In a New York Times op-ed piece, Thomas B. Edsall asks “Is President Trump a Stealth Postmodernist or Just a Liar?” Intrigued by the question, I scrolled through the article, finding that writers on both the left and the right have linked Trump to postmodernism. For the left, Jeet Heer connects Trump’s appeals to nostalgia (“Make America Great Again”), his fragmented and fragmentary tweets, and his conflation of make believe and reality as “the perfect manifestation of postmodernism.” And on the right, David Ernst sees the rejection of truth and embrace of relativism as clear signs of postmodernism at work.
While it’s impossible to imagine Trump reading about—or knowing anything about—postmodernist thought (impossible!!), the popular understanding of postmodernism as positing a rejection of objective truth and as agreeing that “anything goes” or “everything is relative” is widespread and featured in various bouts of culture wars in the last couple of decades.
Edsall notes that “scholars of contemporary philosophy argue that postmodernism does not dispute the existence of truth per se, but rather seeks to interrogate the sources and interests of those making assertions of truth.” Had Edsall consulted scholars of contemporary rhetoric and writing studies, he might have learned much the same. Kenneth Burke spoke (and wrote) out repeatedly against what he called “vulgar relativism,” all the while showing how humans together make or construct or build truths that can be accepted as “true,” but “true” without a capital T. Rhetorical theory offers doxa as a useful way to think about knowledge and opinion, presenting doxa as that knowledge that can be taken for granted, or that is widely agreed upon. For Aristotle, doxa was a useful early step in the path to knowledge, a place to begin constructing what can be assumed true through the process of argument and counterargument. As such, doxa is important to the working of a democratic society.
Later in his article, Edsall notes the work of Lyotard, who defines postmodern as “incredulity toward metanarratives’” rather than as an abandonment of any semblance of objectivity or truthfulness. He also refers to Andrew Cutrofello, a professor at Loyola University Chicago, who says that “In the present political climate truth and power have become uncoupled to a certain extent” so that it’s natural to wonder whether the notion of truth has been undermined. But Cutrofello suggests instead that rather than losing the category of objective truth, we are mired in “a battle over who has objective truth on their side.”
Which brings me back to the President and his seeming indifference to truth and to the norms that have guided writers and speakers for generations. As E. J. Dionne, Norman Ornstein, and Thomas Mann put it in One Nation after Trump, we’ve never had a president
who aroused such grave and widespread doubts about his commitment to the institutions of self-government, to the norms democracy requires to the legitimacy of opposition in a free republic, and to the need for basic knowledge about major policy questions and about how government works.
Rhetoric, so often maligned as “just hot air,” is the discipline and art that helps us to understand how norms develop, whose ends they serve, and how they can be used in the pursuit of knowledge and action that come as close to truth as it’s possible to get. As a rhetorician, I took the lessons of postmodernism that made sense from a rhetorical perspective (that truths are constructed, that our understanding is often flawed and fragmentary, and that grand narratives and essentialism are dangerous roads to travel). But I did not give up attempts to build knowledge that aims at truthfulness, that tries to establish common ground on which people with opposing views can stand, and argue, and counterargue.
While President Trump seems to understand, viscerally, how to say what he believes people want to hear, and while he employs some rhetorical techniques effectively, he does not do so in the pursuit of truthfulness. He does not use doxa to build toward such informed and agreed-upon knowledge. So perhaps rhetoricians would agree with Johanna Oksala, professor of social science and cultural studies at the Pratt Institute, who wrote in response to Edsall’s question, “I don’t think Trump should be called a postmodern president, but simply a liar.” For all his power, neither should he be called a rhetor or a rhetorician.
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