I published this originally in 2016 a few weeks after Trump’s election. In re-reading it, I would change very little of my original thoughts. I am still not sure of what to make of Trump’s presidency and what it might mean for our future, and I still am not sure what criteria to use to evaluate his presidency.
Without further comment, the original post . . .
Like many I awoke Wednesday, November 9 to a big surprise. Like many I wonder in what sense business as usual (more or less) will be the order of the day as Trump begins to actually govern, or whether or not we will see a significant pivot in our national life. Time will tell (full disclosure, I supported neither candidate and hoped for a 3rd party revolution that never materialized).
I confess there is much I fail to understand about the election. I have no strong opinions as to why Trump won. I will attempt to focus on a broader historical perspective and will not deal with issues specific to the campaign, whatever their importance might have been. I will not seek to take sides so much as to explain.
Consider what follows speculative . . .
Like many I search for historical parallels to our situation. Many months ago I suggested Andrew Jackson, or perhaps Rome’s Marius, as a historical counterpart to Trump. A few months ago Tyler Cowen suggested that, based on a book he had read, our world might resemble that of the Reformation. I filed that away and thought little of it–until November 9. All six of Cowen’s observations have merit, but two immediately jumped out at me:
1. Many of the structures in places are perceived as failing, even though in absolute terms they are not obviously doing worse than previous times.
2. There is a rise in nationalist sentiment and a semi-cosmopolitan ethic is starting to lose influence.
In his Civilisation series Kenneth Clark displayed an obvious affection for Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536). Who can blame him? Erasmus had a great intellect and a good sense of humor, especially about himself. Erasmus had no particular attachments anywhere and so he cultivated friends all over Europe. He represented what some might see as the apotheosis of the medieval vision–a cosmopolitan, universal man of Christendom.
Such status did not prevent Erasmus from engaging in polemical criticism. From what I hear, his Praise of Folly (I have not read it) mercilessly lambasts much of society at that time, in and out of the Church. And yet, Clark points out that Erasmus could not accept challenges to authority from the common man. In a personal letter he wrote with horror at the fact that hardly anyone in a town he visited doffed their caps to him–to him–a respectable pillar of Society. We can almost hear him say, “I’m the one who gets to criticize society. Not you! You don’t know what you’re doing, whereas I (obviously) do!”*
Erasmus could criticize aspects of society but would never think of criticizing Society itself and the conventions that held it together. He lived in an urbane, intelligent, tolerant world of reason, progress, proportion, and the like. But the temper of times overwhelmed him. Europe’s darling in 1511 found himself playing the role of “Mr. Irrelevant” soon after the Reformation began in 1517.
Even Clarke, I think, sees the problem with Erasmus. No one doubted his character, but they questioned his conviction. Erasmus wore too much on his sleeve and not enough (at least to observers) in his heart. His glib dance throughout Europe made many wonder what he actually believed.
Many assume the that the medieval period practiced more than its fair share of intolerance. Scholar and historian Regine Pernoud points out, however, that the latter Renaissance had many more persecutions of heretics and witches than any period in the Middle Ages. She offers no direct reasons for this, but we can speculate. By 1200 A.D. Europe had attained a significant measure of stability, but not yet a great deal of movement. The elite of society had “real” jobs and connections to the common man. The “people” did not live as well as the aristocracy, but they lived with the elite in the same communities and moved in the same circles. The sea had yet to tempt medieval society, which limited physical mobility and perhaps added to the stability.
By the mid 13th century Thomas Aquinas begins to dabble in the powers of reason and Aristotle. The Black Plague disrupted the settled social arrangements (among other things). The 15th century saw plenty of change with the beginnings of exploration and the printing press. The papal court practiced pagan Greek city-state thinking more so than the service of God. Now too, elites like Erasmus moved in entirely different circles than “the people.” With the revival of classical culture came the revival of classical pagan religion, and the rise of occult practices. It adds up to too much change too quickly. The Reformation happened not just because of Luther, but in part because Europe had several different people rise up simultaneously willing to challenge an out of touch status quo many no longer cared anything for. Rightly or wrongly, many felt that elite Renaissance culture had gone too far.** As Pernoud points out, the reaction against this outwardly benign march of “progress” began before the Reformation in the late Renaissance.
In another post, again from a few months ago, Cowen suggests the possibility that too much immigration may result in a backlash against immigration (we should note that Cowen favors increased immigration as a matter of ideology, but might be pragmatic as a matter of policy–I don’t know). If the pace of change moves too fast, people react against it even if the change itself benefits them overall (most data shows the increased benefits of increased immigration). Rapid change often creates psychological problems of dislocation.
Others with different ideological perspectives seem to agree with him. Slavoj Zizek argues (warning to those who follow the link: Zizek uses profanity rather “liberally” in places:) that on European immigration issue, allowing for more democracy would significantly restrict immigration policies in multiple countries. Right now more inclusive policies must come from the state and not from the people.^ Ezra Klein had an interesting exchange with Tyler Cowen recently where they discussed the subject of diversity.
COWEN: …Now Putman, let me ask you about Putnam, and how Putnam relates to Donald Trump. As you know, Robert Putnam at Harvard, he has some work showing that when ethnic diversity goes up that there’s less trust, less cooperation, less social capital.
