The victory of Donald Trump caught countless progressives and establishment conservatives by surprise. Since Election Day, there’s been no shortage of ink spent trying to sort out the underlying factors behind his startling rise to the Oval Office. But for late philosopher Richard Rorty, the writing was on the wall.
In 1998, Rorty, who most recently taught at Stanford University, argued in “Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America” that “old industrialized democracies” are heading toward a period “in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments.”
He said the left had embraced identity politics at the expense of economic justice. Resentment would fester among the working class as they realized that the powers that be were not fighting to stop wages from shrinking or jobs from being sent overseas.
He suggested that many would turn to a “strongman” to flip the script on the smug, overpaid and deceitful who had long neglected their suffering. The author said the progress made on behalf of ethnic minorities, homosexuals and women would then run the risk of being rolled back.
One reason Rorty perceived something many other left-leaning academics missed might have to do with his chosen philosophical tradition: pragmatism, which emphasizes practical consequences. He died in 2007, so we will never know for sure what he would have thought about Trump’s highly unconventional campaign.
A few days after Trump’s surprise victory, Queen’s University law professor Lisa Kerr and others posted a particularly prescient passage from “Achieving Our Country” on Twitter. The three paragraphs swiftly caught fire on social media and were shared thousands of times. The New Yorker cited the passage in a profile of President Obama, and the New York Times analyzed the words in-depth.
Here is the slightly condensed version of the passage that Kerr posted online:
“[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.…
One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion.… All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”
Amid the renewed attention, online searches for “Achieving Our Country” skyrocketed and there was a run on the book at Harvard University Press, which is reprinting the book and plans to make it available online as soon as possible.
Lindsay Waters, executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, recalled having big arguments with Rorty before the book was published because he thought it was “too old-style liberal.”
“He thought some of the liberals from the 1930s were really fabulous. He was trying to revive the left with this book. He was trying to kick them in the rear end so they would stop doing stuff that was easy and lazy however trendy it looked,” Waters said in an interview with Yahoo News.
According to Waters, Rorty was a clear-thinking provocateur who refused to play it safe and retained the ability to see larger trends, the big picture. He said a lot of scholars in academia think of themselves as left-wingers but don’t actually do anything.
“Rorty was trying to get people to think. That’s the philosopher’s job,” he continued. “He was trying to get people to prepare for being more responsive to the political situation in America.”
Waters, who started publishing Rorty’s work in the early 1980s, said his late friend really upset other philosophers with the 1979 release of “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.”
“The reason we love poets and philosophers is that they almost have some sixth sense. They pick up vibes that the rest of the world is not sensitive to or refuses to see,” he said. “He was being Cassandra: ‘If you people don’t wake up, things are going to get a lot worse. The enemy is going to win. Can I make that any more clear to you?’”
The crux of Rorty’s thesis in “Achieving Our Country” is that the sins of the United States past do not need to define its future. He criticized the American left of retreating into theory at the expense of taking an active role in civic life.
Rorty lamented that many of his fellow liberals had come to view American patriotism as an endorsement of past atrocities, such as slavery or violence against Native Americans. He encouraged his peers to re-embrace the patriotism of the old left and work toward a more hopeful future, much like Walt Whitman and John Dewey had before.
In the relevant passage, Rorty goes on to suggest that after his “imagined strongman” comes to power he will quickly make peace with the “international super-rich” and invoke memories of past military victories to encourage military adventures for short-term prosperity. But, Rorty continued, the strongman will ultimately be a disaster for the world and people will wonder why there had been so little resistance to his ascent.
“[Rorty] was a big-picture guy,” Waters said. “He was inspired by [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and William James and was concerned about the soul of America and what’s happening in America. I suppose that’s one of the things that makes him the most different from other people. He dared to think about the country and what’s good for the country.”