Immediately after 9/11, one of the ways Americans tried to explain the terrorist attacks to themselves was by reading, and sharing through fax and email, W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” Auden wrote the poem after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, and his description of how “the unmentionable odor of death” offended “the September night,” along with his expressions of fear (“Defenseless under the night) and determination (“We must love one another or die”), appealed to Americans overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness and the urgent need to understand a new international enemy.
Although the philosopher Richard Rorty never wrote a line of poetry, in November he became the Auden of the country’s post-election stupor. A few days after Donald Trump’s electoral-college victory over Hillary Clinton, a picture of three passages from Rorty’s Achieving Our Country started to circulate widely on Twitter. (The book first appeared in the middle of Bill Clinton’s second term.) “Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrial democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period,” Rorty wrote. It will be a time “in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments … something will crack.” The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system had failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for.
The tweet went viral. Rorty’s publisher, Harvard University Press, was inundated with requests for Achieving Our Country—more than it has received for any of its titles, including the English translation of Thomas Piketty’s recent bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century—and so his book was rushed back into print. Twelve days after the election, the New York Times published a review of it under the headline “Richard Rorty’s 1998 Book Suggested Election 2016 Was Coming.” A week after that, in a New Yorker article about President Obama, David Remnick credited Rorty with predicting that “the neglected working class would not tolerate its marginalization for long.” A philosopher best known for making a postmodern turn in the 1980s had become the oracle of liberals and leftists feeling defenseless against a new internal enemy who seemed like a stranger from another part of the country.
Rorty culled the title for his book from James Baldwin’s essay about Elijah Muhammad in The Fire the Next Time. In that essay, Baldwin criticized Muhammad and the Nation of Islam for their bitter isolation and disaffection, and their aloofness to the plight of African Americans in the early 1960s. He concluded by insisting that “If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”
The dream of a country capable of remedying its imperfections wasn’t new to Rorty. His parents broke with the Communist Party in 1932, the year after he was born, and in Achieving Our Country he writes of growing up as “a red-diaper anticommunist baby” amid relatives and friends who were part of the old reformist left. His mother’s father preached the Social Gospel. Some of his other relatives “helped write and administer New Deal legislation,” he explains, and like them he came to believe that the most important work of government is to protect the weak from the strong. Above all, that has meant fighting against all the ways that the rich in America fight against the poor.
Although none commanded the stage like Rorty, other dead writers were also auditioned as soothsayers in the weeks after Trump’s victory. Dark Days Ahead (2005), the final book by the urbanist Jane Jacobs, was touted as “a survivor’s guide to the Age of Trump” for having “ominously predicted a coming age of urban crisis, mass amnesia, and populist backlash.” In the New Yorker, a week after Remnick had pointed to Rorty’s book as an example that Trump’s victory wasn’t “beyond prediction,” the magazine’s music critic Alex Ross explained that the Frankfurt School knew Trump was coming. America’s “combination of economic inequality and pop-cultural frivolity is precisely the scenario” that it feared, he wrote, because “mass distraction” ends up masking “élite domination.” It’s a fair point, but if you’re in need of a soothsayer, why settle for Adorno and Horkheimer, or limit the search to the twentieth century? In the late first century C.E., Juvenal pointed to the dangers of distraction and domination when he coined the phrase panem et circenses in his Tenth Satire to describe the corruption of the populous and democratic politics in Rome. All that’s missing is a New York Times headline blaring “Ancient Poet Saw Trump Coming.”
The infatuation with portents—with the supposed relevance of voices from the past—is neither bread nor circus. It’s an obsession with history that can also be a form of amnesia. In the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders made an unlikely bid for the party’s nomination by promoting a program of economic populism that defended the economic interests of lower-income voters and attacked those whom Teddy Roosevelt once called “the malefactors of great wealth.” (Rorty probably would have seen Sanders as a throwback to his parents’ generation.) Much of Sanders’s appeal was based on his arguments about the political dangers of inequality—yet for those who have looked to what Adorno or some other famous writer said decades ago about that subject, it’s as though Sanders hadn’t campaigned at all.
This infatuation comes with other blind spots—such as not seeing that many of Trump’s voters were more affluent than Clinton’s and just as well educated, or not noticing that a fixation on voters’ economic motives marginalizes other reasons for Trump’s appeal. For example, in the lead-up to the election many of his supporters expressed a desire to watch the system crash or to see other people suffer from his policies, and during the campaign Trump himself enjoyed publicly humiliating his critics, along with women, a disabled reporter and the other contenders for the Republican nomination. But the appeal to voices from the past, in a time of historical turmoil, may not have much to do with accuracy in the first place. In a recent essay about the apocalypse, Mark Lilla discusses how people come to see themselves as history’s victims, and in turn how they imagine the future:
Narratives of progress, regress and cycles all assume a mechanism by which historical change happens. It might be the natural laws of the cosmos, the will of God, the dialectical development of the human mind or of economic forces. Once we understand the mechanism, we are assured of understanding what really happened and what is to come. But what if there is no such mechanism? What if history is subject to sudden eruptions that cannot be explained by any science of temporal tectonics?
