Category: Uncategorized

Special Issue: Trump and the 2016 Election

The Specter of Authoritarianism

by Andrew J. Pierce

ABSTRACT. In this essay, I provide an analysis of the much-discussed authoritarian aspects of Donald Trump’s campaign and early administration. Drawing from both philosophical analyses of authoritarianism and recent work in social science, I focus on three elements of authoritarianism in particular: the authoritarian predispositions of Trump supporters, the scapegoating of racial minorities as a means of redirecting economic anxiety, and the administration’s strategic use of misinformation. While I offer no ultimate prediction as to whether a Trump administration will collapse into authoritarianism, I do identify key developments that would represent moves in that direction.

The unorthodox campaign and unexpected election of Donald Trump has ignited intense speculation about the possibility of an authoritarian turn in American politics. In some ways, this is not surprising. The divisive political climate in the United States is fertile soil for the demonization of political opponents. George W. Bush was regularly characterized as an authoritarian by his left opposition, as was Barack Obama by his own detractors. Yet in Trump’s case, echoes of earlier forms of authoritarianism, from his xenophobic brand of nationalism and reliance on a near mythological revisionist history, to his vilification of the press and seemingly strategic use of falsehoods, appear too numerous to ignore. In this essay, I attempt to provide a sober evaluation of the authoritarian prospects of a Trump administration. As presidential agendas inevitably differ from campaign platforms, much of this analysis will be unavoidably speculative. However, the nature of Trump’s carefully studied campaign, the early actions of his administration, and the wealth of philosophical reflections on earlier forms of authoritarianism provide ample resources to inform such speculation. I focus on three elements of authoritarianism in particular: the authoritarian predispositions of Trump supporters, the scapegoating of racial minorities as a means of redirecting economic anxiety, and the administration’s strategic use of misinformation. While these elements are sometimes thought of as competing causal explanations for the rise of authoritarian regimes, my analysis here has no such explanatory pretensions. I assume that the rise of Trump is attributable to a complex causal network of social forces, including those mentioned here and perhaps others besides.[1] Moreover, I will argue that these elements are not mutually exclusive; that, for example, the authoritarian predispositions emphasized by some political analysts are closely linked to xenophobia and racial intolerance, and that the strategic use of misinformation plays a role in “activating” authoritarian predispositions. In short, my view is that identifying the most statistically significant predictor of supporting authoritarian regimes, or their single most salient causal factor, is less important than attaining a wide-ranging view of their central attributes, thus developing the outlines of a standard by which to judge the Trump and other administrations. Accordingly, while I offer no ultimate prediction as to whether a Trump administration will collapse into authoritarianism, I do identify key developments that would represent moves in that direction.

 

AUTHORITARIANISM AMONG TRUMP SUPPORTERS

If Trump is an authoritarian, then his is a populist authoritarianism, a form of rule in which “a strong, charismatic, manipulative leader rules through a coalition involving key lower-class groups” (Gasiorowski 2006, 111). Thus any study of Trump’s alleged authoritarianism cannot neglect the nature of his appeal to his core supporters, nor the fact that he was propelled to power by a groundswell of support that was largely unanticipated by the Republican establishment that ultimately – though with great initial reservation – nominated him as their party’s presidential candidate. Fortunately, scholarship on authoritarianism has historically emphasized the importance of understanding its psychological appeal, and thereby focused on not just authoritarian rulers and governments themselves, but on their core supporters. Adorno et al.’s study on The Authoritarian Personality (1950) provided the model for this sort of approach, and offers a more general definition of authoritarianism. Adorno et al. identified a number of personality traits that were correlated to ethnocentrism, anti-Semitism, and “anti-democratic” attitudes. Grounded in Freudian psychology, these researchers ultimately located support for authoritarian regimes and policies in childhood pathologies that resulted in rigid adherence to simplified worldviews, strict obedience to authority figures, and fear and distrust of those who do not share this same orientation to the world. And while this particular study has been criticized both for its reliance on empirically questionable Freudian presuppositions and for methodological errors (Stenner 2005; Hetherington and Weiler 2009; Christie and Jahoda 1954), the core idea of an authoritarian personality type remains influential, and continues to be developed and refined by social scientists.[2]

Matthew MacWilliams has recently utilized such a revised authoritarian personality measure to study Trump supporters, and claims as a result of his study that a predisposition to authoritarianism is the single most statistically significant predictor of support for Trump, more significant than race, income, level of education, or other commonly cited correlates (2016). MacWillams used a serious of questions about childrearing that have been shown to capture not only active authoritarian views, but the predisposition to having such views “activated” by threat (Stenner, 2005). High scores on this measure of authoritarian predisposition corresponded to a greater likelihood of supporting Trump over the other contenders for the Republication party nomination.

MacWilliams’ results have been challenged by Wendy Rahn and Eric Oliver (2016), whose own research showed greater predispositions to authoritarianism among supporters of Ted Cruz than among Trump supporters. They claim that anti-elitist populism, manifested in distrust of experts and political elites is the more significant factor that distinguished Trump supporters from supporters of other Republican contenders. But even if Cruz was the preferred candidate of those predisposed to authoritarianism, their study still revealed high levels of authoritarianism in Trump supporters as well. It is thus quite likely that most Cruz supporters turned to Trump supporters when Cruz dropped out of the race, a claim supported by evidence that evangelical Christians overwhelmingly voted for Trump in the general election (Smith and Martinez 2016). But more importantly, anti-elitism is not necessarily opposed to authoritarianism. One might expect authoritarians to submit to the authority of political and other elites, but this misses the fact that authoritarians do not view all forms of authority equally. As MacWilliams puts it:

authoritarians’ sense of order is not necessarily or sole­ly defined by worldly powers. To authoritarians, there are higher powers that delineate right from wrong and good from evil. There are transcendent ways of behaving and being that are enduring, everlasting, and the root of balance and order. These authorities are “morally and ontologically superior” to state or institutional authority and must be obeyed. (2016, 14)

If the actions of social and political elites are viewed as being inconsistent with these higher sources of authority, if they are viewed as unconventional outsiders aiming to upend traditional values, and so on, there is no inconsistency in authoritarians resisting them or their claims to authority. This is precisely the reason that “populist authoritarianism” is not a contradiction in terms, and part of the reason that I have identified that variety of authoritarianism as the relevant one for evaluating Trump’s rise.

Still, Oliver and Rahn’s study might be taken to suggest that support for conservative candidates in general is marked by authoritarian predispositions, such that these predispositions do not uniquely explain support for Trump. Indeed, the study of authoritarianism has historically been plagued by difficulties in disentangling it from conservative political ideologies. This is partly why some scholars of authoritarianism have refined authoritarian personality measures to focus specifically on “Right Wing Authoritarianism” (Altemeyer 1981). Yet one of the advantages of approaches that focus on child-rearing is that they are supposed to get behind ideological commitments and political beliefs. As MacWilliams claims, “authoritarianism is a predisposition that arises causally prior to the political attitudes and behavior that it affects” (2016, 25). In principle then, it should be able to identify latent authoritarian tendencies as well as explicit authoritarian beliefs, as expressed, for example, in some varieties of conservative ideology. Nothing in Oliver and Rahn’s study suggests that the measure fails to do that, but it does perhaps suggest that, in order to understand the distinctiveness of a Trump presidency, we must look at the actions and ideologies of Trump himself, and of his campaign and administration, in addition to the psychological predispositions of his supporters. With this in mind, I now turn to one such tendency of Trump’s governing strategy: the tendency toward racial scapegoating.

 

RACIAL SCAPEGOATING

While MacWilliams presents authoritarianism as an alternative to explanations that focus specifically on race and the alleged racial resentment of many Trump supporters, it is clear that the two factors are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one of the key features of authoritarianism is its fear and suspicion of those who are different, as Adorno’s general definition suggests, and racial difference is one of the most visible and, in the United States, historically salient forms of such difference. It is not necessary here to decide on conceptual grounds whether the manipulation of racial attitudes is a necessary feature of authoritarianism. It is enough to note that, empirically, authoritarian regimes often employ this strategy. Including an analysis of this sort also helps especially to clarify how exactly populist authoritarian leaders manipulate “key lower class groups.” Trump’s campaign certainly employed this strategy, effectively playing upon the anxieties of the white working class regarding their perceived cultural marginalization in the face of the increasing racial diversity of the United States. Yet analyses of Trump’s rise that focus specifically on racial resentment often neglect the economic dimension of Trump’s support among the white working classes. The geographical locations where Trump found the most support are areas where traditional sources of employment have been rendered obsolete or moved overseas, where free trade agreements like NAFTA are viewed with suspicion, and where the social effects of economic marginalization manifested in things like drug addiction have wreaked havoc.[3] These two features – economic marginalization and racial resentment – are not unrelated. The economic marginalization of a subset of the white working class provides fertile ground for racial scapegoating. Here again, the analyses of those writing in the wake of earlier forms of authoritarianism is instructive.

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno aimed to show that German anti-Semitism was intentionally cultivated as a means of redirecting discontent arising from economic exploitation. In their words, German anti-Semitism served a specific purpose: “to conceal domination in production” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, 142). While European Jews had historically been excluded from ownership of major industries, they had, according to Horkheimer, Adorno, and other social theorists of the time including Hannah Arendt (1976), achieved some success integrating the “circulation sphere,” including what we would now call the financial sector, as well as small business ownership. This social position made the Jew an easy scapegoat for the most basic injustice of capitalism, the extraction of surplus value, i.e. profit, from the wage-laborer. This is allegedly because the workers “find out the true nature of the exchange only when they see what they can buy with [their wages]” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, 142). Thus the injustice of capitalist wage labor is projected onto the merchant and the banker, and “the economic injustice of the whole class is attributed to him” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, 142). This produces what Horkheimer and Adorno call a “socially necessary illusion” (necessary, presumably, for the maintenance of the economic status quo, not in any ultimate sense), that “the circulation sphere is responsible for exploitation” (2002, 143). This form of scapegoating is expressed finally in their claim that “in the image of the Jew which the racial nationalists hold up before the world they express their own essence” (2002, 137). The exploitation that they attribute to the Jew is really a projection of their own exploitative nature, and in unleashing violence against these substitute exploiters, the masses feel a false sense of emancipation, while remaining within the established “reality principle” of capitalist exploitation.

Interestingly, Horkheimer and Adorno’s theory also describes the way that this form of scapegoating relied on what contemporary race theorists call “racialization” – the transformation of a social group into a racial group (Omi and Winant 2014). Prior to the early twentieth century, and even in the earlier writings of critical theorists (Horkheimer 1989), the “Jewish question” was primarily considered to be a matter of cultural and religious difference. As Marx put it, “the most stubborn form of the opposition between the Jew and the Christian is the religious opposition” (1978, 28). In contrast to this view, Horkheimer and Adorno point out, German fascism understood Jewishness first and foremost in racial terms, thus distancing itself from the “liberal thesis” which held that “the Jews, free of national or racial features, form a group through religious belief and tradition and nothing else” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, 137). The Nazis thus attributed to Jews a shared biological essence, solidified in both law and social practice. The Nuremburg Laws, for example, like the so-called “one drop rule” in the United States, included precise specifications of who was to count as a Jew, in order to eliminate any element of voluntary self-identification (or, perhaps more to the point, dis-identification). In this way, the group targeted for scapegoating is identified and fixed in a more or less stable form.

The psychoanalytic foundations of Horkheimer and Adorno’s scapegoat theory are as apparent here as they are in Adorno’s theory of the “authoritarian personality.” But as with Adorno’s reflections on authoritarianism, the observation that authoritarian forms of rule tend to rely on this sort of scapegoating does not rise or fall with one’s acceptance of the psychoanalytic framework.[4] Nor must one accept the Marxist framework upon which their theory of capitalist exploitation draws. The key idea is simply that scapegoating occurs as a response to a real economic crisis, which results in political dissent of a sort that threatens the vested interests of those who hold economic power, which is then redirected toward vulnerable minority groups. Scapegoating of this sort has certainly played some role in Trump’s rise to power. White working class communities that have experienced the loss of low-skill manufacturing jobs, decreasing tax revenue, crumbling infrastructure, and general social anomie have proven incredibly responsive to explanations that link these phenomena to the (perceived) influx of immigrants from the south. Growing white anxiety about misleading reports that whites will soon become a minority in the United States due to increased immigration from non-European nations compounds these economic fears (Passel and Cohn 2008; Pierce 2015). This shows that it is not immigration per se that worries Trump supporters, but a racialized immigration that challenges white control over power and resources. While such racial anxiety is in some form as old as the United States itself, it was manipulated masterfully by the Trump campaign.

Again, the link between this sort of scapegoating and the authoritarian character of Trump’s appeal must be emphasized. Debates about which factor has greater explanatory salience can easily miss the ways in which they are closely intertwined. Authoritarian predispositions are “activated” by threat, and scapegoating represents targeted groups as both economic and existential threats. Mexicans not only threaten “our” jobs, but are also represented as murderers, rapists and all around “bad hombres,” responsible for (fictional) increases in crime and disorder. Their perceived threat to law and order is surpassed only by those from the Arab world, who are equated with terrorism and “radical Islam.” Such threats must be rooted out by any means necessary, and so racial profiling and increasingly invasive police practices are tolerated within our borders, and broadly restrictive immigration measures, physical barriers, and other imprecise responses are promoted as a means of fortifying them.

While it is true that these forms of scapegoating target minority identities that are not technically racial (at least not by the United States’ own official system of racial classification[5]), there is a gap between “official” and popular understandings of race when it comes to Arabic Muslims and “Hispanic” groups. For example, the myriad reports of impending white minority almost always focus on non-Hispanic whites as the relevant demographic for measuring when whites will fall beneath fifty percent of the overall population. And even if Trump supporters’ aversions to Arabs or Muslims appear to be primarily cultural or religious aversions, the rarity of distinguishing between culture, region, and religion in the discourses surrounding immigration from the Middle East demonstrate the increasing racialization of this group (Sheth 2009). These examples show that the folk understanding of race may not match up with official racial categories – that Hispanics and Arabs are commonly thought of as being racially distinct from non-Hispanic, non-Arab whites. As tools like the Census are integral to defining and categorizing populations as “racial,” it will be interesting to see how a Trump administration approaches the 2020 Census, and in particular whether some effort is made to distinguish Arabs and Middle-Eastern populations from “whites.”

Finally, new research suggests that it is not just economic marginalization, but economic inequality in general that contributes to authoritarian attitudes, which in turn make their possessors amenable to racial scapegoating. The “relative power” theory of Frederick Solt holds that economic inequality leads to inequality in power and thereby produces hierarchy. This hierarchy in turn “mak[es] experiences that reinforce vertical notions of authority more common and so authoritarianism more widespread” (Solt 2012, 703). In short, if the economic structure of a society requires or rewards submission to the authority of employers, benefactors, and those with more economic power, this sort of subservience is likely to be seen as normal, and thereby transferred to the sphere of political (or familial) authority, where it can be exploited to support xenophobic policies that purport to address complex social and economic issues.

Combining the insights of the scapegoat theory and the relative power theory then, one can say that societies with a high degree of economic inequality will produce heightened levels of authoritarian predispositions, and that these heightened authoritarian predispositions are more easily activated in times of economic or political crisis, or among economically marginalized populations. Given that capitalism is prone to both extreme inequality and frequent crisis, it is fair to say that it will reliably produce such authoritarian attitudes, especially in those that become economically marginalized. Scapegoating will thus appear as an easy solution to any legitimation crisis that might arise. Trump’s campaign and early administration has relied heavily on this ready solution, and one can expect that it will rely on it even more heavily in the case that crises within the administration and within the United States itself deepen.

 

TRUTH, POWER, AND PROPHESY

A final, much discussed feature of Trump’s alleged authoritarianism is his seeming indifference to truth. Trump is by no means the first politician to employ a strategy of deceit and falsehood. But generally, politicians lie through omission, or in ways that can be easily retracted or reinterpreted. Trump’s cavalier and easily repudiated use of falsehoods regarding matters large and small has struck many observers as unique. Here many analysts have referred to Arendt’s comments on the matter in Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt claims that authoritarian regimes are marked by their “extreme contempt for facts as such” (1976, 350).[6] Moreover, she explains, “the chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error” (1976, 348–49). Yet the authoritarian orientation to the truth is misunderstood, she claims, if it is viewed as an attempt at factual accuracy. Rather, the “propaganda effect” of such pronunciations consists in their “habit of announcing their political intentions in the form of prophesy” (Arendt 1976, 349). Once authoritarian rulers attain power, “all debate about the truth or falsity of a … prediction is as weird as arguing with a potential murderer about whether his future victim is dead or alive” (1976, 350). Among the examples she discusses are both predictions (Hitler’s claim that if “Jewish Financiers” brought about a second world war, the result would be their annihilation) and factual claims (the USSR’s claim that Moscow possessed the world’s only subway system), which she characterizes also as kinds of “prophesy,” since such assertions are lies “only so long as the Bolsheviks have not the power to destroy all the others” (1976, 350).

Some of the falsehoods that the Trump administration traffics in could be understood in this way. The baseless claim that three-to-five million undocumented immigrants voted illegally in the general election, for example, was taken by some as “telegraphing his administration’s intent to provide cover for longstanding efforts by Republicans to suppress minority voters by purging voting rolls, imposing onerous identification requirements and curtailing early voting” (New York Times Editorial Board 2017). Trump also claimed that the U.S. murder rate was at a 47 year high when it was actually at a 45 year low, and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions repeated similarly false claims about increasing crime rates, calling the increase a “dangerous, permanent trend” (Beckett 2017; FBI 2017). Recalling the importance of threat to activating authoritarian predispositions, these claims serve both to shore up obedience in general and to signal an intent to “get tough” on crime, continuing the legacy of criminalization that undergirds the repression of minority groups.[7]

But perhaps most troubling, and less discussed, are the claims that look more like “prophesy” than assertion. For example, when a federal judge issued a stay on his Executive Order temporarily banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, Trump tweeted “just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!” (Trump 2017). While the claim that people were “pouring in” could be disputed on factual grounds, the more important aspect of this message is found in its prophetic character, and the precedent it sets for blaming the judiciary for any future attack that might occur. Given the high likelihood of some act of terrorism occurring at some point in Trump’s presidency, this message sets the groundwork for consolidating power in a truly authoritarian fashion. Despite recent increases (likely due to the generalized, post-victory optimism of Trump supporters) public approval ratings of Congress remain at historic lows. This demonstrates a lack of faith in the effectiveness of the legislative branch of government. If faith in the judiciary were similarly undermined, the stage would be set for reigning in its powers, and undermining the system of checks and balances designed to prevent autocracy.

Understanding this strategy provides a basis for responding to an important objection to characterizations of Trump’s administration as authoritarian. One might identify as key features of authoritarianism (as a political system, as opposed to a psychological predisposition) the consolidation of executive power, the elimination of effective checks on that power from legislatures, judiciaries, and the press, repression of opposition parties, and repression of political opposition more broadly. Trump’s early administration does not seem to have consolidated power or repressed dissent in this way. To the contrary, his actions appear to have produced levels of dissent, protest, and pushback, from citizens, from the media, from opposing political parties, and in some cases even from the Republican Party itself, not seen in the United States in some time. Perhaps this indicates that worries about Trump ushering in an era of authoritarian repression and control are exaggerated.

It does seem unlikely that a Trump administration will succeed in outlawing the Democratic Party, disbanding Congress, or replacing independent journalism with state-sponsored channels of propaganda. For this reason, it seems premature to declare the Trump administration definitively authoritarian. However, it is equally unwise to ignore Trump’s clear pretensions to authoritarianism: his disdain for judges and legislators alike, his attempts to delegitimize protest and resistance with conspiratorial fantasies of shadowy puppet masters, paid operatives, and terrorist infiltrators, and his attempts to exclude certain news media from White House press briefings, to bypass journalistic channels entirely, communicating with the public through Twitter, and to create his own news organization. If some of Trump’s intentions and preferred methods of rule are indeed authoritarian, this is reason enough to pay close attention to changes in the political environment that might create possibilities to introduce such methods.

