How to be a Populist

2 09 2017

Richard Rorty

When Donald Trump was first elected, well-read people with good memories dug out a prediction by the philosopher Richard Rorty from 1998 that seemed shockingly accurate:

“[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled wors, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, 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.”

Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country, 1998

‘Wow’, everyone thought after the election and it was quoted and forwarded all over the place. But there was a second part to that quote which was quickly forgotten. After nine months of Trump Presidency we can see that part too is also clearly coming true:

“One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

With his constant nudge wink appeals to his perceived base’s perceived intolerance it’s like Trump is the only person who keeps what Rorty said in the forefront of his mind, as a guide to bring him success. It culminated in clear and stated ambivalence when Nazis took to the streets of Charlottesville, and the pardoning of Joe Arpaio who was convicted of Criminal Contempt for refusing to accept the Constitutional rights of people he thought looked foreign.

Richard Rorty didn’t realise he wasn’t engaging in political prediction, but in instruction for an aspirant strongman.

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