Research Philosophy in the Contemporary World: The Moral Imperative to Assume the Worst—Philosophy's...

Philosophy in the Contemporary World: The Moral Imperative to Assume the Worst—Philosophy’s Response to Donald Trump

With this post, the Blog of the APA is beginning a new ongoing series. Philosophy in the Contemporary World is aimed at exploring the various ways philosophy can be used to discuss issues of relevance to our society. There are no methodological, topical, or doctrinal limitations to this series; philosophers of all persuasions are invited to submit posts regarding issues of concern to them.  Please contact us here if you would like to submit a post to this series.

By Adam Knowles

Gleichschaltung: Pages from the Totalitarian Playbook

In the first volume of his classic work of Holocaust history Nazi Germany and the Jews, Saul Friedländer recounts an episode from Hitler’s early days of power which should give us pause us to reflect on the election of Donald Trump to President of the United States. In a letter dated February 23rd, 1933, less than a month after Hitler’s ascension to power, a Jewish woman from Berlin named Frieda Friedmann wrote to then President Paul von Hindenburg complaining about the anti-Semitism and incitements to pogroms by the National Socialists. Hindenburg passed on the letter to Hitler and, as Friedländer recounts, Hitler wrote these words in the margins: “This lady’s claims are a swindle! Obviously there has been no incitement to a pogrom!”

With a simple swipe of the hand Hitler thus discredits a female Jewish critic and simultaneously wills a reality into being. The speech act of the Führer makes what is through the constitutive power of his speech. His voice is vested with an ontological power, the power to discredit Frieda Friedmann as a “nasty woman.” And if Hitler desired to claim that there was no incitement to a pogrom this was because beginning in the mid-1920s he had begun, as Peter Fritzsche shows in his book Germans into Nazis, to steer the party towards an agenda of spiritual and economic renewal of the German people and away from the brash anti-Semitic rhetoric of the early 1920s. Hitler would make Germany great again in the face of the defeat of the Versailles Treaty, the economic collapse of the 1920s, and a Weimar culture regarded as suspiciously modern and urban (and hence Jewish) by conservative elements in Germany society. Yet with Mein Kampf serving as a firm ideological bedrock, along with a well-established reputation as an anti-Semitic party, Germany’s anti-Semites knew that Hitler represented their racial and racist interests. So-called moderates, on the other hand, those who might have been too ‘polite’ to openly align themselves with anti-Semitism, could feel comfortable associating with the party’s agenda of greatness restored while praising how ‘toned down’ and ‘different’ Hitler had become. Thus, such ‘moderates’ could reap the benefits of anti-Semitism even while being distanced from it by several degrees of removal.

With the election of Donald Trump, the United States finds itself in a moment of what is known, in the wretched Nazi euphemism, as Gleichschaltung: falling into line, forced assimilation, coordination. One could hear it already in the voice of Anderson Cooper in the wee hours of election night as the unimaginable became inevitable, as the map assumed that eerily pockmarked red surface now familiar to us all. One can see it in the cowardly falling into line of the ‘Never Trump’ Republicans, with none more obsequious than the fallen Wunderkind Paul Ryan. One sees it as the Mitt Romneys and Al Gores of the nation strut across the stage of the cabinet-selection-turned-beauty-pageant graciously presented to the nation by ringmaster Trump. Meanwhile, Neo-Nazi groups cloak themselves in the dangerously misleading euphemism ‘alt-right’ and hate crimes are on the rise. We are normalizing Trump, devouring his spectacle, clicking on his latest tweet bait. Even such venerable institutions as the New York Times follow the latest red herring and let—among other things—the news of Trump’s $25 million fraud claim for the sham Trump University cascade down the list of priorities. As I write Trump has already begun to target the civil service by disturbing questionnaires in the Department of Energy. Ideological alignment of the civil service is an essential starting point for serious Gleichschaltung.

Yet what exactly is it that we are normalizing? By electing Donald Trump we are normalizing sexual assault, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant hate speech, ableism and racism of all kinds. By electing Donald Trump we are normalizing rape culture and bullying. By electing Donald Trump we are normalizing white supremacy and a ferociously violent patriarchy. By electing a President who allied himself with Mike Pence, a proponent of gay conversion therapy, we are normalizing an atmosphere of violence and intimidation against the LGBTQ community. Gay conversion therapy means nothing less than normalizing people out of existence. The proposed Texas Senate Bill 242, which would make teachers into mandatory reporters of gay, lesbian and gender-nonconforming students is a harbinger of this normalization. We are normalizing graft, political corruption and the destruction of the rule of law. We are normalizing the further marginalization and increased vulnerability of the working class of all colors. We are normalizing Flint and a government that will turn a blind eye to poisoning its citizens. At a more abstract level, we are also normalizing the systematic evasion of civic responsibility and simple human decency and replacing them with a rapacious ethics of absolute selfishness. Perhaps the election of Trump is the realization that much of this has, for too long, been normal.

This list is only partial and it will continue to expand as the incredible cast of characters known as the Trump ‘team’ begins to assemble itself. For many of us, the last month has been a dizzying crash-course in far-right-wing politics. Jane Mayer’s recent book The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right is a useful resource to understand the perverse consistency of Trump’s choices for cabinet: a Labor Secretary derisive of labor rights, a HUD Secretary who claims poverty is a choice, an Education Secretary who has systematically sought to dismantle public education, an openly racist Attorney General, and an EPA chief who has rubberstamped briefs written by energy lobbyists. And even more questions arise about the Trump team: Is there really any justification for distinguishing Stephen Bannon from a garden-variety member of the Ku Klux Klan merely due to the sophistication of his tactics? Does Kellyanne Conway ever get off point? Or is she truest progeny of the sophists? And weren’t Rudolph Giuliani and Newt Gingrich condemned to some dark, lonely dustbin of history? When Trump drained the swamp, was it this crew that was clinging tenaciously to the drain spout?