For example, Trump has already flirted with the dangerous possibility of simply disregarding judicial review of his policies. When the first federal judges issued a temporary stay on Trump’s January 27th travel ban, the Department of Homeland Security originally announced its intention to continue to enforce the provisions of the order in spite of the early rulings. Thankfully, the administration changed course as public outrage grew and additional decisions reinforced and expanded the initial rulings. But it is easy to imagine that if public opinion turned against the judiciary (perhaps as a result of acts of terrorism as prophesied by Trump’s tweet), such a strategy of disregard might appear more feasible to Trump’s administration. A major terrorist attack on the United States would also provide a convenient premise for expanding executive power and restricting the constitutional rights of citizens, following precedents set in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

In short then, while it is premature to conclude that the Trump administration is an authoritarian regime, I have identified three authoritarian elements of his campaign and early administration that should be carefully monitored, and shown how these elements are inter-related. Authoritarian regimes appeal to the authoritarian inclinations of their supporters, and such inclinations do appear to be present at significant levels among Trump’s supporters. These inclinations make Trump supporters amenable to policies and explanations that scapegoat vulnerable racial minorities (as well as contribute to the “racialization” of groups that were previously not thought to be racially distinct), and that redirect attention away from the structural economic causes of their increasing marginalization. And finally, Trump’s strategic use of falsehoods points to their “prophetic” character as predictions rather than truth claims, intended to construct ideological grounds for rationalizing future actions, as Arendt describes. Citizens and political analysts alike should continue to monitor these elements of the Trump administration, and to guard against their expanded use and exploitation.

 

Andrew J. Pierce is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Director of Justice Education at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Loyola University Chicago. His specialization is social and political philosophy broadly conceived, with interests in critical theory and the philosophy of race. He is the author of several articles in these areas, as well as a recent book: Collective Identity, Oppression, and the Right to Self-Ascription.

 

REFERENCES

Adorno, Theodor W., Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford. 1950. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper.

Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press.

Altemeyer, Bob. 1981. Right-Wing Authoritarianism. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

Arendt, Hannah. 1976. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt.

Beckett, Lois. 2017. “Experts Dispute Jeff Sessions’ Claim that Crime Rise is a ‘Permanent Trend’.” The Guardian, February 10.

Case, Anne and Angus Deaton. 2015. “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century,” PNAS, December 8, 112(49): 15078−83.

Christie, Richard and Marie Jahoda, eds. 1954. Studies in the Scope and Method of “The Authoritarian Personality”: Continuities in Social Research. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Executive Order 13769 of January 27, 2017, Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States. Code of Federal Regulations, title 3 (2017): 8977−80.

FBI Uniform Crime Reports. 2017. Accessed February 23, 2017. https://www.ucrdatatool.gov/

Gasiorowski, Mark J. 2006. “The Political Regimes Project.” In On Measuring Democracy: Its Consequences and Concomitants, edited by Alex Inketes, pp. 105−23. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Girard, Rene. 1977. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. by Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hibbing, John R. and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse. “A Surprising Number of Americans Dislike How Messy Democracy Is. They Like Trump.” Washington Post. May 2, 2016.

Hetherington, Marc and Jonathan Weiler. 2009. Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

———. “The Jews and Europe.” 1989. In Critical Theory and Society, edited by Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas MacKay Kellner, pp. 77−94. New York: Routledge.

MacWilliams, Matthew C. 2016. The Rise of Trump: America’s Authoritarian Spring. Amherst: Amherst College Press.

Marx, Karl. 1978. “On the Jewish Question.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, pp. 26−53. New York: Norton.

New York Times Editorial Board. 2017. “The Voter Fraud Fantasy.” New York Times, January 27. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/27/opinion/the-voter-fraud-fantasy.html?_r=0

Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. 2014. Racial Formation in the United States. 3rd edition. New York: Routledge.

Passel, Jeffery and D’Vera Cohn. 2008. “U.S. Population Projections: 2005-2050.” Washington D.C. Pew Hispanic Center.

Pierce, Andrew. 2015. “The Myth of the White Minority.” Critical Philosophy of Race. 3 (2): 305−23.

Rahn, Wendy and Eric Oliver. 2016. “Rise of the Trumpenvolk: Populism in the 2016 election.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 667 (1): 189−206.

Sheth, Falguni. 2009. Toward a Political Philosophy of Race. Albany: SUNY Press.

Smith, Gregory A., and Jessica Martínez. 2016. “How the Faithful Voted: A Preliminary 2016 Analysis.” Pew Research Center.

Solt, Frederick. 2012. “The Social Origins of Authoritarianism.” Political Research Quarterly. 65 (4): 703−13.

Stenner, Karen. 2005. The Authoritarian Dynamic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trump, Donald. 2017. Twitter Post. February 5, 2017. 12:39 PM. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/828342202174668800.

Wayne, Carly, Nicholas Valentino and Marzia Oceno. 2016. “How Sexism Drives Support for Donald Trump.” Washington Post. October 23. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/10/23/how-sexism-drives-support-for-donald-trump/?utm_term=.147c75c7355e

 

ENDNOTES

[1] See for example Wayne 2016 and Hibbing 2016.

[2] Methodological criticisms of Adorno et al. gave rise to decades-long debates in the social sciences about the proper way to measure authoritarian attitudes, and the crucial difference between authoritarian predispositions and authoritarian behaviors. Yet the existence of these measurement problems does not fundamentally challenge the underlying conception of the authoritarian personality, and the fact that the method that is widely considered to avoid such problems returns to questions about childrearing lends some evidence to Adorno’s original emphasis on childhood experience.

[3] See for example the discussion of what have come to be called “deaths of despair” among this demographic in Case and Deaton 2015.

[4] Neither is it necessary for the present analysis to identify the deep anthropological origins of the “scapegoat mechanism” as, for example Rene Girard 1977 does. Whatever role (if any) scapegoating plays in human culture generally, it is clear that this feature takes on a particularly intense and specific form in authoritarian regimes.

[5] According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanic is an “ethnicity” rather than a racial identity. Thus, respondents are asked whether they are Hispanic or non-Hispanic, and then must answer an additional question about race. The racial category “white” explicitly includes people from the Middle East and Arabs.

[6] Arendt’s analysis is focused on “totalitarianism,” which she understands as an extreme version of authoritarianism that aims to extend its sphere of control beyond opposing parties and branches of government and into the fabric of everyday social life, demanding not just obedience, but assent to the dominant ideology of the State. The differences between authoritarianism and what Arendt calls totalitarianism are interesting, but can be set aside here for the present purpose of an analysis of authoritarianism, since it is not clear that this particular feature – the strategic use of falsehoods – is one that distinguishes the two forms of rule.

[7] On the link between criminalization and race, see Alexander 2010.

Special Issue: Trump and the 2016 Election

Don’t Feed the Trolls: Bold Climate Action in a New, Golden Age of Denialism

by Marcus Hedahl and Travis N. Rieder

ABSTRACT. In trying to motivate climate action, many of those concerned about altering the status quo focus on trying to convince climate deniers of the error of their ways. In the wake of the  2016 Election, one might believe that now, more than ever, it is tremendously important to convince those who deny the reality of climate science of the well-established facts. We argue, however, that the time has come to revisit this line of reasoning.  With a significant majority of voters supporting taxing or regulating greenhouse gases, those who want to spur climate action ought to focus instead on getting a critical mass of climate believers to be appropriately alarmed. Doing so, we contend, may prove more useful in creating the political will necessary to spur bold climate action than would engaging directly with climate deniers.

Less than a month after the 2016 presidential election, incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus stated that climate change denialism would be the “default position” of the Trump administration (Meyjes 2016). In March 2017, Scott Pruit, President Trump’s choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, expressed his belief—contrary to the estabilished scientific consensus—that carbon dioxide was not one of the primary contributors of climate change (Davenport 2107). Given this existence of climate denialism at the highest reaches of U.S. government, one might believe that, now more than ever, it is tremendously important to convince those who deny the reality of climate science of the well-established facts.[1] Surely, with truth on our side, we must trumpet the evidence, making deniers our primary target and acceptance of the truth of climate change our primary goal.

The time has come, however, to revisit this line of reasoning. We’ve spent too much time and energy trying to convince climate deniers of the obvious facts,[2] and false optimism has been too friendly to our entrenched inaction.[3] Arguing the science against the deep-rooted climate denial of a small but influential portion of American society has failed to achieve even modest climate action. The election of Donald Trump is, sadly, almost assuredly going to make the task more difficult, given his appointments of prominent climate deniers and fossil fuel advocates to every climate-relevant cabinet position (Sidahmed 2016). If successful climate action depended on convincing the radical deniers, we would justifiably despair at the task before us.

Fortunately, there is another strategy for motivating climate action, and it does not rely on convincing those hopelessly incalcitrant to being swayed by scientific evidence. New public opinion polling data on climate change beliefs suggest another way forward for cultivating the will to enact climate policy: In short, we need to focus on getting a critical mass of the believers to be appropriately alarmed. Doing so, we contend, may prove significantly more useful in creating the political will necessary to spur bold climate action than by engaging directly with climate deniers.

 

MORAL DENIAL VS. SCIENTIFIC DENIAL

To better understand climate denialism, it will be helpful to consider one particularly vivid example: Senator Jim Inhofe, author of The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. In 2015, Sen Inhofe held up a snowball on the floor of the U.S. Senate in an attempt to “disprove” the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding our changing climate. One may initially attribute these kinds of stunts to a lack of basic scientific acumen. After all, no one thinks rising global temperatures imply the immediate end of snow everywhere on the planet. Thankfully, however, we need not hypothesize about the Senator’s reasons for denying the reality of climate change; he did us the favor of making them explicit by proclaiming, “Do you realize I was actually on [the climate change] side of this issue when I was chairing that committee and first heard about this? I thought it must be true until I found out what it would cost.”[4] His lack of understanding, then, seems not to be a scientific one, but something else altogether.

It might be tempting to dismiss Sen. Inhofe as an anomaly on this score. Unfortunately, however, he is not alone in possessing these particular epistemic motivations. In a recent study, research participants who identified as Republican were more than twice as likely to affirm a plausible scientific prediction (namely that, ‘Global temperatures will rise 3.2 degrees in the 21st century’) when it was paired with a free market solution to avoid it than when it was paired with a policy solution involving taxes and regulation (Campbell and Kay 2014). This evidence suggests that climate change deniers don’t always become deniers because they reject the science behind climate change; rather, some may well become deniers because they dislike the proposed solutions—generally regulation or taxes. For such individuals, their dislike of proposed solutions to the problem appears to color their view on whether or not the science regarding the underlying issue is reliable.[5]

In short, climate skeptics demonstrate the limits of the deficit model of scientific communication, a model that holds that popular opinions differ from a given scientific consensus only when citizens lack scientific knowledge (Requarth 2017). In the domain of climate change, scientific literacy actually has a small negative effect on developing accurate beliefs about climate change: among those who take themselves to be conservative, those who know the most about science take climate change to pose the least amount of risk (Kahan et al. 2012). These conservative, scientifically knowledgable citizens are already aware of the scientific consensus—they simply reject it (Kahan 2014).

This phenomenon fits well with Michael Mann’s “Six stages of climate change denial,” in which climate deniers tend to move (sometimes fluidly) from outright denial of the science, to denial of human causation, to denial of serious harm, to optimism about human adaptability (2012). These moves make little sense when considered as an attempt to formulate a coherent system of beliefs, but climate denial is generally more pragmatic than epistemic: For deniers, any dialectical move that postpones action—particularly the kind of bold action needed to combat climate change—is a winning one. If you jokingly point out the folly of using a local snowfall to disprove a change in average global temperature, many climate deniers will laugh right along with you. Despite their pronouncements to the contrary, they aren’t using the snow to claim that climate change doesn’t exist, but rather to claim that a world of climate change won’t be so dissimilar to our own. Any policy response that’s even slightly costly would always thereby be inappropriate because, as they like to say, “the climate is always changing.”

The problem, of course, is that the world won’t be so different for them: privileged adults currently living in the developed world. If the reasoning behind that kind of climate denial were merely lavishly imprudent—and, for what it’s worth, it is (Stern et al. 2006; Stern et al. 2014)—the rest of us might be able to tolerate it as an input to our collective civic discourse (Habermas 1991). Yet in today’s tightly interconnected world, the venerable requirement not to harm others gives us a number of novel, moral reasons for action (Shue 2010a). These reasons become even stronger given the fact that we know that the impacts of climate change will not be regionally uniform, with many of the least fortunate most vulnerable to its most adverse effects (Stocker et al. 2013). These differences in vulnerability become even more salient when we consider issues of intergenerational justice (Barry 1997; Broome 2012). If we realize that one of the purposes of the language of justice is to provide normative protections for the vulnerable, we quickly realize that for future generations and those already less fortunate, the status quo with respect to climate change is not merely imprudent but also immoral (Shue 2010b). What this tells us is that for many climate deniers, their espoused denial of the science isn’t motivated solely by skepticism of the scientific reasoning, but also a rejection of the moral imperatives that stem from that reasoning.

So, we are left in a dialectically impossible situation with the denier of climate change. They claim to deny the science, so an appeal to justice will leave them unmoved—after all, why should we sacrifice to solve a moral problem that doesn’t actually exist? Yet a move to the scientific realm will be equally unsuccessful if the root disagreement is as much normative as it is descriptive. The denier of climate change thereby becomes a moving target that we are left unable to engage, let alone convince.

 

SHIFTING FOCUS FROM DENIERS TO THE CAUTIOUS AND CONCERNED

If what we’ve said thus far is plausible, then we have good reason to believe that at least some climate deniers are unlikely to abandon their position even in the face of contrary evidence, in part because their denial is motivated by their dislike of the proposed policy solutions. This state of affairs would be especially problematic if climate deniers constituted a majority of the population, and so could easily turn their views into political will. Recent data suggests, however, that climate denialism doesn’t enjoy anything like a majority. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, in 2016, 72% of Americans regarded climate change with ‘caution’, ‘concern’, or ‘alarm’ (Roser-Renouf 2016).[6] In other words, a clear and significant majority of Americans “believe in” the reality of climate change and would be amenable to some form of climate action.

The problem remains, however, that mere belief in anthropogenic climate change isn’t sufficient to motivate climate action. Indeed, nearly half of Trump supporters (49%) report believing that climate change is occurring, but that didn’t stop them from voting for an avowed climate denier (Leiserowitz 2017). Individuals must also be aware of the consequences of inaction, rather than merely that a problem exists; for what distinguishes the cautious, concerned, and alarmed is how important they take the issue of climate change to be, how much they are worried about climate change, and how long they think it will be before people are harmed by climate change. For far too many, climate change is taken to be yet another issue among many, ranking behind objectively less dangerous problems, like gun control or infrastructure (Roser-Renouf 2016). There’s little reason to believe, therefore, that even near universal belief in the existence of a problem would be sufficient to spur bold and radical climate action.

We want to suggest an alternative to trying to create a universal consensus about the reality of climate change: Focusing on the cautious and concerned in order to get them to reconsider the significance of the climate crises. There are at least two reasons that this approach may prove to be more efficacious than continuing to browbeat climate deniers. First, those who are cautious and concerned about climate change are much more malleable than are those who deny the fact of climate change altogether. These individuals have considered the issue much less thoroughly, and they report that they are much more open to revising their opinions about climate change’s relative significance (Leiserowitz et al. 2009). Second, although U.S. citizens remain divided on the question of whether regulation is beneficial for the public interest in general (42% believing it is to 45% believing it is not), in the more specific domain of environmental protection, that division is significantly diminished, with many more believing that environmental regulations are generally worth the costs they may impose (59% believing environmental regulations are in general beneficial for the public interest to 34% believing they are not). Indeed, 62% of self-identified Trump voters support taxing and or regulating greenhouse gases (Leiserowitz 2017). The cautious and concerned, then, may be receptive both to reconsider the seriousness of climate change, as well as the need for government regulation.

We therefore recommend focusing on those who are cautious and concerned in order to make them appropriately alarmed. We do so despite recognizing that the language of ‘alarm’ is not particularly popular in climate change debates, in no small part because ‘alarmist’ is a preferred moniker by the deniers for those who advocate for climate action. Alarmism may well be disreputable if one were trying to scare others in the absence of evidence (perhaps wearing billboards saying, ‘the end is nigh!’). We contend, however, that the reasons to be alarmed can be based on the same, solid data that justifies a belief in climate change itself. The same scientific evidence that demonstrates that the climate is changing also tells us that relatively small changes in the earth’s climate can have drastic effects on the planet’s life-support systems. And alarm, we think, is precisely the appropriate normative reaction to such facts. In a way, then, our goal is a kind of reclamation project: climate alarmism isn’t an epithet to anyone but the denier, and so we shouldn’t be bullied into avoiding (sometimes dire) warnings. Of course we’re alarmed, because we find the situation objectively alarming.

 

CHANGING CLIMATE COMMUNICATION

If the percentage of those Americans who are alarmed about climate change were slightly higher, then perhaps we would start to see real change: change in the public dialogue, change in what we demand of our policy makers, and ultimately change in public policy. Yet developing a deep understanding of the threat of climate change and the demands of justice is difficult: the problem is global in scale, the effects are occurring over a fairly long time-scale (for humans), and the threats pose a type of danger that we simply haven’t experienced before. So, climate change is often spoken about it in a abstract way, normalizing the processes with thousands of headlines that lack any kind of intimate drama: “Climate change may decrease wheat yield in Bangladesh by more than 30% by 2050,” or “Record-breaking heat waves may become the norm, say scientists.” Such normalization makes the problem seem far off and difficult to relate to in our everyday lives. The cautious and concerned citizens affirm these statements, and acknowledge that at some point, someone, somewhere really ought to do…something.

The unfortunate truth that we must face is that motivating people is often difficult—especially if what we must motivate them to do runs counter to their more immediate self-interest. Exacerbating this issue is the fact that we are all subject to predictable biases.[7] One that is particularly relevant for present purposes is that we tend to move slowly from our initial response to climate change, thinking that it must not be that bad, or else someone would be doing something about it. After all, most of us only hear the same kinds of political solutions we hear in other areas of political discourse: a modest change in taxation, new investments of research and development funds, or regulations treating CO2 as a pollutant. It’s not surprising, therefore, that so many take climate change to be yet another issue among many. If you only hear more tempered solutions to the climate problem, you are more likely to believe that one of them must be sufficient to solve the crisis.

Some have advocated that one possible solution would be to appeal to emotions rather than reasons, focusing on sympathetic or relatable figures (Requarth 2017). A powerful example of this type of appeal can be found in Susan Mathew’s recent analysis of the Podcast S-Town:

In reality, the feeling I get when I think deeply about climate change is the same feeling I get when I remember that someday, at some point, I, me, myself personally, am going to die. There’s fear and disbelief, and my heart seems to collapse in on itself. Eventually, something in me forces myself to stop thinking about it…John B. didn’t have this defense mechanism…He felt the reality of our impending doom every day. He kept staring off the edge of the cliff. He couldn’t look away. Which reaction is “normal”? Mine is certainly more common. It’s also more pragmatic…But if you want to ask which is more logical, which is more moral, which is more correct, the answer is surely John’s. What kind of human can look ahead and realize that we’re headed for a massive disaster and then shrug and still order takeout?” (2017)

Another effective example imagines future tourism posters encouraging vistors to scuba dive the Lincoln Memorial, kayak Arches National Park, and visit the Pacific Coast in Nevada (Lui 2017).

These kinds of appeals surely have some place in the larger climate communication strategies, but they are vulnerable to the charge of hyperbole. They are also suceptable to counter-emotional appeals by those who want to defend the status quo. To acquiesce to emotional appeals wholeheartedly, even to mix emotional appeals with scientific data, is to forfeit the objective, epistemic high ground that science is meant to provide. The kind of stable and widespread climate alarm that has the potential to spur bold climate action cannot be primilarly the product of an appeal to emotion.

In order to get people to grasp the true danger climate change threatens—or, in other words, in order to alter beliefs about climate changes without brute appeal to emotion—we contend that, the climate crises must be shown to be both more tangible and more urgent. Two strategies that we want to suggest are:

  1. Grounding larger, global changes in smaller, local ones; and
  2. Grounding future effects in changes that are already occurring.[8]

In short: we suggest fighting typical cognitive biases by bringing the global and future effects back home to the local and present.

With respect to the first strategy, we can begin by noting that citizens—even citizens in a landscape littered with a focus on climate denialism—generally understand and acknowledge the local impacts of our changing climate (McCormick 2016). In the United States, many citizens are well aware of the changes affecting them—of how, in the Midwest, higher nighttime temperatures have reduced corn yields (Thaler 2016); or how in the West, exposure to higher temperatures have caused losses in livestock that have exceeded $1 billion annually (Hatfield et al. 2014); or how in Miami, FL, or Hampton VA, rising sea levels are already threatening local infrastructure (Thaler 2016) and may already be impacting the long-term value of local real-estate (Nehemas 2016).

