There’s Nothing Medieval about Trump

Columnists keep wanting to distance us moderns from Trump, but he’s as modern as it gets. 

GUEST POST by Eric Weiskott
In an interview
for The Guardian last week,
philosopher Daniel Dennett was asked whether “deep thinking” is what’s needed
in the current political climate. He responded:

Yes. From everybody. The real
danger that’s facing us is we’ve lost respect for truth and facts. People have
discovered that it’s much easier to destroy reputations for credibility than it
is to maintain them. It doesn’t matter how good your facts are, somebody else
can spread the rumour that you’re fake news. We’re entering a period of epistemological murk and uncertainty that
we’ve not experienced since the middle ages.
These are the words of someone totally unacquainted with the
Middle Ages. It’s not just that the picture of the medieval period as an endless
cycle of ignorance and repression is wrong (it is), but the picture itself is a
modern one. It’s an effect of the Enlightenment and secularization, which
retrospectively created premodernity. Ironically, by describing American
politics as a regression to a medieval past, Dennett is reifying the very
ideology that created ‘the Middle Ages’ in the first place. There’s no there
there—no real confrontation with the past and no meaningful comparison.
Dennett isn’t alone. Lou Mastriani writes
for that “Donald Trump has taken us back to medieval times.” David
Brooks thinks
the Trump administration “is more like a medieval monarchy than a modern
nation-state. It’s more ‘The Madness of King George’ than ‘The Missiles of
October.’” (Note: George III reigned in the nineteenth century!) Katty Kay opines for the BBC that
Trump’s White House “acts like some medieval court.” Louis René Beres at Arutz Sheva, describing
Trump’s presidency as “forged in an atmosphere of determined unreason and
anti-thought,” identifies it with the prediction of what he terms “resurrected
medieval darkness” in W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.” And this is just
from the past week.
These statements are historically ignorant. They’re also a
window onto modern liberal subjects’ sense of the world.
The real payoff of assigning
current politics to the distant past is to protect the notion of a just
society, ruled by reason. The notion of a society ruled by reason stands in
need of protecting because, well, it keeps bumping up against reality. Indeed,
this notion has always been a fantasy, a way of papering over the violence and
imperialism of modernity.

You don’t get Hume without the transatlantic
slave trade. You don’t get Kant without the Holocaust. The just and rational world
projected by Enlightenment philosophers turned out to be a space of whiteness
called “Europe,” cloaked in universalism. Enlightenment has winners and losers
across the world in 2017.

None of this is to say that the various ideas and practices
we now call the Enlightenment were a
bad thing. Historicism teaches us that transhistorical judgments are problematic,
in any case, since there exists no position outside history from which to judge.
The crucial point is that the Enlightenment inculcated new forms of hegemony even
as it promised new forms of liberation
. If you are sure enlightenment has been
good to you, that is because you live in the historical alleyways opened up by
enlightenment. You are the product of enlightenment and its beneficiary. One of
the minor exports of Enlightenment thought was the idea of the Middle Ages, the
negative mirror image of secularist modernity.
A quote in black and white: If you are sure enlightenment has been good to you, that is because you live in the historical alleyways opened up by enlightenment

So when Dennett makes an offhand reference to “the middle
ages,” all that historical baggage is packed in yet goes unacknowledged. He
means, approximately, ‘a period of epistemological murk and uncertainty that
we’ve not experienced since what I imagine my rationalist, secularist self would
feel in the Middle Ages.’ So stated, the sentiment is obviously devoid of
historical content. Ultimately, Dennett’s appeal is an appeal to whiteness, scientism,
secularism, and related ideological formations. Any of my colleagues in
medieval studies will recognize this rhetorical move. It’s the same move that
made Anglo-Saxons and West Africans appear primitive to nineteenth-century
white Europeans. (Notice how modernity transects both space and time.) Medievalists
have learned to disarm this line of reasoning by asking, “‘Primitive’ to whom?
On what grounds? For whose benefit? At whose expense?” The idea that Trump is
making America medieval again deserves to be greeted with the same skepticism,
and for the same reason.
Dennett’s historical attitude is bound up with his own
reflexive disdain for religious belief and religious institutions, a habit of
thought characteristic of secularist modernity. (Every medievalist has been
asked by a friend or family member, “How can you study such a religious period?”) Tellingly, Dennett remarks
that “the rise of theocracy in America” is one of the few threats that can spur
him to political activism. He admits to resenting politics in general, because
“I simply must take time out from what I’d really like to be doing to think
about the political near future.” Needless to say, the luxury of escaping
politics is only afforded to those with substantial privilege and
security. Dennett’s comments on organized religion suggest what’s at stake for
him when he does choose to drop the pretense that his work is apolitical. Like Stephen
, Dennett is invested in anti-religious polemic, in vindicating
secularization as absolute social progress.

Like racial slavery, the scientific method, ISIS, the
automobile, and phenomenology, Trumpism is an irreducibly modern response to
modern conditions. Trump isn’t taking us back to the Middle Ages because
history only points in one direction. We can learn much from the violence of
the past, but not by wishing away the violence of the present.

Eric Weiskott teaches medieval English poetry at Boston College; he’s working on a book about the division of the past into medieval and modern periods.

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