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.


NSCS Induction Keynote

I had the chance to provide the keynote address at the induction ceremony for the HCC Chapter of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars on November 18, 2018. I have been an advisor (now co-advisor) of the chapter since it was founded in 2010 but this was the first opportunity I had to be the main speaker at induction.

As it happened, I got the invitation less than a week before the event, so without much time to prepare, I went to pretty familiar terrain: a defense of the humanities. The speech could probably use some work, but I thought it might be worthwhile to post it publicly.

Thank you to the officer board, NSCS national office, and Houston Community College for inviting me to talk to you on the occasion of this induction. When Romina asked me to speak at induction, she said that she thought there wouldn’t be anyone better to speak to the society than someone who had been part of it from the beginning.

So, just to make sure she regrets that decision, I thought I’d start with a joke.

Isn’t it annoying when engineering students call themselves engineers? I mean, you never hear medical students call themselves doctors, or philosophy students call themselves baristas.

It gets a laugh because, I suppose, everyone has heard some version of the warning: don’t major in philosophy or you’ll be serving coffee at Starbucks. A couple of years ago, Marco Rubio made a big splash arguing that the world needs more welders and fewer philosophers. In response, academics and statisticians pointed out that, in fact, the career earning potential of philosophers is pretty close to the average earning potential of finance majors. While the highest earning fields are in engineering, a disproportionate number of entrepreneurs and CEOs studied philosophy.

The same argument can be made for the other humanities disciplines, like, English, History, or Art. A recent study by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, found that the employment rate for humanities majors is very close to the average for all college graduates. And, while career earnings for those majors are slightly below average, people who majored in the humanities report higher levels of career fulfillment and happiness than their peers. So, even if these humanities majors make less money, it may be because they pursue careers that sacrifice some earning potential for greater well-being.

Much more importantly, the gap in employment and earning potential between different majors is insignificant compared to the gap in employment and earning potential between bachelor’s degree recipients those who have not received a degree. While the median earnings of bachelor’s degree holders range from $35,000/year to $80,000/year immediately after graduation, the median earnings of those with only a high school degree is under $30,000/year. And when you look at mid-career earnings that gap becomes wider. High school graduates, on average, have limited ability to advance beyond entry-level pay, whereas the median bachelor’s degree earner rises from around $50,000 out of college to $70,000 10 years later. That ability to increase pay as you progress through your career translates to several hundred thousand dollars in lifetime earning potential.

And, yet, there is a growing segment of the population who question the value of a college degree. The Kinder Institute at Rice University does an annual survey of the Houston area. In 2017, they reported, for the first time, that in some demographics of Houston area residents, a majority no longer believe that a college degree is necessary for success. What is going on? The evidence clearly shows that getting a college education is still the single best thing you can do to improve your earning potential. And, yet, fewer people believe that to be true.

You know, it reminds me of another joke:

A young woman is at a job interview and the manager says, “Listen, I like you, you’re smart, but if you want to be successful at this company, you’re going to have to forget everything you learned in college.” To which she replies, “Well, that’s good news because I never went to college.”

The manager looks at his notes and responds, “Oh, I’m sorry, there’s been some mistake. You’re not qualified for this position.”

I think this says something about what’s driving our beliefs about college education – we know college is important, but we don’t know why. In fact, we sometimes recognize that what you learn in college is not directly applicable to the job you do after college. So what is the value of higher education?

I have an answer to that question, but I’m going to postpone it for a moment because I’d like to stop and reflect on this evening, on why you all are here looking lovely, with your family and friends. Thank you family and friends for coming to support your NSCS inductee. What I want to do is to pause for a moment and consider the origins of this sort of accolade. Why is it that we celebrate scholarship like this?


If you look at the NSCS seal, you’ll see that it employs classical symbols, like the torch, symbolizing enlightenment, the book, representing learning, and the laurel, representing a crown of achievement. We typically associate the laurel with the great Olympians – winners of athletic competitions. But why do we crown high achieving students? I think we have somewhat lost the meaning of that tradition.

