where it hurts as he was caught in the headlights of two clashing cultures and expectations.

Hillary Clinton said that she wanted “to invest in you’ [the middle class], “to invest in the future.” Clinton wanted to expand the welfare state. Trump was still stuck in the belief of living in the abundance of a rain forest and trickle-down economics, in relieving the rich from their onerous tax burdens so they could invest (and accumulate) even more as evidence by his own non-payment of any taxes through the use of tax loopholes that indicated, in his own words, that he was “being smart.” Trump saw the world from a one-dimensional perspective, fretting about the jobs lost in the industrial belt of America through trade agreements, NAFTA in particular, described with Trump’s usual sense of absolute hyperbole as the worst trade deal in the history of mankind, as if he had ever demonstrated any knowledge of or interest in that history. Trump ignored the huge job gains in other areas and the huge trade benefits to the U.S. which Clinton deftly ignored lest she alienate the workers abandoned in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio even more.

So the debate started with two opposed views of the economic world. In one, jobs are “stolen,” ignoring the huge increase in jobs and employment over the last eight years. In the other view, jobs are “created,” ignoring those lost in the process. So Trump, immersed in a world of contradictions and representing a party opposed to more taxes and bureaucracy, proposed more taxes and bureaucracy on companies that import, all in the name of preventing the loss of jobs without calculating the cost of new jobs left uncreated. Trump was a spokesperson for the voices of anti-globalization and for building barriers to the connections of people and goods in an increasingly interconnected world. And this was the advocate who insisted that Hillary was regulating companies out of business with more taxes. But coherence has not exactly been Trump’s forte.

Trump defended “stop and frisk” even though the studies of criminologists and sociologists have overwhelmingly indicated that the practice is inefficient, ineffective and counter-productive, and an exercise in micro-management gone not only awry, but into unconstitutional terrain. But Trump as an exemplar of faith in “authenticity” as he creates modern monuments to the gaudy and contemporary versions of baroque suitable for visions that see the world from a decadent end-of-empire point of view.

So what does this all have to do with Martin Heidegger, reputed to be one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century? (If you want a brief but less antithetical version of Heidegger that is a more subtle version of separating Heidegger from his racist past, there is a relatively short and well-written article by Adam Kirsch called, “Heidegger Was Really a Nazi,” in the 26 September 2016 Tablet. A warning. Before I ever knew that Heidegger was a Nazi and a cultural, though not biological, anti-Semite, he was the one philosopher I read in graduate school that I viscerally despised. I belong to the small minority of philosophers who argue that Heidegger does not deserve his preeminence, not because he was a Nazi, but because, in the world of thought, he is as big a blowhard in the intellectual realm as Donald Trump is in the material realm. And that is quite aside from his being a Nazi, though there is a connection between being the kind of performer who advertises and presents himself as being better than anyone around.

Like Trump, Heidegger when he joined the Nazi Party exalted the effort to marry populism with a new national beginning. As Kirsch begins his essay, “In the spring of 1933, a few months after Hitler took power, Heidegger joined the Nazi Party and was elected rector of Freiburg University, where his expressed goal was Gleichschaltung—the ‘alignment’ of the academy with the new party-state. At his inaugural ceremony, the audience gave the Hitler salute and sang the Horst Wessel Song, the anthem of the Nazi party, before Heidegger spoke about “the glory and greatness of this new beginning.” Trump says the same thing in much simpler terms: “Make America Great Again.”

What does making America great again mean? Sacrificing the middle class for the wealthy in the name of collective greatness and the acquisition of wealth by the few. Ignoring the protection of human rights and the constitution in favour of what Mao Zedong called “masslining,” but which I call mass lying. It means never acknowledging and admitting, let alone apologizing for when you are wrong. If anyone thinks that high and lofty thought cannot be reconciled with crude populism, read Giovanni Gentile, the Italian neo-Hegelian [NOT Hegelian] philosophical apologist for Mussolini’s policies. Just as the sweetness and light of the pure Platonic life cannot be so easily separated from crude barbarism as butter can be separated from whole milk, so too the philosophy of bitterness and resentment cannot be so easily separated from the unworldly realm of authenticity and alienation.