Yet I do not want to indulge in humor, not now. The moment is dire. In the days following the election I had a number of discussions with students from my sections of “Introduction to Western Philosophy.” Fittingly, the election overlapped with our lessons on Simone de Beauvoir and Frantz Fanon. In these discussions I heard an overwhelming tone of fear and mute confusion, yet also a quiet tone of defiance and triumph from students who supported Trump. Muslim students, female students, LGBTQ students, African-American students, and Hispanic students all openly admitted to no longer (or never) feeling safe—and these voices only reflect those who spoke up in class. We must find a way to resist further normalizing this fear. Moreover, a student body that had once supported Bernie Sanders felt disillusioned by the democratic process in their first presidential election and this reaction was only confirmed by the disparity between the electoral count and popular vote.

In my class “Holocaust and Philosophy” the conversations have been even more difficult. The election bled into the class from the first day. This is because the students had no trouble recognizing the parallels between their own lives and the world created by the Nazis. It is troubling, especially for a young person, to be forced to plot your own time in the arc of the rise of totalitarianism. I teach the students that Trump is not Hitler, but that, if we can already identify so many parallels with National Socialism, then we must assume that this could lead to the same place where Hitler took Nazi Germany. I believe that we have an ethical imperative to assume the worst. The history of National Socialism may teach us very little about the goals of this regime, but it will help us understand its tactics.

Right now we are in a moment of coordination, of falling-into-line. In 1933, the Nazis arrested Hannah Arendt for her part in collecting incidences of anti-Semitism occurring at the everyday grassroots level for a publication meant to be disseminated abroad. Ushahidi, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map and Shaun King of the New York Daily News have been doing similar work by collecting incidences of hate crimes inspired by Trump on twitter and their websites. It is important to understand that the Nazis were able to coordinate so well by first making many Germans bystanders and then escalating the violence so that a large portion of the population would either willingly tolerate or actively foster mass killing. What Nazi Germany teaches us is that such events of public hazing and outright violence, including the chants of “Build the Wall” reported from schools across the country and the students chanting “White Power” in a Michigan high school (to name but a few), serve an important role in radicalizing a population. They help to produce the bystanders who can later be made into perpetrators. Normalization bridges the gap between the early zealots and the later converts to a totalitarian movement.

Donald Trump has called for the deportation of 11 million people, a deeply symbolic number that also coincides with the number of Jews in Europe who were targeted for extermination by the Nazis at the Wannsee Conference—the planning conference for the so-called ‘Final Solution’. Trump has since revised this to between 2 to 3 million people. Such crass ‘margins of error’ were also exemplary of Nazi rhetoric and serve to normalize the removal of individual human beings—or even entire ethnic and religious groups—from the body politic. But since we know that Donald Trump is always a man to think “huge” and “big league,” let us take his highest number as indicative of his intentions. By now at the latest, we should know not to underestimate Trump. The very mention in public discourse of a deportation force and of “ideological certification” for immigrants is a terrifying normalization of the monstrous.

The peculiar self-delusion of the Führer was that he thought he could wave his hand and either cause things to come into being or cease to exist. “Obviously there has been no incitement to a pogrom!,” he can proclaim and thus will away the call to violence. If updated slightly to reflect Trump’s carnival-barker patios, these words could have come straight from the mouth of our president-elect. As he has openly disavowed Neo-Nazi groups since the election and halfheartedly ordered “Stop It!” to those committing hate crimes, he is demonstrating a terrifyingly detailed knowledge of the totalitarian playbook. Indeed, it is astounding how well Trump seems to know this playbook. As we make our way through the Trump years, let us never underestimate Trump’s political intelligence.

As Arendt documents in Eichmann in Jerusalem, Himmler was a master at persuading SS officers that the Holocaust would be a terrible burden on them for which they would suffer greatly in service of the German people. The Holocaust, Himmler would teach the SS, would be hard on good Germans. In his 60 Minutes interview from Nov. 13th Trump, swathed in his gilded apartment, echoes this cruel twist of rhetoric. “Sometimes you need a certain rhetoric to get people motivated. I don’t want to be just a little nice monotone character,” he proudly proclaims. Lesley Stahl then interjects the question, “Can you be?” Trump responds by saying: “Sure I can. I can easily. That’s easier. Honestly, doing that is easier.” In his self-understanding, Trump is suffering greatly to make America great again by doing the difficult work of proffering bigotry and inciting racial violence. Being the strong man is hard on him, he would like us to believe. In dwelling on this example, let us also note the element of complicity on the part of the media, in Stahl’s jovial, laughing tone that normalizes the monstrous by reducing it to an ironic spectacle. The same subtle normalization can be seen when the editors of the New York Times asked Trump to address claims that Bannon is “racist and anti-Semitic.” Trump responded along similar lines: “I think it’s very hard on him. I think he’s having a hard time with it. Because it’s not him. It’s not him.”

I have no interest in parsing out whether or not Trump actually believes that Bannon is or is not a racist and an anti-Semite, but I do know for certain that Trump thinks he has the power to make us believe it. The world of the Nazis was a grand aestheticized delusion, as best exemplified by the promise at the gates of Auschwitz that work would set you free and by the taunting faux-medical signs declaring the importance of cleanliness at the entrance to the gas chambers disguised as showers. Trump, this great man of pageantry, is already setting up his own aestheticized delusion as our reality in a world where—as he said in a now infamous tweet—“millions of people who voted illegally” have robbed him of the “so-called popular vote.” Yet while the Nazis had to build their camps and ghettoes, let us not forget that we live in a country that already has camps, ghettoes and a robust infrastructure of mass incarceration. Trump is already promising to fill Guantanamo Bay with “some bad dudes.”