In Ancient Greece, intellectual skill and learning were honored, typically by virtue of oration or rhetoric. The greatest politicians and statesmen were known for their excellent speeches. Among these is the funeral oration by Pericles, honoring the dead after a particularly bloody battle in the Peloponnesian Wars. In that speech, Pericles honors the dead, but also encourages the living. He famously links the virtues of love, friendship, bravery, and the ability to endure hardship to democracy. He reasons that those who have a stake in their own government, who are truly free, are more likely to possess these virtues and thus better equipped for war. The speech is a wonderful combination of honor, exhortation, and political philosophy.

Similarly, some of the greatest statesmen of the Roman Republic, including Cicero, were excellent orators. Throughout the classical period, the ability to demonstrate learning through public speaking was highly praised. The skill of public speaking was connected with memory, a good speaker must have a great memory and intelligence. Good rhetoric appeals to an audience’s emotions, but also their intellect. A well-composed speech tells a story with a moral. But, perhaps most importantly, a good speech is thought to stem from the character of the speaker.

In Athens, speakers could test their mettle by delivering speeches in the Athenian “assembly,” a body of 6,000 citizens who were the judges and legislators of the Athenian democracy. This body passed laws and decided civil and criminal cases. And Athenians were notoriously difficult to persuade. They prided themselves on discerning good from bad, right from wrong. And their culture encouraged loud and outspoken expressions of opinion. All of this is to say that if the Assembly considered a speaker boring or false, they wouldn’t tolerate it. Only the best orators could get through a speech without being shouted down or laughed off the stage.

One of the greatest orators of the same era as Pericles was Demosthenes. And while accounts of Demosthenes commend his knowledge of history, his memory, and his hard work, one of the features that stands out about Demosthenes is that it is said that his speeches flowed naturally from his character. He spoke from within himself. The beliefs, virtues, and principles he spoke about emerged from who he was. In other words, his speech and his acts were praised because they emerged from a certain kind of character – they represented an inner virtue that was honorable and praiseworthy.

I am not telling you this because I think that all great orators or politicians are great people. I suspect that you know that’s not the case. Instead, what I’m trying to suggest is that there is a link between words, deeds, and person. Our capacity to demonstrate our knowledge through our actions and words is a manifestation of who we are. I am trying to convince you that the reason why the Ancient Greeks and Romans praised great orators – or the reason why we want our leaders to be smart, well-spoken, and capable people – is that we recognize that our ability to speak and act in ways that are praiseworthy is a function of who we are.

Consider the great public figures of the past who we later find out had many moral failings. What was your reaction when you discovered the infidelities of John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. If they aren’t your heroes, then what was your reaction to the revelation that Ronald Reagan was fairly aloof and disengaged privately, even uncommitted and unaware of basic policy decisions inside his administration. When you learn these things, I suspect you resist and recoil. How is it possible that someone who spoke so eloquently and passionately about the things that motivate you politically could have had such personal failings? This reaction, I think, proves the point. We are shocked at the disconnect between person and words when we discover that the person we admired was not who we thought they were. We struggle to make sense of that picture. I suspect this is one reason why public figures fall from grace so quickly when we discover their personal failings.

The fact that the sins of our heroes stings us is a sign of the close connection we perceive between character and words and deeds. The natural arrangement of things suggests that words and deeds are an outward manifestation, a public representation, of the inner mind. This is why it is so difficult to understand how the two could be at odds, how great public figures could be inwardly flawed. Certainly, we probably expect too much of those we admire, but we also assume – I think for good reasons – that there is a close connection between what you say and do and who you are.

Let’s bring this long detour back to what this evening is all about. I think that this very fact – the close connection between mind, word, and deed – is what we honor at events like this. We honor the promise of great words and deeds, great scholarship and achievement in you because you have shown that you are willing and able to succeed at the college level. You have demonstrated your desire to be a part of a national society of scholars. And we honor that because we recognize that there is a close connection between your mind and your actions. You have the potential to do great things because you have the capacity to think great thoughts.

When we started the HCC chapter of NSCS in the fall of 2010, we inducted 345 new members. I thought that was pretty great. That year, we had a wonderful, active officer board and we achieved bronze star status. The following year, we inducted another 400 members, we won outstanding service event in a project with the University of Houston, and we achieved gold star status. In the summer of 2012, we raised money and organized a service trip to Guatemala. The following fall, we inducted over 900 new members! We would achieve gold star status again in 2014. We’ve done a lot of really amazing things as a society, but the only way this society thrives is if you, the members, participate and get involved. This society is built around its members and student leaders who choose to invest themselves in it. It grows and thrives when you, that’s right you, do interesting things that attract new members.