With respect to the second strategy, we can highlight that these changes occurring in our own neighborhoods are unprecedented, worsening, and threatening genuinely terrifying days to come. All over, warmer air is holding more moisture, increasing the severity of deadly whether events. Between October 2015 and October 2016, the United States was subjected to eight storms that would, without climate change, be once-every-500-years storms (NOAA 2016). The flooding that caused so much devastation in Louisiana (Vaidyanathan 2016),[9] West Virginia (Dileberto 2016)[10] and Maryland (Dance 2016)[11] have each been called a once-every-1000-years event. Unfortunately, climate change has made terms like ‘once-every-1000-years storm’ meaningless. We can expect these types of events—and worse—year after year.

The last 30 years have been warmer than any since 1850 and they are very likely the warmest in the last 1400 years (Stoker et al. 2013). More recently, 2016 was the hottest year on record, replacing 2015, which replaced 2014. We are already seeing disturbing disruptions of precisely the kind predicted by climate models. Unprecedented ‘heat domes’ have caused deadly temperatures during the past two years, especially in the Middle East, where the heat index climbed to 165 degrees F during July 2015 (Samenow 2015). At the end of 2016, in the Arctic winter, when temperatures should be plunging and sea ice should be expanding rapidly, temperatures were soaring, and sea ice was actually shrinking (Yulsman 2016).

People are already suffering, losing their homes, and dying because of human emissions. Globally, earlier spring temperatures have disrupted critical ecosystem services on which human society depends (i.e., clean air and water, crop pollination, etc.) (Staudinger et al. 2012). Water resources have become scarce and more highly variable (Haddeland et al. 2014), with associated negative consequences for crop yields (Lobell et al. 2011) as well as food security overall (Shindell et al. 2012). And it will only get worse. The World Health Orginization estimates that between 2030 and 2050, climate disruptions will cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year (WHO 2014).

If we continue business as usual for too long, then in the latter half of the century, we will face the much more dangerous reality of a 4–5 degree C rise in temperature, bringing virtually unimaginable damage and suffering. The world of unmitigated climate change is a world in which, by 2100, large swaths of the world (portions of North Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean) will be virtually uninhabitable in the summer months due to heat. Low-lying island nations and coastal regions will disappear, creating millions more climate refugees (World Bank Group 2014). Combined with escalating food insecurity and severe water stress, as well as changing disease vectors and the political instability that could result from all of these pressures, the world of under-mitigated climate change will be a world of massive human suffering.

 

TRUMPETING ALARM

While granting that a change in climate communications could alter public discourse in a positive way, some may nonetheless worry that current polical realities complicate that recommendation. One could believe that ignoring the climate denials of those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo is one thing, but ignoring the climate denials of those in positions of political power is quite another. In this section, we want to suggest that while this state of affairs is indeed troubling, the best strategy may nonetheless be an indirect one. The time has come to give up on convincing climate deniers of the obvious facts—even deniers in high elected office—but that does not imply that we need resign ourselves to a future of climate inaction.

In the 2016 election, the differences in level of concern regarding climate change among the cautious, concerned, and alarmed was reflected in different choices of a Presidential Candidate. While the ‘alarmed’ citizens rank the issues of environmental protection, climate change, and alternative sources of energy at or near the top of their policy concerns, the ‘concerned’ rank those issues somewhere in the middle behind issues like infrastructure and gun control, and the ‘cautious’ rank them near the bottom of several dozen listed options (Roser-Renouf 2016). Unsurprisingly, the relative size of these various groups ended up having an influence on both the democratic primary and the general election.[12] In 2016, the percentage of Americans who categorize themselves as “alarmed” was merely 17% in comparison with 28% who are concerned and 27% who are cautious (Roser-Renouf 2016). While those ‘alarmed’ is up from 10% in 2010,[13] it was not enough to nominate a 2016 presidential candidate in either party with a platform of significant climate action, nor was it enough to stop a climate denier from eventually taking office. In other words, the reality of climate change, while accepted by most people, was not sufficiently important either to nominate a genuine environmental champion, or even to prevent the election of an outright climate denier. What this seems to suggest is that one way the last election could have been changed (or that the next one could be) is by engaging unmotivated believers in an effort to make climate policy a more important voting issue. One clear benefit to spreading appropriate alarm concerning climate change is that, at a minimum, widespread understanding of the gamble we are taking with the climate could help to prevent the election of proud climate deniers to elected office (e.g., Trump, Inhofe, Rubio, Cruz, and dozens of others).[14]

The quick and radical change in elective officials’ attitudes towards cigarette regulation may prove to be a useful case study on this score. The change in the positions of a majority of elected officials was not brought about because old representatives were replaced with new ones,[15] but because—either out of pragmatic or democratic concerns—many elected officials changed their position as their constituents’ views changed. Long before the changes in cigarette regulation of the 1980s,1990s, and 2000s, there was a widespread belief that cigarette smoking was dangerous. It was, however, developing a better understanding of who would be harmed, how they would be harmed, and when they would be harmed that spurred a change in belief about the significance of the issue.

That kind of understanding can also lead to an even more important political benefit of increased alarm: Not only would it limit the ability of one party to tolerate climate deniers, it could lead many in the other to become less likely to tolerate climate moderates. Becoming appropriately alarmed allows citizens to realize a fundamental truth: Climate change will require dramatic political action. Not only will combating climate change require policies like carbon taxing, but it will also likely demand the kind of solutions almost never raised in mainstream discussions of climate policy, solutions such as divesting pension funds from fossil fuel companies and taking preventive action to strand trillions of dollars of fossil fuels in the ground.[16] The problem is serious. The solutions required to solve it are very likely not what they were twenty, ten, or even five years ago. We need an Apollo Program, or a Manhattan Project, not merely an expansion of New England’s cap and trade market (McKibben 2016). In today’s world, the only way to even begin a truthful conversation about our climate policies is to be sufficiently alarmed.

 

CONCLUSION

In the coming years, as President Trump threatens to roll back even our already insufficient, incremental progress on climate change, citizens must fight back against those measures—but we cannot do so by simply fighting against denialism. We must talk about climate more: every year, every month, every week, but we must do so strategically, investing our efforts where they are likely to have a real effect. We must make clear what is at stake and what the costs of inaction will be, thereby making it more likely that we can achieve a citizenry that is appropriately alarmed.

To do so, it is important to recognize that not all deniers are scientific deniers; their flaws are more than merely epistemic. They agitate, they obfuscate, and they dominate discussion. One cannot win an argument with someone whose goal is to keep others talking about their incalcitrant, untethered beliefs. To participate in that “argument” is, by definition, to lose it. Engaging the denier is not a costless endeavor; the world continues to burn. While it does, far too many get distracted, they view themselves on the “right side of history,” and give themselves moral credit for doing nothing more than believing the most brute facts of modern science. We must do more: We must become keenly aware of the specific dangers climate change poses and we must spur bold climate action. We’ve likely already lost the next four years to climate policy regression; we can’t risk losing any more.

 

Dr. Marcus Hedahl is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the U.S. Naval Academy. He holds a B.S. in Physics from the University of Notre Dame and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Georgetown University. He previously served as a Dahrendorf Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment located at the London School of Economics and Political Science and as an Environmental Justice Fellow at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics.

Travis N. Rieder is the Assistant Director of Education Initiatives & a Research Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Travis holds a BA from Hanover College, an MA from the University of South Carolina, and a PhD from Georgetown University, all in Philosophy. He also completed a Hecht-Levi Postdoctoral Fellowship in Bioethics at the Berman Institute before joining the faculty in 2015.

 

REFERENCES

Barry, Brian. 1997. “Sustainability and Intergenerational Justice,” Theoria 44 (89): 43–65.

Broome, John. 2012. Climate Matters. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Campbell, Troy, Aaron C. Kay. 2014. “Solution Aversion: On the Relation between Ideology and Motivated Disbelief.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 107 (5): 809–24.

Dance, Scott. 2016. “Ellicott City Gets Rainfall Expected Only Once Every Millennium.” Balitmore Sun, July 31. Accessed February 26, 2017, http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/weather/weather-blog/bal-wx-ellicott-city-gets-rainfall-expected-only-once-every-few-hundred-years-20160731-story.html.

Davenport, Coral. 2017. “E.P.A. Chief Doubts Consensus View of Climate Change.” New York Times, March 9. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/09/us/politics/epa-scott-pruitt-global-warming.html?_r=0

Di Liberto, Tom. 2016. “’Thousand-Year’ Downpour Led to Deadly West Virginia Floods.” Climate.gov, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Accessed February 26, 2017. https://www.climate.gov/news-features/event-tracker/thousand-year-downpour-led-deadly-west-virginia-floods/

Gardiner, Stephen M. 2013. A Perfect Moral Storm. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Habermas, Jurgen. 1991. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into the Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Burger, T. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Haddeland, Ingjerd, Jens Heinke, Hester Biemans, et al. 2014. “Global Water Resources Affected by Human Interventions and Climate Change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (9): 3251–56.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2001. “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail.” Psychological Review 108 (4): 814–34.

Hatfield, Jerry, Gene Takle, Robert Grotjahn, et al. “Agri­culture. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment.” In U.S. Global Change Research Program, edited by J. M. Melillo, Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and G. W. Yohe, 150–74.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2014. Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jamieson, Dale. (2014). Reason in a Dark Time. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johansson, Daniel J. A., Brian C. O’Neill, Claudia Tebaldi, and Olle Häggström. 2015. “Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity in Light of Observations Over the Warming Hiatus.” Nature Climate Change 5: 449–53.

Kahan, Dan M., Ellen Peters, and Maggie Witttlin, et al. 2012. “The Polarizing Impact of Science Literacy and Numeracy on Perceived Climate Change Risks.” May 27. Nature Climate Change 2, Letters.

Kahan, Dan. 2015. “Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem.”Advances in Political Psychology 36: 1–43.

Knobe, Joshua. 2003. “Intentional Action and Side Effects in Ordinary Language.” Analysis 63, 190–93.

Leiserowitz, Anthony, Edward Maibach, and Connie Roser-Renouf. 2009. “Global Warming’s Six Americas.” May 20. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Leiserowitz, Anthony, Edward Maibach, Connie Roser-Renouf, Matthew Cutler, and Seth Rosenthal. 2017. “Trump Voters & Global Warming. Yale University and George Mason University.” February 6. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Lobell, David, Wolfram Schlenker, and Justin Costa-Roberts. 2011. “Climate Trends and Global Crop Production Since 1980.” Science 333 (6042): 616–20.

Lui, Kevin. 2017. “These Spoof Posters Show What Climate Change in America Could Look Like.” Time, April 19. http://time.com/4747673/climate-change-march-for-science-posters/

Mann, Michael. 2012. The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines. New York: Columbia University Press.

Matthews, Susan. 2017. “Why John B.’s Climate Obsession in S-Town is so Unsettling.” Slate, April 13. http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2017/04/13/why_john_b_mclemore_s_obsession_with_climate_change_in_s_town_is_so_unsettling.html

McCormick, Sabrina. 2016. “Assessing Climate Change Vulnerability in Urban America: Stakeholder-Driven Approaches.” Climate Change 138: 397–410.

McKibben, Bill. 2012. “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” Rolling Stone, July 19. Accessed February 21, 2017. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719.

———. 2016. “Recalculating the Climate Math.” New Republic, September 22. Accessed February 21, 2017. https://newrepublic.com/article/136987/recalculating-climate-math.

Meyjes, Toby. 2016. “Climate Denial ‘Will be Donald Trump’s Official Policy.” Metro U.K., November 29. Accessed January 9, 2017. http://metro.co.uk/2016/11/29/climate-denial-will-be-donald-trumps-official-policy-6290224/.

Nehemas, Nicholas. 2016. “Miami Real Estate Had a Really Bad Month of July.” Miami Herald, August 24. Accessed January 15, 2017. http://www.miamiherald.com/news/business/real-estate-news/article97640357.html#storylink=cpy.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 2016. “Exceedance Probability Analysis for Selected Storm Events.” Hydrometeorological Design Studies Center. http://www.nws.noaa.gov/oh/hdsc/aep_storm_analysis/index.html.

Requarth, Tim. 2017. “Scientists, Stop Thinking Explaining Science Will Fix Things.” Slate, April 19. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2017/04/explaining_science_won_t_fix_information_illiteracy.html

Rogelj, Joeri, Michel den Elzen M, Niklas Hoehne, et al. 2016. “Paris Agreement Climate Proposals Need a Boost to Keep Warming Well Below 2°C.” Nature 534: 631–39. Accessed February 21, 2017.

Roser-Renouf, Connie, Edward Maibach, Anthony Leiserowitz, and Seth Rosenthal. 2016. “Global Warming’s Six Americas and the Election.” 2016. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Samenow, Jason. 2015. “Iran City Hits Suffocating Heat Index of 165 Degrees, Near World Record.” The Washington Post, July 31. Accessed February 21, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2015/07/30/iran-city-hits-suffocating-heat-index-of-154-degrees-near-world-record/?utm_term=.22457bb44846.

Sidahmed, Mazin. 2016. “Climate Change Denial in the Trump Cabinet: Where Do His Nominees Stand?” The Guardian, December 15. Accessed January 9, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/15/trump-cabinet-climate-change-deniers.

Shue, Henry. 2010a. “Subsistence Emissions and Luxury Emissions,” in S. Gardiner, S. Caney, D. Jamieson, & H. Shue (eds.) Climate Ethics: Essential Readings, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 2010b “Deadly Delays, Saving Opportunities: Creating a More Dangerous World?” In Climate Ethics: Essential Readings, edited by Stephen Gardiner, Simon Caney, Dale Jamieson, and Henry Shue, 146–62. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shindell, Drew, Johan C. Kuylenstierna, Elisabetta Vignati, et al. 2012. “Simultaneously Mitigating Near-term Climate Change and Improving Human Health and Food Security,” Science 335 (6065): 183–89.

Schwartz, John. 2017. “A Conservative Climate Solution.” New York Times. Feb 7. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/07/science/a-conservative-climate-solution-republican-group-calls-for-carbon-tax.html

Staudinger, Michelle D., Nancy B. Grimm, Amanda Staudt, et al. 2012. “Impacts of Climate Change on Biodiversity, Ecosystems, and Ecosystem Services: Technical Input to the 2013 National Climate Assessment.” United States Global Change Research Program. https://downloads.globalchange.gov/nca/technical_inputs/Biodiversity-Ecosystems-and-Ecosystem-Services-Technical-Input.pdf

Stocker, Thomas., Dahe Qin, Gian-Casper Plattner, et al., editors. 2013. “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thaler, Andrew David. 2016. “When I Talk about Climate Change, I Don’t Talk about Science.” Accessed January 15, 2017. http://www.southernfriedscience.com/when-i-talk-about-climate-change-i-dont-talk-about-science/.

Vaidyanathan, Gayathri. 2016. “Why the Deadly Louisiana Flood Occurred,” Scientific American, August 15. Accessed February 26, 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-the-deadly-louisiana-flood-occurred/

World Health Organization (WHO). 2014. Quantitative Risk Assessment of the Effects of Climate Change on Selected Causes of Death, 2030s and 2050s. Geneva: World Health Organization.

World Bank Group. 2014. Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Yulsman, Tom. 2016. “Something Really Crazy Is Happening in the Arctic.” Discover, November 20. Accessed January 9, 2017. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/imageo/2016/11/20/something-really-crazy-is-happening-in-the-arctic/#.WHPOcVs7RGZ.

 

ENDNOTES

[1] This claim should not be read to imply a denial of any disagreement about the specifics of climate change. There is, for example, significant uncertainty regarding the amount of warming we should expect given a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide (3 degrees Celsius is a common estimate, but this is a point of much debate). For a brief overview of this issue – known as equilibrium climate sensitivity – see the discussion of the so-called ‘warming hiatus’ in (Johansson et al 2015). There is also disagreement about precisely how successful and predictive various climate models are. Although groups like the Potsdam Institute have made strong claims about what a world with 4 degrees Celsius warming would be like, the IPCC assessment reports, for instance, tend to assign much lower confidence levels to predictions concerning dramatic change over longer periods of time; compare (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014) and (World Bank Group 2014).

[2] A particularly powerful reading of the history of climate debate can be found in Jamieson (2014).

[3] Indeed, although the Paris Treaty is being widely hailed as a major first step in global climate action, it is nothing like a ‘first’ step. It was the outcome of COP21, or ‘Conference of the Parties 21’, meaning that it was at least the twenty-first “first step.” Moreover, as has been widely noted, the commitments made at COP21 are not nearly enough on their own to prevent dangerous warming; the most recent numbers indicate that faithful adherence to the Paris Treaty would limit warming to between 2.9 and 3.4 degrees Celsius (Rogelj et al) – a far cry from the aspirational limit of 1.5 degrees set in that very same document.

[4] Sen. Inhofe made this comment during an interview on Rachel Maddow. The complete transcript of the show is available at NBC, here: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/46762101/ (last accessed Feb. 21, 2017).

[5] Although such a finding is, in one sense, surprising (the desirability of a solution simply doesn’t bear on whether a problem exists), it also follows a general trend in social and moral psychology. Joshua Knobe, for instance, has shown that much folk psychology does not follow the expected, ‘linear’ model of reasoning we might expect: just as the acceptability of a solution can effect one’s acceptance of climate science, the ‘Knobe Effect’ tells us that the moral acceptability of an act can influence one’s acceptance of that act as ‘intentional’ (Knobe 2003). Perhaps even more disruptively, Jonathan Haidt has argued that the empirical data implies that most people, most of the time, don’t reason at all, but rather engage in post hoc rationalization (Haidt 2001). These growing sets of literature combine with others to suggest that we perhaps shouldn’t be all that surprised at Inhofe’s and others’ move from ‘unacceptable implications’ to ‘bad science’, even if such a move violates the norms of logic.

[6] These are not self identified categories, but rather ways in which the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication groups American citizens based on their answers to a variety of questions regarding their beliefs about climate change. Those categories are the alarmed, the concerned, the cautious, the disengaged, the doubtful, and the dismissive. In this paper, when we refer to the cautious, concerned, or alarmed, we are referring to those who would be categorized as such given the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication’s criteria for differentiation. All of the Program’s studies and data, as well as interactive polling-data maps, can be found at their website, here: http://climatecommunication.yale.edu.

[7] Many relevant biases have been well explored (Gardiner 2013). Here we consider a bias not tied to the more general problem of climate change, but related specifically to the condition of not being sufficient alarmed by the current climate crises.

[8] These two strategies are advanced merely as a starting hypothesis; they are not intended to be a comprehensive list.

[9] Six people were killed by the floods that left more than 20,000 people in need of rescue (Vaidyanathan 2016).

[10] Flooding was blamed for the deaths of 23 people, making it the deadliest WV flood on record (DiLibreto 2016).

[11] Two people were killed in the flooding in Ellicott City as a result (Dance 2016).

[12] The fate of climate change discussion on the Democratic side of the 2016 election is an interesting case study in exploring these factions of American voters. Senator Sanders seemed to have the support of many of the 17% of alarmed voters, as both he and they discussed climate change loudly and often as a genuine legislative priority. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, although not hostile to climate change policy, seemed much more comfortable with the majority position that climate change ought to be addressed, but that there are other priorities.

[13] Although still down from its high point of 18% in 2009.

[14] That contention ought not be read as an endorsement of either party or any particular candidate. It is, in fact, a sad and somehow uniquely American issue that admitting the existence of climate change has become, for a vocal minority, a politicized issue. Nonetheless, in both parties, you can find leaders who favor bold climate action—albeit in different ways (Schwartz 2017). We hope that phenomenon can become more widespread. In fact, it is our greatest hope that President Trump himself will eschew his current position of climate denial. After all, barring a cataclysmic political event, that is the only way in the next four years to obtain an Executive who takes seriously the pragmatic and moral dangers that climate change presents.

[15] See note 15.

[16] For those who think this claims sounds too extreme, some simple math demonstrates its veracity. As Bill McKibben has powerfully articulated, the amount of oil currently in known reserves—oil that we will burn, so long as it is economically viable and we are not prohibited from doing so—is about five times the amount that would guarantee that we pass the two degree temperature rise threshold. For all of the relevant data, see McKibben’s (2012) and (2016).

