Politics & Policy

Trumpery and Social Darwinism

William Jennings Bryan was a longtime opponent of the Darwinians. (Library of Congress)
The worship of success is all too evident in the current presidential campaign.

We urgently need to resurrect the useful old word “trumpery” to describe and understand the current wearer of the presidential mantle of the party of Lincoln and the phenomenon he has recalled into vigorous, unseemly life. Samuel Johnson, in his great 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, defined “trumpery” as “something fallaciously splendid; something of less value than it seems.” This is a perfect place to start, as Johnson’s definition reminds us of the massive fact that Trump’s vulgar splendor is based on virtually nonstop rational, rhetorical, and moral fallacies. Dr. Johnson’s predecessor Alexander Pope, widely read in the American colonies before the War of Independence, said the rational person must always distinguish between “solid worth” and “empty show”: again, the perfect test for Trumpery, which is based on a vast trompe l’oeil, on full-strength tromperie, pervasive, promiscuous fraud and demagoguery.

That noble American William James (1842–1910) deplored, in a late letter (September 11, 1906), “the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success. That — with the squalid cash interpretation of success — is our national disease.” Trumpery has restored this disease to vigorous, shameless, toxic health. James was writing at a high point of an earlier epidemic of Social Darwinism, and Trump has revived this unclean and destructive ideology.

The great historical-etymological Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was built on and succeeded Johnson’s lexicon. It gives revealing histories of word usage, including developments and dated or obsolete forms. Deriving from medieval French, “trumpery” is identified as being in use in English from 1456 to Disraeli’s novel Tancred (1847), with the sense of “deceit, fraud, imposture, trickery,” which are again perfect for our current, opportunistic presidential candidate, only recently reborn as a Republican. But the more commonly operative modern sense of the word is given by the OED, which quotes Johnson and builds on him: “‘something of no value’; . . . worthless stuff, trash, rubbish.” A second facet of meaning is identified in the OED as being “applied to abstract things [such] as beliefs, practices, discourse, writing,” and adds to “rubbish” the sense “nonsense.” This again helps us to focus on an aspect of the current Trumpery: the nonsensical, incoherent discourse — populist, demagogic, and irrational. John Dryden’s 1693 translation of Juvenal’s Sixth Satire is quoted as illustration: “with all their Trumpery of Charms.” A further citation concerning the adjectival use of trumpery — “worthless, rubbishy, trashy” — comes from Matthew Arnold (1865): “the accents of a trumpery rhetorician.”

Of course “nomen omen” — destiny in a name — can be taken too far, but there is a powerful literary tradition of the usage of ironic names for human types by satirical writers such as Ben Jonson, Pope, Dickens, Mark Twain, and Sinclair Lewis. Indeed, with Elmer Gantry and Babbitt, Lewis added names to this stock of recurrent types. Today, many Evangelical supporters of Trumpery mix the two types — the religious huckster and the self-serving booster — in particularly noxious, depressing ways. As Peter Wehner noted in a July 6 New York Times op-ed, “The Theology of Donald Trump,” Trump is an obvious Nietzschean and post-Christian. Evangelical followers of Trump forget that it is one thing to be willing to be on occasion a “fool for Christ” (consider St. Francis, Erasmus, William Blake, G. K. Chesterton, or Malcolm Muggeridge); it is quite another thing to make a fool of Christ.

Of course the worship of “the bitch-goddess success” that William James rightly disdained — a big part of the appeal of Trumpery — is by no means only an American disease. The English Christian-socialist historian R. H. Tawney (1880–1962) — a veteran of the sanguinary Battle of the Somme just a century ago — called “the reverence for riches” the “lues Anglicana, the hereditary disease of the English nation” (Equality, 1931). It is surely a perennial human tendency, now immensely magnified by the shameless, promiscuous audio-visual advertising and entertainment culture that has inundated us all over the last 50 years. “Trump Institute offered get-rich-quick schemes with plagiarized lessons” reads a July newspaper headline. Take a few moments to unpack that one: Donald Trump as educator!

The even deeper worry is that Trumpery has vigorously resuscitated that shadowy, sneering, behind-the-hand pop ideology that has been a proximate cause of so much tragedy and evil since its conscious emergence in the 1860s: Social Darwinism. Anyone who doubts the longevity, durability, revivability, and destructiveness of this ideology — and the plethora of forms that it can take — should take the trouble to consult the English scholar Mike Hawkins’s authoritative 1997 study, Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860–1945. Hawkins is keen to vindicate the essential theme, argument, and insights of the Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter’s great 1944 book, Social Darwinism in American Thought, against revisionists who downplay the book’s thesis. Taking Hofstadter’s argument forward in time to treat recent “sociobiologists” such as E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, Hawkins writes: “It is pointless and misleading to present this popularization as a vulgarization of Darwinism. The application of Darwinian theory to human society and psychology was an explicit goal of Darwin and the early Darwinians,” a contention Hawkins documents in detail. “There is, therefore, no such thing as ‘vulgar’ or ‘crude’ Social Darwinism.”

