The Trump Card

A recent exchange following Jurgen Habermas’ 90th birthday reminded me of something I had written two years ago. The exchange is quite interesting — it confronts the limits of discourse in democracy as well as the legacy of Habermas in the face of Brexit, Trump, and the recent rise of illiberalism (particularly in the figure of Putin). You can read the initial article by Raymond Geuss here and then replies, from Seyla Benhabib and Martin Jay.

I wrote the article below in April or May of 2016 and submitted it to the NYTimes “The Stone” column. It was a long shot, but was the best venue I could think of. They said it didn’t fit or something. BTW, what a bizarre interaction that was… Anyway, the Habermas dispute reminded me of my article and I went back and read it. It stands up surprisingly well. Since then, I’ve written some stuff on no-platforming and politics. So, I’m quite a bit more sympathetic to the limits of discourse perspective. The whole thing has me thinking…


One of the most exhilarating and frustrating things about teaching philosophy to first-year undergraduate students is that it is difficult to make clear what constitutes my expertise in the subject. Of course, I know things about philosophy books and philosophical figures that my students don’t, but this is not the same thing as demonstrating expertise in making philosophical judgments.

I suppose most people have had this experience in conversations about politics where there are no clear boundaries and standards about what makes one set of beliefs better than another. It’s a sort of conceptual vertigo brought about by a contest without referee or rulebook where one is genuinely unclear what is worthy of value or admiration. It’s not obvious why we should accept one person’s view of what is politically right rather than another’s. And it’s not obvious when someone has broken the rules of political discourse. This is probably what leads a lot of people to give up and concede that nobody can be right, any person’s moral judgment is just as good as another — even though we know that this can’t be correct.

The reason for feeling conceptual vertigo, I believe, is that one arrives at judgments in both philosophy and politics only by carefully weighing competing views and interests. There is no formula for making these judgments except, perhaps, dialogue – either external or internal. Political (and philosophical) judgments are best arrived at after we allow competing interests a fair chance to state their case. This may be the purest motivation for entertaining the long “debate season” in US presidential politics.

And yet, Donald Trump’s rise to political leadership in the US Republican party seems to defy this optimistic view. Trump is not a politician who clearly articulates an ideological vision of government or embodies the most compelling political judgment. Instead, what Trump embodies, more than anything else, is power. I think this is both his appeal and his danger. And at least part of that appeal and danger can be understood by what I’m calling the Trump Card.

Aristotle was the first to codify the rules and strategies of discourse, what he called dialectic, in his Topics and Sophistical Refutations. One of the most important insights that Aristotle makes is that the rules of discourse change based on their context, including the status of the participants and their goals. For instance, the rules are different for a dialogue between a student and a teacher than they are for peers or enemies. Similarly, the rules are different if your aim is persuasion rather than truth. These rules operate in the background of every discussion, a hidden structure that enables conversation, and yet they can shift and change depending on the circumstances. This can be confusing, but it need not be.

Jurgen Habermas has done more to develop a sort of Aristotelian (by way of Kant’s transcendental analytic) articulation of dialectic in political theory than any other contemporary philosopher. In briefest form, Habermas developed “discourse theory” of political judgment. For Habermas, political positions are assessed by considering what the affected parties would claim in an ideal discourse. The basic insight is that reasons for or against any given political position are never one-sided. There are always competing interests and views. And it’s impossible to decide beforehand which views have legitimacy and which do not. In fact, the very notion of legitimacy — which rules to follow — is frequently the most hotly contested part of the debate. The only way to decide between competing positions is to introduce concrete facts and claims made by actors engaged in discourse where each side agrees to allow the other a fair hearing. The goal of discourse theory is to follow the logic of each side and allow the logic of each position to address the contested issues. After a fair hearing, one has to make a judgment that is grounded in the reasons provided by each side.

Habermas’s view obviously leaves a lot to be determined and it relies on an almost impossible ideal of impartiality, but it tells us something very important about the nature of political claims: it highlights the fact that what makes for the right decision or action in any circumstance under dispute is unclear until we allow the logic of competing arguments to play themselves out. In order for this to happen, we have to accept some very basic standards of discourse. We have to be willing to hear reasons from parties we disagree with and we have to be willing to follow the logic of their argument through.

I suspect that many people understand this basic insight. It’s probably why procedural due process and the first amendment are so dear to US political culture. It’s also probably why critics become so frustrated with the various “cards” thought to be played by traditionally disadvantaged groups: the “race card,” the “woman card,” the “microagression card.” These maneuvers are a sort of trump card in the back and forth of political discourse. In effect, they shut down further dialogue by announcing a claim so strong that it’s impossible to hear any contrary claim.

Frustration with these sorts of trump cards is real and it is probably a large part of the appeal of Donald Trump’s rejection of “political correctness.” And yet, it would be a mistake not to recognize that Trump and his supporters also play a potent card that goes beyond shutting down any particular political debate. When we pay attention to the logic of many of Trump’s rhetorical moves, we can see that what he does best is to deny dialogue, to reject even the most minimal standards of discourse. When Donald Trump refuses to answer a legitimate question, turns the tables with insult or mockery, changes the subject, makes an obviously false denial, or openly denies a former position he had held, he is playing the Trump Card. The Trump Card shuts down the very possibility of debate. The Trump Card refuses to answer to, listen to, or even acknowledge an opposing view. It refuses to put forward a position that could be open to attack. It is the sheer exertion of power, the refusal to engage.

Near the end of Ted Cruz’s campaign, when he attempted to engage some hecklers outside of a Trump rally, he experienced Trump supporters playing the Trump Card. Cruz, of course, is a master of debate, an expert at political rhetoric. But when he attempted to engage these Trump supporters in a simple dialogue, he was shut down. Trump’s supporters simply refused to respond with any sort of reasonable dialogue. “Can I ask you something?” “No” “Can I ask you something?” “No.”

When Donald Trump announces a position and then rescinds it days later or when he refuses to put forth a coherent policy position, many people see a candidate who lacks political substance. But what he lacks in policy substance, he more than makes up for in announcing a feeling of power, the sheer force of will. You can’t pin Trump down because he refuses to play by anyone’s rules but his own. This is probably clearer to Trump supporters than his detractors, which is why he does so well among people concerned about national security and national decline.

One of the problems with a political position founded on the projection of power is that once it loses power, it lacks any other foundation to stand on. As long as Trump is winning in the nomination process, beating the polls, and defying expectations, his projection of power appears to have real substance. But we should worry what will happen when that power is really tested. What lies behind it? What set of beliefs and actions really support the projection of force? Even more seriously, we should be concerned about conceding such a brazen display of rhetorical force in our political discourse. Without some basic, shared sense that other views deserve a hearing no matter how much we disagree with them, without some minimally shared standards of discourse, it’s hard to see how we can arrive at any rational judgments in political matters. And once the projection of power evaporates, the sense of vertigo will be pervasive. We will have stepped through the looking glass, where we will have lost the capacity to tell good from bad and right from wrong.