Special Issue: Trump and the 2016 Election

Tear Down This Wall: Charitable Citizenship and the Deficit of Public Trust in the Age of Trump

by Christian Golden

ABSTRACT. I consider how American citizens alarmed by the election of Donald Trump and the authoritarian populist movement around him should respond to both given the deficit of public trust in the media, political leaders, institutions, and other citizens. I argue that mobilizing broad-based resistance to Trump’s divisive regime requires building trust in the electorate. I take trust to be a social condition bound up with civility, a virtue of democratic citizenship endangered by our increasingly polarized political discourse. Building trust therefore requires raising standards of civility by practicing charity, which in turns involves vulnerable listening across politically charged differences. I develop a model of democratic interaction based on an ethos of charity, which I call the open model, partly by weighing the tragic risks assumed by alternate strategies of response. I defend a strong presumption favoring listening to, or at least not silencing, one’s fellow citizens in the hope of promoting reconciliation in our time of crisis.

A despot easily forgives his subjects for not loving him, provided they do not love one another (Tocqueville 1835, Volume II, Section 2, Chapter IV: That the Americans Combat the Effects of Individualism by Free Institutions).

  1. VULNERABLE POLITICS

The weekend of January 21, 2017, laid bare deep and dangerous divisions in American society. On Friday, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States after running a narrowly successful campaign on a message of chauvinistic nationalism, divisive racial animus, populist outrage at elites, and gauzy cultural nostalgia. The next day saw a worldwide protest involving five million people that began with the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. history. Half a million participated in The Women’s March on the capital against Trump’s rhetoric and in support of human rights issues, including women’s rights, worker’s rights, racial justice, and LGBTQ equality.

The volatility of these contradictions was dramatized when a masked Antifa, or “anti-fascist,” vandal sucker-punched Richard Spencer during an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on a sidewalk in Washington, D.C., that weekend. Spencer is an outspoken white nationalist credited as the leader of the “alt-right,” a far-right-wing movement steeped in racist visions of an America restored to its inherent whiteness. Spencer sees Trump’s ascendency as a windfall for his cause:

Donald Trump as a potentiality was undoubtedly energizing. And what I mean by that is that the Donald Trump campaign was the first time in my lifetime that an identity politics for white people was on the scene. (Ganim and Welch 2016)

Spencer’s assault was celebrated on the left. After all, lashing out is a natural product of feeling vulnerable. As Martha Nussbaum explains in recent work, anger and violence are common responses to acute vulnerability in the absence of trust in those thought to have power over one (2016, 21). Mistrust among Americans is clearly not confined to Trump’s supporters, many of whom resent elites and fear perceived outsiders; it exists among liberals and progressives, too.

I want to explore the connection between trust and vulnerability in order to illuminate the question of how concerned Americans may counteract the illiberality that Donald Trump has unleashed in our common political life. I will try to show that there are strong ethical and pragmatic grounds for charitably and vulnerably engaging one’s fellow citizens across politically charged differences. And trust is the key.

 

  1. TRUST’S VIRTUES

What is trust? Trust is, among other things, a social condition bound up with agents’ virtues in subtle ways.[1] Take civility, considered as a virtue of citizenship. Civility and trust do not strictly presuppose each other, but in healthy democratic communities they form a circuit that makes sustained nonviolent relations possible.[2] Tomas Spath and Cassandra Dahnke, founders of the Texas-based nonprofit group Institute for Civility in Government, define civility as “claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process” in a way that involves “listening past one’s preconceptions” (The Institute for Civility in Government 2017). Building on this, I regard civility not as a bare activity but as an excellence of character—a disposition to act—essential within practices of communication predicated on charitable listening across differences.

Being disposed to listen charitably to others is not sufficient for being civil towards them, but it is necessary.[3] If I am unwilling to listen to you, you will naturally doubt that I have your interests at heart. Not trusting me, you will refuse to listen, too, perhaps by withdrawing or attacking. Seeing this, I also withhold trust—why trust someone out to ignore, hurt, or silence me? A vicious cycle is joined. Justice, conceived procedurally or as a material condition of personal relations, is forestalled when incivility prevails and folks mistrust one another. And if the 2016 United States presidential election has revealed anything, it is that there is a socially corrosive deficit of trust dividing the American electorate.

Recent studies of U.S. adults’ attitudes towards government, the media, and their fellow citizens should trouble those who think healthy democracy rests on public trust and civility. According to recent Gallup data, Americans’ trust in politicians and other Americans to make political decisions hit record lows in late 2016:

The percentages trusting the American people (56%) and political leaders (42%) are down roughly 20 percentage points since 2004 and are currently at new lows in Gallup’s trends…At no point in the last four decades have Americans expressed less trust than they do today in U.S. political leaders or in the American people who voted those leaders into office. (Jones 2016)

A related, widely reported fact is the public’s current historically low, bipartisan, declining trust in the media (Kauffman 2016a). As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt observed in the wake of the 2016 election, “We are in a trust spiral” (Tavernise 2017).

Meanwhile, experts find a concurrent decline in civility. Public opinion polls during the Obama years showed many Americans concerned over “the erosion of civility in government, business, media, and social media.” According to one 2012 poll,

65% of Americans say the lack of civility is a major problem that has worsened during the financial crisis and recession. What’s even more distressing is that nearly 50% of those surveyed said they were withdrawing from the basic tenets of democracy—government and politics—because of incivility and bullying (Williams 2012).

Another survey of 1,000 U.S. adults found that “Most Americans report they have been victims of incivility (86%),” while many “admit to perpetrating incivility—approximately six in ten (59%)” (Williams 2012). And many commentators within higher education and government have expressed grave concern about the sharp decline in standards of civility during and after the 2016 election (Farish 2017; Mendieta 2016).

Since the run-up to the presidential primary in Spring 2015, U.S. citizens, both in my orbit and in public fora like blogs, major news networks, talk radio, and social media, seemed to be united more by what they lack than by what they share. Conversations, especially online where there is a false sense of moral limbo and fewer immediate consequences for uncivil behavior, were tense and fraught with recrimination, sometimes devolving into the virtual equivalent of a shouting match. I was struck by how commonplace this was among those with ostensibly similar commitments, and I found it to be far worse across political differences. It is a truism that Americans from divergent groups often overlook the grounds for political solidarity in their common social, economic, or other interests. It does not help that political divisions among U.S. citizens have widened and ossified in recent decades. Journalist Bill Bishop has argued that, demographically speaking, Americans have self-segregated into increasingly ideologically homogenous communities since the late 1970s (2009). And political polarization is not confined to older generations. A Fall 2016 study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute showed first-year college students throughout the United States to be more ideologically divided than they have been in over half a century (Glattner 2017).

I believe the difficulty we have listening to dissenting voices is both partial cause and consequence of the lack of solidarity that has made the electorate vulnerable to Trump’s demagogy. But what are the sources of this fateful impasse? Are they racial or economic? Religious or ideological? As we will see below, the difficulty is that they are all of the above.

 

  1. TRUST & TRUMP

The deficit of public trust was exploited by the weaponized religious and racial anxiety, a “politics of loss, nostalgia and grievance,” behind the nativist populism of Trump’s presidential campaign (Marshall 2016). Robert P. Jones, author of The End of White Christian America, observes that, as a result of long-term demographic trends, during Barack Obama’s two terms, “America has transformed from being a majority white Christian nation (54 percent) to a minority white Christian nation (43 percent)” (2016). Jones ties Trump’s electoral college success, particularly in the key states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, to his ability to mobilize fear and anger among white Christians who feel that the nation defined according to their identity is under siege by demographic and cultural changes that will displace and “demote” the white majority by the middle of the century.

Trump’s white nationalist strategy depended upon blaming ethnic and religious minorities for complex social, economic, and national security problems (Painter 2016). A paranoid urge to fortify the porous boundaries of American selfhood was expressed figuratively in Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” and literally in his theatrical campaign vow to construct a wall along the Mexican border—punitively, at our southern neighbor’s expense. Indeed, many have observed the latent or tacit fascism of Trumpism as an authoritarian populist brand rhetorically steeped in economic protectionism, vilifying the press and academics, ethnocentric scapegoating of minority groups for the supposed decline of a glorious, forsaken national character, and adulation and empowerment of a demagogic strongman presumed capable of restoring what has been lost.

But things are more complicated. Though Trump’s appeal relied heavily on racist dog-whistles, chauvinism, and nativist xenophobia, it is not to be reduced to bigotry among the electorate. His economic populism resonated with voters from communities that suffered under the rising inequality that culminated in The Great Recession of 2007-2009 (Klein 2016). Like his socialist rival Bernie Sanders, the billionaire Trump blamed financial elites, “crony capitalists,” and decades of bipartisan neoliberal trade policies for the economic insecurity and underemployment of millions of Americans. This messaging was decisive. Scarcely more than 100,000 votes from the mostly white working-class in the upper Midwest delivered Trump a narrow winning margin in the Electoral College despite his historic loss of the popular vote to Clinton by nearly three million ballots (Meko, Lu, and Gamio 2016).[4]

Sanders’s and Trump’s shared rhetorical strategy was well-founded. In recent work, political economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich shows that

starting in the early 1980s, large corporations and their top executives, major actors on Wall Street, and other wealthy individuals have exercised disproportionate and increasing influence over how the market is organized…

dominating public institutions that make and enforce market rules, eroding popular trust and participation in governance, and benefitting themselves at the expense of poor and middle-class Americans and the stability of the U.S. economy as a whole (Reich 2015, 92). During Obama’s last term in office, Reich presciently observed that

Capitalism, alas, depends on trust. Without trust, people avoid even sensible economic risks…Moreover, people who believe the game is rigged are easy prey for political demagogues with fast tongues and dumb ideas. (2015, 73)

Such figures exploit popular frustration at widening inequality under a rigged system

by turning the public’s economic anxieties into resentments against particular people and groups. Isolationist and nativist, often racist, and willing to sacrifice overall prosperity for the sake of achieving their ends. (Reich 2010, 127–28)

Trump’s campaign fit the bill, exploiting a hodgepodge of popular fears and anxieties, from embattled white, male, and heterosexual privilege to common experiences of economic precarity. His campaign’s appeal among voters is thus a morally mixed bag. Progressives will have little sympathy for a white person’s loss of the relative status conferred on them by a racist social order, but will share the resentment of low-income people made to work longer hours for lower wages under a legal and economic system that deprives them of collective bargaining rights and other basic protections while lavishly subsidizing the richest Americans. But it is harder to say whether progressively minded folks should morally countenance the disorientation of (typically white) Christians over the loss of their sense that the United States is home to their distinct spiritual aspirations as religious pluralism widens and they are confronted with a sharp decline in religious affiliation, especially among younger Americans (Smith and Cooperman 2016).

I think this is a hard question with no simple answer. Much depends on what it means to say that someone’s loss of their sense of self, or of the social world that gives that self its place and its rich, lived significance, deserves moral recognition. One difficulty is that the disorientation accompanying such loss goes to the heart of peoples’ identities and their sense of what is most deeply worthwhile. In the first instance, the issues at stake are intimately existential, not impersonally moral.

Take the apt expression “white fragility.” It identifies a curiously widening barrier to effective communication and sympathy across a narrowing gap of racial privilege and so presents many challenges to the pursuit of racial reconciliation and justice. But white fragility really is fragility—psychologically and emotionally speaking, it realizes a distinctly human vulnerability. As a form of vulnerability, even the pangs of lost privilege must warrant some moral concern. There is something paradoxical here about the way oppression deforms our relations—a point to which I will return in closing.

The fact that Trump voters have many grievances, some more sympathetic than others, discredits efforts to dismiss them all as reactionary bigots, though surely many in his base are such. Importantly, exit polls on Election Day show that Trump won by exploiting not only race and gender divisions, but also widening educational divides. He had a 39-point advantage over Clinton among white voters without a college degree, “the largest [margin] among any candidate in exit polls since 1980.” The gap in presidential preferences between those with and without a college degree, with college graduates backing Clinton by a 9-point margin, and non-college graduates backing Trump by an 8-point margin, was also the largest since 1980 (Tyson and Maniam 2016).

Racism is one thing; being poorly educated and badly informed is another. Refusing to sympathize with the former makes sense; writing off victims of the latter is callous and short-sighted. The trouble is that many Americans suffer from both at once. Since racism and poor education, as a symptom of poverty, are positively correlated, their roles in shaping attitudes cannot be neatly disentangled.[5] And as Andrew Sullivan provocatively observes in a critical but incisive analysis of the reactionary politics burgeoning here and throughout the world, besides being an oversimplification, “the American elite’s…reduction of all resistance to cultural and demographic change as crude ‘racism’ or ‘xenophobia,’ only deepens the sense of siege many other Americans feel” (Sullivan 2017).

What all this means is that though Trump’s own gross vanity, shameless incivility, and willful ignorance may put him beyond the pale of constructive dialogue, we should not draw the same conclusion about his supporters, most of whom deserve at least the presumption of empathy from their compatriots. And, as Sullivan suggests and as I will argue next, writing them off would represent a costly lost political opportunity.

 

  1. ENTRENCHMENT

Consider interactions between parties with strongly contrasting cultural, religious, or political values. Folks’ commitments arise from a rich interplay between their native endowments, training, experience, reflection, and developed aptitudes. Naturally most of this is hidden from our view when we encounter those we do not know intimately. We easily misjudge the basis and extent of differences between ourselves and others, especially when our uptake of their motives and behavior is burdened by stereotypes of supposed enemies or rivals.

Americans now spend much of our political lives online, often on social media where biased views circulate in insulated bubbles, aggressive voices tend to predominate, and combative memes and fake news shape attitudes on the left and right alike (Meyer 2017). Routine exposure to antagonistic, us-versus-them discourse distorts our perceptions of, and virtual interactions with, those stereotyped. Similar polarizing trends have been observed as a result of the popularity of talk radio and cable television news channels like CNN, The Fox News Channel, and MSNBC (Martin and Yurukoglu 2017). These developments undercut the disposition to civility, making democratic citizenship more difficult. It is especially important not to assume differences are fixed in a democratic society where civility and compromise tempers and mobilizes citizens’ shared exercise of power.

This has not been lost on Peter Levine, Associate Dean and Director of CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) at Tufts University, who recently blogged about how to proceed in the wake of the 2016 election. A few days after the election concluded in favor of Donald Trump, Levine shared a flowchart offering suggestions under various subheadings to help readers “think about how to respond to the devastating results of the election” (Levine 2016). Under the subheading “Repairing the civic fabric,” options include “Working with vulnerable/traumatized communities” and “Dialog across partisan divides.” One suggested tactic for the latter is “ideologically diverse deliberation; listening.”

What exactly this should mean in practice is an open question for engaged participants. But something surely needed is listening of the sort that helps loosen the grip of ossified divisions along cultural, ideological, racial, educational, and other sectarian lines. Positions have hardened and discourse on the left and the right is frequently insulated and uncharitable. Or so Charles C. Camosy observed in a Washington Post op-ed on the day after Election Day, arguing that seeing one’s political opponents as exhaustively identified with their supposed commitments contributes to ideological fragmentation that makes our politics more brittle and polarized:

Thus today’s college graduates are formed by a campus culture that leaves them unable to understand people with unfamiliar or heterodox views on guns, abortion, religion, marriage, gender and privilege. And that same culture leads such educated people to either label those with whom they disagree as bad people or reduce their stated views on these issues as actually being about something else…Most college grads in this culture are simply never forced to engage with or seriously consider professors or texts which could provide a genuine, compelling alternative view. (2016)

Uncompromising stances, particular about what the other side must be like, stymie efforts to enter into the frame of mind of one’s interlocutor. This can be seen in the shrill debate over the function and value of “political correctness” on college campuses where safe spaces and trigger warnings are derided by some as a form of coddling and defended by others as bulwarks for mental health and social justice. One commonly finds a palpable lack of trust for the other on each side.

 

  1. CHARITY & “THE OPEN MODEL”

What can be done? Many things, and here I make only one suggestion. I said earlier that one earns another’s trust by addressing her civilly. And, as Peter Levine’s work on civic engagement suggests, that this in turn requires charitable listening. What is charity, then? The most politically important element of charity is allowing oneself to be vulnerable.[6]

A charitable listener tries to enter into a speaker’s frame of mind. He invites her presence into his own by trying to be receptive to the stands she takes. But, crucially, he cannot do this while remaining fully himself. By “the self,” I mean understandings of what is worthwhile, true, and relevant that one brings to encounters with others.[7] Asserting the self over against others expresses natural impulses to impose one’s will, gratify desire, return harm for harm, or defend against perceived threats. But doing so undercuts prospects for reciprocal empathy and trust that grow from listening, especially when self-assertion visibly prevails among those who believe they are one another’s enemies.[8] This suggests a revision to the view we started with, offered by Spath and Dahnke, that civility is about “claiming…one’s identity.” If civility involves not just attentive but vulnerable listening, it is less about asserting one’s identity than it is about relaxing our grip on it, and its grip on us, in order to pursue “the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-seated and fierce disagreements” (The Institute for Civility in Government 2017).

We began by observing that trust is a precondition of healthy social relations. Contrary to John Rawls’s suggestion, justice cannot be the value at the foundation of practices that matter to us because, without trust, the relationships necessary for instituting and maintaining justice (or any decent social value) cannot survive (Rawls 1971, 3). And whereas justice can be demanded, trust cannot. Efforts to do so naturally backfire. This is important for our intimate relations, but it is no less pivotal a fact about democratic life. One of its most precious conditions eludes the adamant will. It cannot be brought under sovereign or unilateral control. It responds to an invitation, not a threat. Like everything that matters to politics, it is precarious.

But this does not make it unattainable. For as folks find ways to loosen their grip on what they see as true and important, animosity across recalcitrant differences can soften, expanding the space of possibility and fostering trust. Trust involves but transcends mere belief, such as the belief that another cares about one’s interests or means one no harm. It is a richly embodied orientation to another with cognitive, motivational, and affective dimensions. It is a way of being situated in a relationship that embodies one’s sense of what matters, what makes sense, and what is possible in one’s dealings. Importantly, trust and vulnerability are bound together in more than one way. We know we trust those in whose presence we are comfortable being vulnerable. And where trust is lacking, as we saw before, we can invite it through a charitable posture of vulnerable listening. Thus, trust is a condition of relations that at once requires and promotes vulnerability.

But how can an absent condition be established if doing so takes something required by the condition itself? This whiff of paradox evokes the Aristotelian maxim that virtue is acquired through habituation. And I think Aristotle was right: with such things, we must simply fake it till we make it. But this sounds pretty glib. What does it really mean in practice, and is it realistic, given the stubborn divisions between us?

After all, just as we sometimes anxiously cling to the sense of self we bring to encounters with others, we often misperceive those who contradict us, seeing them as defined by their supposed ideological commitments, past speech or behavior, or status and privilege. Seeing someone stereotypically disposes us to further engage them in those terms, acting on or over against rather than with them. Empirical research on motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and “backfire effect” suggests that such reactive uptake has deep and abiding sources in our psyches (Nyhan and Reifler 2010). And polling of the electorate before and after the election showed that voters’ perceptions and behavior are deeply shaped by cognitive effects disposing us to cling to our original beliefs or attitudes when presented with contradictory evidence (Mitchell, Gottfried, Kiley, and Matsa 2014; Kauffman 2016b). Importantly, efforts to avoid hearing only what one wants to hear can backfire by increasing one’s felt vulnerability, making defensive maneuvers more tempting and likely.

Experts on these effects concede that work on concrete solutions remains inconclusive (Silverman 2011). But by attempting to mitigate their control over our interactions, we express an aspiration to epistemic humility, particularly about the character and motives of others, that is one mark of a good citizen.

A grassroots volunteer initiative that has arisen in the wake of the election is determined to make such an effort. Its aim is to build broad-based, cohesive opposition to Trump and Trumpism, starting with the sort of open, engaged listening I propose here. The #KnockEveryDoor campaign, organized by former Bernie Sanders staffers, volunteers, and supporters, hopes to succeed where they believe the Democratic party failed by “conducting nationwide, door-to-door canvasses” and learning from face-to-face conversations across political differences. The campaign hopes that

by talking to voters [and non-voters] and focusing on listening and understanding, we’ll be able to communicate the stories, concerns and hopes that the establishment politicians and media either missed or ignored in this past election.

The campaign’s site explains that

groundbreaking political science research suggests that long, open-ended conversations like these can actually change people’s minds—maybe even Trump supporters. (Knock Every Door Campaign 2017)

They also state their desire to better understand what motivated some Obama voters to flip to Trump in 2016, so that such disconnects and reversals can be prevented in future elections.

The Knock Every Door campaign suggests a model of interaction that may help dislodge the ideological barriers preventing folks with varying background commitments, affiliations, or habits of mind from articulating the shared interests underlying the different positions they bring to mutual encounters. Call it the open model. Another version of it is the “calling-in” strategy of engagement around issues of privilege, as opposed to the practice, common among left radicals, of “calling-out” overt exercises of privilege by those who have it (Trần 2013). The open model enacts a commitment to the importance of inviting others into relations whose spirit of empathy and respect across differences creates space for sharing the possibility of being transformed by the encounter.