Lilla focuses on how history is made from the ways that people narrate accidents in time. An accident is something unintended and without necessity: a pure blast of contingency. It can be painful, even if it causes no physical injury, because it’s an event beyond any one person’s power to predict, and recognizing that one’s life hinges on a series of accidents can be hard to stomach. Leaning on Rorty or Adorno is one way to get around reckoning with what may be new, uncertain and terrifying about Trump, because it makes his victory look as if it had always been understandable, if not predictable. The story the soothsayers are being used to tell is not that the Trump phenomenon was like an accident—a sudden eruption with a dynamic all its own—but rather that it was an accident waiting to happen, which is to say no accident at all. The moral of the story is not “What was it that we did not know or could not have known, and how can we correct that?” but instead “We had the knowledge but missed the meaning. We should have understood all along.”
There’s a Freudian dimension to this moral. In his analysis of repressed psychological material, Freud suggested that through dreams and accidents, the present is filled with the murmur of repressed voices and desires from the past demanding recognition. As Adam Phillips has written, Freud considered accidents to be evidence of a “disowned intention,” an instance when voices repressed in the past end up speaking “through our mistakes.” Rorty and others have become such fateful voices, signs once disowned through ignorance. The therapeutic comfort of listening to them now is that they make it seem like our mistakes—the election of Trump being one—are in some sense predictable or knowable, as opposed to being inexplicable. They drag Trump’s victory from the muck of contingency onto familiar, less painful ground.
But Rorty is a special case, because the soothsayer who has been murmuring to us in his voice is a specter. For all his dismay in Achieving Our Country about the direction of American democracy, he has very little to say about the radical right and economic inequality. The tweeted passages about the rise of populism and the coming of a strongman appear late in his book, almost as throwaway lines. Rorty makes his prediction, with a nod to Edward Luttwak’s The Endangered American Dream (1993) for support, and then moves on. It’s as if “September 1, 1939” had ended after “Defenseless under the night.”
The main source of Rorty’s disenchantment in Achieving Our Country is not with the political right but with what he calls the cultural left, the sphere of activists and academics that arose in opposition to the war in Vietnam and eventually found a home in the country’s universities. He praises this left for founding academic programs about gender and race that have done much to overcome the “socially accepted sadism” directed at minorities in the United States; he also credits its protests against Vietnam with saving the country’s moral identity. But he derides it for thinking of the war as the country’s scarlet letter instead of as a series of “mistakes correctible by reforms.” (This is glib. A government lying continually to Americans about a war is not just a mistake.) Most of all, Rorty bemoans how once it entered the universities, the cultural left developed a passion for social theories “about the webs of power and the insidious influence of a hegemonic ideology.” The cultural left, he complains, imagines “a Gothic world in which democratic politics has become a farce” because hopelessness has been rationalized into a sine qua non.
For Rorty, the only alternative to such hopelessness is “to remind the country of what it can take pride in as well as what it should be ashamed of.” The left must “tell inspiring stories about episodes and figures in the nation’s past—episodes and figures to which the country should remain true.” This is Rorty’s version of “we must love one another or die.” He stresses that the resolution of any disagreement about those hopes cannot involve “an appeal to the way reality, apart from any human need, really is.” The moral or political high ground will be won not by those with the best facts but by those with the best stories.
Rorty came to champion stories over facts during the postmodern turn that he made in the 1980s, when he shrugged off analytic philosophy for pragmatism. The core idea of the three books he published during that time—Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), The Consequences of Pragmatism (1982), and Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989)—is that truth is not found but made. This means that thought neither reflects nor represents reality; it is neither the mirror of nature nor the result of a quest for transcendental Truth. For Rorty, concepts like God, the Good, and the Mind are nothing more than the proper nouns of scientific and moral vocabularies. There are countless ways of knowing and describing the world, he insisted, philosophy being just one of them—and none are intrinsically superior to any other.
His pragmatism may seem like a recipe mostly for individual self-perfection (each person invents his or her own language for describing the world, and with it his or her self), but Rorty hadn’t given up on compassion or solidarity. He just saw them as the goals of a different kind of language. Solidarity would be “created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people,” he explained, and that’s “a matter of detailed description of what unfamiliar people are like and of redescription of what we ourselves are like.” At home you can be like Nietzsche or Proust, perfecting the self, but in public you should follow the example of writers like George Orwell or James Baldwin, telling stories that work on other people’s moral imaginations to warn against the temptation to be cruel and to remind them that fixing mistakes is not beyond our control.
Rorty the philosopher emphasizes the importance of telling the most effective political story. In a few hundred words in Achieving Our Country, Rorty the oracle confirms the assumptions of many people on the left who were already inclined to doubt the wisdom of the “system” or suspected that the election was mostly about economics. The oracle is their echo chamber, which is why he’s been comforting. Yet a crucial question remains, and neither Rorty nor any other figure from the past can answer it for us: How to stop telling comforting stories about ourselves, and start telling more convincing ones about the common good?