We must accept that we live in dire times of which nothing good will come. There will be no moral victories for liberals who hope to come out of the other side with a clean conscience. There will be an increase in hate crimes. There will also be tactics of gradual escalation in order to secure complicity from those not subject to such violence. We should not try to speculate what Trump’s true aims might be, but instead calculate what they could be based on the most extreme scenario. We must resist any outward claims of moderation and out them as a classic strategy of totalitarian regimes. The so-called ‘good’ white people (especially men) of America, those for whom normalization is a possibility, must also resist allowing Trump to be normalized in our names and on our behalf. Yet we must also ensure that our resistance is not parasitic on the aesthetic spectacle of the Trump phenomenon.

The Role of Philosophy?

With the Nazi rise to power universities and the discipline of philosophy stood at a crossroads. Once the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” was passed in April 1933, 313 full professors in Germany were released from service within a year. An incredible emigration would begin, changing the landscape of philosophy in North America. The Frankfurt School was targeted early for both political and racial reasons and became a key site of resistance. Meanwhile, a figure no less than Martin Heidegger enthusiastically joined the early group of academics who sought to lend legitimacy to the National Socialist movement, becoming the paradigmatic academic figure of Gleichschaltung by ruthlessly implementing the anti-Jewish measures as Rector of Freiburg University from 1933-34. Aside from perhaps Germanistic, no discipline was more deeply complicit in National Socialism than the discipline of philosophy.

In the last week, at least two major philosophical organizations have issued statements on the 2016 election: the American Philosophical Association and the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. I believe that both statements fall short of living up to the ethical demands of our current situation. Firstly, the APA statement, which is the shorter of the two by far, rightly mentions that “the nation has experienced increasingly divisive rhetoric and a rise in bias-based attacks on members of vulnerable groups.” Yet the statement fails to specifically name any of those vulnerable groups and—more importantly—fails to mention any particular individual or group who has propagated this divisive rhetoric. It also fails to condemn the divisive rhetoric it mentions. The SPEP statement by and large ameliorates this first concern by mentioning that “[d]uring the electoral campaign and in its aftermath, we witnessed the amplification and even normalization of racism, sexism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, LGBTQ-bashing, and ableism (to name a few, in an enumeration that will not be complete).” Perhaps the disclaimer at the end, a sad capitulation reminding us that any enumeration of Trump’s proliferation of hate speech will always be incomplete, may have led to a preemptive acquiescence on the part of the APA, causing it to be unwilling to mention any particular vulnerable groups in its statement. But this preemptive acquiescence is a form of evasion and thus a form of normalization. The SPEP statement avoids this crucial step of normalization, but acquiesces in its own way by refusing to name the primary agent and beneficiary of the hate speech it condemns: President-Elect Donald Trump. Instead, the statement employs the passive voice and refers simply to the hate speech “mobilized and emboldened by the election.” This acquiescence and deferral to the passive voice—with the agent named through the preposition ‘by’ being not a person but a thing—perpetuates another form of normalization. Do we not risk being complicit in the crimes we condemn if we are unwilling to name the perpetrators of those crimes?

I do not know if philosophy has any special role to play in resisting Donald Trump in 2016. It is certainly not the moment to hunker down to work out fine philological details—work that I normally value. If we work on thinkers who were oppressed by totalitarian regimes of any kind, we should learn from and teach about their resistance. If we work on thinkers who became perpetrators, we should learn from and teach about what lead them to become complicit. But this is what many of us already do everyday in the classroom anyways. We should teach ceaselessly about language and the power to manipulate language, as exemplified by Marianne Constable’s “When Words Cease to Matter.” We should teach about power. We should be in classrooms, in discussion groups and anywhere where students need to be listened to.

But we should not pretend that the infamously ‘strange’ life of the philosopher is somehow so ‘abnormal’ in Trump’s world that being a philosopher is in and of itself an act of resistance. Hence, I disagree that the APA’s statement that “the work of philosophers and humanists is needed now more than ever” is in and of itself valid. Philosophy per se is not the answer to anything, though certain kinds of philosophy may help lead us to some answers about our current dire predicament. After the release of Jewish and politically ‘undesirable’ professors from service in Germany in 1933, the discipline of philosophy by and large settled back into business as usual, resuming all the normal conferences, publications and deadlines. Philosophers of many stripes, much like humanists and academics from many fields, played a crucial role in all stages of National Socialist violence. I therefore say this especially to the philosophers who—like me—are white and male: being a self-styled economic and intellectual gadfly does not qualify as resistance. Philosophy alone is not an act of resistance. It may even be an act of complicity.


Adam Knowles is Assistant Teaching Professor of Philosophy at Drexel University, where he is currently preparing a manuscript entitled The Measure of Silence: Heidegger, Language and the Greeks. He received his PhD from the New School for Social Research in 2014. His research combines influences from Continental philosophy, phenomenology, Ancient Greek philosophy, ethics and feminism, drawing especially on Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Irigaray and Derrida.


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  1. Response to Adam Knowles: The Genuine State of Exception?

