For people like myself, working as a social science researcher, these are very strange times. Almost any colleague, in whatever discipline you talk with, will quickly turn the conversation onto one and only one question – the election and politics of Donald Trump. Since his election as US President, the academic community appears to have been experiencing something of a mental shellshock, or maybe it would be more accurate to label this an “election shock”. How could this happen in the country with the very best universities and, if we consider for example the number of Nobel laureates, the absolute top research units in the world? The country that, when it comes to size and professionalism, outperforms all other countries (even if you would count the whole of the European Union) in almost all research areas.
Trump and his administration stand for everything that is the opposite of constructing public policy based on research, or if you want to be more solemn, public policy based on the idea of enlightenment. Ideological warfare instead of argument based on reason and facts. Politics and statements about events based on so-called “alternative facts” instead of truthfulness. A steadfast refusal to take into account and, in some respects, pure hostility to well-established research results in key areas such as climate change and population health. Narrow-minded nationalism instead of universalism and openness to the outside world. Xenophobia and racism instead of respect for individual rights. In the field of foreign policy, the Trump administration seems to have done away with most competence residing in the State Department. The anti-intellectualism and irrationality of this administration is simply overwhelming for many academics. Many very established members of respectable academic organizations in the US have criticized this administration at an unprecedented level.
I agree in essence with almost all of this criticism of Trump and I believe he is a serious threat to liberal democracy. He does not take a clear stand against political violence, he does not respect the civil rights of his political opponents, he puts himself and his political entourage above the rule of law and he did not make clear he would have respected the election result if he had lost. However, I think it is worth pointing out that parts of the academic community for a long time have been playing along with undermining the essential underpinnings of liberal democracy and that it is not as innocent regarding the rise of Trumpism as it now pretends to be. Let me give three examples.
One often-made criticism of Trump, launched for example by the Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, has been that he is not at all interested in acting for the general good or even for the majority. Instead, the critics point out that his motive for seeking political power essentially is to protect and expand his own business interests. There is, the critics say, no idea of a public good in his political message. Instead, it is pure economic self-interest that governs his agenda. This view of how people in the public domain, whether elected or appointed, act has long been a fundamental theme within a widespread research approach known as the “public choice theory”. This approach has been very influential in economics but also to some extent in political science. The main idea in this theory is that when we analyze what politicians or civil servants do, our starting point is that they behave in the same utility-maximizing way as agents are supposed to do in the market economy. A large number of Laureates in economics, mostly from what is known as the “Chicago school,” have advocated that this is how we should understand what goes on in politics. That people in public offices would follow any ethical standards such as impartiality and act with integrity is in this approach thought of as just unimportant “noise”. With the election of Trump, researchers in the “public choice” approach have gotten the ideal-type politician that for decades they have presented to generations of students as the main model. They often complain about the Trump administration now, but that is really a little too late.
A second type of criticism of Trump is about his ethnophobia and lightly hidden racism. A clear expression of this came when Trump dismissed a ruling by a federal judge regarding one of his companies because the judge concerned (while born and educated in the US) was of Mexican origin. Because of this, Trump argued that the judge in question should not handle his case because he would not be able to make an impartial ruling. Trump’s reason for this accusation was of course his election promise to build a wall against Mexico. This line of reasoning implies that we are all stuck in our ethnic or other such identities also when we exercise a public task and therefore are incapable of making an impartial assessment a of case involving a person with a different identity. This line of reasoning, known as “identity theory”, has had a huge impact in large parts of the humanities and social sciences and is usually seen as a leftist, radical approach. One example from this theory comes from one of the most cited scholars using this approach, the feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young. One of her central arguments is that the principle of impartiality is a fiction and that persons with different identities (such as gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation) cannot make impartial assessments of a case involving a person with another identity. Again, we can say that Trump’s dismissal of the judge because of his ethnicity has clear support within a significant and strong research approach in academia.
A third very common criticism of Trump and his aides is their tendency to ignore established facts and their lack of truthfulness. According to a recent compilation in the New York Times, Trump had produced 103 apparent lies during his first ten months. It is obvious that, according to Trump, there is nothing that can be seen as a fact. Instead, everything is a matter of interpretation and perspective. However, this approach has also had a strong impact in large parts of academic research, mainly within the humanities, but also within parts of social sciences. Under the heading “postmodernism”, this approach has as its starting point that there can be no true or scientifically established facts due to impartial investigation. Instead, following the much-admired French philosopher Michel Foucault, what is considered true by the scientific community in an area of research is in reality determined by their connection to established power relations in society. According to postmodernist theory, there is no real difference between the knowledge produced by scientific methods and perceptions coming from our ideological orientations or personal experiences. Thus, when Trump and his supporters claim that they base their positions on “alternative facts”, this has a clear connection to the postmodernist approach in academia.
Cutting-edge thinking straight to your inbox
"Social Europe publishes thought-provoking articles on the big political and economic issues of our time analysed from a European viewpoint. Indispensable reading!"
Columnist for The Guardian
I do not want to assert that Trump himself would have read and gained any insights from these three research strands to find support for his policies. On the contrary, it seems unlikely that he would even know about them. What needs to be explained is why a person with Trump’s type of message has been able to win so much support in a democratic election in one of the world’s most developed countries. My argument relies on the idea that what is happening in the world of social science research and the humanities affects the political and intellectual climate, not least because its theories and approaches will affect what goes on in schools and what is said in the public arena. Relativism, dismissal of the idea of truthfulness, identity hysteria and cynical economistic thinking have together become a witches’ brew that has, it seems, poisoned the intellectual climate in our type of societies and made it possible for the message that comes from Trump and his likes to win a broad audience. The academic world’s criticism against Trump is justified, but some honest self-criticism would be in order too.
A Swedish version of this article first appeared in Dagens Nyheter on April 12