Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.
For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. The bedrock claim of critical philosophy, going back to Kant, is simple: We can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. Claiming to know the truth is therefore a kind of assertion of power.
These ideas animate the work of influential thinkers like Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, and they’ve become axiomatic for many scholars in literary studies, cultural anthropology and sociology. From these premises, philosophers and theorists have derived a number of related insights. One is that facts are socially constructed. People who produce facts — scientists, reporters, witnesses — do so from a particular social position (maybe they’re white, male and live in America) that influences how they perceive, interpret and judge the world. They rely on non-neutral methods (microscopes, cameras, eyeballs) and use non-neutral symbols (words, numbers, images) to communicate facts to people who receive, interpret and deploy them from their own social positions.
Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.
The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon.
Some liberals have argued that the best way to combat conservative mendacity is to insist on the existence of truth and the reliability of hard facts. But blind faith in objectivity and factual truth alone has not proven to be a promising way forward...Even if we felt comfortable asserting the existence of something like “truth,” there’s no going back to the days when Americans agreed on matters of fact — when debates about policy were guided by a commitment to truth and reason. Indeed, critique shows us that it’s doubtful that those days, like Trump’s “great” America, ever existed.
For this very reason, these strategies remain useful, however much something like them may be misused, and however carelessly some critical theorists and philosophers have deployed them. Even in a “post-truth era,” a critical attitude allows us to question dominant systems of thought, whether they derive authority from an appearance of neutrality, objectivity or inevitability or from a more Trumpian appeal to alternative facts that dispense with empirical evidence. In a world where lawmakers still appeal to common sense to promote regressive policies, critique remains an important tool for anyone seeking to move past the status quo.
This is because critical ways of thinking demand that we approach knowledge with attention and humility and recognize that, while facts might be created, not all facts are created equal.
While Trump appeals more often to emotions than to facts — or even to common sense — critique can help those who oppose him question the Trumpian version of reality. We can ask not whether a statement is true or false, but how and why it was made and what effects it produces when people feel it to be true. Paying attention to how knowledge is created and used can help us hold leaders like Trump accountable for what they say.
And if we question all ideas — not just the ones we dislike — perhaps our critiques can also reveal new ways of thinking and suggest political possibilities undreamed of by either Trump or his centrist opponents.