The open model involves the idea that faking it till you make it, displaying vulnerability in hopes of eliciting it from another in the absence of the trust that makes doing so mutually comfortable, is not a feat of cognitive dexterity, or a problem requiring a rationally formulated solution, but a risky exercise of the sheer bodily ability to be and remain present with another who offends or even threatens one.[9] There is no intractable paradox here because vulnerable listening, an invitation to trust, does not itself require trust. Instead it takes what we can call civic courage—the willingness to risk and possibly sacrifice one’s own comfort, one’s confidence, one’s privilege, even a measure of one’s security, to help decent relations between citizens survive. Civic courage in this sense does not require trust so much as hope, a curious blend of desire and expectation that is perhaps more durable than trust, but no less important to the survival of decent relations in times of crisis.

A charitable listener in this sense embraces, and allows their interlocutor to see them embrace, the possibility of being offended, confounded, disproven, or rejected. What he accepts is the uncomfortable possibility of exchanging a self-assured confidence in his accustomed perspective for a greater degree of doubt about, or a change in, his outlook. Allowing another to see one’s openness to her perspective communicates a recognition of her standing as a worthy partner in deliberation, a function that Cheshire Calhoun rightly argues is essential to the virtue of civility: “Civility always involves a display of respect, tolerance, or considerateness” (Calhoun 2000, 259). In her account, the outward signs of such an attitude include “listening carefully.” I agree, but I think that the charity for others’ standpoints and experiences that civility requires, especially during a crisis when mutual trust is scarce, requires visible vulnerability, not just careful attention. We expect the latter even from our declared enemy, whereas good citizens try to see, and be seen by, one another as entitled to participate in deliberation about matters affecting them together.

We turn now to some final thoughts about what some of the dangers of such a practice are, how much they might be worth, and for whom they make sense.

 

  1. TRAGIC TACTICS

I said that I offer only one limited suggestion about how to respond to the election results. Other sensible responses are possible and some will compete with mine in spirit and substance. Some call for more aggressive, confrontational, or doctrinaire tactics than I propose here, and perhaps these are sometimes necessary and even to the good. There are serious grounds for thinking that the practice of the sort of explicit, militant racial terrorism advocated by the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalist groups must be directly confronted, perhaps even violently.

Shamefully, the Klan is not the only source of right-wing extremism and open bigotry currently shaping our politics. The alt-right, an authoritarian ethno-nationalist movement bent on entrenching white supremacy in the U.S., is a conspicuous presence in Trump’s base and has an outsized influence within his regime. Its ideals are personified by former banker and broadcasting mogul, Stephen Bannon. Bannon was a filmmaker and executive chair of Brietbart News, a website trafficking in far-right commentary, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, and other racist and nativist content. He serves as the White House chief strategist and was briefly placed by Trump on the Principals Committee of the National Security Council. One naturally doubts how far extremists like Bannon and Richard Spencer can be reasoned with, and whether listening vulnerably to them might not normalize, making one complicit in, their degradation of the national conversation about issues like immigration and criminal justice reform.

Here I take no position on such questions besides acknowledging that the circumstances of human action, perhaps most saliently in politics, are fundamentally tragic. We must choose between plural and competing goods that claim our allegiance. Besides involving an opportunity cost, where we neglect some values by seeking others, pursuing goods always carries the risk that our efforts will backfire or otherwise fail to realize our intentions, even catastrophically. And, crucially, oppressive social conditions tend to erode prospects for justice at both the structural level of impersonal institutional mechanisms and the subjective, psychological level of personal experience and action.

Indeed, it might be objected that the humility and self-surrender involved in charitable listening, which I urge in the name of democratic civility, mutual empathy, and trust, is itself a privilege or a product of it, a moral good not equally available to everyone in a society like ours where some groups are generally less secure than others. Vulnerability is already distributed unequally by systems that disproportionately subject minorities to many forms of violence, as with the noxious operation of racial bias in the criminal justice system (Alexander 2010; Wagner and Rabuy 2016; Davey and Smith 2016; Apuzzo 2015). The result of left- and right-leaning Americans enhancing their vulnerability during encounters across gendered, racial, and economic differences may be to entrench the oppressive conditions we hope to see eroded. This could mean that the open model cannot be generally adopted without disparate risk of injury to differently situated persons.

For instance, men and women in a sexist society like ours do not operate from the same baseline of security. There may be greater average risk for a woman than a man in engaging someone whose speech or body language may more or less subtly reinforce her subordinate social position. Women are already more subject than male peers to this sort of discursive violence where her capacities as a competent and credible knower and speaker are damaged or undervalued (Fricker 2007). Increasing men’s and women’s discursive vulnerability therefore preserves the prior disparity rather than redressing it. Similar points can be made about other structurally disadvantaged citizens. So, by advocating for a general practice of civility in my sense, I may invite greater harm to minorities by overlooking the inequality of moral opportunity prevailing in American society.

This criticism rings true. Conditions in a social order corrupted by violence and resentment are severely inhospitable to the general cultivation and exercise of moral virtues like civility.[10] There are potentially ruinous institutional and psychological obstacles to creating healthy relations in American society, corrupted as it is by the traumatic legacies of capitalist exploitation, hetero- and cissexism, military and cultural imperialism, and white supremacy in the forms of native genocide, chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. The underlying issue concerns what it takes for human beings deeply shaped by pernicious conditions to transcend them without reproducing them in the effort. Degrading circumstances must be overcome, if at all, by the very people whose powers and abilities they have substantially disfigured.

This is another defining paradox of real political action. Nothing less than the concrete possibility of deliberate moral transformation is at issue. We must articulate it and define and limit its scope, but its tragic nature is precisely why it cannot be mastered or completely evaded—and why any concrete solution will fail to meet whatever ideal standard of equity we wish to institute. This can clearly be seen in the moral residue created by even the most apparently justifiable strategies of violent resistance to oppression, which, whatever else they may accomplish, always serve to reinforce violent dispositions in those who enact them and generate lasting collateral damage in the surrounding social environment.

So why pursue the open model if it risks further harming those already disadvantaged by a corrupt order? Because, due to the tragic realities in play, no approach can avoid this risk; there is still hope for a generally nonviolent reconciliation of the differences that Trump exploits to his own advantage; and I believe the open model can help extend that hope. Widespread persistent violence, or the credible threat of it, is entirely foreign to most Americans’ experience. This is not only a luxury but a precious resource for engaged citizenship that we neglect at our peril. Calls for violent escalation from either the left or the right therefore strike me as perversely naïve and reckless.[11] But if we are to pursue a nonviolent course, I think the findings of cognitive and social science, together with common experience, suggest that critical dialogue predicated on charitable listening can be more effective than the defensive maneuvering and strident declamation that angry political rivals often claim as their right.

But precisely to whom do I prescribe the open model? To start with, and above all, I think my argument has greater presumptive force for those with greater degrees of social privilege. When relations are strained, and important interests are served by a relationship’s survival, someone needs to stick their neck out first. Only thus can an impasse be overcome. Especially for those with privilege—and we cannot forget that most Americans with varying levels of relative privilege are extremely secure and well-off by global standards, a fact made relevant by the far-reaching impact of policies enacted by the U.S. government—sticking one’s privileged neck out is a fine way to use it in the service of democratic hope. Those who avoid doing so when they risk only discomfort or disorientation will be complicit when the situation deteriorates at great cost to many of our country’s and the world’s most vulnerable.

Beyond that, it is not for me to say here how committed to charitable citizenship particular, already especially vulnerable, folks should be. Generally, I think that more privileged Americans—for instance, white, cisgender, male, heterosexual, and so on—have a stronger responsibility to cultivate it as a practice. But, noting that most Americans enjoy what amounts to absolute privilege, I commend the open model on its merits to U.S. citizens with less relative privilege.[12]

 

  1. SCOPE & HOPE

I conclude by addressing some sensible worries about the open model.

First, it may seem that the disorientation risked by listening vulnerably to rivals is not so trivial a cost, for it can lead to a morally dangerous change of heart that uproots one’s antecedent convictions. Indeed, we must worry about this. But this danger is another tragically inescapable fact of life, one that is especially salient in an open society like we wish ours to be. This suggests a further, perhaps less tactical, ethical consideration in favor of vulnerable listening as opposed to merely attentive listening. Finite creatures like us may hope for a measure of clarity and autonomy only on these terms.[13]

Since humans always act among others, to act at all is to risk unleashing forces beyond our control, like unforeseen responses from those who have power over us. Hope, like that of a future where relations are otherwise, comes from the fact that speakers are by their very nature capable of listening. Listening itself is an exercise of power—to extend sympathy, to challenge without attacking, to invite a kindred response, to thus express and foster hope. Moreover, listening to dissenting others is not necessarily riskier than shutting one’s ears to them. Recall John Stuart Mill’s suggestion in On Liberty that refusing to interrogate the values at stake in our lives is the greater moral danger, since

Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right…owing to a quality of the human mind, the source of everything respectable in man either as an intellectual or as a moral being, namely, that his errors are corrigible. (Mill 1997, 55–56)

The reality to which Mill alludes is that there is no pristine discursive position lying outside concrete circumstances of action from which one might survey the truth before entering the fray. There is just the fray and us, the fallible but corrigible creatures in it.

Of course, reality is far more complicated than these abstractions suggest. There are gaps in principle and in practice between interrogating one’s own values, listening to others, listening to rivals, listening to any rival, and listening to anyone, let alone rivals, vulnerably. I do not suggest that the first step leads inexorably to the last. Serious questions, beyond this paper’s scope, about the range of situations to which the open model can and should be applied need answering. But the model may help guide reflection about tough questions around speech, such as, who, if anyone, should not be listened to? and, who, if anyone, should not be allowed to speak? Typically, I think a strong case can be made for, if not listening, at least not silencing, even when vulnerable listening may be uncalled-for.

Take the controversy surrounding speaking engagements by divisive figures like conservative pundit Anne Coulter, whose scheduled speeches at the University of California, Berkeley, on April 19 and April 27, 2017, were canceled at the last minute due to the administration’s professed security concerns. To justify the cancellations, Berkeley cited the destructive rioting that preceded the canceled February 1, 2017, speech of alt-right media personality Milo Yiannopouos. The violence at these events is often produced by clashes between radical groups on the right and the left. Here we cannot satisfactorily address the question of whether progressives are ever justified in trying to prevent speakers such as Coulter and Spencer from speaking in public. But we should note that the aftermath of these cancellations—framed by some as assaults on free speech, by others as victories in the fight against fascism—illustrates our theme of tragic risk.

Recall Robert Reich’s observation that those less trusting are more averse to risk. Some attempts to mitigate risk produce results that are not only tragic but ironic. For instance, trying to remove the risk to vulnerable populations that supposedly comes from the speech of reactionary figures like Coulter and Spencer, whether by violent protest or personal assault, raises the stakes and risks of backfiring both legally and in the court of public opinion by allowing such figures to pose as victims. It is a further tragic irony that, depending on the extent of the damage done by the violent means of resistance used, silenced figures may become genuine victims, whether by having their authentic rights to expression curtailed, their bodily integrity violated, or in other ways. Their most hardline opponents may not be moved by these injuries, but many more moderate folks likely will be, and not without cause. As Donald J. Farish, president of Roger Williams University since 2011, puts it:

The alt-right movement provokes violent dissent, the black bloc anarchists are only too happy to provide violent dissent, the alt-right then claims that government intervention is required to protect free speech, the anarchists celebrate the breakdown of civil order, and universities become the unwitting foils in an attack on democratic principles. (2017)

In short, efforts to coercively deny platforms to divisive but prominent figures like Coulter and Spencer risk entrenching a cycle of polarization and violence by reinforcing the narrative peddled by such figures themselves, namely that communication with the enemy is impossible or worthless because American society is hopelessly broken and must be transformed by authoritarian means—whether police, executive, or mass action. This sort of apocalyptic thinking is tempting in a society like ours where trust is scarce. It compensates for lost hope with defiance and a gratifying feeling of personal rectitude. But, implicated in degrading the situation to which it is a fatalistic response, it is false comfort. Our situation is grim but, as I will argue now, it is not yet apocalyptic.

Those sympathetic in principle to the case for charity might yet doubt that it will be effective when positions are as polarized and entrenched as they are now. I share the worry. But there are strong grounds for hope that listening works. I want to close by contrasting the punching of Richard Spencer, with which we began our discussion, with a recent case similar in outline but very different in outcome.

Derek Black is the 28-year-old son of Don Black, former Ku Klux Klan leader and founder of Stormfront, the Internet’s largest white nationalist website, and the godchild of former Klan leader and Louisiana state politician David Duke. Groomed since childhood for a prominent leadership role in the white nationalist movement, around 2013 Derek defied expectations by abandoning that path and the racist worldview that went with it. He explains the transformation this way:

Several years ago, I began attending a liberal college where my presence prompted huge controversy. Through many talks with devoted and diverse people there—people who chose to invite me into their dorms and conversations rather than ostracize me—I began to realize the damage I had done. Ever since, I have been trying to make up for it…People have approached me looking for a way to change the minds of Trump voters, but I can’t offer any magic technique. That kind of persuasion happens in person-to-person interactions and it requires a lot of honest listening on both sides. (Black 2016)[14]

Spencer responded to his assault on inaugural weekend by escalating his rhetoric, redoubling his propagandistic efforts, and calling for a paramilitary security force for those like him. Adept at PR, he predictably used the favorable optics to entrench his support. Meanwhile, observers not yet convinced of how dangerous Trump is, and unaware of the openly fascist elements behind him, have been given a clear opportunity to associate opposition to Trump and his supporters with criminal violence, assaults on what many will regard as rightly protected speech, and public disorder. Indeed, notwithstanding my concession that anti-democratic forces might merit a violent response, research suggests that resistance movements embracing violence and other extreme tactics tend to backfire when compared to alternatives:

Nonviolent black-led protests played a critical role in tilting the national political agenda towards civil rights and black-led resistance that included violence contributed to outcomes directly in opposition to the policy preferences of the protestors. (Wasow 2017, 4)

The authors of another recent study that examined “popular responses to extreme tactics used by animal rights, Black Lives Matter, and anti-Trump protests” found that, contrary to the activists’ beliefs, “extreme protest tactics decreased popular support for a given cause because they reduced feelings of identification with the movement” (Feinberg, Willer, and Kovacheff 2017, 2). These findings stand to reason. Experience suggests that berating or intimidating people tends to only make them resentful, which risks entrenching our current politics of resentment. We saw earlier that even presenting folks with good evidence contrary to their given beliefs or attitudes inclines them to cling ever more firmly to them. The vicious cycle we observed in our opening remarks should therefore come as no surprise: one who feels humiliated or attacked will only be that much harder to reach.

Meanwhile, Derek Black’s remarkable trajectory suggests that difficult, reciprocal listening can open minds and transform our relations, even across extreme differences. In the remarks I cited above, he adds that dialogue would not have led to his transformation without his experiencing “clear and passionate outrage” about his views from his interlocutors. Black learned that charitable listeners need not, indeed should not, be docile or morally enervated. Suitably communicated outrage can be rigorous but civil and constructive, perhaps unlike anger, which is arguably punitive, harboring a futile and counter-productive payback wish (Nussbaum 2016, 15).[15]

It must be said that the evolution of Black’s views on race and America was a largely intellectual process whereby he gradually and soberly absorbed scholarly research on the history of race as a concept, the achievements of Islamic civilization, the effects of bias and institutional discrimination on minorities, and other empirical resources. My point is not that charitable listening alone can change minds. But it can help open them. Black accessed many of these materials not in his college coursework but through informal conversations with his Sabbat dinner friends. His own account of his development shows that without his Jewish classmate’s gesture of trust, inviting into his home a known white nationalist, widely mistrusted on campus, the decisive exchange of ideas in Black’s transformation would not have occurred.

This is not to say that the less privileged parties to an encounter should shoulder a greater burden of outreach or communication. As I said before, greater responsibility generally attends greater privilege. What Black’s case shows is that gestures of trust across differences, from anyone prepared to offer them but especially those directly concerned, can do a great deal of good. Those who undertake them, like Black’s Jewish classmate Matthew Stevenson, offer us a lesson in civic courage.

The cases of Richard Spencer and Derek Black are by no means identical, not least because Spencer and Black are themselves different people. But they jointly reflect our crisis of trust from opposite directions, reminding us that we still have choices about how to respond. Not all efforts to listen will prevail over mistrust and resentment. Maybe only few will. But I have tried to defend a strong presumption in favor of listening, and in extremis, of not coercively silencing. In the words of high school student activist of color Mahad Olad:

I earnestly believe that the best and most beneficial method to simultaneously fight against blatant bigotry and for marginalized groups who are the objects of hate is more speech, not less (Friedersdorf 2014).

In this spirit, I have argued that healthy democracy rests on the exercise of civility, a virtue of citizenship requiring charity towards compatriots, which in turn calls for vulnerable listening across disagreements and differences, which fosters the trust that makes sustained civil relations possible. We saw that civil listeners charitably engage speakers’ stances by relaxing their grip on “the self,” or the attitudes about what is true and important, that they bring to the encounter themselves. With some luck, maybe civil listening can help temper the truculent identities ossified and weaponized by our mistrustful politics (McElwee and McDaniel 2017).

I presume many Americans share my hope for nonviolent transformations of our strained relations in the direction of trust and reconciliation. Whether our hope will be rewarded is an open question, of course. But I think those who wish to see Trump’s populist antagonisms overcome, rather than succumbed to, must further hope that the question remains open for as long as possible. Listening takes time. Maybe it can buy us a little more: “Our job in these circumstances is not to condescend but to engage—or forfeit the politics of the moment (and the future) to reaction” (Sullivan 2017). In all humility about our uncertain future, I suggest that a widely shared ethics of vulnerable listening may help Americans create a decent future together:[16]

These days, my young children want retribution for every unfair thing that happens to them. An eye for an eye. But in teaching them that civility means laying aside the desire for self-gratifying retaliation, I hope to alleviate for them the exhausting and toxic cycle we now find ourselves in today. If we continue as we are, no one will have the last word or obtain reconciliation. (Cunningham 2016)

 

Christian Golden, PhD, is a Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at University of Tennessee. Dr. Golden’s primary philosophical interests include the character and limits of subjectivity as well as normative and psychological issues surrounding agency in ethics and politics.  He is also interested in feminism, Nietzsche scholarship, and radical democratic thought and practice.  His current research is aimed at developing ways of understanding personal commitment, as well as key ethical and epistemic virtues like civility, humility, integrity, and justice, that take seriously the role and potential value of conflict in human psychic and social life. 

 

REFERENCES

Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

Apuzzo, Matt. 2015. “Ferguson Police Routinely Violate Rights of Blacks, Justice Dept. Finds.” The New York Times, March 3. Accessed April 26, 2017. http://nyti.ms/1wS7CTu

Bishop, Bill. 2009. The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. New York: Mariner Books.

Black, Derek R. 2016. “Why I Left White Nationalism.” The New York Times, November 26. Accessed April 26, 2017. https://nyti.ms/2jAfb4x

Calhoun, Cheshire. 1995. “Standing for Something.” The Journal of Philosophy 92 (5): 235–60.

———. 2000. “The Virtue of Civility.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 29 (3): 251–75.

Camosy, Charles. 2016. “Trump Won because College-Educated Americans are Out of Touch.” The Washington Post, November 9. Accessed April 26, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/11/09/trump-won-because-college-educated-americans-are-out-of-touch/

Cassam, Quassim. 2014. Self-Knowledge for Humans. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cunningham, Lauren. 2016. “Finding Strength in Children.” The Institute for Civility in Government Blog, December 6. Accessed April 26, 2017. http://www.instituteforcivility.org/blog/

Davey, Monica and Mitch Smith. 2016. “Chicago Police Dept. Plagued by Systemic Racism, Task Force Finds.” The New York Times, April 13. Accessed April 26, 2017. http://nyti.ms/1SgbFbX

Farish, Donald J. 2017. “Campus Civility in the Age of President Trump.” Higher Ed in Crisis: A President’s Take, February 8. Accessed March 15, 2017. http://higheredincrisis.org/2017/02/campus-civility-in-the-age-of-president-trump/

Feinberg, Matthew, Robb Willer, and Chloe Kovacheff. 2017. “Extreme Protest Tactics Reduce Popular Support for Social Movements.” Rotman School of Management Working Paper No. 2911177. Accessed April 26, 2017. https://ssrn.com/abstract=2911177 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2911177

Fricker, Miranda. 2007. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Friedersdorf, Conor. 2014. “Left Outside the Social-Justice Movement’s Small Tent.” The Atlantic, April 25. Accessed April 28, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/04/outside-the-socialjustice-movements-small-tent/479049/?utm_source=atlfb

Ganim, Sara and Chris Welch. 2016. “White Supremacist Richard Spencer: ‘We Reached Tens of Millions of People’ with Video.” CNN, December 6. Accessed January 10, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/06/politics/richard-spencer-interview-texas-am-speech/

Glattner, Hayley. 2017. “The Most Polarized Freshman Class in Half a Century.” The Atlantic, May 2. Accessed May 5, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/05/the-most-polarized-freshman-class-in-half-a-century/525135/?utm_source=atlfb

Hodson, Gordon and Michael A. Busseri. 2012. “Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact.” Psychological Science Vol. 23, Issue 2.