    By Eric D. Meyer

    While I agree that Trump’s election was a setback, and his presidential decisions must be watched, I wonder if the comparison with Hitler’s chancellorship and Nazi Germany isn’t a bit overstated. After all, contemporary America is really nothing like 1920s and 1930s Germany. After WWI, there were thousands of German war vets on the streets, unemployment was out of control, and in 1929 the German economy crashed, making German money worthless. And, besides that, German Spartacist Communists militated for a Bolshevik-style revolution, stoking fears of a Soviet Red Terror, and causing street-fights between German Communists and the proto-Nazis (the Freikorps etc.) which tore Germany apart. After NSDAP (Nazi) victories in the German elections, Hitler claimed the Chancellorship from Von Hindenberg after the Social Democrats could no longer form a government; and he immediately declared a state of emergency (Carl Schmitt’s and Giorgio Agamben’s state of exception) as the only way to stop the slide toward chaos and anarchy, a move endorsed by most Germans. And then, with the German Constitution suspended and the German Army on Hitler’s side, the Nazis began ruling by terror, even terrorizing members of their own party (the Roehm putsch of the SA) to keep up Hitler’s dictatorship, and began remilitarizing the Rhineland to arm the Wehrmacht. The persecution of Communists, Social Democrats, and Jews, were all part of Hitler’s program, as you say, to make Germany great again, but it’s certainly true the Jews took the worst of it, as the easier scapegoats to bully and beat. Hitler and the Nazis then took Austria (the AnschluB), Alsace, the Sudentenland, and Stalin and Hitler split Poland, after which Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and as part of the ethnic cleansing of Eastern Europe to make the Slavs and Jews a slave race (or eliminate them to make Lebensraum for Germans), the SS began building German death camps… And the rest is history.

    Frankly, I do not see parallels to these events, except very vague ones, in contemporary America, despite Donald Trump & Co. and Make America Great Again! America is currently still at the height of prosperity, the civil rights movement has made enormous gains, different sexual orientations are widely recognized, and colleges and universities are still largely bastions of supposed intellectual freedom (although sometimes it is actually the right-wing groups whose voices are silenced or marginalized, under the guise of the so-called political correctness, and not the leftists). I do not believe that white male leftist-liberal college professors are in danger of the concentration camps, nor do I see a real threat to multicultural or sexual diversity. And the problem I see with articles like this, which drastically exaggerate the threat, is not only that they risk fueling a backlash among those who feel they have been silenced or marginalized by the past eight years of the leftist-liberal multicultural agenda (those quietly defiant students in your classes who cannot speak, because the multi-culturalist agenda dominates the discussion), but they distract attention from the real problems the country faces. There have been too many police shootings of black (and white) men on the streets, there are too many black, red, brown, and white men (and women) in prison, and there are too many (predominantly white) men destitute and homeless (the so-called white trash) and on the streets. I do not believe these problems will be solved by militating for a leftist-liberal multicultural agenda among the privileged students in your classroom. I’m afraid they will actually be worsened by the cries from the privileged leftist-liberal scholarly world, claiming they are the victims of discrimination, when the white, black, red, and brown underclass on the streets and in the prisons know it’s not true, and know where the real discrimination lies: in the American criminal justice system, in the American public schools, and in American colleges and universities that cater to the leftist-liberal multicultural elite, while ignoring the destitute, the homeless, the criminalized, and marginalized, who don’t fit your stereotypical race, class, gender categories.

    But, more importantly, America has been caught up in the so-called war on terror for 15 years, now, with no end in sight. During that time, international terrorism has enormously escalated, terror attacks have massively increased (how many even during the writing of these remarks?), and the Muslim world is stuck in chaos and terror, poverty and misery. The Muslim countries Bush and Obama promised to help are suffering horribly in self-perpetuating cycles of terrorism, and the US military and CIA still carry out bombing campaigns and drone strokes that kill hundreds, even thousands of innocent civilians. Guantanamo is still open for business, and the Obama administration replaced the CIA black sites with targeted assassinations, even though the kill-ratio of actual militants killed to innocent civilians is something like 10 to 1. And if there’s anybody suffering from discrimination in America today, it’s the Muslim communities, who are under constant scrutiny by the CIA and FBI, who bear the brunt of the attacks of Trump & Co., and who deal with the physical, visceral pain of discrimination and hatred on a constant basis. And yet there is scarcely a mention of any of this in your article, which, in fact, mentions very few actual cases of the discrimination you write about—although I don’t doubt that it exists, if in different forms than the race, class, gender stereotypes you mention—and instead relies on a vague parallel between Nazi Germany and Trump America which, I’m afraid, doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. Which isn’t to say very real problems don’t exist, just that distracting from the real problems with rhetoric and hyperbole won’t help, and working up further frustration and hatred between left and right, liberals and conservatives, gays and straights, blacks and white, will only make it worse. If there’s a real fascist, a real Hitler, in the contemporary world, that Hitler is Vladimir Putin, who has succeeded in purveying his war on terror, begun in Chechnya, to the rest of the world, and is currently carrying out the mass killing of Syrian civilians in Aleppo and elsewhere. The biggest danger of Trump’s election is Trump’s flirtation with Putin, and Trump is in danger of becoming Putin’s puppet. But it’s not Trump who is the Hitler in that case, but Putin; and Putin’s Russia is the real danger America needs to face, in Syria, Turkey, the Ukraine, Crimea, Moldova, Georgia, and in America, too.