If you think of yourself in the role of an editor, so you have an American society, diversity has gone up, and a lot of people have reacted to this I would say rather badly — and I think you would agree with me they’ve reacted rather badly — but there’s still a way in which the issue could be framed that while diversity is actually a problem, we can’t handle diversity.
Putnam almost says as such, and do you think there’s currently a language in the media where you have readers who are themselves diverse, where it’s possible not to just be blaming the bigots, but to actually present the positive view, “Look, people are imperfect. A society can only handle so much diversity, and we need to learn this.” What’s your take on that?
KLEIN: I strongly agree. We do not have a language for demographic anxiety that is not a language that is about racism. And we need one. I really believe this, and I believe it’s been a problem, particularly this year. It is clear, the evidence is clear. Donald Trump is not about “economic anxiety.”
Might Trump have a doppelgänger of sorts (not religiously, not even close!) in Martin Luther? In Luther, we see, among other things, someone with an authoritarian nationalist streak, one who could not stand the polite pagan-infused niceness of elite Europe, one who had no trouble calling fire and brimstone down upon a variety of people, and one who dabbled in opportunism from time to time.
One possible explanation for Trump might lie in the reaction against some of the sweeping changes that have come into the consciousness of America, such as
- The “trigger warning” and “snowflake” phenomena across many college campuses
- The Supreme Court case legalizing homosexual marriage across the land (overturning a variety of state laws in the process).
- The extreme pressure directed against those who refuse to cater, provide flowers, etc. for homosexual weddings
- The debate over transgender bathrooms, the reaction against the NC law, etc.
None of these changes directly effect the well-being of very many at all, but they do impact how one sees the their place in the world. Without considering who is right or wrong in these actions, might the western cosmopolitan set across the U.S. and Europe have flown too close to the sun too quickly?
I listen to classical music on a very low level, when I actually listen to it. I can usually tell if it’s Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart, but that’s about it. One day I decided to get cultured and tried to listen to a Mahler symphony. My reaction?
In Absolutely on Music, Japanese author Haruki Murakami recorded a series of interviews with the famous conductor Seiji Ozawa. In one interview Murakami asks,
Just listening to the third movement of [Mahler’s] First Symphony, it seems clear to me that his music is filled with many different elements, all given more or less equal value, used without logical connection, and sometimes in conflict with one another: traditional German music, Jewish music, Bohemian folk songs, musical caricatures, comic subcultural elements, serious philosophical propositions, Christian dogma, Asian worldview–a huge variety of stuff, no single one at the center of things . . . . Isn’t there something particularly universal or cosmopolitan about Mahler’s music?
To my admittedly very limited experience of attempting to listen to Mahler, Murakami could have just as easily asked, “Isn’t there something meaningless and incomprehensible about Mahler’s music? After 1/2 hour of attempting to “elevate” my cultural understanding, I would have begged someone to play me a Sousa march to at least bring my brain back into focus.
Cowen’s final thought on how this world might resemble that of the Reformation . . .
The world may nonetheless end up much better off, but the ride to get there will be rocky indeed.
*A possible parallel to this exists today. A variety of high-profile fashion designers have said that they will not provide gowns for Melania Trump. Bruce Springsteen canceled a concert in North Carolina over his objections to their transgender laws. The great jazz pianist Ethan Iverson called for a boycott of Steinway pianos because the owner of Steinway supported Trump in some vague fashion (in 2012 Iverson urged a boycott of a particular jazz musician for his support of Romney. Were Iverson a politician, this would be extremely dangerous territory, i.e., punishing someone not for their actions but for their particular beliefs). All of them were perfectly within their rights to do so. Many applauded them putting moral convictions over profit or convenience.
Can progressives not extend the same rights to those who wish not to cater homosexual weddings? It appears that some do not wish to extend the same right of protest. Stephanie Slade at Reason magazine wrote,
The problem is not that Theallet was willing to dress Michelle Obama and isn’t willing to dress Melania Trump (which is, like it or not, a form of discrimination). The problem is just how many people don’t seem to think that same freedom should be extended to bakery owners, photographers, and other wedding vendors who object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds.
As Theallet put it, “we consider our voice an expression of our artistic and philosophical ideals.” I suspect Barronelle Stutzman, the white-haired grandmother who owns Arlene’s Flowers, feels the same way about her craft. But instead of assuming a live-and-let-live attitude on the matter, Washington state has systematically worked to destroy Stutzman’s business unless she agrees to take part in a celebration to which she is morally opposed.
**Whatever authoritarian streak the Middle Ages might have had, the Renaissance had it too, but it came not from the people, but from the elite makers of taste. In many cathedrals the colorful stained glass (made by a variety of local artisans) got smashed out and replaced with clear glass to better fit wth their ideas of classical purity and decorum.
Pernoud argued with some force that the culture of the Middle Ages was “populist,” which the culture of the Renaissance was “elitist.”
^We can see the Brexit vote as a symptom of this same phenomena. Europe’s pundits all seemingly declared that Britain would vote to stay in the European Union. Part of me wonders whether or not the vote to leave had more to do with “sticking it to the cosmopolitan man” (which certainly includes most pundits) than any particular economic or social issue.