by Katalin Balog
"As he died to make man holy, let us die to make things cheap." –Leonard Cohen, "Steer your way"
In this article I use a distinction borrowed from philosophy, between objectivity and subjectivity, to look at the nature of the Trump presidency. I explicated that distinction in more detail in some earlier posts here, here and here.
For all the ridiculousness of our president there is a whiff of the devil about him – by monumental bad luck, America has managed to elect a person embodying the worst of human nature. He combines thoughtlessness and utter disregard for standards of objectivity and reason with the soullessness and banality of reality TV run amok. Despite real parallels with 1930s Europe and more recent autocratic regimes across the world, the Trump era also offers novelty; it is its own, unique brand of awfulness, made in America.
In trying to grasp Trump's uniqueness, many commentators resort to psychology. In this essay, I want to propose a more philosophical perspective, a sort of psycho-philosophical approach that, in my view, allows one to appreciate better the psychic vortex that sucks up and annihilates anything of value around Trump. He is the inverse Midas: everything he touches turns immediately into junk. Business, entertainment, social media and now our national politics – very little is safe from his seeping menace. Kierkegaard's philosophy offers some clues to understanding this situation.
Kierkegaard suggested that the mind oscillates between two primary perspectives on the world: objective and subjective – and that the relationship between these approaches determines what kind of a person we are going to be. Objectivity is an orientation towards reality based on abstracting away, in various degrees, from subjective experience, and from individual points of view. An objective approach is based on concepts and modes of thinking about the world that is accessible from many different points of view. A subjective orientation, on the other hand, is based on an attunement and direct reflection on the inner experience of feeling, sensing, thinking and valuing that unfolds in our day-to-day living. It is the difference between an abstract, objective conception of water as a potable liquid that is also found in lakes, rivers and oceans, and the subjective concept of it based on what it is like to drink it or swim in it on this particular day in this particular place. Objective and subjective, of course, comes in degrees. Scientific concepts are the most objective but many of our everyday concepts are also of the more objective variety. The most subjective conceptions are those that arise in direct reflection on experience.