The Case for Hopefulness In Trump’s America
The acclaimed philosopher Martha Nussbaum on trust, what goes on inside the White House, and her pick for President in 2020
After President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, scholars across the globe grabbed their quills and began inking their theories explaining his win. Some credited economic forces. Some said it boiled down to deep race and gender divides in the U.S. Others blamed the media. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum, on the other hand, was interested in emotion.
In her many books—including Political Emotions and Anger and Forgiveness, among others—Nussbaum has argued that the political is always emotional. And that was especially true in 2016. In her new book, The Monarchy of Fear, she writes of the fear she felt after the election. “I was aware that my fear was not balanced or fair-minded,” she writes, “so I was a part of the problem I was worried about.”
Nussbaum spoke with Medium about the need for hope, what it’s like in Trump’s White House, and her pick for 2020. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Medium: What is your current level of trust in American politics? In other words: how much do you trust that all shall be well?
Martha Nussbaum: You are putting words into my mouth! I think you can have trust in the basic soundness of the institutional structure of the American democracy without thinking that “all shall be well” in the sense that “the policies I like will prevail.” Democracy means acknowledging that people differ and that one’s own views are not the only ones and will not always prevail. But if the institutional structure is sound, one should be able to trust that really horrendous injustices will be rectified over time, though not immediately.
I do believe that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” as Martin Luther King Jr. said. And this justice is slowly being achieved not in spite of, but because of, the basic soundness of the institutions of our democracy: separation of powers, the independent judiciary, and especially federalism, which gives states and local communities control over some of the most important issues, such as education and criminal justice.
When I was a little girl, African Americans were almost totally segregated from whites, even in the north. No black students attended my school. Black baseball players were just beginning to play in the Major Leagues, and they encountered huge hostility. Women could not attend Ivy League schools, and it was assumed that most women would marry and give up work. Gays and lesbians were invisible, and if they were not, they were persecuted savagely, for example, the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing in Britain, forced to undergo chemical castration.
Today our Supreme Court has affirmed the constitutional right to marriage equality. Women still face many struggles, because it is difficult to reimagine marriage and family life on a basis of equality, but women are at the same time achieving outstanding success in education and at least some professions.
Race remains a particularly recalcitrant problem, and the criticisms I hear of NFL players remind me of the criticism of Jackie Robinson, for not being submissive enough. So I do think that in this area we need to be particularly vigilant and skeptical, and none of us should altogether trust the police or the courts. But that doesn’t mean we should distrust the basic structure of our institutions: it means we should use the institutional structure to fix these problems.
What does the U.S. need for trust in to flourish?
Think of an extreme case of failure of trust: the situation in East Germany under the communist government. My son-in-law grew up there and was imprisoned for three years at the age of 18 for putting up one poster, so this example is very vivid to me.
Everyone knew that there were spies everywhere: teachers in school, other classmates, one’s own family members. In that situation, it was impossible to have trust, obviously, but we can see that this meant an intolerable level of anxiety and the more or less complete impossibility of civic or personal friendship. It was like a bad, cheating marriage writ large. Everyone was anxious all the time, and it was not possible to think, “This is my friend,” or “This is the government that is committed to protecting our welfare.”
Even in a dysfunctional democracy with many bad policies, things aren’t like that: if people don’t like the policies that prevail, they can work to change them, and often what is lacking at a national level is present in the local community.
You write that, “In a democracy…we must look one another in the eye as equals, and this means that a horizontal trust must connect citizens.” How does this relate to the Trump moment?
Well, I do not think that the East German situation is ours, not now or not yet. We can still trust our friends, and only paranoid people would suppose that Trump spies are in every school. Trump is much too disorganized and impulsive to create such an operation, and our courts are doing their job, by and large, restraining abuses of our basic rights.
Furthermore, federalism is a very important part of our moment. Many of us can still trust our state and local governments. If Illinois is financially dysfunctional, it is not violating people’s basic rights, and my city, Chicago, has, as a “sanctuary city,” committed itself to protect immigrants. My daughter and son-in-law live in Colorado, whose governor, John Hickenlooper, is among the nation’s most admirable politicians, interested in protecting all citizens of the state, rich and poor, and vigorously involved in bipartisan cooperation to protect health care rights for all.
I really hope he will decide to run for President. I would offer his campaign my services such as they are. He is shrewd (he made his money as a craft brewer), highly intelligent (a Ph.D. in chemical engineering), compassionate, and hilariously funny. Read his autobiography, The Opposite of Woe: My Life in Beer and Politics, one of the most moving and fascinating of political autobiographies. So there is a lot of hope and trust around, and we can be glad that federalism allows so much decentralized control.