The Institute for Civility in Government. 2017. “What Is Civility?” Accessed April 26, 2017. http://www.instituteforcivility.org/who-we-are/what-is-civility/

Jones, Jeffrey M. 2016. “Americans’ Trust in Political Leaders, Public at New Lows.” Gallup, September 21. Accessed April 26, 2017. http://www.gallup.com/poll/195716/americans-trust-political-leaders-public-new-lows.aspx

Jones, Robert P. 2016. “The Rage of White, Christian America.” The New York Times, Opinion Pages, November 10. Accessed April 26, 2017. https://nyti.ms/2jBMHYd

Kauffman, Gretel. 2016a. “Why Americans’ Trust in the Media is at an All-Time Low.” The Christian Science Monitor, September 15. Accessed April 26, 2017. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2016/0915/Why-Americans-trust-in-the-media-is-at-an-all-time-low

———. 2016b. “Why 52 Percent of Republicans say Donald Trump Won the Popular Vote.” Christian Science Monitor, December 18. Accessed April 26, 2017. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2016/1218/Why-52-percent-of-Republicans-say-Donald-Trump-won-the-popular-vote

Kingwell, Mark. A Civil Tongue: Justice, Dialogue and the Politics of Pluralism. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Klein, Naomi. 2016. “It was the Democrats’ Embrace of Neoliberalism that Won it for Trump.” The Guardian, November 9. Accessed April 26, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/09/rise-of-the-davos-class-sealed-americas-fate

Knock Every Door Campaign. 2017. “Frequently Asked Questions.” Accessed April 26, 2017. https://knockeverydoor.org

Levine, Peter. 2016. “How to Respond?” A Blog for Civic Renewal, November 11. Accessed April 26, 2017. http://peterlevine.ws/?p=17674

Marshall, Josh. 2016. “Trumpism Is a Politics of Loss and Revenge.” TPM. TPM Edblog, August 21. Accessed March 3, 2017. http://talkingpointsmemo.com/edblog/trumpism-is-a-politics-of-loss-and-revenge

Martin, Gregory J. and Ali Yurukoglu. 2016. “Bias in Cable News: Real Effects and Polarization.” Working Paper No. 3343, May 27. Accessed April 27, 2017. https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/working-papers/bias-cable-news-real-effects-polarization-0

McElwee, Sean and Jason McDaniel. 2017. “Economic Anxiety Didn’t Make People Vote for Trump, Racism Did.” The Nation, May 8. Accessed May 9, 2017. https://www.thenation.com/article/economic-anxiety-didnt-make-people-vote-trump-racism-did/

Meko, Tim, Denise Lu, and Lazaro Gamio. 2016. “How Trump Won the Presidency with Razor-Thin Margins in Swing States.” The Washington Post, November 11. Accessed March 20, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/2016-election/swing-state-margins/

Mendieta, Eduardo. 2016. “Civility at the Core of American Democracy, whatever Politicians Say.” Penn State University Election 2016 site, November 7. Accessed March 20, 2017. http://election2016.psu.edu/2016/11/07/civility-at-the-core-of-american-democracy-whatever-politicians-say/

Meyer, Robinson. 2017. “The Rise of Progressive ‘Fake News’.” The Atlantic, February 3. Accessed April 26, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/02/viva-la-resistance-content/515532/?utm_source=fbb

Mill, John Stuart. 1997. Mill: The Spirit of the Age, On Liberty, The Subjection of Women. Selected and edited by Alan Ryan. New York: Norton.

Mitchell, Amy, Jeffrey Gottfried, Jocelyn Kiley and Katerina Eva Matsa. 2014. “Political Polarization & Media Habits.” Pew Research Center, October 21. Accessed April 26, 2017. http://www.journalism.org/2014/10/21/political-polarization-media-habits/

Nussbaum, Martha. 2016. Anger and Forgiveness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nyhan, B. and J Reifler. 2010. “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions.” Political Behavior Volume 32, Issue 2: 303–30.

Orwin, Clifford. 1991. “Civility.” The American Scholar 60 (4): 553–64.

Painter, Nell Irvin. 2016. “What Whiteness Means in the Trump Era.” The New York Times, Opinion Pages, November 12. Accessed April 26, 2017. http://nyti.ms/2epfkX2

Protevi, John. 2009. Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

———. 1993. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Reich, Robert. 2010. Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future. New York: Vintage Books.

———. 2015. Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few. New York: Knopf.

Silverman, Craig. 2011. “The Backfire Effect.” Columbia Journalism Review, June 17. Accessed April 26, 2017. http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/the_backfire_effect.php

Singer, Peter. 1993. Practical Ethics. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Gregory A. and Alan Cooperman. 2016. “The Factors Driving the Growth of Religious ‘Nones’ in the U.S.” Pew Research Center, September 14. Accessed May 6, 2017. http://pewrsr.ch/2cNESbO

Solomon, Daniel J. 2017. “After Being Punched by Anti-Trump Protestors, Richard Spencer Demands ‘Alt-Right’ Vigilante Force.” Fast Forward, January 21. Accessed April 26, 2017. http://forward.com/fast-forward/360757/after-being-punched-by-anti-trump-protesters-richard-spencer-demands-alt-ri/

Sullivan, Andrew. 2017. “The Reactionary Temptation.” New York Magazine, April 30. Accessed May 8, 2017. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/04/andrew-sullivan-why-the-reactionary-right-must-be-taken-seriously.html?mid=fb-share-di

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2017. “Are Liberals Helping Trump?” The New York Times, February 18. Accessed April 26, 2017. https://nyti.ms/2lukkfq

Tocqueville, Alexis de. 1835. Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve. Accessed April 28, 2017. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/816/816-h/816-h.htm#link2HCH0025

Trần, Ngọc Loan. 2013. “Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable.” BGD, December 18. Accessed April 26, 2017. https://www.bgdblog.org/2013/12/calling-less-disposable-way-holding-accountable/

Tyson, Alec and Shiva Maniam. 2016. “Behind Trump’s Victory: Divisions by Race, Gender, Education.” Pew Research Center, November 9. Accessed April 26, 2017. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/behind-trumps-victory-divisions-by-race-gender-education/

Wagner, Peter and Bernadette Rabuy. 2016. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2016.” Prison Policy Initiative. Accessed April 26, 2017. http://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2016.html

Wasow, Omar. 2017. “Do Protests Matter? Evidence from the 1960s Black Insurgency.” Working Paper, February 2. Accessed April 26, 2017. http://www.omarwasow.com/Protests_on_Voting.pdf

Williams, Ray. 2012. “The Rise of Incivility and Bullying in America.” Psychology Today (July). Accessed April 26, 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201207/the-rise-incivility-and-bullying-in-america

 

ENDNOTES

[1] Here I am primarily concerned with trust between citizens as opposed to citizens’ trust in public institutions, though these are surely interconnected.

[2] Like Cheshire Calhoun (2000, 254), I regard civility as “a distinct and important” virtue, though she calls it a “moral” virtue whereas I hesitate to accept that term’s universalistic implications. Here I defend civility as a political virtue of democratic citizenship.

[3] There are surely many other plausible conditions on civil democratic citizenship, such as refraining from violence and coercion, respecting others’ privacy, and so on. Here I focus specifically on the role within civil citizenship of charity as explained below.

[4] Notwithstanding his populist campaign rhetoric, Trump has appointed to his cabinet many of the same ultra-rich insiders he vilified and swore to purge from the Washington “swamp” in a campaign pitched against a system rigged and exploited by Wall Street and special interests. Examples include Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, an oil executive and former CEO of Exxon Mobil; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, hedge fund manager and former senior executive at Goldman Sachs; and Wilbur Ross, Commerce Secretary and 79-year-old billionaire investor with no prior experience in government or public service.

[5] Perhaps greater moral difficulties are raised by empirical research showing a link between lower intelligence and many forms of prejudice even after controlling for education and socio-economic status. See, e.g., Hodson and Busseri (2012).

[6] Other accounts of charity emphasize the role of listening. Take Rawls (1993, 217), for instance, for whom civility is a duty of liberal citizenship involving “a willingness to listen to others and a fairmindedness in deciding when accommodations to their views should reasonably be made.” See also Kingwell (1995, 211). Here I go further, arguing that civil listening is charitable and therefore puts one’s antecedent attitudes and practices at risk of transformation.

[7] These often involve our conscious or avowed self-understandings, but may also conflict with them due to the prominent role of self-deception and other forms of non-self-transparency in human experience and action. The cognitive effects discussed below give some illustration of the finitude of the human capacity for sovereign control over our own character and conduct. There are many other varieties. For more discussion, see Protevi 2009 and Cassam 2014.

[8] I explore these ethical and psychological issues, and discuss their political implications, in “Taking Our Selves Too Seriously: Commitment, Contestation, and the Dynamic Life of the Self” (forthcoming).

[9] Members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the civil rights groups who defied Jim Crow in the South during the 1960s through sit-ins and Freedom Rides, knew the grave physical and psychological risks they took by practicing nonviolence in a brutally repressive white culture of police and mob violence. Here I argue for something far less demanding than the voluntary submission to severe interpersonal violence courageously practiced by CORE and SNCC activists. But the inspiring transformative impact of their public interventions should not be lost on those who want to resist Trumpism without reinforcing the conditions that enable it.

[10] Work on moral luck is thus enduringly relevant to a proper diagnosis of the intricate, bedeviling difficulties inherent in dismantling oppressive social conditions.

[11] Crucially, violent escalations by or on behalf of minority groups will likely backfire for the foreseeable future, since they tend to provoke more and worse repression and violence disproportionately inflicted on minority communities themselves. Here what is most relevant is not the rarity of sustained, open violence in our society but—a complexly related fact—the authorities’ virtually total monopoly on the means of violence. We see this play out in the wake of the presidential election. In pursuing their agenda, authoritarian elements formerly confined to the fringes but emboldened by Trump’s ascendency eagerly claim the protection and support of the state, dominated as it now is by revanchist forces loyal to Trump’s regime. Consider, for instance, Richard Spencer’s call for the creation of an extreme right-wing vigilante force in response to being physically assaulted by a masked protester on inaugural weekend (Solomon 2017).

[12] Here I adapt the distinction between relative poverty and absolute poverty, or “poverty by any standard,” introduced by Robert McNamara and deployed by Peter Singer in arguing for a stringent duty on the part of the global rich to prevent widespread preventable suffering and death among the world’s poor (Singer 1993, 218–19).

[13] This is part of my principled response to the objection that what my argument really requires is the pretense of vulnerable listening as opposed to the real thing. The other part is simply that, besides being intellectually weak, deceiving one’s fellow citizens is wrong and especially perverse where issues of trust are at stake. This is notwithstanding the tactical consideration that we are rarely the gifted deceivers we imagine ourselves to be; folks tend to be good at sniffing out a phony. If we cannot manage sincere openness in dialogue with others, and faking it is the really best we can do, then perhaps we should do so. But phony vulnerability as such is nothing to ethically aspire to. In short, the open model requires that we encourage trust in others by simulating it ourselves through genuinely vulnerable listening across differences. Even when we must simulate the vulnerability, we can try to telegraph that effort itself. This may be the limit of what we can do, but it may yet be enough to introduce new possibilities.

[14] After Black’s outing on The New College of Florida campus as a prominent white separatist, the first of his peers to reach out to him was Matthew Stevenson, an Orthodox Jew. Stevenson’s opening gesture was an invitation, which Black accepted, to a weekly Shabbat dinner he hosted with a diverse group of friends in his campus apartment.

[15] My sense of civility therefore does not necessarily involve law-abidance or refraining from publicly expressing convictions fellow citizens may not share, two conditions on liberal democratic civility put forward by Clifford Orwin (1991). Civility in my sense may at least permit lawbreaking (the civil disobedience practiced in the 1960s by CORE and SNCC) and require one to express views others do not share (the outrage civilly addressed to Derek Black by his fellow students) about what is true and important within one’s plural community. There is thus a key internal connection between civility in my sense and integrity as conceived by Cheshire Calhoun (1995) as a co-deliberative social virtue.

[16] I am grateful to those who offered thoughtful feedback and criticism on early drafts of this paper, especially Gerald Mara, Terry Pinkard, and the referees of Georgetown University’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, as well as its Editor-in-Chief, Rebecca Kukla, for her helpful guidance.

Special Issue: Trump and the 2016 Election

Teaching the American Presidency as Donald Trump Took Office

by Arielle Bennett

ABSTRACT. The day before the 2017 Inauguration of Donald Trump, I started teaching the American Presidency to a group of nearly ninety students. As one of the most controversial individuals of this era has taken office and has shaken the meaning of free speech and the value of facts themselves, this is undoubtedly a unique time in history to be both a lecturer and an observer in a presidency course. This classroom offers an interesting case-study on the discussions between the politically engaged youth of America, as well as the debate surrounding the disruptive speech of the alt-right and the “politically correct” reaction to it.

This spring I was given the opportunity to teach the American Presidency to a class of nearly ninety undergraduate students in New Jersey. The 2017 Inauguration was the day after class began; Donald Trump was now President and his Executive actions within his office would have to become part of this course on the presidency. I assumed it would be a controversial semester given the tone of the election, but I had not expected it to be used by some students as a forum for “alternative facts.” Nor did I expect to see students willing to make comments that bordered on bigotry so openly, without thought for the diverse group of people in the classroom. From my experience in political science courses, students are ready to become partisan if the discussion warrants it, but this was my first experience where I was distressed in a classroom; not by the subject of the readings, but by the behavior of some of the participants.

On the first day of class I asked the students to raise their hands if they were political science majors, and most affirmed. I took this measure positively, hoping that the classroom of mostly advanced majors in the field would remain classically “political science” focused, or at least keep to the topic at hand. Then again, my time as an undergraduate during the first Obama-Clinton showdown was a much different one, and while debates between students were certainly heated at that time, I can’t remember ever feeling uncomfortable in a classroom or amongst my peers. In the tradition of most political science courses, I tried my best to make the course “unbiased,” “non-partisan,” and based on historical facts about the presidency. After all, it should be a historical course that looks at each significant presidency week by week. However, I found myself defending the notion of equality itself on a regular basis; I found myself continually going in depth to explain the elements of racism and sexism that were embedded in our nation’s Constitution and were reinforced by the three branches if government; I found myself in what seemed more like a talk show, or a Twitter war, by continually justifying common sense socio-political facts against the faction of those “liberated” by the new precedent of the political rule-breaking of Donald Trump.

The alt-right youths of America were not as distant, or as rural, as I imagined anymore. Some were in my classroom, less than an hour from New York City. The one to two male students who appeared to be advocates of the alt-right somehow seemed like the majority of the classroom because they were the loudest, when in fact the other eighty or more students of every other political persuasion were the substantial majority. The true majority was veiled—their speech was more quiet and rare, and by the end of week four of class any attempt to dispute the eagerness of the alt-right students’ speech had completely withered. It was as though the true majority had a very limited desire to directly and continually confront these outbursts, and only for the first few weeks of class did they attempt it. The eventual silence of most of the classroom in deference to the alt-right students was daunting, and my own persistent attempt to defend my teachings against the alt-right with genuine facts and historical evidence did not seem to be enough. When facts no longer matter to your debate opponent, which party becomes the loser?

After all, for the first several weeks of class we were still learning about the founders and their philosophies, the early presidencies, and the role of the Constitution. By week three of the course, President Trump’s travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries had just been released, and on this occasion the classroom was in uproar. It took nearly an hour to bring the tone down between opposing sides of the classroom after that event, and while I hoped to assure the students of how checks and balances worked and remind them Executive Orders can be challenged, it was clear that the classroom dynamic itself was going to be our immediate challenge. Little did I know the majority of the students would be willing to give up engaging with the alt-right just a week later.

In the first month of class, we heard from a farright student that said, “We have always had equal rights in America.” This comment was in response to my presentation about how after the 13th and 14th Amendments were passed, segregation still emerged, later verified by a 7-1 Supreme Court decision in Plessey v. Ferguson, and voting rights were suppressed for African Americans regardless of the 15th Amendment’s clarity. I told the story of Susan B. Anthony’s court case U.S. v. Susan B. Anthony, where she was denied a trial by jury and convicted of illegal voting, and the ruling reaffirmed that women were not full citizens despite what the 14th Amendment might say about general “persons” having equal protection, citizenship for those born here, and due process. Next we heard a student say “the gender pay gap is a myth” (intending to prove that women had “full equality”), and my reply that our R1 university has scholars that research this very issue and that it is a fact women earn less than men for the same work did not convince him. Arguments that deny the history and reality of obvious inequalities were not what I was expecting in my classroom. But, in a world where existing knowledge, fact, and academia are being challenged, it seemed inevitable to enter into a classroom, especially one that is meant to examine our current President. The strangest part of this classroom dialogue was that I rarely heard from students willing to challenge these bizarre claims, even in a very diverse classroom on a very liberal campus.

The lowest point of the dialogue came at the end of the first month of class. I was lecturing on the Constitution, explaining how women and minorities were not included as persons in the Constitution, which is why we have had to struggle to obtain equal rights. A student, trying again to prove that there was no need for more constitutional wordage on equality because he believed equality already existed, literally said to the class, “But we all know there’s no such thing as rape.” Then moments later, he went further to say “there’s no such thing as discrimination either.” In response, the faces of the class dropped; nearly all of us gasped in sync. These comments were so irrelevant to the discussion at hand, yet they were able to take over and create the most somber atmosphere I have experienced in a classroom. I was nearly speechless for that first minute. Never did I imagine having to confront or defend the very concept of rape or discrimination. I was visibly upset, but as someone that spent a great deal of time studying the ills of patriarchy, I used my knowledge of gender-based violence and historical discrimination against sex and race as confidently as possible. As I was attempting to prove myself, I felt how ridiculous I sounded. It was too outrageous and too offensive that anyone would have to make a public attempt to explain common knowledge and historical fact. While I can still see the faces of my students that were disturbed by the offenses, there were only two of them willing to respond to the student that offended them. Neither that was willing to argue back mentioned racial discrimination. The conversation somehow stayed limited to proving there was gender-based violence and discrimination. I was worried that if the conversation had moved one step farther toward debating the existence of racism, we would have heard directly racist comments. While I did my utmost to control the aftershock, the damage had been done by the inflammatory words meant to sting the other for no reason at all, just for the sake of harm. Hearing a public declaration that the experiences of the other did not exist, that they could not exist, was something I never expected in a university classroom in 2017.

I didn’t plan on discussing sexual violence statistics that day, but I told the class that nearly a quarter of all undergraduate students are sexually assaulted. In my most commanding voice I said, “that means over twenty-percent of people at our university right now have been sexually assaulted.” I saw the discomfort in their expressions as I said this, and no doubt they saw the pain in my own. This is a conversation that we should be willing to have in a college environment, but having the conversation in response to those denying it, in a classroom that had nothing to do with the subject whatsoever, was not an effective platform. After I gave the most compelling arguments I could to prove the existence of the reality of rape and discrimination, I ended the class for the day.

On my way home, after calling other faculty for advice, it took several days to recover from hearing unfounded prejudice in my classroom. I decided not to continue open discussions afterward; not by “suppressing” free speech, but by becoming the stereotype of a professor that simply lectures without pausing for the entire length of class. What alternative could I have than to monologue? It was evident in this context that the students would not learn academically by discussing with one another. They may have learned another lesson, as I did, that unduly harsh words are going to be spoken publicly and boldly in this new era, and that the leader of this trend is our current POTUS. While the monologue is not my favorite teaching method, being someone that believes in students learning from one another’s thoughts in discussions, not merely traditional lectures, it seemed that in allowing my classroom to be open, it became closed. When free speech becomes unjustifiably antagonistic in settings that are meant to be scholastic and thoughtful, it harms the beauty of learning. When speech is about disregarding the authority of all those that differ, when it becomes centered on denying the other, it is hardly productive, especially in a classroom.

