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Year One: Rhetoric & Responsibility

Marilynne Robinson
Perhaps it is providential that a figure so garish as Donald Trump landed in the White House when he did.

Estate of George Grosz/Licensed by VAGA, NY, NY/Image courtesy of CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY

George Grosz: Voice of the People, Voice of God, 1920

Perhaps it is providential that a figure so garish as Donald Trump landed in the White House when he did. His very crudeness and cynicism have cast a harsh light on the vulnerabilities of our political institutions and our social order. With thought and luck, we may take some valuable information from this interlude that will help us safeguard, from subtler exploitations of our weaknesses, an America worthy of the name. 

Democracy is in principle a negotiation. In theory, no victory or loss can be considered final because the other side may be assumed to speak in good conscience from a considered perspective, which may legitimately influence the winning argument, and may prove over time to have been the wiser choice. If this is true, then America at present is not a democracy. It does not use its politics to think through the questions that arise for it or even to acknowledge them and articulate them thoughtfully. It has instead fractured along partisan lines, departing so far from any thought of negotiation that the parties need hardly make any account of themselves, except perhaps to major donors.  

It is broadly agreed that democracy assumes a degree of mutual respect among its citizens, which is conspicuously lacking among us now. Respect granted indiscriminately is worse than meaningless, of course. Contempt can be richly deserved. Considered outrage can be essential to maintaining the integrity of the system, and at present there is no honest alternative to impassioned dissent. For this and other reasons, no restoration of truly democratic politics seems likely in the near future. Nevertheless, if we are to continue as a free society we must make a conscious turn away from the distractions and temptations of animosity whenever possible. There is a kind of cheap excitement in these antagonisms that can make them seem trivial. In fact, they threaten our way of life.

The Trumps are a special problem, unembarrassed money-grubbers in whom other motives seem undeveloped. The countries of the former Eastern Bloc are extremely vulnerable to looting, a land of opportunity for those low enough to stoop to plunder, including certain of the president’s friends and associates. Perhaps it is in this light, as an Orient of riches there to be taken—by those with the right connections—that Russia can seem so alluring, and legalistic America so tedious and uninteresting. The present regime seems to find this country unworthy of the attention that would be required to produce coherent policy, except as it can be made more post-Soviet, so to speak, more billionaire-friendly. Whether the president can think at the level of global stability or true national interest is an open question, but his love of money is beyond doubt. He is not alarmed or offended by those sinister Russian pranks that worry the rest of us. He is only frustrated that he is barred from aligning his government with this great kleptocracy.

The Trump problem is probably somewhat self-limiting, he and his ilk being so very strange. But there are older, deeper problems. A substantial part of the American public seems to have lost interest in ideas, therefore in substantive controversy. This worrisome depletion has affected the whole of society, universities included. In saying this, I am making a criticism of institutions I value profoundly, as I do the politics of democracy, more for their splendid potential than for their present influence. The grief I feel at finding universities in any degree responsible for bringing on the age of Trump is almost sufficient to prevent me from saying what I take to be true. But this reluctance must be overcome as an effect of that polarization we should all lament.

To be painfully candid, I consider a great part of what is offered to students as intellectual discourse, at least in the humanities and social sciences, to be a sort of higher twaddle. This so-called learning, most recently “theory,” seems harmless in so far as it has no meaning outside the classroom, or beyond the journals and conferences that sustain it and establish the hierarchy of its practitioners. But it is deeply harmful in that it wastes time and teaches students to think and write badly, to master as they can the terms and assumptions of twaddle. It lifts words from other disciplines and languages, which for its purposes suggests a sort of sophistication that floats above particulars, above the interesting books and cultures that are its putative subject, for example. Reading, writing, and thinking are so closely linked, and learning by means of them is so highly individual, that the intrusion of fashion-driven academic pidgin between the reader and the text is a defeat of the purpose of education. 


In-group language usually signifies and defends an elite of some sort, and the tendency of this particular jargon is to imply that books, history, experience itself, are not to be understood by the uninitiated. Indeed, there are interpretive dogmas ready to demonstrate that the writer actually meant the opposite of what he thought he meant, or something else altogether, being inevitably implicated in the biases of his period and social class, and an entrenched defender of these interests, whatever his words might say. This notion is elitist in the worst sense, and divisive as well. Insights that are ahead of their time, or more generous than their circumstances, should be acknowledged and valued. This school of criticism deals with class, race, and gender as if these categories were simple, hard-edged, and all-determining, which is retrograde nonsense in the first place as well as a blow to mutual intelligibility.

I know I risk seeming to focus on a marginal issue. That there is a risk is an issue in itself. Americans lavish time and money on education. Why on earth do we think of it as if it held a minor place in our society? It is our single great credential, especially if it has prestige and exclusivity associated with it. In other words, educated people have influence disproportionate to their numbers. How is their important presence reflected in politics and culture? Despite the vast number of our colleges, and despite their differences in size, wealth, region, demographics, and reputation, where the humanities are concerned the same things are taught by the same methods everywhere, with very few exceptions. Obviously, it is not possible to consider our competence in the skills of democracy, logic, and argument, for example, without reference to the way we educate ourselves. When we have grave public issues to debate, post-deconstructionism is no help at all. This is not the case because only an elite is fluent in it, but because no one is fluent in it. It is a contrived language whose use is the only significant statement of which it is capable. It is without nuance, eloquence, irony, and humor. Except in the phrase “alternative facts,” I have scarcely heard an echo of it beyond the academy. 

Persuasive speech is an ancient art, practiced with distinction in American public life since Washington, to our great benefit. The nature of the good society is a philosophic question, debated by great minds over centuries. For some reason, Americans are reluctant to speak of our experiment with democracy as rooted in a tradition of thought and aspiration stretching back to antiquity, though those Founders we invoke from time to time were certainly aware that it is. Our history reflects the fact that this question is never closed, that its terms evolve, as Jefferson anticipated they would. The good society depends for its life on insights into present circumstances and into present tendencies in the culture, insights that arise out of honest and open discussion, that is, on intellectually competent citizens, people capable of clarity and attentiveness. Yet we have allowed our thinking to be conformed to the model of ideology, which is the old enemy of ideas, as it is of plain realism. The language of ideology has all its conclusions baked into it. It is wholly unsuited to the life of an open and evolving society. Our higher education has been in part responsible for our decline. If we have let ourselves become inarticulate in the terms of our own, highly particular civilization, to the point that we cannot sustain a democratic politics, then it is more than time for our splendid universities to take a long look at themselves.

This essay is part of a series reflecting on the first year since Donald Trump’s election as president.

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