To be sure, the most spectacularly evil and destructive Social Darwinism was found in its virulent, militaristic, racially eliminationist German form (1860–1945), as a large body of scholarship has shown over the last 100 years, from the great French physicist Pierre Duhem’s German Science in 1915 down to the American historian Richard Weikart’s 2004 volume, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, and his subsequent book on Hitler. And, as Hawkins points out, it is not credible to exempt Darwin from applying his theory to human beings and human societies. Having reread all of Darwin’s major works in a new edition edited by the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson of Harvard, the distinguished English biographer, intellectual historian, and novelist A. N. Wilson (no relation) concludes a 2006 London Daily Telegraph review by saying: “The domination of one race over another is inherent in his story. This is not what most of us call humanism. Darwin, the product of British imperialism, was surely the father, among other things, of European fascism.”

Unfortunately, in its other, less spectacularly evil forms, as Hawkins says, “evidence for the penetration of popular culture by Social Darwinism is readily available” today. The Trump phenomenon is a good example, with its invidious, macho categories of “winners and losers” and “us and them.” Thirty years ago, in her fine book Evolution as a Religion, the English philosopher Mary Midgley argued that “Social Darwinism or Spencerism is the unofficial religion of the West.” It was Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) who gave Darwin the phrase “the survival of the fittest” and helped impart a veneer of philosophical coherence and respectability to the theory. In The Descent of Man, Darwin called him “our great philosopher”; Darwin cited him in the book seven times, while citing the proto-Nazi German biologist Ernst Haeckel eleven times. The huge popularity of Spencer extended to the United States, where Harvard president (1869–1909) Charles W. Eliot, a chemist, praised the increasing influence of his ideas in 1911: “they will prevail more and more.” They did.

Before the catastrophe of the two world wars, very few intellectuals, and even fewer scientists, realized what the desertion of Platonist, Kantian, and Christian epistemology and ethics — that is, of traditional rationality and morality — could or would lead to. Still infected with varieties of Nietzschean irrationalism and immoralism, usually via French scholarly siren songs (une trahison des clercs), many intellectuals today still play a dangerous intellectual game with their students and the readers of their books. In a nominalistic, relativistic, perspectival world, how can Donald Trump — or anybody else — be wrong or evil? The very words sound melodramatic, overwrought, as do necessary words such as “villain” and “scoundrel.” Our ethical and rhetorical resources are depleted. Progress, this is not.

Trump’s variety of Social Darwinism is of course the preening vanity of the man born on third base who thinks the world will believe that he got there by hitting a triple.

Trump’s variety of Social Darwinism is of course the preening vanity of the man born on third base who thinks the world will believe that he got there by hitting a triple. But it is a perennial pretense. Even before Darwin or Spencer wrote, that great, morally orthodox literary visionary Charles Dickens depicted the type in the arrogant, allegedly self-made industrialist Josiah Bounderby (another “nomen omen”) in Hard Times, as well as in the Malthusian laissez-faire utilitarianism of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Again, as Peter Wehner argues, Trump is really a Nietzschean, for whom the will-to-power is the prime fact of life: the “art of the deal” is the shrewd practice of successfully screwing people. Mark Twain! Thy pen is needed!

In his 1972 book The Suspecting Glance (recently republished by Faber), the versatile, cosmopolitan Irish scholar, statesman, editor, and man of letters Conor Cruise O’Brien has brilliant chapters on Machiavelli and Nietzsche. However intellectually incontinent and verbally incoherent Trump is compared with those two serious intellectuals, he is surely a lineal successor to their central beliefs about the amorality of politics and of life itself. O’Brien has little trouble showing that the “gentle Nietzscheans” who claim that Nietzsche did not mean what he clearly says have done us a disservice by muddying the waters as to what Nietzsche (and Machiavelli before him) obviously did say and mean. For three or four generations of students from the late 1950s on, Professor Walter Kaufmann of Princeton and his influential Portable Nietzsche helped domesticate, complicate, and mystify Nietzsche’s meanings, despite their clear import, and despite great scholarly evidence documenting it (Carlton J. H. Hayes, Erich Heller, J. P. Stern, O’Brien). In a nominalistic, relativistic epistemological and ethical climate, “all cats are grey” — that is, all positions and perspectives are equally true (and equally false). We get “liberated” altogether from normative truth and ethics: Aristotle, Christianity, and the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration of Independence lose momentum and credibility; Trumpery flourishes at all levels of discourse and behavior. The “bonfire of the vanities” incinerates truths, virtues, and values in the interest of the vanities themselves.

