As I have explored previously, various commentators in the early Trump era attempted to link the new president to the body of thought often known as “postmodern theory.” As a recap of this discussion, I will quote here from some of my prior writing on the subject:
“In early 2017 . . . Steve Bannon, a White House strategist at the time, proclaimed that the Trump administration would undertake the ‘deconstruction of the administrative state.’ Bannon’s invocation of this old buzzword of critical theory led to plenty of humorous Twitter takes, many linking [deconstructive literary theorist Paul] de Man to Trump’s postmodern White House.
“Conservatives usually repudiate postmodernism, but this was not the first time an improbable alliance between these nemeses had been suggested. At least since a George W. Bush aide dismissed ‘the reality-based community,’ the notion that there is a ‘postmodern turn’ on the right has gained a certain currency. Many have found further evidence of a synthesis of conservatism and postmodernism in certain glib pronouncements emerging out of the Trump orbit, from Kellyanne Conway’s ‘alternative facts’ to Rudy Giuliani’s ‘truth isn’t truth.’”
Now, as the Trump era draws to a close, I would like to discuss a more concrete and, in my view, more interesting aspect of the admittedly tenuous linkage between Trump and “theory.” This is the presence of several individuals in the orbit of his White House who, in contrast to “folk postmodernists” like Conway and Giuliani, have an intellectual background and a sustained interest in “theory.”
I will focus on three such figures, but first, I will consider one other with a powerful spectral presence in the Trump-aligned political realm: Andrew Breitbart. Breitbart died before Trump’s political rise, but the eponymous publication he founded became an unofficial house organ of Trump’s campaign as well as a feeder of staff to his administration. One Breitbart alumna who ended up in the White House will be my second subject: Julia Hahn, previously a student of philosophy and psychoanalysis. Next, I’ll consider Darren Beattie, a former Trump speechwriter who wrote a doctoral dissertation on Martin Heidegger. Finally, I’ll return briefly to the theoretical interests of the so-called “philosopher-CEO” Peter Thiel, who has made regular appearances in my writing in the past. Thiel was never part of Trump’s administration, but he was an influential supporter, delegate, convention speaker, and member of the transition team in 2016.
Breitbart deserves mention here because although he helped establish the negative tenor of much of the contemporary right’s attitude to “theory,” he also pointed towards a different relationship between right-wing insurgents and the body of thought referred to by that term. In his 2011 autobiography Righteous Indignation, Breitbart wrote about his induction into “cultural Marxism” in college, specifically the work of the Frankfurt School theorists Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse, and his later realization that “it was everywhere, from the mainstream media to Hollywood to the educational system to the government.” He describes critical theory as a “mission to destroy society and culture using the Marxist dialectic.”
It is worth quoting Breitbart at greater length on this subject:
“[Critical theory] was . . . a theory of criticizing everyone and everything everywhere. It was an attempt to tear down the social fabric by using all the social sciences (sociology, psychology, economics, political science, etc.); it was an infinite and unending criticism of the status quo, adolescent rebellion against all established social rules and norms.”
This passage should be read against the grain of its overt anti-theory stance. Elsewhere, Breitbart tells us that American society and politics is controlled by the “Democrat-Media Complex,” the “the power structure of Hollywood, Washington, and New York,” which is infused with cultural Marxism. How does one respond to this? Presumably by way of a “ruthless criticism of all that exists” – in other words, by using the methods that Breitbart views as the main vice of critical theory; perhaps, also, by engaging in “adolescent rebellion against all established social rules and norms,” which is to say, against the politically correct dogmas of hegemonic liberalism. (Breitbart’s publication, recall, went on to employ Milo Yiannopolous.)
This is the real task Breitbart sets for himself and for the American right, and in this way, he seeks to learn from the “cultural Marxists” he repudiates. This means learning from his enemies, the cultural Marxists, in order to defeat them, since “[a]s it stands, the Frankfurt School–taught left is fighting the political battle on both the political and the cultural battlefields. Conservatives are fighting it only on the political battlefield.” Breitbart’s famous motto, “Politics is downstream from culture,” proceeds from its founder’s belief that the right should embrace the approach he attributes to critical theory to reclaim the culture from the “Democrat-Media Complex.” (As is often noted, the motto is Breitbart’s spin on the work of the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci, a key figure in his “cultural Marxism” narrative.) To borrow the Hegelian terminology his Frankfurt School nemeses might find congenial, Breitbart set out to “negate the negation.”
