Books

What Philosophy Can Teach Us About Trump’s America—and What It Can’t

Martha Nussbaum’s new book diagnoses our political crisis but fails to offer a practical cure.

The Monarchy of Fear, Martha Nussbaum.
The Monarchy of Fear, Martha Nussbaum.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo via The University of Chicago.

Is it even possible to be philosophical about the American political situation? In the vernacular sense, maybe not. When, in conversation, a friend says “I’m philosophical about it,” they don’t usually mean that they stand around in a chiton debating the precise meaning and nature of their divorce settlement or that job they didn’t get. To be philosophical, in casual parlance, implies having the perspective that comes with some detachment and the application of reason. Does that describe how anybody you know is thinking or behaving right now?

The ancient Greek Stoics advocated for this particular flavor of the philosophical. “If you are pained by any external thing,” wrote Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor who carried on their thought, “it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.” In other words, don’t let it get to you—not an attitude that seems particularly constructive at the moment. But there are other kinds of philosophers, like the University of Chicago professor Martha C. Nussbaum, who specializes in, among other subjects, the significance and value of emotion in the examined life. At a time when nearly everyone seems to be ping-ponging between outraged panic and utter exhaustion while imploring each other not to disconnect from the political situation entirely, when political discussion increasingly consists of nothing but appeals to emotion, someone like Nussbaum seems better suited to the task of explaining it all than Marcus Aurelius and his ilk.

Nussbaum has written in the past about shame, disgust, and anger. In her new book The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis, she identifies fear as the defining evil of the current moment. This puts her in a tricky position. The idea that emotion isn’t simply the opposite of reason and therefore an obstacle to clear thought—as philosophers have traditionally claimed—has been central to Nussbaum’s work. Emotions, she has argued, are intrinsic to our understanding of the world and ourselves. Perhaps best known for formulating (with the economist Amartya Sen) the “capabilities approach” to assessing a society’s development, Nussbaum included emotion among the 10 “capabilities”—facets of humanity that can be either blighted or allowed to flourish—that are essential to full human dignity. This emotional integrity is what’s at stake with a policy like family separation. Even children of refugees who are adequately fed, housed, and given access to medical treatment while in government custody have been emotionally injured by the trauma of being torn from their parents.

As a primal emotion, Nussbaum admits, fear has its merits. It prompts us to flee dangers and avoid risks, and some would argue that it keeps us vigilant in times of political danger. But Nussbaum argues fear also has “a strong tendency to get ahead of us, propelling us into selfish, heedless, and antisocial actions.” It can get out of hand. That’s what it’s doing right now. Fear is also fundamentally undemocratic. Democracy requires at least some trust in our fellow citizens and institutions, but just as important, Nussbaum writes, “when people feel fearful and powerless, they grasp after control.”

Drawing on the psychological theories of D.W. Winnicott and Melanie Klein, Nussbaum pinpoints fear’s origins in the helplessness of infancy, when we can do nothing for ourselves and depend on mysterious powerful others for food, warmth, comfort—even for the ability to move from place to place. Situations in which we feel helpless trigger these fears, and with them the infant’s terror and wrath at being denied what it needs. “Babies are so weak,” Nussbaum writes, “that they must either rule or die.” They must make “slaves” of adults, typically by screaming (although also by being cute). Babies behave like tyrants because they are weak and fearful, an insight that inspired the 1,500-plus supporters of “Trump Baby”—a crowdfunded, parade-size balloon depicting Donald Trump as a diapered and whining infant—that will float over London when the president visits the city on Friday.

When illustrating her ideas, Nussbaum prefers citing ancient Greek and Roman texts to hauling out the likes of Trump Baby and ICE atrocities. “My aim is to invite reflection, introspection, and critical argument,” she writes, and she feels we do this more readily when “we take a step back from the daily, where our immediate fears and wishes are likely to be at stake.” (Nussbaum, at least, feels able to be philosophical in the conversational sense of the word.) This strategy would be more effective were the classical examples she selects more concrete. Only one or two describe specific historical events. While it’s interesting enough to learn that Lucretius, a Roman philosopher, thought that “wars of conquest are very often caused by a sense of powerlessness and basic vulnerability, which gives rise to the thought that if you extinguish all opposition, you will be safer,” not one specimen from the past, classical or otherwise, is presented to demonstrate this notion.

Which is not to say that it isn’t probably true. Most of what Nussbaum writes in The Monarchy of Fear has the ring not just of truth but sometimes also of truism. Do we really need a philosopher to point out that the current president’s base fears the many changes convulsing our world, changes that make them feel powerless and sidelined? Or that his campaign and the various propaganda outlets that support his presidency have fomented the irrational belief that immigrants (and other foreigners, like our international trading partners) are responsible for these changes, and that cracking down on outsiders will make it possible to turn back the clock? It does help to remember that the fury and vindictive glee Trump’s supporters express toward the “elites” they believe to have dispossessed them is rooted in a fear of falling by the wayside. Blaming and what Nussbaum calls “retributive” anger is partly a type of magical thinking that assumes “the suffering of someone else could solve the group’s or the nation’s problems.”

