Almost twenty years ago Stanford University philosopher Richard Rorty predicted the election of Donald Trump and the collapse of the “cultural left”.
The late Richard Rorty warned in his book, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, that the cultural left would eventually ensure their own demise. Rorty wrote that “to give cultural politics preference over real politics, and to mock the very idea that democratic institutions might once again be made to serve social justice.”
He predicted that cultural politics on the left would give rise to resentment which would then one day create a populist movement that would overturn the government.
He foresaw cultural politics on the left as contributing to a tidal wave of resentment that would one day result in a time when “all the sadism which the academic left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back.”
The Guardian reports:
In the days after Trump’s electoral college victory over Hillary Clinton, passages from Rorty’s book went viral, shared thousands of times on social media. Rorty’s theories were then echoed by the New Yorker editor David Remnick in an interview with Barack Obama and essay on his presidency, and taken up across the internet as an explanation for Trump’s success.
In the book, Rorty predicted that what he called the left would come to give “cultural politics preference over real politics”. This movement would contribute to a tidal wave of resentment, he wrote, that would ricochet back as the kind of rancor that the left had tried to eradicate.
Rorty suggested that so long as “the proles can be distracted from their own despair by media-created pseudo-events, including the brief and bloody war, the super-rich will have little to fear”.
But as democratic institutions began to fail, workers would begin to realize that governments were “not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or jobs from being exported”, Rorty wrote. They would also realize that the middle classes – themselves desperately afraid of being downsized – would not come to their rescue.
“At that point,” Rorty wrote, “something will crack.”
“The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for – someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.”
Rorty said “nobody can predict” what such a strongman would do in office, but painted a bleak picture for minorities and liberal causes. “One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out,” he wrote. “Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion.”
Intolerance and “sadism” would “come flooding back”, he continued. “All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”
Rorty, a hero of the old left, hoped his peers would abandon what he perceived as anti-Americanism and return to a more pure-hearted, pragmatic view of liberalism. But he did not hold out much hope. Ultimately, he wrote, the so-called strongman would be powerless to do anything but “worsen economic conditions” and “quickly make his peace with the international superrich”.
Trump appears to have already fulfilled this prediction, filling his transition team with lobbyists, including for the oil, telecoms and food industries. He has named a Republican loyalist to be his chief of staff, and a far-right nationalist – himself a former Goldman Sachs executive – as his “chief strategist”.
Rorty was not the first or last academic to predict the tectonic shifts of politics caused by technology, globalization and liberal movements. His ideas about voters turning away from the world, against “elites” and scapegoated minorities, were echoed by the historian Samuel Huntington in 2004 and by Noam Chomsky in 2010.
In 1994, the historian Edward Luttak noted “the completely unprecedented personal economic insecurity of working people”. Writing in the London Review of Books that year, he saw opportunity for “a product-improved fascist party” that would dedicate itself to “broad masses of (mainly) white-collar working people”.
This year, however, Luttwak wrote a May op-ed in the Wall Street Journal urging calm at prospect of a Trump presidency, which he said would not be as extreme as his rhetoric.