The silence of the majority of the class continued as I monologued week to week, though the persistent hand-raising of the couple far-right students left me with little alternative but to call on them occasionally, though their comments were more appropriate after the day we confronted the denial of rape and discrimination. When I would ask for their sources since I had never heard of the information they were offering, they would site some organization unknown to me or say sardonically that “everyone knows this.” I also tried group activities where I would select a person that was quiet in class to speak for their group, instead of waiting for the most eager students to speak. I didn’t hear confrontational comments for several weeks after I decreased the open discussions, so I was optimistic that once the class reached the topics of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama it would be possible to see more communication between students once again, since they had lived during these presidencies. Not surprisingly, the students on the left remained largely quiet, and the class didn’t hear student-led approval of President Obama, nor a critique of President Bush. Long before this point in class, few students other than those on the far-right had anything they were willing to share.

As an emerging political scientist, this classroom experience has been a case-study for me. It was what I imagined to be a picture of the politically engaged youth in a typical Northeastern state. It was an incredibly diverse group of students from all kinds of backgrounds, though most are from New Jersey or the tri-state area. On the day I tried to confront the fact that discrimination exists, I asked the class to raise their hands if they were first generation college students; well over half of them obliged in affirmation. This showed that it was certainly not a room of privilege; it was a room of hopefuls looking toward the American Dream. There were mostly what appeared to be diligent students from all realms of the political spectrum left and right, but there were also those couple leaning to the fringe alt-right persuasion that had no trouble expressing themselves consistently throughout the entire semester, while those from all other political persuasions spoke less and less as the semester went on.

The most interesting observation I have about this group of students was that it appeared they were not comfortable with confrontation that isn’t anonymous. Given that these students had to see each other twice a week, I believe it made them more shy and inexpressive then they usually would be at a political event or online dialogue where they could interact with others politically and anonymously. The only outliers in my classroom, those that were willing to speak up to everyone no matter what, were from the alt-right; most likely because their political orientation as an opposition force encourages blatant politically “incorrect” discussion. With nearly all of the comments in class I heard, no matter what the subject at hand was, the first hand to be raised was from the far-right. However, after class was over, the students that came up to me to offer comments appeared to be political moderates or liberals. These students spoke with me privately rather than publicly in a classroom, which in my opinion demonstrated they preferred to express their political opinions specifically to like-minded peers or political “neutrals” (like a professor), rather than in an environment where their comments may potentially be critiqued, ignored, or disrespected.

The left has often been critiqued for its inability to address the alt-right as intensely as it likely needs to, and while this might be partially because it is dealing with a group that discounts the other regardless of its merits, it also could be because the rules of the game are changing. While Hillary Clinton advised us to “go high” when others “go low,” is it possible to win a dirty fight with squeaky-clean methods? While many of us might stay away from the followers of the Breitbart camp and the like, and instead surround ourselves with those of our own political persuasions, it is important for us to also be aware of this group and what is being said. Moreover, it is even more important to confront it in open dialogue. The politically correct manners that have been the custom of traditional political actors may indeed be a model of the past. America has been a community of individualism, free speech, and innovation, and those that test free-speech to limit will not be thwarted by the subtle, yet biting, wit of 19th century “ladies and gentlemen” inclined to take the high ground. Oddly enough, this course reminded me of the 2016 Presidential Debates and Town Halls. On the few occasions the moderate or left-leaning students spoke up in response to the far-right students during the first month of class, they took the high ground and were polite and appropriate (like Hillary Clinton), while those that took the low ground certainly had the most sound bites and floor time (like Donald Trump). It wasn’t the words of sensible solidarity Hillary spoke that the nation remembered months after. Instead, it was the Machiavellian tactics of Donald Trump that we are still thinking about and confronting on a daily basis, as he is now our current President.

Free speech and political activity are evolving, and the election of Donald Trump has proven as much by his unchecked rejection of the traditional politically “correct” dialogue practiced by most political actors. In this era of political upheaval and what will likely be forthcoming partisan realignment throughout the country, the alt-right should not have a moratorium on being the loudest. The numerical majority and all of its glorious types of factions also need to express, to rebel, to be active, to be heard, to inspire, and to disrupt. As this classroom displayed the diversity of the budding millennial generation today, we should also consider what kind of future this group will strive to bring if fear of political incorrectness and confrontation with critics leads to silence. The loudest and most politically-incorrect people don’t always get to be leaders, but the most respectful and reasonable people don’t always emerge victorious either. My hope is that a new generation of strong-willed people emerge that are courageous on all sides, regardless of their interpretation of free speech. Ideally, provocative free speech should not be an exclusive tool of those in the far-right. There must also emerge those of every other political persuasion willing to use free speech to its fullest potential, and to be emboldened and unabashed in their defense of truth and progress, while simultaneously never denying the other.

My classroom should have been a forum for vibrant debate from multiple groups of people represented by New Jersey’s political youth, as a safe space to practice free speech and to learn mutual respect as well as candid self-expression. The students never needed to be politically correct, they simply could have held one another accountable by practicing the art of the Socratic method – by challenging one another’s ideas and taking the time to logically disprove one another’s fallacies so that we could have the opportunity to make the closest approximation to the truth together. Unfortunately, my classroom had no desire to engage in dialogue in the Socratic fashion. In fact, I discovered firsthand that the Socratic method isn’t practicable when one side doesn’t believe in the possibility of undeniable facts, such as the existence of discrimination. The Socratic method has a flaw in such cases as these; “truths” cannot be sought in a mutual dialogue when debaters cannot agree on a baseline understanding of even the questions being asked.

For those of us with the opportunity to teach politically controversial subjects in this polarized era, my advice is simple. If you are willing to discuss current events in the classroom, particularly those surrounding the presidency, be direct as the moderator and be prepared to confront issues of prejudice that may arise. I have learned there are no guarantees that college-level students will practice reasonable partisan debate in political science classrooms. If I could repeat the semester again, to build a discussion I would rely less on students that raise their hands to volunteer their thoughts. I would rotate more between lecture, calling on students randomly from my roster, and student group activities. While some might read this essay and know better ways to manage a classroom or consider my recent semester an anomaly, I predict that my experiences will be increasingly common, assuming political incorrectness continues to become more normalized by President Trump. This experience has shown me why the far-right has gained momentum through their alternative controversial use of free speech. If my classroom inadvertently became a forum for the new alt-right, where a fringe group without strong peer opposition easily dominated a significantly larger majority, I believe it is possible for this tactic to potentially disrupt groups everywhere.

Arielle Bennett completed her graduate degree in Political Science at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she is also a part-time lecturer. Her research interests are in the history of political thought, feminist theory, and early American gender politics. 

Special Issue: Trump and the 2016 Election

Trump, Bigotry, and the Ethics of Stigma

by John Corvino 

ABSTRACT. In June 2016, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump infamously argued that U.S. District Court judge Gonzalo Curiel could not preside fairly over the Trump University fraud case. Pointing to his campaign promise to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Trump alleged that Curiel’s Mexican heritage created “an inherent conflict of interest.” (Judge Curiel was born in Indiana.)

Criticism of Trump’s allegation was swift and widespread. Robert Maldonado, president of the Hispanic Bar Association, stated that “Donald Trump continues to belligerently inject bigotry and divisive politics into the 2016 presidential contest.” Even House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) denounced the allegation, calling it “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”

Was Trump’s remark bigoted? Were commentators right to label it as such? How does such a label function, and when is it appropriate to apply it? In this essay I explore these questions. While Trump’s comments and their aftermath provide the impetus, my focus is ultimately more general: I am interested in the meaning and use of “bigotry” and its cognates. In Part I, I analyze the concept of bigotry, including its connection to racism, sexism, and other related phenomena. In Part II, I explain how attributions of bigotry function to “stigmatize the stigmatizers” and I discuss ethical and practical considerations concerning such stigma. In Part III, I conclude by very briefly applying these insights to Trump’s remarks, Ryan’s response, and the 2016 U.S Presidential election more generally.

 

In June 2016, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump infamously argued that U.S. District Court judge Gonzalo Curiel could not preside fairly over the Trump University fraud case. Pointing to his campaign promise to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Trump alleged that Curiel’s Mexican heritage created “an inherent conflict of interest” and “an absolute conflict” (B. Kendall 2016). (Judge Curiel was born in Indiana.)

Criticism of Trump’s allegation was swift and widespread. Robert Maldonado, president of the Hispanic Bar Association, stated that “Donald Trump continues to belligerently inject bigotry and divisive politics into the 2016 presidential contest, and now it has bled over into his legal troubles” (Gamboa 2016). The criticism even crossed party lines. House Speaker Paul Ryan denounced it: “Claiming a person can’t do the job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment,” the Wisconsin Republican said. “I think that should be absolutely disavowed. It’s absolutely unacceptable” (Steinhauer, Martin, and Herszenhorn 2016). Yet Ryan maintained his endorsement for candidate (now President) Trump.

Was Trump’s remark bigoted? Were commentators right to label it as such? How does such a label function, and when is it appropriate to apply it? These are the questions I explore in this essay. While Trump’s Curiel comments and their aftermath provide the impetus for these questions, my focus is ultimately more general: I am interested in the meaning and use of “bigotry” and its cognates.

In Part I, I analyze the concept of bigotry, including its connection to racism, sexism, and other related phenomena. In Part II, I explain how attributions of bigotry function to “stigmatize the stigmatizers” and I discuss ethical and practical considerations concerning such stigma. In Part III, I conclude by very briefly applying these insights to Trump’s remarks, Ryan’s response, and the 2016 U.S Presidential election more generally.

 

1. WHAT BIGOTRY IS

Although Ryan referred to Trump’s remarks as “racist,” the label appears somewhat inapt: Mexican heritage constitutes an ethnic identity, not a racial one. On the other hand, there is no term “ethnicism,” and neither “ethnocentrism” nor “xenophobia” quite captures the problem Ryan was disavowing.

Even if we understand “race” broadly enough to include Mexican heritage, questions remain about what precisely makes the comments racist and how their being racist connects with their being an instance of bigotry. Like Maldonado, many commentators explicitly used the latter term to describe Trump’s remarks. Columnist Lewis Diuguid of the Kansas City Star penned a column entitled “Trump’s Attack on Latino Judge is Bigotry, Pure and Simple” ( 2017). Daily Beast writer Michael Daly stated that “Trump’s bigotry was of the worst kind. His was not the bigotry born of ignorance such as the Curiels were liable to encounter if they ventured into southern Indiana. Trump’s bigotry was purposeful.”(Daly 2017).

Compared to the concept of racism, which has prompted a rich debate among philosophers, the concept of bigotry has received relatively little attention.[1] In this section, I begin by discussing what bigotry is; I then connect bigotry to racism and other ideologies.

In everyday use, the term “bigotry” and its cognates tend to get tossed around without much precision. (In that respect it is similar to “racism.”) The philosopher William Ramsey identifies two related elements emphasized in standard, traditional definitions of bigotry: “The first is a very strong and perhaps irrational commitment to one’s own viewpoint. The second is a strong intolerance toward other viewpoints and groups.” (2013, 128).

Both elements invite further questions: Given that “strong commitment” characterizes not only bigotry but also moral conviction, isn’t the “irrational” part crucial to the definition? After all, some ideas genuinely merit strong commitment. Even more challenging is pinning down what “strong intolerance” entails. It can’t simply mean “strong disagreement,” which, like strong commitment, is often warranted. Most people would strongly disagree with anyone who insists that 2+2=5, but we wouldn’t describe such disagreement as bigoted. The same holds for certain moral views: Most people are strongly committed to the claim that slavery is wrong, and they strongly disagree with anyone who thinks otherwise. They are even “intolerant” of such people, in the sense that they’re willing to take steps to stop them from practicing slavery or from spreading pro-slavery views. But no one would describe the committed abolitionist stance as “bigoted”—except, perhaps, an ardent proponent of slavery. Which leads one to wonder whether “bigotry” is simply a term that we apply to strong viewpoints with which we strongly disagree. (I’ll return to this suggestion later on.)

We are unlikely to capture something as complex as bigotry in a tidy set of necessary and sufficient conditions; we can, however, identify key features. I propose the following: Bigotry consists in stubborn and unjustified contempt toward groups of people, typically in the context of a larger system of subordination. Let me elaborate on some key terms.

First, bigotry is fundamentally stubborn—a point underscored by the traditional definition’s inclusion of terms such as “strong” and “intolerant.” Ramsey suggests that “wishy-washy racists,” who are open to abandoning racism, are still bigoted. I disagree, at least insofar as they are genuinely responsive to contrary evidence. Certainly, the wishy-washy racist’s view would be odious, but bigotry isn’t only about a view’s content: It’s also about the manner in which a view is held.[2] “Compliant bigotry” is a contradiction in terms.

Bigotry is unjustified, a point that captures our intuitions about the anti-slavery case. We don’t consider someone who is strongly anti-slavery a bigot, because we recognize their position to be justified. The slavery proponent, by contrast, would (wrongly) view a strong commitment to abolition as unjustified and thus (wrongly) judge the ardent abolitionist to be bigoted. For similar reasons, we are unlikely to consider young children who parrot their parents’ bigoted views bigots, mainly because young children are generally not in a position to know any better. Their views, though false, are justified in light of the evidence to which they have access. (Ramsey 2013, 132–33).

Bigotry is thus context-sensitive. In different historical periods and places, people’s access to evidence varies, and thus so does their level of (subjective) justification. That evidence includes the testimony of others: It is harder to meet the threshold for being a bigot in a society where most others share one’s wrongheaded view than in one where one’s bigotry is frequently and openly criticized. Note, too, that the lack of justification inherent in bigotry is often accompanied by a systematic insensitivity to, or discounting of, evidence that would upset the bigot’s views—a point also related to the “stubbornness” feature. What Kwame Anthony Appiah writes about “racial prejudice” is apt here as well: Bigotry involves a “systematically distorted rationality” (2002).

Bigotry requires contempt, a stance of disdain.[3] Less certain is whether this stance should be understood as fundamentally affective, a matter of feeling, or cognitive, a matter of thought. Perhaps it is both. On the one hand, “indifferent bigot,” like “compliant bigot,” appears to be a contradiction in terms: We typically characterize the bigot as feeling something, and feeling it strongly. On the other hand, we can conceive of someone coolly and dispassionately holding views that nonetheless strike us as bigoted: Imagine, if you will, a Vulcan who harbors racist beliefs. (The fictional Vulcans of Star Trek suppress their emotions.) In any case, even if felt disdain is not a necessary condition of bigotry, it is surely a typical feature: The paradigmatic bigot feels aversion to his targets.

Bigotry is essentially directed toward groups of people. Stubborn, unjustified contempt toward a isolated individual would be wrong, but it is not necessarily bigotry: the contempt must be directed at the individual qua member of a group. Moreover, not just any grouping counts: Someone who feels stubborn, unjustified contempt toward people whose names being with the letter K would be strange, but not a bigot. Why not? One might think that the reason is that the grouping “people whose names begin with K” is arbitrary, whereas bigotry typically targets constitutive features of identity: race, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. But while bigotry is typically directed toward constitutive characteristics, it is not clear that it is essentially so. Suppose that stubborn, unjustified contempt toward people with K-names were widespread. In that case, I think it would plausibly be categorized as bigotry. Moreover, we could imagine that in the face of such systemic contempt, having a K-name might eventually become a salient identity feature: The discrimination would ground the constitutive characteristic, and not vice versa.

I suggest that what explains our intuitions about this case is not that K-names fail to be a constitutive feature of identity, but that they fail to be a target of a larger system of subordination. Bigotry is a social phenomenon, at least in its standard forms. (Of course, someone might exhibit bigotry toward people with certain kinds of names because such names correlate with other identity characteristics—consider, names that end in “ski.” Those other characteristics would be the salient object.)

Notice that the characteristic features of bigotry—stubbornness, lack of justification, contempt—are ones that people may possess to a greater or lesser degree. Blogger Wes Alwan writes, “Bigotry does not constitute a spectrum: rather, it marks a spectrum’s far end.” (Alwan 2013). That’s half-right. Bigotry falls at one end of a spectrum of ways people regard one another, but when we zoom in, we find gradations there, too.

We may now turn to the connection between bigotry and racism. One of the interesting philosophical debates about racism in the last two decades concerns the “location problem”: whether racism consists mainly in beliefs—in particular, beliefs about the superiority of certain races—or in attitudes, choices, behaviors, or some other element. Most accounts treat beliefs as essential. Tommie Shelby, for example, argues that racist beliefs are “essential to and even sufficient for racism” (Shelby 2002, 414; Appiah 2002). He treats racism as “fundamentally a type of ideology,” defining ideologies as “widely accepted illusory systems of belief that function to establish or reinforce structures of social oppression” (Shelby 2002, 415). Jorge Garcia, by contrast, has argued for a fundamentally non-doxastic, volitional account of racism: According to Garcia, racism consists in mainly in ill-will. It is not primarily a belief, ideology, or doctrine, but a sin. (2001, 135–36).

My account of bigotry, like Garcia’s account of racism, treats bigotry as essentially a moral vice—both because bigotry involves unjustified contempt and because such contempt tends to contribute to systemic subordination. Even where the contempt does not risk this effect—say, because the bigot keeps his bigotry to himself—bigotry remains vicious in its improper attitude toward fellow human beings. Bigotry may also be an epistemic vice, insofar as contempt has a cognitive component. This is what Appiah seems to have in mind when he refers to the “systematically distorted rationality” of racial prejudice: The bigot discounts contrary evidence in order to maintain his bigoted views.

Garcia’s non-doxastic account of racism is a minority view, however: Most theorists treat racism as depending essentially on racist beliefs. For the purposes of this essay, I will assume that the more common, doxastic/cognitive account of racism is correct. On that assumption, there is an important contrast between racism and bigotry: Whereas racism is fundamentally about what people believe, bigotry is about how they believe it (or, alternatively, how they feel it, if contempt is essentially affective). The bigot is stubborn, and the bigot lacks justification. One way to think about this (assuming a cognitivist understanding of contempt) is to view bigotry as a matter of bad epistemic hygiene regarding our fellow humans’ moral worth. The bigot’s beliefs about his target are not only stubborn but also careless and risky, and thus morally irresponsible.

This contrast between racism and bigotry may shed light on some earlier puzzles. Recall Ramsey’s example of the “wishy washy racist.” If racism consists in beliefs, then it is perfectly possible to be a wishy-washy racist, one who readily gives up racist beliefs; it is not possible, however, to be a wishy-washy (i.e. non-stubborn) bigot. Also recall the observation that we generally don’t consider young children bigots, even when (for example) they repeat their parents’ racist views. That observation is consistent with labeling children racist simply in virtue of their sharing the views. (Their culpability is a separate matter.)

Ramsey notes that “many regard bigotry is a superordinate category with subordinates that include, most prominently, racism and sexism;” he himself lists racism and sexism as “types of bigotry” (2013, 126–27).[4] According to my account, this common classification scheme is inapt: Bigotry is not a genus of which various ideologies are species. Bigotry is a distorted way of forming and maintaining certain beliefs (or attitudes, or both), whereas ideologies such as racism and sexism are distorted belief systems.[5] Of course, bigotry helps to maintain and reinforce those systems, which in turn foster bigotry by making it easier for the bigot to remain unchallenged.

This clarification of the contrast between racism and bigotry also provides one plausible explanation for why Paul Ryan chose the category of racism in disavowing Trump’s position: Doing so allowed him to isolate his criticism to a particular belief—and more precisely, a particular remark (“the textbook definition of a racist comment”)—rather than to condemn Trump’s general character. It thus made his continued endorsement seem slightly less jarring. Bigotry, again, is essentially a moral defect: stubborn unjustified contempt.

To be clear, I am not denying that racism always, or virtually always, involves immorality. But if the standard, doxastic account of racism is correct, getting to the immorality involves an extra step: Moral categories apply to persons, not propositions. Racist beliefs untethered from action are not immoral, although acting on them generally is, as is the failure to take better care in forming, maintaining, and spreading beliefs when such beliefs have morally significant effects.