    In 1940s Nazi Germany, Walter Benjamin wrote: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of exception’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which reflects this. Then it will become clear that our mission is the introduction of a genuine state of exception; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will benefit from it.” By Giorgio Agamben’s reading of this citation, we, too, are living in a state of exception, and there’s certainly truth to that reading. But Benjamin was living in a real state of emergency, with real SS terror squads kicking down doors and dragging people off, and the SA camps which had begun torturing Social Democrats and Communists were being relocated in Poland by the SS to exterminate Jews. And Benjamin himself, faced with that situation, finally tragically committed suicide. What did Benjamin mean by calling for “a genuine state of exception”? I think he meant a Soviet Bolshevik-style German Revolution, since, at that moment, the Soviets appeared to be the only world power capable of beating the Germans, and it was not yet obvious that Soviet terrorism (Stalin’s Great Terror and the Gulag) and Soviet exterminism (including the extermination of Jews) could be equally dangerous, and actually killed more people than, Hitler’s Final Solution, horrible as it was. Nor was it yet obvious that Soviet Bolshevik Communism was not a solution to anything; it was another problem: another dictatorship, another totalitarianism, another terrorism, and so on. You cite the cases of Martin Heidegger and the Frankfurt School to show Western philosophy’s responses to fascism. It’s certainly true that Western philosophers since Plato (Dionysus of Syracuse) and Hegel (the Prussian State) have been in complicity with tyranny, demagoguery, mass murder, and slavery—although remember that Socrates and the Sophists actually resisted that tyranny, and sometime died for it. Martin Heidegger’s tenure as Nazi Rector of Freiburg University in 1933/1934, when he was obliged to make speeches (and Heil Hitlers!) to the Fuhrer was certainly an embarrassing case of that complicity. But after this brief episode, Heidegger began what he and many of his students (Georg Picht, say) thought was a program of internal resistance to the Nazi Party, at enormous risk to himself and his family, while TW Adorno and Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School emigrated to America and spent the war in Hollywood. It’s easy to condemn Heidegger, but I’d say his program of internal resistance to the Nazi regime required greater courage than that of Adorno and Horkheimer, although I admire Dialectic of Enlightenment and Minima Moralia very much. I don’t know what course of action you advocate against Trump and Co. But I think following Heidegger’s policy of internal resistance—working within the system, as we used to say— is the better option. The battle against Trump & Co. will be fought in the courtroom and the ballot box—and, to some extent, in the classroom—but it will not be served by working up further frustration and hatred within American society, which, I say again, will only make things worse.

    In the 1960s and 1970s, the New Left student radicals and Yippies made a mantra of calling their supposed enemies fascists! And there were student demonstrations and street fights with the police that finally also turned violent, and got people killed. The anti-Vietnam War movement and Civil Rights movements no doubt made important gains during that embattled period, but I don’t want to see it happen again. And certain extreme elements of those protest movements (the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, etc.) finally resorted to what would now be called terrorism in the cause of stopping the war or smashing racism, and that terrorism did not really help the anti-war, anti-racism cause. It only made the New Left and the Yippies look like the real fascists, and risked destroying the genuine gains made by those movements. I certainly wouldn’t say the anti-Trump demonstrations have had that effect, but the risk of working up frustration and anger on both left and right is that it can flare up and backfire into dangerous, violent confrontations. And it can direct hatred and violence among Americans, against Americans, when we really need to work together to solve our real problems. Are Trump & Co. the big problem? I don’t think so. Poverty, homelessness, violence, discrimination, hatred, torture, war… Those are the real problems. We need to work together to solve them. And if Trump & Co. can show they are part of the solution, and not the problem, well, then, we need to work with them, too, since that’s the only way to solve the problem. And not just make it worse…

  2. Dear Eric,

    Thank you for your extensive comments on my piece. There are a number of threads running through your remarks which I will attempt to respond to.

    If you are suggesting that we should avoid labeling Trump’s tactics as totalitarian in nature for risk of offending him or his supporters, then I vehemently reject that position. Trump openly and repeatedly called for violence at his rallies and his supporters have responded in turn. I do not see how this calls for a polite response.
    You bring in a number of details about the history of National Socialism from a later period of time than the one I discuss. My point was to focus on the era of Gleichschaltung, specifically 1933-4. That many of the things you mentioned have not yet occurred and perhaps will not occur does not deny the parallels that we have already seen. Besides, you will note that I stated my intention as follows: “The history of National Socialism may teach us very little about the goals of this regime, but it will help us understand its tactics.”

    If there are historical antecedents that help us understand the political moment we are experiencing, then we should by all means learn from them. The problem with far too many of Trump’s supporters is that they actually regard a comparison with Hitler as positive, just as him openly bragging about sexually assaulting women actually made him more qualified in the eyes of many voters. It made him a laudable strong-man who “tells it like it is.”

    Your defense of Heidegger’s purported “inner emigration” is historically inaccurate and ethically problematic. It ignores the archival record on Heidegger, the anti-Semitism of the Black Notebooks, the anti-Semitism of Heidegger’s recently published letters, and a great deal of historical and philosophical literature produced since the 1980s (at the latest). Moreover, by stating that Heidegger’s “program of internal resistance to the Nazi regime required greater courage than that of Adorno and Horkheimer” you are engaging in troubling Nazi apologetics. If one is obligated to respond to Nazi apologetics, then I would pose two questions in response:

    Firstly, was Heidegger at all an inner emigrant? The answer to that is definitively ‘no.’ One would only believe that if one were to uncritically accept Heidegger’s own portrayal of his Nazism. Heidegger was a keen negotiator of the evolving reality of National Socialist cultural politics. He was an anti-Semite through and through and an eager career man who seized the political opportunities made available to him. His relationship with the regime by no means ended in 1934—as the most cursory glance of the archives in Berlin and Freiburg shows.

    The second question would be: If he were an inner emigrant (which he was not), is that somehow more courageous than being driven into exile? To be honest, I do not even know how to respond to this because the premise of the question elides the reality of Nazi racial oppression. Do you really want to imply that Adorno was living it up in Hollywood while Heidegger was fighting in the trenches of some sort of silent resistance movement? I take Karl Jaspers’ remarks on the notion of inner emigration in “The Question of German Guilt” to be decisive. There is no such thing as inner emigration, Jaspers writes, and even if there were, it would still be a position of deep complicity. Do you want to say that Heidegger was courageous for being complicit?

