William F. Buckley Jr. famously stated that he would “rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard.” This was because he feared making the academic establishment the center of the government, as well as the ultimate arbiter of culture and knowledge.
There is a sense in which Buckley’s nightmare has come true. Although the recently inaugurated President Donald Trump is by no means an academic — and has indeed suffered a barrage of denunciation and criticism from the administrations of leading institutions like the University — there is a sense in which recent events reveal a similarity between the philosophies of Trump and the prevailing academic authorities of today.
Kellyanne Conway, a Trump counselor, recently put forth “alternative facts” in an interview regarding the numbers in attendance at the inauguration. Similarly, just this week she cited the non-existent “Bowling Green massacre” as proof of immigrant terrorism. These “post-truth”-isms should be no surprise, as Trump’s campaign was fraught with falsehoods and these so-called “alternative facts.” Former Speaker of the House Daniel Moynihan used to say that “everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not to their own facts.” Apparently this is no longer the case with the White House. Unfortunately, this has not been the case on many college campuses for a long time.
The Trump administration’s disregard for objective truth seems to represent the political manifestation of irreconcilable pluralism. One of the most popular sentiments in modern academia is the relativity of truth. That is, that everyone is entitled to their own truth. The only rule of this is that you can’t wield power over others with “your truth.” The idea of tolerance, however well-intended, has ballooned into the virtue of virtues that enables men like Trump to make claims at the truth and then respond with blustering outrage rather than facts when others criticize him.
Donald Trump is a postmodernist. He does not operate in a world in which facts exist. One of the hallmarks of postmodernism is the idea that no one can discern the truth, and that truth itself is in a sense arbitrary. As the postmodernist scholar Stanley Fish once wrote, “It is of no help to us that there is an absolute truth of the matter of things because unfortunately, none of us are in a position to say definitively what that is — although we all think that we are.”
And is this not what galls the media about Trump? They fact check him to no end. Facts don’t matter in a postmodernist environment. Who can really say what the facts are and who are you to say that your facts are better than mine? If Trump and his supporters seem to brush off the truth then could it not at least in part be due to the Academy’s success in persuading culture at large that truth is perspectival?
Indeed, if any news channel is critical of Trump, he attacks it as “fake news.” If a Washington judge dares to challenge the executive orders regarding immigration, then his legitimacy is questioned.
This election has read rather like a novel by William Faulkner. In “The Sound and The Fury,” all of the characters have their own distinct voices, their own ways of interpreting the world, and their own contesting conceptions of what is true and what is not. And just as each of these characters is locked irreconcilably inside their own heads, so Donald Trump is a man determined to see his own reality.
In the same way, this year has seen various news channels marketing their own brand of facts. Conservative channels vilified the Democratic party and liberal news stations attacked the Republican candidates. There is a flavor of news for every bias and a station for each issue. And just as the media has a perspective and agenda, so does Trump.
Donald Trump is the monster of our own creation. In a bid for tolerance and compassion we announced that each individual should seek what is “true for you.” Trump, apparently, took this to heart, disregarding tolerance but content in wielding power with his own truth.
To postmodernists who insist that all claims to absolute truth are power plays, it must be irritating to see power held by someone who claims to have no more than they do — his own truth. He believes what they believe, he just doesn't play by their rules.
Jack Bryan is an English major from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.