For Heidegger as for Trump, the world is depicted as a horror show, a dark and dank place where everything has gone to hell. We do not understand this through science, through evidence, through intellectual analysis, but through our gut. The texture and make-up of the world is only grasped directly by our emotions. Though called a “state-of-mind” by Heidegger, it is really a mindless approach to existence, one in which the intellectual workings of the mind must be deliberately bracketed. Then existence reveals itself, as it did for Rousseau, as a state of submission and slavery, in Trump to the state and “liberals” and the media, in Heidegger, to the entrapment of modernity altogether.

The world is not of our own making but we have been cast adrift in this world – except for those who realize this and rise above it to take advantage of it in a distorted version of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “will to power”. Humans are just there. They are no longer, as in Kant, autonomous agents in making their own history. They are not, as in Hegel, participants in a collective effort of spirit to move beyond current absolutes into a new world. Subjective agency has been removed from humanity, and in Heidegger it has been removed absolutely. This justifies the need for the one great leader who can lead the masses out of the wilderness into a great new world, or, as in Heidegger, back to an authentic world, his version of a “state of nature” even as evidence clearly indicates that the reality of such a state is an illusion while the illusion of such a state deforms reality.

In the Heideggerian “hell,” we are imprisoned in the illusion of Sorge, of a version of care and compassion as the delusion that prevents us from examining how we have been used and thrown onto the dustbin of history. In the Heideggerian world, the only foundational reality we face is death, a world in which a supersalesman like Donald Trump can exhibit and exemplify the illusion of escape. Trump offers us his lived experience of triumph in contrast to the lived experience of betrayal, a triumph of his personal will to acquire and expand the possessive individualist that he is. Both Heidegger and Trump demand we face and challenge this world of despair into which we have been cast. Trump would, if he could, own the world rather than have it owned by the masses to whom he appeals who get caught up in his prescription for escape.

One cannot see this world from the inside, from the bureaucrats who dominate Washington, from the intellectuals who lead and manipulate it, but only from the outside, and best by one who is outside, but who has personally participated actively in its corruption and taken advantage of it. Trump is the smart one because he uses the rules of the system to escape his obligations, to pay no taxes; this is a badge of honour not a moral confession. The world is inherently corrupt and Trump at the peak of Trump Tower has the singular ability to both see it and take advantage of it and even to promise a way out for the masses as he creates a new political and economic delusion.

Heidegger and Trump, in an intellectual and a visceral way, both depict the world as inherently a place of alienation. The reality is that it is not the ones outside the establishment, but the ones who are outside society altogether who have been cast in the role of the “wandering Aramean,” those who live in the world of the cast-outs and refugees at one end of the spectrum of true outsiders, and those imprisoned in a sanctuary, a no-contact world,” who can actually see the wonder of modernity. That is why they pose the greatest danger for both Heidegger and Trump.

If Trump is the exemplar of superficiality and Heidegger is the exemplar of one who wants to return to a real authentic world, a cursory examination reveals them to be two sides of the same coin, head and tails respectively in an illusionary two-state world seen as authentic, or, in Trump’s words, as “beautiful.” That is why cooperation with others for mutual benefit, cooperation with allies to confront evil, why dialogue and diplomacy are perceived as shams. If the world is cast as one of violence and suspicion, of deep irredeemable divisions, then following the Führer might be the only way out.

What about the followers of Heidegger that exalted freedom and individual expression while putting Stalin on a pedestal like Jean Paul Sartre? This libertarian-communist version of Trump’s capitalist delusions is but the Janus face of the core identical philosophical assumptions. The good, the right, truth and falsification, all can be sacrificed on the altar of authentic existence. Is that authentic existence depicted in a material sense of abounding wealth and health, or is it to be depicted as a return to nature, or Heidegger’s updated version of that naturalist thesis? In either world, the slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda, of Azeris and Syrians in the Middle East, of Jews in the Holocaust, can all but be ignored in the greater task of saving America or Germany from the despondency and desperation of the pictures they paint either in plain and simple English or in convoluted and esoteric German to camouflage the world in the name of revelation and unveiling.

Heidegger and Trump are just both false prophets.


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