    There is much about your comments that indicates that you were not so much interested in responding to what I said in my initial piece, but instead interested in utilizing this format for your own thoughts. I can almost hear Plato on my shoulder whispering to me that that is the nature of online discussion forums. Yet since much of our dialogue today—especially about the election—occurs in the form of comment sections and online posts, I felt obligated to respond.

    Adam Knowles

  3. Dear Adam Knowles,

    Thanks for your response. I hope I can be brief in response. And let me say, I respect your opinions and found your blog provocative, which is why I responded. To be clear:

    I am not suggesting we should not respond to Trump’s tactics for fear of offending his supporters. Obviously, Trump thrives on offensive tactics (the best defense is being offensive, eh?), and his tactics are clearly demagoguery, and possibly dangerous, although that remains to be seen. I’m instead suggesting that responding to his offensive tactics, either by being confrontational and provoking more offensive responses, or by simply attempting to silence his supporters, will be counter-productive. I’m suggesting that Trump & Co,. however offensive, really are human beings (really!) and have feelings and ideas that can be addressed, and, hopefully, defeated in a calm, intelligent manner, in public debate and in the classroom, in the style of all good sophists and philosophers. And I’d suggest that addressing their problems and treating them like they were human beings will be far more effective than shouting fascist! and thereby contributing to the polarization and divisiveness of this election, which, after all, is what Trump thrives on, and what got him elected, in the first place.

    And, by the way, I am also all in favor of challenging the election in court, changing the electoral college system, or otherwise responding calmly and intelligently to the election, and even impeaching Trump, if he in fact commits actions which qualify for impeachment, as, for example, Lawrence Tribe has suggested. Simply calling him a fascist, however, will not help, and will probably contribute to the rise of right-wing extremism in America, which, however objectionable, will certainly be different than the fascism of the Western European 1930s, in Germany, Spain, Italy, and Britain. And, yes, in America, too, as Adorno’s writings make clear. But that’s a different era.

    Secondly, I am not saying that Heidegger was an internal emigre. I am saying he was a Nazi Party member who, for a brief time in 1933/1934, followed the Party line—as was necessary from his position as Rector at Freiburg, which he resigned after a year, after making some stupid speeches (he later called them his GroBeste Dummheit, his greatest stupidity), and before becoming disillusioned with the Party—and who also regrettably endorsed certain politically objectionable positions—what Peter Trawny calls metaphysical anti-Semitism, which is distinct from the Nietzschean biological racism of the Nazi Party— but who also publicly endorsed certain dissident positions which placed him in danger of attack by the Nazi Party. I think it’s too simple to just call Heidegger a Nazi and then argue, as does Emmanuel Faye, among others, that Heidegger’s works should be purged from the philosophy departments and libraries, a position that strikes me as just as fascist as the fascists, and certainly more fascistic than Heidegger, who never committed any criminally violent actions, and was therefore far less guilty than the great number of Germans who did, many of whom, of course, were never, and will never be prosecuted, as Heidegger was.

    I think Heidegger’s Nazism has to be understood in the world-historical context I describe, as a symptom of the extremely violent conflict between communists and fascists in 1930s Germany, which drove many people to take extreme positions and therefore led to Hitler’s takeover and the Nazi Terror. I think Heidegger did display courage in speaking out in his lectures against Nazi policy, and should be credited for that, even though we, in our privileged comfortable position in not-Nazi America, may find those positions objectionable. But like Jurgen Habermas says, who are we to judge Heidegger? When we don’t live in Nazi Germany, and don’t know what stupidities we might have committed, in that terrorist situation. What Nazi Germany and the SS death camps showed us was that in extreme situations, almost anybody can be driven to commit extreme acts. And Heidegger’s thought-crimes have to be understood in that context, when so many others committed far worse crimes, without having even what courage Heidegger did to resist.

    I’d say Heidegger felt, wrongly or rightly, that he was a Nazi Party dissident, and risked himself and his family to oppose Nazi race policy, and then was falsely maligned by his opponents, who were far more Nazi than he was. After the war, Heidegger attempted to make clear his opposition to Nazism, which was also his opposition to Bolshevism, Americanism, and the whole technocratic world-system (Die Technik und das Gestell), including the crypto-totalitarian system we now live in, which Heidegger saw as a continuation of Bolshevism and Nazism. I actually think that the polemics of contemporary critics against Heidegger’s postwar texts, like “Overcoming Metaphysics”—which, I have repeatedly argued, is actually a scathing critique of Nazism—are really defensive reactions against Heidegger’s critique of the contemporary world-system, and therefore should be considered not as critiques of Heidegger, whom those critics appear not to want to understand, but as polemical positions to support their own compromised positions in that contemporary world-system. But again, that’s a different story…

    Heidegger felt he was unfairly maligned by the French Postwar trials, when far greater Nazis, who certainly committed far greater dangerous, violent crimes, than Heidegger’s thought-crimes, not only got off the hook, but became the political elite of Postwar West Germany. In your blog, you cite Hannah Arendt against Heidegger, but you surely know that after the war, Arendt not only forgave Heidegger for his mistaken support of the Nazi Party, but actually defended him against his critics, and, by the way, hated Adorno and Horkeheimer for their attacks on Heidegger. I don’t want to take sides in that vicious intellectual squabble, I respect both Heidegger and the Frankfurt School, and Arendt, too, I just want to say there’s two sides to it, like everything, and listening to both sides prevents getting caught up in divisive, polarizing debates, which can escalate out of control and have consequences nobody expects.

