QUITE UNEXPECTEDLY, a whole slew of philosophical — I would even say “metaphysical” — issues have come up on the Republican side of the primaries this election season. How to distinguish the real from the fake? What level of ignorance is simply unacceptable in public affairs? How to view matters of principle, or something like “the inner essence,” behind changing appearances? These questions have been, in one way or another, the staples of western philosophy ever since its inception. And most of them have been now linked to the candidacy of Donald Trump.
Take, for instance, the recent GOP debate organized and aired by Fox News. Presenter Megyn Kelly quizzed Trump: “The point I’m going for is you change your tune on so many things, and that has some people saying, what is his core?” Her point goes beyond the usual flip-flopping accusations leveled against presidential candidates. It even overflows the opposition between a politics based on immutable foundational principles, often called the politics of truth, and an opportunistic catering to various groups comprising the electorate. Unwittingly, having thrown everything but the kitchen sink at Trump, Kelly has dug up a crucial metaphysical distinction between the stable, selfsame inner essence and fleetingly superficial outward appearances. In his response, Trump insisted that there was no contradiction between his “very strong core,” upon which he did not elaborate further, and “a certain degree of flexibility” necessary for learning from past experiences. His inaccessible essence thus reconciled with evanescent appearances, Trump has given himself a meta-excuse for any and all crude inconsistencies in his take on domestic and foreign policies alike.
Along similar lines, Mitt Romney’s March 3 verbal assault on the current Republican frontrunner touches on an issue dear to the philosophical heart. The failed 2012 candidate called Trump “a phony, a fraud” as well as “a con man, a fake.” Since its inception in ancient Greece, philosophy too has been suspicious of an oratory that substituted a flowery or a fiery rhetoric for the things themselves. Plato’s Republic associated the political sphere as a whole with such empty and deceptively manipulative strategies, while prescribing a universally valid method for leaving the cave of appearances with the assistance of the philosopher-king. But before identifying Romney with a modern-day (latter-day) Plato or Socrates, we ought to inquire: In the name of what truth is he condemning Trump? The critic overtly assumes that there are Republican politicians who are not fake, those authentically suffused with the bracing tenets of the “conservative movement.” Brushing aside Romney’s assault, Trump characteristically turned the tables on him and reminded voters of how the former begged for his support as he was running against Barack Obama. Obviously, the accusation “you are a phony, a fraud” loses much of its bite if it comes from someone revealed to be a phony and a fraud in a field populated by similar phonies and frauds.
It is simply futile to chastise Trump from the standpoint of stale metaphysical values, because he embodies a system, which has a long time ago outgrown and abandoned these same values. What does it mean to decry a candidate for the office of president as a “fake” in a country where a Hollywood actor was president (more precisely, enacted the role of president), for two consecutive terms? Does it make sense to bemoan this candidate’s ignorance less than eight years after the end of George W. Bush’s terms in office? Where is the logic of accusing him of vulgarity when the official pick of the Republican establishment for the presidential race hints at differences in penis sizes as momentous for the outcome of the contest?
The reason behind the fact that Trump is currently leading (in a dismal field, to be sure) is not, as Linda Martín Alcoff has argued in The Philosophical Salon, that his own ignorance appeals to certain ignorant white voters. Or, at least, it is not the only reason. Rather, what Trump does most deftly, and what in my view accounts for much of his current success, is that he fully assumes the bankruptcy of the metaphysical ideals such as authenticity, essentiality, or firm principles, and acts accordingly. His rivals, in turn, are aware of the collapse of metaphysics but pretend that it has not happened. In both cases, nothing supplants the outdated value system, except for self-serving private interests or megalomaniac aspirations.
Curtly put, the bygone values are supplanted by nothing — by the nothing, to which everything has been reduced. Whereas Ted Cruz & Co. stand for the consciousness of this nothingness, Trump represents its self-consciousness, and this gives him an unmistakable edge over his rivals. He knows how to use the pure nothing that he represents, even as the other presidential contenders pretend that there is something behind their nothing. And so, Trump comes across as much more authentic in his inauthenticity than the others, who are busy drawing, in Plato’s words, the “shadow paintings of virtue” all around themselves.
Perhaps, then, a deeper cause for the GOP establishment’s concern and dissatisfaction with Trump is that he puts a mirror before it, forcing it to face up to its disavowed reality and exacerbating its tendencies in the process. In order to dissimulate the unpleasant truth, the party has no other choice but to distance itself from the rogue candidate, who uses even this lack of official support for his bid to his advantage, as proof of his outsider status, his non-belonging in the world of “Beltway politics.” Any attack can be turned around to serve Trump’s purposes, especially if he is censured based on the precepts of metaphysics, which have long become those of “common sense.” Trump trumps metaphysics: herein lies the recipe to his success so far in the campaign. To oppose him better, more effectively, we would need not to recycle bygone metaphysical slogans but to chart other paths towards what lies beyond metaphysics. Towards a multiplicity free of totalization, a proliferation of differences, and a sense of sharing that has dispensed with the very idea of property.