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.
Much of Kierkegaard's philosophy is a warning against the tendency to take an increasingly objective stance. The spectacular advance of science and industry, and the rise of Enlightenment rationality in the last 300 years has slowly weakened subjectivity and created a culture that offers less and less incentive to deepen one's inner life. It created modes of being that have little room for silence and increasingly invite noise and constant action. Consequently, fewer of us live thoroughly immersed in life's experience and more of us are distracted by its abstractions, by all the ways our culture conceptually frames our existence as individuals, Democrats and Republicans, man and women, white people and minorities, one percenters and workers, consumers, immigrants, and so on. But according to Kierkegaard, our experience of life matters in ineffable ways that no objective understanding of the world can capture. By mistakenly taking our objective understanding as our only connection to reality we make our world less rich. By becoming less subjective, we cut ourselves off from sources of meaning and value.
One can frame a decision, for example, in objective terms. One might decide between career choices by weighing differences in opportunities for self-promotion, or, for that matter, opportunities of service, between being a real estate developer or being the President of the United States. We are encouraged to make choices framed in these objective terms. Alternatively, one might try framing the decision, at least in part, in terms of what it might be like to work in either occupation; in this case, one needs to have the patience to dwell in experience long enough for one's feelings about either alternative to emerge. In other words, one might deliberate subjectively.
I think it is clear that our president has no inclination towards inwardness. His restlessness, his need to occupy and entertain himself with constant activity is a symptom of a primarily objective orientation. Trump has been, as far as I can see, rightly described by Mark Singer in a 1997 New Yorker profile as having “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul”, a person so superficial and vapid that one might question if he has what is ordinarily thought of as an inner life. He has not only objectified and used others; he has managed to objectify himself through an identification with the gaze of others, and by extension, the camera – the symbol of the public eye. The banal, shiny look of his buildings, the gaudiness of his “palatial” dwellings express a soulless indifference to place, and a deference to the idea of wealth; a decorator's sensibility tethered to a perception of the opinion of others. As Kierkegaard observed in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, “the world has perhaps always had a lack of what could be called authentic individualities, decisive subjectivities, those artistically permeated with reflection, the independent thinkers who differ from the bellowers and the didacticizers.” But it is hard to find a leader in recent memory so unreflective as Trump is.
But how can a person lack subjectivity? Isn't it true that, given one's experience of life, one cannot fail to be subjective? To the contrary, the mind can flee its own subjectivity, can escape into alienation. As Freud has described, there are various ways of doing this: repressing experience, dissociating from it, numbing it, turning away from it. Most commonly, we turn our back on subjectivity to escape from pain or helplessness. Feeling weak, sad, or overwhelmed is taboo for many, especially men. According to Trump biographer Harry Hurt, Trump's father urged his sons to become “killers”, and told them they are “king”. In a Playboy interview Trump said, reflecting on his older brother Fred who died as an alcoholic at age 41, “I saw people really take advantage of Fred, and the lesson I learned was always to keep my guard one hundred percent.”
When sensitivity to experience wanes, when the mind is preoccupied with promoting and protecting the self in a hostile world, a quality of drivenness develops. The machinery of mind churns away without reflection and its capacity for change and self-direction diminishes. Without sympathy to oneself, one cannot feel sympathy for others, so the moral universe looms ever more distant. Without appreciation of beauty and meaning the world appears barren.
But here is the thing: an objective orientation that abstracts away from lived experience is not the same as being objective in the normative sense. You can have an objective orientation but still be biased or uninterested in facts and evidence, even be on an outright campaign denying obvious facts; you can be full of contradictions and utterly irrational but still approach reality primarily in an abstract, conceptual way. Objectivity as an epistemic norm can be separated from objectivity as a primarily conceptual, abstract orientation to the world. Normative objectivity, requiring respect toward evidence, logic, and reason, is the virtue that represents excellence in one's objective orientation to life. In fact, the term “subjective” is sometimes used – in contrast with my use of the term is this essay – to describe a certain deficiency in this virtue; a self-centered bias in one's relationship to evidence and belief. Trump's belief, for example, that his crowd sizes exceeded all previous inauguration crowds is subjective in thissense; not in the sense of being based on reflection on lived experience.
Trump lacks conspicuously in the virtues of objectivity, while also lacking in the virtues of subjectivity. This puts him at ground zero with respect to the sources of value. The sources of value are – for all the protestations of Kierkegaard, and his romantic contemporaries – reason underlying both intellect and agency; and lived experience, replete with feelings, moods, and emotions. They together ground intellectual, prudential, moral and aesthetic value. Trump fails on both counts.
His deficiencies in the two realms are not unconnected. Both virtues are based on a repudiation of naked self-promotion. Objectivity in the normative sense requires putting the pursuit of truth and honesty ahead of one's own self-interest. This is an uphill battle for humans who – pace Rousseau – evolved to be social; and whose struggle for social status – as social psychologists theorize – has made us hardwired to prefer self-serving ideas to the truth. But humans have the potential to transcend self-interest; we can follow reason in discovering the world. Normative objectivity is the ideal most fully embodied in science, one of the highest achievements of Western culture.
The cultivation of subjectivity also requires a certain amount of self-denial: it requires the acceptance of one's inner world as it is, instead of seeing and presenting it in the most flattering light. This, too, runs against strong forces of human nature. Repression and denial are just the most obvious in a varied and intricate repertoire of self-deception. Art and literature at their best are attempts to break through this self-deception. Contemplative traditions and psychology both developed sophisticated mental techniques to do this and they, too, are precious achievements.
Trump's deficit in the virtues of both objectivity and subjectivity originates in his obsession with self-promotion. His guiding instinct is what Rousseau called “amour propre“, love of self, in the sense of vanity, conceit, desire for recognition. Rousseau warned that amour propre, when it becomes the guiding motive in civilized society, makes people mean and alienated. In his book on education, Emile, he in fact advises
the main thing is that the child should do nothing because you are watching him or listening to him; in a word, nothing because of other people, but only what nature asks of him. Then he will only do good.
Trump is indeed corrupted by ambition; he lies and does cruel things with complete ease to promote his own advantage. His objectivity deficit is quite radical; he seems to have only a lose grip on the line between reality and representation. This makes him very dangerous.
His amour propre also makes him turn away from the reality of his self in favor of a flattering image of it. Cioran says: “This is how we recognize the man who has tendencies toward an inner quest: he will set failure above any success.” This is because failure, Cioran thinks, “reveals us to ourselves, permits us to see ourselves as God sees us, whereas success distances us from what is most inward in ourselves and indeed in everything.” This is gleeful provocation from a writer who enjoyed a fair amount of literary fame since adolescence. But the basic message seems correct.
For all his self-centeredness and bragging, I think it is a mistake to describe Trump as a narcissist. Narcissus of the myth sees himself in his actual reflection, and gets infatuated with it; Trump instead produces a doctored image of himself for others to fall for. He is enthralled not by himself, but a character called “Trump”. Lacking the virtues of both intellect and heart, he personifies the worst and most superficial in contemporary American culture: its translation of all value into money and number (think about the size of those crowds!); its spreading contempt for facts and reason; its demonization of people different from oneself; its anti-intellectualism and dismissal of expertise; its obsession with fame, success and celebrity for its own sake and its indifference to decency, fairness or beauty. He has made junk, an addiction to worthless things his highest good. He busies himself building, as the late Leonard Cohen quipped, the Tower of Wrong. Whether Americans will eventually unite against him will be a test of the greatness of our country.