One final clarification before proceeding: Having accepted the standard, doxastic account of racism, I have suggested that racism applies directly to beliefs and only derivatively to persons—persons are racist insofar as they hold racist beliefs. Bigotry, I think, is exactly the opposite: It is essentially a feature of persons, and only derivatively a feature of beliefs or expressions of belief (statements, actions, and so forth). A bigoted belief, remark, or action is the sort that is typical of bigoted persons. Thus, to call Trump’s remarks bigoted is to suggest that the problem goes beyond their content; it is ultimately to indict him. With that in mind, let us turn from discussing the meaning of “bigotry” to discussing its use.

 

2. THE ETHICS OF STIGMA

Early in this essay I suggested that it sometimes seems as if we apply the term “bigotry” to any strong viewpoints with which we strongly disagree. Given the account sketched above, we can understand why such use is tempting. When someone is strongly committed to views that we consider not only wrong but badly wrong—wrong in ways that express unjustified contempt—one plausible explanation is a moral defect in the person so committed. They are not just wrong, they are stubbornly and wickedly wrong; they are bigoted.

To call someone a bigot, then, is not merely to disagree. It is to express a kind of contempt. Here I am using “contempt” in the sense defended by Michelle Mason in her provocative article “Contempt as a Moral Attitude”[6] (2003). Mason argues that contempt is sometimes morally justified; specifically, it is justified whenever it correctly regards its object as “ranking low in worth as a person in virtue of falling short of some legitimate interpersonal ideal” (241). The bigot falls short of ideals of fairness and equality. Properly focused contempt for the bigot highlights this fact.

This element of contempt in attributions of bigotry explains the term’s strong emotive force. Calling people bigots marks them—at least with respect to certain views they hold—as beyond the pale: more worthy of shaming and shunning than of thoughtful engagement. It aims to stigmatize the stigmatizers, treating their stance as not merely wrong, but wicked, noxious, out of bounds. (Here I am taking stigma to be the reputational effect of successful efforts at evoking contempt.) This is why calling people bigots functions as a conversation stopper; it both marks and creates distance. Having referred to someone’s view as bigotry, one cannot then plausibly offer to debate it on the merits; one has already dismissed the view as stubborn unjustified contempt. At the very least, such offers are not likely to be taken seriously by the person so marked.

Should we stigmatize people—at least with respect to certain views that they hold—in this way? Some views are indeed egregiously bad and widely acknowledged as such: for example, that certain races are subhuman, that certain religious believers should be exterminated, that certain genders (such as women) should be the property of others (such as their husbands and fathers). Such views merit condemnation in the strongest possible terms, and refusal to engage them may express stronger condemnation than direct rebuttal. Thus we say: “I won’t even dignify that view with a response.” The reason is that rebuttal might unwittingly serve to “normalize” an egregiously bad view by treating it as being on par, in some substantial sense, with alternatives. It suggests a false equivalence.

Beyond questions of their intrinsic merit, stigmatizing bad views might help to eradicate them, in at least two ways. First, given people’s desire to get along with their fellows—their “tribal” nature—their beliefs are often quite responsive to social pressure.[7] Such pressure can change beliefs, and not merely the willingness to express them. Second, even where stigma does not change beliefs, it may convince people to remain silent about certain views, and such silence may in turn contain the views’ spread. It is worth underscoring the fact that bigoted views are bigoted in part because of their tendency to harm; they consist in unjustified contempt and they typically function within larger systems of subordination. All else being equal, to contain their spread is to minimize their risk. So there are both deontological (merit-based) and consequentialist reasons in favor of stigmatizing egregiously bad views.

There are, however, both deontological and consequentialist arguments in the other direction. Put aside for the moment the fact that people sometimes stigmatize views that are not egregiously bad; doing so is, of course, prima facie seriously wrong (and probably all-things-considered wrong in most real-world cases[8]). One might imagine, instead, a Kantian argument of the following sort: Respect for persons requires proper regard for their nature as rational free creatures—as “ends in themselves.” Stigma bypasses that nature, both by appealing to emotion and by dismissing the object as unworthy of rational engagement. It thus treats the “bigot” as in effect less than human.

My first reaction to this argument is to object to the characterization of stigma as treating its object as less than human. One can stigmatize another person in virtue of specific views that the latter holds and refuses to relinquish, without thereby negating that person’s humanity. Indeed, it is precisely because we expect better of the person that we stigmatize them for holding the view.

I also reject the incomplete picture of human nature on which this Kantian-style argument rests. We are rational creatures, but we are also emotional ones, and there is nothing inherently base about acknowledging, respecting, and appealing to that emotional side. As Hume understood, the affective side of our nature is crucial to moral life.[9] One need not be a demagogue in order to appreciate the use of emotion in moral persuasion. The key question is whether the emotional appeal is being used in the service of personal advantage or the service of truth.

The consequentialist case against stigmatizing bad views (or persons, in virtue of their bad views) is more complex. We may begin with John Stuart Mill’s famous argument in On Liberty. Near the beginning of Chapter Two, Mill writes,

But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. (1989, 20)

Although Mill is concerned largely with government suppression of views, the arguments he offers apply to social pressure as well.

One can distinguish two interpretations of Mill’s position here; we can call them the extreme interpretation and the moderate interpretation. On the extreme interpretation, what Mill says is clearly false; on the moderate interpretation, what he says is true, but it does not rule out stigmatizing bad views. Let me consider each in turn.

The extreme interpretation states that views that we judge to be egregiously bad must nevertheless be treated as “open questions;” we must give them, if not equal time, at least regular attention. But that conclusion seems wrong even by Mill’s own lights. If we have once, twice, three times given such a view a hearing, and have thus enjoyed the “greater perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with [this view’s] error,” each new collision will have diminishing returns. What’s more, additional collisions would rob time from other possible debates that are potentially more valuable. In a typical college “Contemporary Moral Issues” class, we do not spend time debating whether women should have the vote; one reason is that there are better ways to spend class time. Finally, and importantly: To count only the collision’s value without considering its various downsides is to skew the ledger. The airing of egregiously bad views may serve truth, but it may also harm persons, and the consequentialist Mill ought to take such harms seriously. As Willmoore Kendall argued in response to Mill over a half-century ago:

Mill’s proposals have as one of their tacit premises a false conception of the nature of society, and are, therefore, unrealistic on their face. They assume that society is, so to speak, a debating club devoted above all to the pursuit of truth, and capable therefore of subordinating itself—and all other considerations, goods, and goals—to that pursuit. Otherwise, the proposals would go no further than to urge upon society the common-sense view that the pursuit of truth is one of the goods it ought to cherish… (1960, 977)

So, truth is valuable, but it’s not the only relevant value.

Keep in mind that to stigmatize a view is not to censor it; it is not to demand that those who offer it be muzzled or jailed or executed. It is, rather, to deny them the honor of our continued company and esteem. To put the point in more popular terms: Free speech means that you may say what you want; it doesn’t mean that you may do so without social consequence.

This leaves us, then, with a moderate interpretation, which states that we ought to stigmatize views reluctantly, carefully, and with intellectual humility. Mill is surely right about this, with plenty of historical examples to back him up. But the moderate version doesn’t rule out stigma; it merely insists that it happen judiciously.

A number of contemporary writers have buttressed the Millian case for more cautious, less frequent stigmatizing. In a series of articles for The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf argued that “the coalition that opposes Donald Trump needs to get better at persuading its fellow citizens and winning converts, rather than leaning so heavily on stigmatizing those who disagree with them.” (2016a, 2016b). His central reason for this position is that stigmatization is an unsustainable strategy, largely because of the temptation to overuse it. Friedersdorf cites a case involving Senator Bernie Sanders. A woman in the audience of a post-election speech declared that she wanted to be the second Latina senator and asked Sanders’s advice. Sanders began by agreeing that politics needs more women and people of color. He then went on to say,

It is not good enough for somebody to say, “Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me.” That is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country, and is going to take on the big money interests… This is where there is going to be division within the Democratic Party. It is not good enough for someone to say, “I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry. (2016a).

Sanders’s remarks prompted an online debate about whether his comments demeaned the questioner. Strikingly, Washington Monthly writer Nancy LeTourneau suggested that Sanders was “defending white male supremacy.” (2016)

Unlike the term “bigot,” the term “white supremacist” is not inherently evaluative, at least not on the surface: Standard dictionary definitions of white supremacy describe it as consisting in the belief that the white race is superior to others. That belief is wrong, surely, but its wrongness is not built in to the meaning of the words. Nonetheless, among audiences that correctly recognize its wrongness, the term has strong condemnatory force: In decent company, to call someone a white supremacist is to mark them as really bad—again, as more worthy of shunning and shaming than of thoughtful engagement. That stance seems clearly wrong vis-à-vis Sanders. Friedersdorf’s worry, echoing an argument by Kevin Drum in Mother Jones, is that if we stretch the term “white supremacist” to include people like Bernie Sanders, the term becomes less forceful (Drum 2017). Such overstretching makes it harder to distinguish between Sanders, on the one hand, and people like former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke or current Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer, on the other. This is not to deny that white supremacy can infect even well-meaning, progressive people or that it can be useful—indeed, even obligatory—to identify and correct the subtle, unintentional forms. Nor is it to deny that standard dictionary definitions may miss something important about white supremacy: As Charles Mills has argued, white supremacy is “a political system, a particular power structure of formal or informal rule, socioeconomic privilege, and norms for the differential distribution of material wealth and opportunities, benefits and burdens, rights and duties”—and the subtle, unintentional forms are a key part of that structure (Mills 1997, 3). The point is, rather, about the consequences of language: Denouncing Sanders’s remarks as an instance of “white supremacy” may mean that, in practice, the term is less able to create stigma where stigma is due.

In a subsequent piece, Friedersdorf offers an additional argument, reviving a point made by Mill in On Liberty: If we shun rather than engage erroneous views, our ability to defend the truth against them may eventually atrophy—with the result that its opponents may then more easily outmaneuver us. Friedersdorf concludes that it is “vital to understand the dismaying way in which bygone successes at inculcating liberal norms—successfully stigmatizing even that which ought to carry stigma—tend to sow self-destructive seeds.” (2016b). Reliance of stigma may rob us of the intellectual tools for persuading the “moveable middle.”

I would add that, in addition to the risks of overstretching and liberal intellectual atrophy, overusing stigma can also blind us to bigoted views’ pervasiveness. As noted above, one function of stigma is to warn people not to air certain views in public. The potential benefit of such warning is that it may contain the views’ spread and minimize their risk. The danger of such warning is that it may allow the spread to go unnoticed, as people learn to share certain views only in closed circles. This problem is amplified in an internet age, where anonymity makes such closed circles easier to form in some ways. Arguably, this danger is one of the lessons of the 2016 election, in which liberals were caught unawares by the extent of xenophobia, Islamophobia, white working-class resentment, and the like.

Let me conclude this section by identifying a common mistake. In deciding whether to stigmatize a view—to treat it as beyond the pale, and unworthy of engagement—people often begin by asking how bad the view is. That is a good beginning. The mistake is treating it as if it were the whole story; as if there were no moral work left to do. A judicious stigmatizer must ask not only how bad a view is, but also two additional questions: First, how culpable is the person offering the view? Second, and very important, What is likely to be the most effective antidote to the view: shunning or engagement?

The latter question—which is too often overlooked—requires attention to context. Among other factors, its answer depends on the view’s popularity, the tenaciousness with which people hold it, and the attractiveness of alternatives. An honest assessment of these factors may mean that it is sometimes morally desirable not to stigmatize views that are nevertheless egregiously bad on their merits. It may mean that we should sometimes withhold the term “bigot” even in the face of clear bigotry. Calling things by their right name is morally important, but containing and eradicating harmful ideologies is even more morally important.

 

3. TRUMP AND RYAN

In Part I, I argued that bigotry consists in stubborn and unjustified contempt toward groups of people, typically in the context of a larger system of subordination. In Part II, I argued that calling a person or view bigoted functions to stigmatize stigmatizers, and I evaluated various moral arguments for and against such a stance; I cautioned against its overuse. We may now briefly apply these discussions to the case at hand.

Was Trump guilty of bigotry? Without access to his mind and heart, we cannot know with certainty whether Trump’s remarks about Judge Curiel stemmed from stubborn unjustified contempt toward Mexican Americans, or a desire to rile up his nativist base, or fear at losing his fraud case, or an interest in distracting the press—or, perhaps likely, some combination of the above. Substantiating an accusation of bigotry requires considering a larger pattern of behavior—and in Trump’s case, the pattern is consistent with several of the above explanations. Of course, any of those explanations would still entail that his remarks were wrong, regardless of whether they exposed bigotry. Moreover, his remarks are surely typical of bigots and the sort that tend to foster the subordination of Mexican Americans and other people of color. So we can confidently refer to them as bigoted remarks, even if we reserve judgment on the man himself.

What about Ryan’s calling Trump’s remarks the “textbook definition of a racist comment” while continuing to endorse him for the presidency? In the last section I argued that the pragmatics of attributions of bigotry require distancing; indeed, Ryan himself used the language of “disavowal.” But as I noted in Part I, Ryan chose the term “racist” rather than “bigoted,” and that choice gives him slightly more room to “love the speaker, but hate the remark.” Indeed, one reason why attributions of bigotry generally require more distancing than attributions of racism, all else being equal, is that bigotry is by definition stubborn: Bigoted remarks reflect tenacious beliefs, which presumably reflect the character of the speaker. In that sense, “love the bigot, hate the bigotry” suffers from one of the same problems that undermines “love the sinner, hate the sin” as applied to homosexuality. Some (actual or alleged) “sins” are not isolated missteps; they are central to the “sinner’s” identity. In Trump’s case, although the remarks may not reflect stubborn contempt for people of color, they are congruent with a larger pattern of marginalizing such people. Indeed, stoking fear at the Other was a key strategy in Trump’s presidential campaign.

Surely, the best explanation for Ryan’s awkward stance is politics. His own elaboration made that clear: “I think [Trump’s comment] should be absolutely disavowed. It’s absolutely unacceptable. But do I believe that Hillary Clinton is the answer? No, I do not.”(Steinhauer, Martin, and Herszenhorn 2016). Ryan’s interest in maintaining political power gave him a strong material incentive to excuse Trump’s remarks, if not in word then at least in practice. It was disavowal without consequence.

The problem with this kind of political pivot is that it, too, abuses words—in ways both related to and different from the abuse that concerns Friedersdorf. Friedersdorf worries that stretching the extension of negative emotive terms robs them of their stigmatizing power. But there’s another way to rob them of their stigmatizing power: Violate their pragmatics. The person who identifies a comment as bigoted, or even racist, but then proceeds as if nothing is wrong is like the person who enthusiastically applauds while saying “Boo,” or the person who slaps someone while saying “I love you.” The problem is not merely that such behavior is confusing, or even that those who engage in it should not be trusted. It’s also that they make it harder for the rest of us to use language to proper moral effect.[10]

John Corvino Ph.D. is Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. His work focuses on LGBT equality, marriage, and, more recently, religious liberty. He is the author of Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination (with counterpoint by Ryan T. Anderson and Sherif Girgis, 2017); What’s Wrong with Homosexuality? (2013); and Debating Same-Sex Marriage (with counterpoint by Maggie Gallagher, 2012), all from Oxford University Press. Read more at www.johncorvino.com.

 

REFERENCES

Alwan, Clarence. 2013. “What the Word ‘Bigot’ Actually Means (and Why It Is Important).” The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. 2002. “Racisms.” In Ethics in Practice, 2nd Edition, edited by Hugh LaFollette, 389–99. Blackwell Publishing.

Daly, Michael. 2017. “The Mexican Judge Trump Slimed Is Really Making America Great Again.” The Daily Beast. January 30. http://www.thedailybeast.com/the-mexican-judge-trump-slimed-is-really-making-america-great-again.

Diuguid, Lewis. 2017. “Trump’s Attack on Latino Judge Is Bigotry, Pure and Simple.” Sun-Sentinel.com. Accessed May 3. http://www.sun-sentinel.com/opinion/commentary/fl-ldcol-trump-20160606-story.html.

Drum, Kevin. 2017. “Let’s Be Careful With the ‘White Supremacy’ Label.” Mother Jones. Accessed May 3. http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2016/11/lets-please-kill-white-supremacy-fad.

Friedersdorf, Conor. 2016a. “Too Much Stigma, Not Enough Persuasion.” The Atlantic, November 30. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/11/the-scourge-of-the-left-too-much-stigma-not-enough-persuasion/508961/.

———. 2016b. “How Stigma Sows Seeds of Its Own Defeat.” The Atlantic, December 1. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/how-stigma-sows-seeds-of-its-own-defeat/509273/.

Gamboa, Suzanne. 2016. “‘Bigotry’: Trump’s Attacks on Judge Rile Latino Legal Experts.” NBC News. June 3. http://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/bigotry-trump-s-continued-attacks-judge-rile-latino-legal-experts-n585471.

Garcia, J. L. A. 1996. “The Heart of Racism.” Journal of Social Philosophy 27 (1): 5–46.

———. 1997. “Current Conceptions of Racism: A Critical Examination of Some Recent Social Philosophy.” Journal of Social Philosophy 28 (2): 5–42.

———. 1999. “Philosophical Analysis and the Moral Concept of Racism.” Philosophy & Social Criticism 25 (5): 1–32.

———. 2001. “Racism and Racial Discourse.” The Philosophical Forum 32 (2): 125–45.

Gill, Michael B. 2014. Humean Moral Pluralism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Kendall, Brent. 2016. “Trump Says Judge’s Mexican Heritage Presents ‘Absolute Conflict.’” Wall Street Journal, June 3, sec. Politics. http://www.wsj.com/articles/donald-trump-keeps-up-attacks-on-judge-gonzalo-curiel-1464911442.

Kendall, Willmoore. 1960. “The ‘Open Society’ and Its Fallacies.” American Political Science Review 54 (4): 972–79.

LeTourneau, Nancy. 2016. “What Sanders Doesn’t Understand About Identity Politics.” Washington Monthly. November 25. http://washingtonmonthly.com/2016/11/25/what-sanders-doesnt-understand-about-identity-politics/.

Mason, Michelle. 2003. “Contempt as a Moral Attitude.” Ethics 113 (2): 234–72.

Mill, John Stuart. 1989. J. S. Mill: “On Liberty” and Other Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mills, Charles W. 2003. “‘Heart'” Attack: A Critique of Jorge Garcia’s Volitional Conception of Racism.” The Journal of Ethics 7 (1): 29–62.

———. 1997 . The Racial Contract. Cornell University Press.

Ramsey, William M. 2013. “Bigotry and Religious Belief.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 94 (2): 125–51.

Shelby, Tommie. 2002. “Is Racism in the ‘Heart’?” Journal of Social Philosophy 33 (3): 411–20.

Steinhauer, Jennifer, Jonathan Martin, and David M. Herszenhorn. 2016. “Paul Ryan Calls Donald Trump’s Attack on Judge ‘Racist,’ but Still Backs Him.” The New York Times, June 7. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/08/us/politics/paul-ryan-donald-trump-gonzalo-curiel.html.

 

ENDNOTES

[1] The most developed philosophical treatment of bigotry per se of which I’m aware is (Ramsey 2013, 128) Ramsey’s own definition is “Holding evaluative beliefs or other attitudes that are (usually) negative and directed toward members of a group of persons where the property used for grouping fails to provide proper support for the negative evaluation” (141). My own definition is strongly influenced by his argument, although we differ on some key points. For racism, see for example (Appiah 2002; Garcia 1996, 1997, 1999; Shelby 2002; Mills 2003).

[2] Ramsey elsewhere seems to agree. See (2013, 129).

[3] For a helpful discussion of contempt as a reactive attitude, see (Mason 2003).

[4] In a footnote Ramsey acknowledges that “some may believe that there are forms of institutional racism that do not qualify as bigotry. If so, then perhaps the proper subordinate category is racial bigotry.” (Ramsey 2013, 149 fn5).

[5] Shelby defines ideologies roughly as “widely accepted illusory systems of belief that function to establish or reinforce structures of social oppression” (2002, 415).

[6] I leave open the question of whether contempt is fundamentally affective (Mason’s view) or cognitive.

[7] For some research on this point see (Haidt 2012).

[8] One can imagine hypothetical exceptions of the following sort: An evil genius will commit mass-murder if a certain good view spreads, and the only (or best) way to prevent its spread is to stigmatize it.

[9] For a wide-ranging and thoughtful recent discussion, see Gill 2014.

[10] I wish to thank Jonathan Cottrell, Robin Dembroff, Katherine Kim, Timothy Kirschenheiter, Rebecca Kukla, Lawrence B. Lombard, Jonathan Rauch, Brad Roth, Bruce Russell, Soraya (Layla) Saatchi, Tom Wood and anonymous reviewers at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal for helpful comments on earlier drafts of (portions of) this essay.