Predictably, the election of Donald Trump on Nov. 8 triggered an immediate wave of hate crimes and hate speech across the United States. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported 700 “incidents of hateful harassment” in the first week after the election. That was likely a serious undercount.
As a lifelong teacher, this really alarmed me. After all, I’d spent over 40 years trying to teach students to be critical thinkers with well-tuned bullshit detectors, able to detect a bogus argument and counter it with solid evidence. I wasn’t alone; critical thinking is built into the B.C. curriculum, and no doubt the curricula of most American schools as well.
Yet here was a president-elect who was a living, breathing repudiation of what teachers dedicate their lives to. It’s bad enough to get panned on RateMyProfessor.ca, but Donald Trump’s triumph really rubbed our collective nose in our failure. A teenage Trump would have been the class clown in any school in North America, and promptly flunked. Instead he has flourished through a long life and many wives and bankruptcies. Now he’s proved that anyone, indeed, can become president of the United States of America.
I wasn’t the only one agonizing about where I’d failed. Plenty of other educated people in education, the sciences, public health, and the media have been trying to identify their own lapses. Fortunately, they were sharing their findings on the Internet, and one pundit, Jeet Heer of the journal the New Republic, may well have found the key reason for the rise of Trump.
In a Twitter essay, Heer harked back to now-forgotten philosophers of the mid-20th century, Jean-Paul Sartre and Theodor Adorno. They had lived under Nazism; Sartre survived the German occupation of France, and Adorno escaped from Germany itself.
Of course I remembered Sartre; any self-respecting 1960s undergrad in a black turtleneck was familiar with his essays and plays. I’d even read the Sartre essay that Heer cited, “Anti-Semite and Jew.” But I’d read it in the early years after the crushing defeat of fascism, when Hitler’s death was as close to us in time as Sept. 11 is to us now. Who could really care what anti-Semites thought? They’d been consigned to history’s ash can.
Reading Sartre again in 2016, I found him unpleasantly timely: “The rational man groans as he gropes for the truth; he knows that his reasoning is no more than tentative, that other considerations may supervene to cast doubt on it. He never sees clearly where he is going; he is ‘open’; he may even appear to be hesitant.
“The anti-Semite has chosen hate because hate is a faith; at the outset he has chosen to devaluate words and reasons. How entirely at ease he feels as a result. How futile and frivolous discussions about the rights of the Jew appear to him. …
“[Anti-Semites] know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words.
“The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.”
This reads in hindsight like the Trump campaign, expanded to include many more targets than just Jewish people. Trump broke every rule in the book about campaigning for high office, and reduced his critics and the media to spluttering impotence: “But… but… but…”
Jeet Heer also cited the German philosopher and cultural critic Theodor Adorno, who’d been kicked out of Nazi Germany and survived to analyze the psychology of his enemies. Adorno saw the bizarre joke of Nazism: “Hitler posed as a composite of King Kong and the suburban barber,” a projection of the fantasies of his followers.
“Hitler was liked,” Adorno argues, “not in spite of his cheap antics but because of them, because of his false tones and his clowning.” So he could shout the unspeakable things that his followers had long thought, including the prospect of sadistic cruelty against the enemy.
Seen in that light, Hitler’s raving and Mussolini’s strutting were strictly show business, a way to market violence. They were also literally irrefutable. The late historian Tony Judt noted that “The fascists don’t really have concepts. They have attitudes.” You can’t debate an attitude.
A clear and present danger
Judt also observed that fascists do one thing very well: “transforming angry minorities into large groups and large groups into crowds.” This had been hard to do when the Second World War was still a living memory, but new generations have grown up since then.
North America’s educators have to see the Trump presidency as a clear and present danger to themselves and their students. As the historian Santayana warned, we have forgotten the past and now must relive it. We were taught about the Second World War, Nazism and communism, and what they cost the world. Now we have another strutting, ranting wannabe dictator, clowning until his opponents fall into stunned silence.
Donald Trump may delight the ignorant and bigoted with his clowning, but his rise is the signal for Canadian and American teachers to teach reason as if their kids’ lives depended on it. Because they do.