    Finally, I do find your attempt to make contemporary America into Nazi Germany, and Trump into Hitler, a dangerous exaggeration, partly because I think it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, and giving birth to real-live fascists and real-live Nazis, and partly because I lived through the 1960s and 1970s, when those comparisons were a stock ploy of the New Left student radicals, and resulted in radicalizing certain student activists, who took them seriously, and contemplated terrorist acts against the Fascist! Nazi! American State. And not only did those actions discredit the Anti-Vietnam war movement, but, at the U-Wisconsin Madison, for example, got a math graduate student killed in a bombing at the Army Math Center in Sterling Hall. The May Day bombers no doubt had good intentions in resisting the war in opposition to fascist! Nazi! Amerika!, and even called in the bombing to prevent killing anybody, but there were so many false bombing calls from the self-styled radical student left in Madison, WI, during that dangerous period, that the call didn’t get through, and somebody got killed. And that’s the danger of polarizing the situation and advocating violent action, which, I am absolutely sure are decidedly not your intentions, but which, I am afraid, might be the result of further provoking extreme responses to the 2016 US presidential election.

    And I’d just ask: What would have happened if Trump had lost? And all those Trump supporters who feared the election was rigged against them were further radicalized? and maybe adopted more radical means of opposing what they consider radical-leftist-liberal American system? The great thing is, now whatever goes wrong in America will all be Trump & Co.’s fault! And can be blamed on them, and not the radical-liberal left, which will no doubt survive this election, and probably win the next one, as a result.

    I thank you for your response and your provocative blog. I hope we can agree to disagree, and I certainly welcome any further response you might care to make.

    Eric D. Meyer

    PS: If you’d like to follow up the comparison of 1930s Nazi Germany and 1960s/1970s America, I’d suggest Thomas Pynchon’s Gravitys Rainbow, written between 1968 and 1972, which makes that comparison its basic metaphor, and is a great description of the radicalized mentality of that period. And a darn good book, too, when understood as symptomatic of that radicalized political context…

    PPS: If, like Heidegger, I occasionally make stupid comments, I beg your indulgence. Like Trump and Heidegger, I’m only human, saying what comes to mind, and writing off the top of my head, which sometimes leads to great stupidities. In Heidegger’s case, as in mine…

  4. Dear Adam and Eric,

    Thank you for the discussion. I’m a 23 year old black woman who majored in philosophy in undergrad, and I wasn’t sure how to process the election results. It’s discussions such as the one you’ve been having that motivate me to continue my studies in philosophy even when I’m currently taking a gap year before grad school.


    Gabriella Grange

  5. Dear Gabriella,

    Thanks for reading my piece and for your comment. I wish you the best of luck with your future philosophical career. Philosophy very much needs people thinking critically about race to continue to diversify the profession. Please feel free to contact me for advice at any point along the way. Grad school can be a difficult, daunting, but also very rewarding endeavor!

    By the way, after writing my piece I discovered Drucilla Cornell’s essay “Seven Theses on Trump,” which offers a very persuasive argument for why Trump should be regarded as fascist.


  6. Dear Gabriella Grange,

    And thanks for listening. It’s great to know somebody our there is interested. I’ve read the piece on Critical Legal Thinking that Adam Knowles refers to, also, and CLT is also a website worth checking into. It’s interesting to me that Drucilla Cornell offers an argument for calling Trump a “fascist!” that is heavily larded with references to Nietzsche, who was actually the official (posthumous) philosopher of the Nazi Party, but who is still considered fashionable, trendy, and cool in the wonderful world of post-modernity, while Heidegger, who critiques the Western metaphysical world-view, Nietzsche’s philosophy, and post-modernity itself as fascist, is constantly harangued for his Nazism!

    I won’t flog the Heidegger argument here further, except to say that Heidegger never accepted the Nietzschean biological racist line of the Nazi Party, and in Sec. XXVII of Overcoming Metaphysics offers a critique of the Nietzschean concept of superhumanity/subhumanity that puts Nazi racism in the context of Nietzsche’s Uebermensch nonsense, which is the philosophy of domination that supports racism. I’d also mention that Heidegger’s Nietzsche lectures were considered by his students as a slightly disguised critique of Nazi philosophy, although I’d admit that they were presented as an Aesopian allegory—a disguised critique, rather than an open attack on the Nazi Party and its racist policies. And I don’t want to make excuses for the fact that Heidegger, like millions of other Germans, did not stand up in public and speak out about Nazi anti-Semitism and the Final Solution, at the risk, of course, of himself and his family (wife, children, etc.) being tortured or murdered, or worse. It’s regrettable that Heidegger’s was a committed Nazi, and no doubt a bad influence on him, and his son Hermann was in a Soviet POW camp, where he no doubt suffered tortures almost equivalent to the Nazi camps.

    I also don’t want to make excuses for Heidegger’s greatest stupidity, just to say he at least recognized it and subsequently critiqued himself for it, and I’d give him credit for that. I think it’s a great thing to be able to admit you’re wrong, sometimes, even if it detracts from your self-image as a great philosopher. But I will say I find Nietzsche’s philosophy to be thoroughly fascist, since it insists on the strictly biological/racial superiority of the master caste/master/race over the subhuman slave caste, and I find it very difficult to see how that’s not fascist.

    I’d also like to say that if and when the Trump regime should start actually committing criminal acts of suppression of dissent (like this), murder, torture, and so on, equivalent to the Nazi anti-Semitic policy, I would hope that all those who cry out against fascism actually have the courage to risk their privileged professional positions and their privileged protected lives to oppose those policies, as I would have wished they would also have opposed, for example, the Central American death squads, Persian Gulf War, the Post-September 11th state of exception, the Second Gulf/Iraq War, the CIA black sites, Guantanamo Bay, and the Syrian catastrophe, all of which have occurred over the past two decades, without significant opposition from the scholarly community.

