Lead

A critical study of Trump, the postmodernist

In his COVID-19 response, the U.S. President shows that he follows his wavering instincts more than scientific advice

COVID-19 has brokered ideal ring conditions for a straight fight between scientists and postmodernists. So far, the two have been shadow boxing under hypothetical conditions. While there were, indeed, many practising scientists, there was no recorded case of a practising postmodernist, that is till Donald Trump arrived on the scene. Now the fight can get real.

Yes, indeed, postmodernism has many known thinkers in its ranks and some of them, in fact, are hugely celebrated. However, outside of theory, neither Jacques Derrida or Jean-François Lyotard, or Jean Baudrillard, or any known postmodernist, ever presented a live case of someone who empirically led a postmodernist life. They had the recipe, but where was the curry? Mr. Trump changed that. As far as one can tell, so far, he is the only celebrated case of an actually functioning, full time, postmodernist person. This is why he should be examined critically, not dismissively, as many tend to do.

Also read | Trump suggests injecting disinfectants, bringing UV light ‘inside body’ to kill coronavirus

Divergent views

Scientists and postmodernists come to the ring from different training schools and their reactions to COVID-19 illustrate this divergence perfectly. Scientists today are looking for a uniform text to explain COVID-19. They are searching for a fundamental core that would not just help in finding a cure for the disease, but would also add to our knowledge of the virus’s etymology. In-depth comparative analysis is meant to facilitate an overall agreement and, if things go according to plans, major authors, from China to the United States, will come to a consensus. This may, or may not, happen, but that is the goal.

Diametrically opposed to this perspective are the postmodernists. Be prepared, they have no patience for science. For them the real is substituted, as in Baudrillard, by the “hyper real” which is related, at best, to the tactile world through the medium of signs. Derrida, the lead singer of postmodernism, declared that a text is a dubious phenomenon as “it hides its composition and the rules of its game...” This concealment allows for meta narratives to pretentiously claim “truth”. Lyotard limpidly articulates the consequence of this view when he states: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta narratives...” Now what exactly does this big word “meta narrative” mean? Answer: Anything that is connected to the enlightenment ideal of science and technology, and that also includes contemporary advances in artificial intelligence.

Instead of the grand, or meta, narrative of science, postmodernists prefer what Derrida would call “free play”. This is a shifting, flirtatious condition, unconstrained by any methodological principle that science is obliged to work under. There is now no “origin” and no “zero degree”, or, as Baudrillard would argue, we only experience the “hyper real”. If one were to accept Hélène Cixous, it is important that we “fly”, under such conditions, on independent propulsion. A more radical reading might even conclude that scientific theories are patriarchal and gender laden. Finally, as the bestselling author, Helene Hegemann, said, “There is no such thing as originality, only authenticity.” If the author is authentic to the self, every text is as good as any other.

Where does all of this leave science? Under a rock!

Also read | Trump says he spoke ‘sarcastically’ about injecting disinfectants

Trump and ‘authenticity’

Now watch how Mr. Trump is actually a living, breathing, in fact, a breathtaking postmodernist. He is not faithful to any one position, but can move freely between them without constraint because he believes, and so do his followers, that he is truly authentic. Mr. Trump initially commended the Chinese when COVID-19 first entered the U.S. and said he had “very good conversations” with Xi Jinping and had “much respect for him”. He soon changed tack and accused China of being “knowingly responsible” for spreading the disease which he said was, after all, a “Chinese virus”.

Mr. Trump has also sounded messianic on many occasions. At one time he confidently proclaimed that, “One day, it’s like a miracle — it [COVID-19] will disappear.” As recently, as two weeks back he prophesied: “I said it is going away — and it is.” He wished hard that COVID-19 would up and leave so that on “Easter Sunday, and you’ll have packed churches all over our country.” Evidence for any of this? None. Yet, on another register we must admit that Mr. Trump was being authentic because everything he said was straight from the heart.

Also read | Failure to stop coronavirus at source led to 184 countries ‘going through hell,’ says Trump

Likewise he pumped up the demand for hydroxychloroquine, calling it a “game changer” and a “gift from heaven”. When he was confronted by contrary evidence from the other corner of the ring, by Dr. Anthony Fauci (the scientist heading the White House’s COVID-19 Task Force), Mr. Trump retorted, “I am not a doctor. But I have common sense.” He was, in other words, in close contact with the “hyper real”. There were speculations, at one time, that perhaps it was not all hyper real. He was probably rooting for hydroxychloroquine because he has financial interest in Sanofi, a pharma company that produces the drug. But that would be too realistic an explanation.

This is why, true to his postmodern condition, he has now dumped his once near complete conviction in hydroxychloroquine and is seriously dating cleaning agents instead. He seems to be quite sure these liquids can knock out COVID-19 virus “in a minute…by injection inside”. This frightened disinfectant companies, including the producers of Lysol, to issue a public notice warning people not to put cleaning liquids into their blood stream. Such “scientific” reactions leave Mr. Trump undeterred as he is not faithful to any text. He sways, bobs and weaves by instincts that come straight from the heart.

There have been some facile comparisons between Mr. Trump and other world leaders who have shown dictatorial tendencies. The big difference between them lies in the fact that Mr. Trump believes in nothing for more than a short duration. On the other hand, those like Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), or Rodrigo Duterte (the Philippines), have long-term commitments to a single point of view.

Mr. Bolsonaro, for example, has remained steadfast in his dismissal of COVID-19 as a threat. He has been consistently contemptuous, from start to finish, of any attempts to curb the virus. It was as if SARS-CoV-2 was just a little grit in one’s mouth. Mr. Trump, as we have seen, is different. He has playfully toyed with different texts and recommended a variety of cures, always reading out of hyper-real situations that spring authentically from inside him.

Would Derrida or Lyotard, or any postmodernists, ever have known that one day, sitting in their corner, pugilistic as ever, would be Donald Trump, the President of the United States?

Dipankar Gupta is Retired Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

We have been keeping you up-to-date with information on the developments in India and the world that have a bearing on our health and wellbeing, our lives and livelihoods, during these difficult times. To enable wide dissemination of news that is in public interest, we have increased the number of articles that can be read free, and extended free trial periods. However, we have a request for those who can afford to subscribe: please do. As we fight disinformation and misinformation, and keep apace with the happenings, we need to commit greater resources to news gathering operations. We promise to deliver quality journalism that stays away from vested interest and political propaganda.

Support Quality Journalism
Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 1, 2020 12:45:58 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-critical-study-of-trump-the-postmodernist/article31466682.ece

Next Story