I think that the Trump White House probably does feel much like East Germany, with people vying to undermine one another. Sadly, that is the sort of business model that this allegedly successful businessman seems to prefer. But we don’t have to work there, and of course, most people don’t choose to.
Relatedly, you write, “Fear is connected to the monarchical desire to control others rather than to trust them to be independent and themselves.” How do you see this kind of fear playing out now?
Well, I do think that there is mounting fear on many fronts. Both legal and illegal immigrants fear the volatile policies of the government: illegals face an uncertain future, and legals face the loss of those they love. Even green card holders don’t feel safe.
People who are sick or who have relatives who are sick (basically all of us) fear the uncertainty of health care unless they are in a state with sane policies. Here I must praise Hickenlooper again since Colorado has laws mandating hospitals to care for a certain proportion of low-income people as charity cases, something that has made a huge difference to many.
There is a widespread fear of the loss of cherished political liberties, particularly freedom of the press, given Trump’s constant attacks on the mainstream media. There has always been justified fear of police and government on the part of African Americans, but now it has mounted, given the evidence of racism in the current administration.
On the right, many people sincerely believe that the media are their enemies and that Trump is their savior, something that derives in part from a skewed diet of false facts and conspiracy theories, but that too is a threat to honest dialogue and good policies.
You write that your students don’t trust anyone who voted for Trump. What’s wrong with that, given that some of your students’ safety may be genuinely threatened by Trump’s policies?
Look, half the electorate voted for Trump, and it’s a very bad thing if people can’t work on terms of mutuality and trust with half of [all] people. You need to be able to disagree, even strongly, with people and still respect and even trust them. This means thinking them people of good will who are trying, as you are, to solve problems.
There are limits: if one group of students are violent racists engaged in lynchings and rapes, then one should not trust such people, one should seek to have them convicted of these terrible crimes. But most Trump voters are not like this, they are people who disagree, and disagreement is something a democracy will always have and should deal with without fear or rancor. It is implausible to think that anyone who voted for Trump supports mass deportations of Muslims, or even an end to the DACA program, things that can, of course, threaten the well-being of students. Indeed Republicans are scrambling right now to fix DACA because they know that the public supports it.
You have said that laws can’t be enacted or sustained “without the hearts and minds of people.” How can we reinstate trust before changing laws?
Laws don’t require unanimity, and at first, they may be quite unpopular with parts of the electorate. The New Deal was very controversial at the start, but by now people are very attached to Social Security. Even the Affordable Care Act has grown on people as they get used to it. And very obviously our racial problems caused one war and then, later, great violence in the time of the Civil Rights movement. So what was needed in those times of change was not that everyone loved the change, but only that enough people cared intensely about it. As time goes on, however, people’s support needs to broaden and solidify, or the changes will be in peril.
One thing that is always needed to sustain policies of the sort that rectify injustice is a spirit of brotherly and sisterly love, a sense of a common cause. FDR was brilliant at creating this sense of national community, as indeed was Martin Luther King, Jr. Right now we seem to have lost a sense of a common American project, and polarization makes people indifferent to policies that benefit people outside their group.
You also write about the Kingian concept of love. Should we all love Trump in this sense?
As King said: “To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the hate in the world. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can be done only by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives.”
He added that this sort of love “it is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object.”
Why do you consider fear to be monarchical?
Absolute monarchs demand, and thrive on, fearful subservience on the part of their subjects. They use displays of anger and volatility to make people uncertain about what to expect, and this makes people cringe. Think of an abusive family: children grow up in fear of what their violent parent(s) will do next. On the other side, as people become less confident, less used to their own agency, they become utterly dependent on the monarch and that, of course, magnifies fear. It’s well known in the case of domestic abuse: the battered spouse becomes unable to exercise independent agency. Countries used to be, most of them, like abusive families. But with the advent of democracy (and indeed, long ago, in the flourishing times of the ancient Greek democracy) people have grown to have confidence in their own judgment and agency. That makes them less fearful: my future is in my own hands.
Why is fear such a dominant emotion in politics today?
In my new book, I write about fear and examine it alongside anger, envy, disgust, as well as hope. Fear always simmers beneath the surface of moral concern, and it threatens to destabilize democracy since democracy requires all of us to limit our narcissism and embrace reciprocity. Right now, fear is running rampant in our nation: fear of declining living standards, fear of unemployment, of the absence of health care in time of need; fear of an end to the American Dream, in which you can be confident that hard work brings a decent and stable life and that your children will do better than you did if they, too, work hard. Globalization, outsourcing, and automation make the future seem very scary and unpredictable.
At such a time it is easy to pull back from reciprocity and embrace fear. But I argue that the same conditions can also be met with hope, and a determination to join with others to solve the problems. In fact, I think we owe it to ourselves and to others to cultivate hope in ourselves since hope is needed to sustain our efforts on behalf of our nation.