Raimond Gaita on Donald Trump's America: a cloud cuckoo land devoid of fact, evidence and argument

Raimond Gaita | First published: 15 November 2016, 23:04 IST
Donald Trump campaign
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP

Many people in America and elsewhere are scared of what Donald Trump will do. As I write, some are in the street protesting that he is not "their president". Type "What did Trump say?" into Google and it will be obvious why.

Many of the same people are also bewildered, still incredulous that he became even the Republican candidate, let alone the president-elect. Never has a candidate in a Western democracy shown such contempt for the conventions upon which democratic accountability depends. Never has a politician seeking office insulted and threatened so many of his fellow citizens. Trump is praised for giving voice to the justifiable anger of a "forgotten" white working class, but in doing it, he encouraged contempt - even hatred - of many of their fellow citizens and reckless disregard of the kind of man he is and what he said he would do.

Commentators now describe him as an unconventional politician who ran an unconventional campaign. Is it merely unconventional to threaten to ban Muslim immigration? To lament the fact you cannot any more just take hecklers at a rally aside and "beat the shit out of them"? To express pleasure at the prospect of torturing suspected terrorists in ways "far worse" than waterboarding them? To lead crowds in the chant "lock her up", when the person they are referring to is your opponent in the race for the presidency? To display such contempt for women that most prominent Republicans disowned him?

One could go on. To call him unconventional, or even radically unconventional, is to forget how important are the conventions, often unspoken, that enable decency in politics. He has poured a can of excrement over those conventions.

Trump also did something that, while it might seem less dramatic, is, perhaps more dangerous. His demagoguery took political discourse in America to a place where it lost contact with reality. We normally think of demagoguery as a threat to reasonable discussion because it whips up fear, resentment, hatred and prejudice to such pitch that it throws reason into a ditch.

But demagoguery can displace reason - or, as I prefer to put it, the conditions of sober critical judgement - more radically and more dangerously though it is not overthrown by emotion and prejudice. Trump did that. I shall try to explain why I say that.

The end of reason

We know politicians sometimes lie. Indeed, we know that political life would be impossible were that not so. But I do not remember anyone in mainstream democratic politics who lied so shamelessly, so often and so fast, that the fact-checkers could not keep up with him.

Trump's disdain of facts and argument became so persistent and extreme, that he took his supporters - and America with them - into a place where he eroded the conditions that enable the application of concepts of fact, evidence and argument. Or, more precisely, to where argument can make, or fail to make, evidence out of facts. His demagoguery took from reason, not the calm necessary for its operation, but the concepts necessary for its application.

English writer G.K. Chesterton said that

A madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

He said this in a polemic on behalf of intuition against reason, which I do not support. But his point can be put more generally like this: the proper functioning of reason depends on being in contact with reality, but it cannot secure that contact.