Right now, you are being drafted into the NSCS as new members because you show promise for future greatness. But whether or not the society is great, whether or not you fulfill your promise is still unknown.

I started this talk by posing a question that you may have heard before. It’s a question that many people ask about college: what is a college education really worth? Does it matter what major I choose? A lot of what is unknown and uncertain about college is the same as what is unknown and uncertain about this society. Will it be worth it? What will you get out of it? Why do it?

I want to close with some thoughts about all of this because, as a professor here at HCC for the past 10 years, and a college instructor for the past 16 years, I have some thoughts on the topic. First of all, I think a lot of people misunderstand the true value of a college education. And when we try to measure the value of higher education by looking to future employment and earnings, we miss the point even more. There’s a connection between these things, but it’s not direct. The reason why higher education is important is actually very tightly linked with the reason why some of the most successful people in the world never graduated from college. I know that sounds crazy, but I think it’s true. The real reason college is important is the very reason why a hiring manager could say in one breath “forget everything you learned in college” and in the next breath “a college degree is required for this position.” In fact, this connection comes down to what I’ve been talking about all along: the development of your character and your mind.

The most amazing thing you have available to you right now, as a college student is something you probably never even think about. The most valuable resources at HCC are your professors, librarians, and huge databases of information, tools, labs, 3-d printers, and machine shops that are accessible to you by virtue of your student ID. Every professor and librarian here has an advanced degree and has spent the better part of their life thinking about some subject. They are an enormous resource. And your student ID, right now, can get you access to 100s of thousands of journal articles, thousands of video titles, 10s of thousands of books, a maker-space with all the cool gadgets you can imagine. But once you graduate, that will all be gone. You will never be in a place where you have direct access to so many smart people and so many academic resources.

The value of higher education is that you get to be in a place where you have the opportunity to learn a little bit about almost any portion of the vast wealth of social knowledge that forms the very foundation of modern civilization. You have the opportunity to absorb that information, to train your mind, and to acquaint yourself with the habits of thought, speech, and writing that are shared by the greatest minds in the world. And the extent to which you take advantage of that, the extent to which you allow your mind, your character, your person to be changed by your access to these resources is the extent to which you will be able to accomplish great things.

Even though Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg never graduated from college, they made their first great insights while at a college campus. They tapped into a vein of knowledge that was available to them because of where they were. The reason why employers want college graduates, even if they know that what you learn in college isn’t directly applicable to the job, is because they want minds that have been touched and shaped by the greatest ideas and thoughts in human civilization.

At the start of this journey, seeking a college degree, joining a society of collegiate scholars, you have the opportunity to be shaped into more than you currently are. You have great potential, but if you are going to be great, you have to be willing to be shaped by the ideas and knowledge that has come from human history. You will need to take advantage of the resources and opportunities you have in front of you. You need to engage your minds in the pursuit of excellence. If you do that, you can wear the pin of NSCS with pride. You will have deserved it.

From the comments

I recently got a comment on an old post of mine from Thorin (is there a name for this kind of thing?). This post was shortly after starting my blog. I feel like I’ve gone through so many phases in my view of my blog that it was interesting to see an old post. What I had to say related to my thoughts on education.

I had quoted from an small piece, written by a Professor John Dolan and published with his obituary in the proceedings of the APA. I did not know and still don’t know anything about John Dolan or his philosophical leanings, running across the article by chance. Anyway, Thorin provides some really interesting insight into Dolan as a teacher. It seems that sometimes the thought can be enlightened while the disposition may sometimes be otherwise.

He also got me thinking about Douglas Hofstadter, which was cool. I remember that discovering Gödel, Escher, Bach in college felt like the opening sequence of The Never Ending Story: as if I walked into a kind of esoteric fairy tale. The argument is interesting and the book is written extremely well. At the time I was an undergraduate obsessed with Derrida and I remember becoming bored with Hofstadter’s focus on was foundations; and I just didn’t buy the AI suggestions.