The ambiguity and ambivalence of many of our educators augment this damage to the “res publica” of human decency and dignity, weakening the accumulated common sense of the race and making it hesitant in the face of barbarism and nonsense. Thus the Darwinian philosopher James Rachels, writing 25 years ago, insouciantly described the intellectual-moral effects of Darwinism: “Darwin’s theory does undermine traditional values. In particular, it undermines the traditional idea that human life has a special, unique worth.” Rachels continues: “Darwinism undermines both the idea that man is made in the image of God and the idea that man is a uniquely rational being. Furthermore, if Darwinism is correct, it is unlikely that any other support for the idea of human dignity will be found.” Thus, the “idea of human dignity turns out . . . to be the moral effluvium of a discredited metaphysics” (Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism). So much for Plato, the Jewish Law, the New Testament, Shakespeare, Descartes, Kant, the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln, Jacques Maritain, and the main tradition of Western ethics that has intermittently civilized us to some degree across 2,500 years.

The greatest land of philosophy over the last 250 years was Germany: but its enactment of the novel effects of feckless, elaborate intellectual speculation, from Hegel and Marx to Nietzsche, Haeckel, and Heidegger, led to unparalleled, undeniable barbarity over the last century. Thus, in civilized reaction, the first line of West Germany’s 1949 Basic Law is: “Human dignity shall be inviolable.” But what if “human dignity,” as Rachels and many others argue, is “discredited metaphysics” and moral excrement? It was perceptive and pertinent of Edward Luce to write a column in the Financial Times with the title “Trump leads the west’s flight from dignity.”

The popularization and mainstreaming of Darwin and Nietzsche has helped intensify in Western people an “absence of mind,” as the novelist Marilynne Robinson put it in her recent Terry Lectures at Yale, leading to “the dispelling of inwardness,” of elementary rational-ethical self-awareness. We live “after dignity,” and “after virtue,” as Alasdair MacIntyre put it in a great book. Assisted by the nonstop audio-visual assault of an eccentric, amoral culture of neophilia  (that’s real “moral effluvium” for you), Trumpery re-emerges from its shallow grave or inadequately bolted basement. The scholar John G. West is surely right to entitle his 2007 book Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science. The argument is also made in such books as the Cambridge research scientist Rupert Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion and the mathematician David Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion, and we see it in the noble worries of the distinguished biologist Stephen Jay Gould, as laid out in his Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life.

At the root of Social Darwinism is an allegedly omnicompetent Darwinian materialism. In his great book Social Darwinism in American Thought, Richard Hofstadter even had the temerity and panache to give qualified praise to William Jennings Bryan’s long battle against the Darwinians. “For many years Bryan had been troubled about the possible social implications of Darwinism,” he wrote. “In 1905 E. A. Ross, then teaching at Nebraska University, had found Bryan reading The Descent of Man, and Bryan had told him that such teachings would ‘weaken the cause of democracy and strengthen class pride and the power of wealth.’” Hofstadter concludes: “Here, as in other matters, Bryan had sound intuitions that his intellect had not the power to discipline.”

The distinguished contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel — no Christian or even theist — has had the necessary, disciplined intellectual power. In 2012 he published Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. At the outset of his sharply argued treatise, he writes: “I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life. It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. . . . What is lacking, to my knowledge, is a credible argument that the [Darwinian] story has a non-negligible probability of being true.” Nagel’s book vindicates thoughtful dissenters, from Darwin’s contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace, through G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, Jacques Barzun in the 1940s, and Gertrude Himmelfarb in the 1950s, down to Berlinski, Sheldrake, and Himmelfarb’s more recent writings. Himmelfarb has praised the qualified, traditional dualism of the great ethical Victorians (a category that would include Lincoln and Dickens): “they accommodated themselves to that dualism, suspecting that the alternative was worse, that any attempt to assimilate man more completely with nature would result in something like the ‘abolition of man,’ in C. S. Lewis’s memorable phrase.”

The history of the world since 1914, the catastrophes largely wrought by the scientistic mind and ideologies of Marxism and Social Darwinism, have proved the Victorians’ suspicion of Naturalism to be profoundly warranted. The Trumpery of the current bearer of the mantle of the party of Lincoln is a living illustration of profound educational and cultural decline and disorientation.

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