But it hardly requires a philosopher of Nussbaum’s stature to point these things out, and at times her classical background causes her to gloss over significant observations. Anger may, in almost every human society, carry with it a desire for revenge, but not every society encourages retribution the way America’s does. While “the ancient Greeks and Romans thought that anger was a sign of weakness and either childish or ‘womanish,’ ” she writes, “Retaliation feels manly and strong to many Americans”—and then leaves it at that. Americans feel this way because of the centrality of the mythos of the frontier to our national identity, a mythos sustained by our pop culture, first in the Western, where it is obvious, then later in hard-boiled detective fiction, and most recently in post-apocalyptic narratives.

We may live in a densely networked, technologically sophisticated society, but we dream of adventure beyond the edges of civilization and the law, where we can prove our self-reliance and, when necessary, exact rough justice against those who have wronged us. Ancient Greek culture, just barely out of the warlord stage itself, was intent on curbing this sort of primitive, honor-culture ethos for the sake of creating a society that was greater than the sum of a bunch of rugged and usually brutal individuals. Americans fantasize about casting off that type of society to go it alone. (For an in-depth and fascinating examination of this phenomenon, see Richard Slotkin’s 1992 classic, Gunfighter Nation, still the best book on the role of violence in the American imagination.)

Nussbaum’s refusal to acknowledge this facet of American culture can make her seem obtuse about the resistance to communal appeals in the U.S., particularly in the less-educated rural enclaves where many Trump voters live. There, a romantic investment in the virtues of American individualism may be the last, irrational bulwark against acknowledging their own humiliating neediness. In his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance described a neighbor who complained of undeserving moochers taking advantage of “the system” and of the inability of hardworking folks to get ahead despite being a “lifetime welfare recipient” herself.

People will behave better, Nussbaum argues, if we admit our vulnerability and work to create a society where everyone experiences less fear and uncertainty, and a greater sense of positive citizenship. She takes as her model the nonviolent activism of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, and advocates a “mandatory program of youth national civil service” of three years’ duration. One of this program’s purposes would be to expose citizens at a relatively early age to “the diversity of people in their country,” and foster the sense that we all have a stake in each other’s well-being. She knows that most people consider such a program “politically impossible,” but “if people don’t talk about it, it certainly won’t be possible. So, I put my cards on the table.” These are the moments when Nussbaum seems most out of touch with the nation she inhabits. Even the wokest young Berner clamoring for socialism would surely balk at this prospect.

Whom exactly Nussbaum imagines herself to be addressing in The Monarchy of Fear often seems unclear. “My students don’t trust anyone who voted for Trump,” she writes, “and they view such people as like a hostile force, ‘deplorables’ at best, fascists at worst.” Perhaps they are the sort of reader she has in mind: someone who has difficulty perceiving their political opponents as more than cartoon villains. The opponents themselves, let’s face it, are never going to read a book like The Monarchy of Fear.

Nussbaum wants Americans to approach the task of negotiating what our future will look like with more “love,” as she claims philosophy does: not by skirting disagreements or moral judgments, but also “without banishing people from the room, condemning wrong beliefs and bad actions, but treating people, always, with attention and respect.” Realistically, the only citizens paying her the attention and respect of reading her thoughts on this will be those who share her own liberal orientation, and in that respect The Monarchy of Fear seems like a missed opportunity. Understanding what motivates Trump supporters is a lot less difficult than figuring out how to live with them. A nation, unlike a social media feed, can’t be curated to erase all the people whose beliefs we find risible.

The Monarchy of Fear doesn’t help much in this respect. It does assert something important: Anyone campaigning for an alternative to the current regime must talk about the America they want to create more than they focus on the people they’re trying to thwart. It’s too easy to lose track of the need for hope in the day-to-day tit-for-tat of taunting and petty retribution. Nussbaum, who eschews social media, seems oblivious to just how consuming its gamesmanship and rage jags can be. She’s both right about what the correct course should be and completely incapable of telling most of us how to get on it.

Yet Nussbaum is not entirely out of touch with the moment. At the same time I started reading The Monarchy of Fear, many of the writers in my feeds began enthusiastically circulating an article on how journalists can use mediation techniques to stop egging on the mindless and destructive polarization of our political culture, written by Amanda Ripley for Solutions Journalism Network. It’s a remarkable piece, and like Nussbaum’s own work, it focuses on trying to understand the deep emotions underlying hot-button issues, rather than just transcribing the endless bickering over them. It’s much shorter than The Monarchy of Fear, but even if you’re not a journalist, you’re more likely to finish it with a sense of how to talk constructively with the people you disagree with and perhaps even change their minds. As calming as philosophical detachment may sound, a little practicality turns out to be much more welcome.

The Monarchy of Fear by Martha C. Nussbaum. Simon & Schuster.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.