Donald Trump’s Words of Power

In an old essay about Heidegger’s conception of language, the philosopher Charles Taylor invokes the notion of ‘words of power’ to explain the power of Hitler’s rhetoric. Once we move away from a sense of language as an expression of individual meanings and purposes, we find ourselves somewhere entirely differently:

The silence is where there are not yet (the right) words but where we are interpellated by entities to disclose them as things. Of course this does not happen before language; it can only happen in its midst. Bu within a language and because of its telos, we are pushed to find unprecedented words, which we draw out of silence. This stillness contrasts with the noisy Gerede in which we fill the world with expressions of our selves and our purposes. (pg 124)

What Taylor calls ‘words of power’ are words which retrieve the inchoate from this silence, imbuing them with power because they so sharply contrast with the dull forgetfulness of our everyday use of language. To use a term Taylor adopts much later in his career, they resonate. Longings, fears, aspirations and resentments retrieved in this way have a charge because they’ve existed beneath the surface. Words of power give voice to them and, though simply words, they’re qualitative distinct from the words we use in everyday life. They give reality and shape to something which has been latent within and between us, contrary to the relative superficiality and vacuity of much of our everyday use of language.

This is a power of words which standard theories of language struggle to make sense of. However Heidegger’s theory is oblivious to their dangerous uses because, as Taylor puts it, “Heidegger has no place for the retrieval of evil in his system”. Whereas as Taylor uses this concept to make sense of Hitler’s words of power:

The danger comes from the fact that so much can be retrieved from the gray zone of repression and forgetfulness. There are also resentments and hatreds and dreams of omnipotence and revenge, and they can be released by their own appropriate words of power. Hitler was a world-historical genius in only one respect, but that was in finding dark words of power, sayings that could capture and elevate the fears, longings and hatreds of a people into something demonic. (pg 125)

The inability of liberal commentators to make sense of Trump’s rise necessitates that we take him seriously on a philosophical level. The implausibility of President Trump, I still splutter when I say or type this, reveal the faded frames within which we assess him and with which we must necessarily now dispense. He’s created a new frame and those faculties which render him obscene (the cruelty, the vulgarity and the absurdity) are both an obstacle to understanding him but also the necessary condition. What are Trump’s words of power?

We are led by very very stupid people. We cannot let it continue …. we lose everything, we lose military, we cannot beat ISIS, give me a break … we can’t beat anybody … it will change. We will have so much winning, if I get elected, that you may get bored with winning … We are going to turn this country around. We are going to start winning big league … We are going to have such a strong military that no one is going to mess with us.

Trump speaks the language of individualism and meritocracy so familiar from the last few decades. But he does so in a way that gives voice to latent grievance, as opposed to the dull(ing) language of self-described progressives. There are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, there are ‘smart’ people and ‘stupid’ people. The culture of meritocracy became manichean over time, while failing to offer the moral resources to interpret the position of the ‘losers’ and the ‘stupid’. This has happened in the UK as well, as I discuss with Will Davies in this podcast:

The idea that there are those ‘left behind’ who feel ‘ignored’ isn’t new. But as Steve Hall, Simon Winlow and co have pointed out in their work on the far right, a left captured by liberal professionals (a case also made powerfully by Thomas Frank about the Democratic party) has proven systematically unable to give voice to these experiences. The closest that the centre-left has come, in the guise of a Clinton or Blair, has been to offer more of the same: a reinforcement of the prevailing culture of meritocracy and a sterile language of opportunity. There is no necessity about how this injuries are expressed, though there is a path-dependency to how they have been articulated..

The darkness we can see emerging in the US and Europe has been growing throughout the seeming moderation, presaged by its easy and partial articulation into a preoccupation with borders or the radical Islamic threat which threatens to destroy us. To put it as straight forwardly as possible: resentments have been accumulating across large swathes of the population, without any cultural framework within which they could be meaningfully articulated. The cultural horizons of our political culture have narrowed precipitously while structural consequences have been germinating.

However it’s important not to reproduce the facile notion of the ‘left behind’ which is now entering into elite discourse. The claim that the ‘losers’ of globalisation have been ignored and now must be attended to is a crucial component in the rise of what Malcolm James calls popularist post-welfare capitalism. It imputes a homogeneity to experience, it naturalises the rightist articulation of that experience and it fails to address the underlying foreclosure which has been the creeping post-democratisation of the recent years. It also fails to recognise the role of the relatively affluent, those who do not look like losers, whose experience at the very least needs to be understood.

Rather than a construct like ‘left behind’, we should accept the descriptive and explanatory void that currently exists while looking to ethnographic and qualitative studies (existing and otherwise) in order to fill it. There are factors in play here which need to be attended to extremely closely, such as the rural character of Trump’s working class support.

Meanwhile we need to find leftist words of power. Urgently.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the first intelligent thing I’ve read on this phenomenon. If I’ve understood what you’ve said Mark then I very much agree with what you’ve written. What you refer to as the ‘factors’ in the Trump-voting group do need investigating in ethnographic detail (I look forward to the Winlow et al book on the UK situation). Indeed the vitriolic response of the liberal elite to these ‘groups’, in my view, is part of the mechanism that inhibits any detailed look for those ‘factors’ . Even among sociologists I find that the vitriol trumps (if you’ll pardon me) the desire to examine the details for fear, perhaps, of finding unpalatable variation. In March The Atlantic published an analysis, based on several quantitative studies, which already shows factor variance in Trump support. They knew then it wasn’t just ‘white working class’ as just by introducing another factor (e.g. WWC who attended church once weekly) were not in the Trump voting group. So, indeed, yes they concluded that the quantitative analysis points to those ‘feeling abandoned’ by the political elite, but more interestingly they say ‘the voiceless’. I agree with you that ‘the abandoned’ is itself ethnographically inadequate at the level of descriptive sociology, but I think that ‘the voiceless’ indicates a different kind of incipient unity politically.

    Nevertheless to your major point about words of power, indeed incipient unities can be ‘interpellated’ by words of power, though I think that obscures the conative struggles of those looking to voice as yet inchoate feelings. In Charles Taylor’s later work he gave more room to the idea of poetry in language, and of course poetry precisely consists in words of power for the same reasons you give ie it deals with the inchoate by bringing feelings into specified form through the affordances of an audience. How odd that a poetic act should be so close to the problem of evil. Indeed, in English law another meaning of inchoate is incitement or conspiracy to criminal activity!

    1. I really like this idea: have you read Nick Couldry’s book on Voice? I’m reading what you’re saying through his account and it works really well.

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