    Thanks again for your comment, and I’d always be glad to get a response.

    Eric D. Meyer

  7. Just a couple of questions for clarification.

    You say:

    “We must accept that we live in dire times of which nothing good will come.”

    Why must we accept that?

    Must we accept it, because it is true, and because we must accept the truth? Is that the force of the ‘must’ here? I can see the argument for ‘dire times’, but how do we go about establishing the ‘nothing good will come’ part? True or not, your saying it in this context struck me as both prophetic and nihilistic. I have serious reservations about accepting your word for its truth, and I’m not seeing the argument (vis a vis the future), so I’m having a hard time seeing why we must accept it.

    Is it a practical imperative to accept it and to act as if it were true, whether or not it actually is? If so, it seems to be self-undermining. It is hard to see what good could come from accepting that, and acting as if, nothing good will come from these times. So, I’m just not sure I understand what you are doing in saying what it is that you are saying here.

    You say:

    “By electing Donald Trump we are normalizing sexual assault, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant hate speech, ableism and racism of all kinds. By electing Donald Trump we are normalizing rape culture and bullying. By electing Donald Trump we are normalizing white supremacy and a ferociously violent patriarchy. By electing a President who allied himself with Mike Pence, a proponent of gay conversion therapy, we are normalizing an atmosphere of violence and intimidation against the LGBTQ community.”

    I believe I share the worries that lie behind your use of this language. I wonder, though, what are you appealing to when you say we are ‘normalizing’ all these things?

    Aren’t most of these already both fairly normal (i.e., not uncommon) and in line with prevailing norms within some communities? Haven’t they been prevailing norms in (parts of) American Culture for as long as there has been anything identifiable as ‘American Culture’? It would seem to me that the norms associated with the desire to eradicate these kinds of behavior have always existed alongside, and in tension with, the norms that condone them.

    Does the narrative in which it makes sense to say that these are being normalized at this historical moment make sense without the presupposition that we had progressed beyond these attitudes (to some extent, at least)? Sure, some people didn’t get the memo, but all of us who did know that there really is no legitimate normative force behind the ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’ that lead people to actions and attitudes that we deem as being sexist, xenophobic, racist, etc.

    What if the claim that we had collectively left these attitudes behind, or at least agreed in principle that they were objectionable, was itself more of an attempt at fiat that an accurate description of where we really were/are? In other words, why take this as a case of normalizing these attitudes rather than taking it, say, as evidence counting against the thesis that we had actually made the kind of progress so many of us had hoped we had (or, in more neutral terms, that there had actually been the kind of changes that some of us believed there had been)?

    I appreciate whatever clarification you might be able to provide on these points.

    Mark D. Fisher

  8. Dear Mark,

    Thank you for your close attention to the text and for your comments. I will attempt to address them sequentially.

    The ‘must’ is simply intended to prevent the possibility of retreating into what I regard as a dangerous and ultimately evasive form of denial. This form of wait-and-see placation will only allow for the escalation of Trump’s totalitarian tactics. I believe that he has offered us enough evidence of his fascist tendencies that we must respond by a total rejection of Trump.

    Trump is the force of nihilism. Identifying and labeling that nihilism is not, in turn, nihilistic. If my tone sounds nihilistic that is because it is describing a nihilistic situation. The ‘must’ is not a truth claim, but instead an ethical demand. Yes, perhaps, nothing good will come from accepting that nothing good can come from the Trump phenomenon. But this is simply an affirmation of the fact nothing good can come from Trump. Any sliver of recognition of Trump risks opening the door to normalizing even further all that is deplorable about him. Acknowledging the possibility that something good could come from this proto-fascist demagogue would be to say that proto-fascist demagogues can be a source of the good. I am suggesting that we must reject that possibility. This is what I am calling the moral imperative to assume the worst.

    Regarding normalization: yes, you are right the Trump phenomenon is an affirmation of just how terrifyingly normal the malicious forces of xenophobia, sexism and racism (among others) have long been in the U.S. But I disagree that, historically speaking, there is “no legitimate normative force behind the ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’ that lead people to actions and attitudes that we deem as being sexist, xenophobic, racist, etc.” Hasn’t the history of the United States been precisely the legitimization of this normative force? This is a country built on genocide, slavery, the systematic oppression of women, mass incarceration, the summary execution of people inside and outside of its territory, and the constant recourse to war as a tool of imperial expansion. It seems irresponsible to focus on some positivistic notion of moral progress while overlooking the violence systematically created by this country. Progress can become a delusion by which we overlook just how regressive we are.

    One could make that more concrete: If there were no normative force behind the “ought” of the rapist who thinks—like Trump—that the bodies of women exist to be disposed of at the rapist’s will, then why would universities such as Stanford effectively punish women for reporting rape? Why else would Brock Turner be excused for his rape? This is not simply a matter of certain people not “getting the memo” as you say, but instead is symptomatic of a rape culture that, yes, was already normal, but is even further normalized by the election of a serial sexual predator to the office of the President.

    On a somewhat unrelated note, and in response to many experiences I have had at the 2017 APA, I am seriously concerned about whether or not philosophy as it currently exists as an institutionalized discipline in the United States is at all equipped to respond to the Trump phenomenon. Part of the point of my original piece was to underscore that fact that the humanities and specifically philosophy assimilated with great rapidity to the rise of National Socialism. I believe that there are some very urgent conversations that need to take place that do not involve parsing out the truth value of philosophical claims, including my own. I am happy to revise any and all formulations in my piece for the sake of communicating the underlying ethical message I hoped to bring across. But above all, I hope that I have erred greatly in my assessment and that I will be proven wrong and that this essay will ultimately be nothing more than some quaint period piece of naïve and overwrought moral panic.



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