Trump and Critical Theory

Anyone who has worked in academe for any time should wonder at the criticism of Trump's comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, argues Mark Bauerlein.

June 14, 2016
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This month has opened with another two-step in the national campaign. Donald Trump throws out a blunt allegation, and the news media and political class rise in sputtering indignation. Trump has questioned the fitness of Judge Gonzalo Curiel to preside over the Trump University lawsuit. Judge Curiel has Mexican-American parents, and Trump believes his plans to build a wall on the border with Mexico bias the judge's decision making. An NPR story on the matter cites Trump referring to Judge Curiel in a speech in San Diego as “a hater of Donald Trump, a hater.” On CNN, he accused the judge of issuing “very unfair rulings, rulings that people can’t even believe.”

Response has ranged from dismay to outrage on both left and right. John Kasich thinks Trump should “apologize to Judge Curiel and try to unite this country.” At Slate, Dahlia Lithwick, always a reliable voice against Republican villainy, opens, “No truly sane person can defend Donald Trump's vile, racist slander against Gonzalo Curiel.”

Anyone who has worked in academe for a measure of time has to wonder at the shock and ire of these critics. What's the big deal? We have heard the premise of Trump's gripe repeated so many times that it has become a standard part of the stagecraft of public and private debate. No concept has undergone more dismantling in the last half century than objectivity. And no criticism against objectivity has had greater popular impact than the one that says judgment is inevitably swayed by racial/ethnic/gender/sexual factors.

That line of thinking is the sole legal basis for affirmative action in college admissions, for instance. In her 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor acknowledged "one's own, unique experience of being a racial minority in a society, like our own, in which race unfortunately still matters." The racial diversification of the student body, the court ruled, means the diversification of experiences, which enhances the education of everyone. College and universities may practice discrimination because of the reality of racially conditioned minds.

The grounds for that assumption reach back to the Marx and Freud, among others, especially to their critique of the liberal dream of cognitive freedom. The dream allowed that, with enough education and a cosmopolitan disposition, you could transcend your circumstances and reach an unbiased viewpoint. Familial, tribal and national interests would fade, identitarian limits (racial, etc.) would fall away, and a universal human eye would be achieved.

Readers of Inside Higher Ed don't need a rehearsal of how that objectivity collapsed. Hegel historicized it, Marx materialized it, Freud psychoanalyzed it. Forever after, the liberal mind was considered a pretense -- an effort to transcend history, class or psychic repression. Race/class/gender/sexuality critics of the 1980s and ’90s gave these grand undoings an identity twist, an easy step to take in the wake of civil rights, women's lib and the Gay Liberation Front.

Many years ago, in a speech at a law conference, Sonia Sotomayor gave the identity theory a clear and simple expression that is now one of the canons of our age: “Our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see …. I wonder whether by ignoring our differences as women or men of color we do a disservice both to the law and society.”

Donald Trump has done nothing more than to accept Justice Sotomayor’s point. But he has broken a taboo. For identity arguments are not equal opportunity. You can raise the objectivity problem when a white man is in power, but you may not do so when a woman or person of color is in power. In other words, Trump has crossed one of the prohibitions that sustain the identity regime. He dares to challenge a man of color on the grounds of his color; also, he reveals the double standards of those who routinely challenge white men on the grounds of their color (and sex).

The dismay on the right comes less from taboo sources than from a philosophical and a tactical source. First, conservatives don’t like identity politics. As Ian Tuttle put it in National Review, Trump’s charge “plays into the left’s identity-politics game, in which one’s heritage or sex determines whether one can render a fair judgment.” Second, Republican politicians fear the “racist” tag because they believe it leads to lost votes. The left has put them fully on the defensive on the issue, and their handlers tell them that the Hispanic bloc is crucial to success in 2016 and beyond.

My prediction is that this controversy will pass like all the rest. Trump’s supporters know that the right’s standard response to identity politics -- to refuse them -- hasn’t slowed their progress one bit. Group thinking and the bad-straight-white-male image have never enjoyed so much popularity. I believed in 1992 that nobody but a transient subset of humanities professors would pay attention to identity theory after the fashion went away, but I was wrong. The feminism and neopragmatism and critical race theory and queer theory that assailed objectivity and dominated the seminar room have settled into dogma in the press, the courtroom, the art world, the White House. The counterculture is now the hegemony.

Trump is an intervention in that spread. He breaks the rules, breaches decorum, says the unsayable. He is precisely the transgressive figure that critical theory in the ’90s exalted. If they were principled in their assumptions, academic theorists wouldn’t join the universal denunciation of Donald Trump by the elite and the establishment. They would situate him in a framework of taboo and totem, interdiction, madness and civilization, or the scapegoat. I’m pretty sure that if Foucault were alive today, he would have been fascinated and amused by the phenomenon of the Republican primary winner -- and utterly bored by the other side.


Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University and co-editor (with Adam Bellow) of The State of the American Mind (Templeton, 2015).


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