What’s difficult to determine from Righteous Indignation is how fully Breitbart believes the just-so story he relates about a handful of relatively obscure philosophers single-handedly undermining American society by slowly meming their ideas into the mainstream through the universities. Perhaps this is a conscious act of mythmaking carried out in the service of Breitbart’s own meme warfare counterattack. Regardless, his ambivalent relationship to “theory” – both his primary antagonist and a crucial inspiration for his project – set the stage for later developments in the Trump era.
Julia Hahn is, as of the writing of this post, still Special Assistant to the President, having outlasted many other White House staffers. This includes the man who brought her into Trump’s orbit: Steve Bannon, Andrew Breitbart’s friend and successor at the media empire he launched. Hahn wrote for Breitbart throughout the 2016 primary and general elections, prior to entering the Trump administration. She was best known for her polemical coverage of establishment Republicans like Paul Ryan and for incendiary immigration reporting that repeatedly drew attention to crimes committed by immigrants.
What brings Hahn to our attention here, however, is her prior career as a student at the University of Chicago. Less than two years before taking a job at Breitbart, Hahn, as an undergraduate, appeared on a panel discussion at Chicago related to the work of Leo Bersani, a crucial figure in the development of queer theory. The video of this session is still available on Youtube. The moderator who introduces Hahn to the audience situates her research “at the intersection of psychoanalysis and post-Foucauldian philosophical inquiry” and explains that her senior thesis explores “how psychoanalysis reveals flaws in the neo-Kantian conception of autonomy.”
Hahn breaks the ice at the beginning of her presentation with a joke about anal sex (a theoretical interest of Bersani’s), then delivers a precisely argued reassessment of French social theorist Michel Foucault’s critique of Freudian psychoanalysis. For background, Foucault’s critique of psychoanalysis goes approximately as follows: Freud believed that by working through repressed desires in speech, suffering people might find relief from the harmful effects of repression; but according to Foucault, rather than offering liberation through the release of pent-up desires, psychoanalysis produced those desires as discursive phenomena available to be monitored by power for the purpose of social control; in this sense, it amounted to a new strategy of social discipline comparable to the Catholic confessional. Hahn’s goal is to nuance Foucault’s critique by showing that Freud anticipated some elements of it, and to propose a model of psychoanalysis that survives Foucauldian scrutiny. In the course of this discussion, Hahn argues that Foucault’s account of psychoanalysis as a technique of power does not truly discredit it. Power is unavoidable, she says; “the problem,” as she reads Foucault, “is when power becomes rigid, and leads to states of what he calls domination.”
Given Hahn’s later career, it’s hard not to hear a faint echo here of Andrew Breitbart’s attack on the “Democrat-Media Complex.” Perhaps someone deeply invested in Foucault’s criticism of the diffuse, invisible ways in which power is exercised in the modern world, as Hahn appeared to be, might find some appeal in Andrew Breitbart’s account of the full-spectrum liberal “domination” of education, entertainment, and other industries and institutions, just as Breitbart himself was unmistakably attracted to aspects of the “culture industry” critique of the Frankfurt School theorists he detested.
Hahn’s presentation gives the impression of a nuanced and even-handed style of thought that contrasts with her overtly propagandistic work for Breitbart. Yet her paper might be read as offering a preemptive retort to this criticism, which goes something like this: no doubt, Breitbart is a purveyor of political propaganda, just as Freudian psychoanalysis is a technique of power. But if, as Foucault argues (and Breitbart would concur), the operations of power are omnipresent, perhaps university lectures and subtle literary essays are no less propagandistic than incendiary anti-immigration screeds. Hence, just as, for Hahn, the investment of psychoanalysis in power relations does not discredit it, especially if it can offer a means for resisting “domination,” the same might be said of outrage clickbait. Indeed, the latter’s explicitly propagandistic aims makes it more honest than the products of the “Democrat-Media Complex,” which as Breitbart argues, typically attempt to conceal their propagandistic function.
Needless to say, all of this is highly speculative. Hahn has never publicly discussed how she views the relationship between her undergraduate theoretical interests and her later journalistic and political career. However, the larger takeaway from her ambiguous dual investment in critical theory and Trumpist politics is that their concerns and sensibilities are not as far apart as we might expect.
Foucault, like the Frankfurt School, offered a bracing account of the subtle means by which power is exercised in the modern era, especially under the neutral guise of bureaucratic institutions. Despite its clear left-wing provenance, such a view resonates with the longstanding right-wing attack on the liberal control of supposedly neutral institutions like education and the media. Like the New Left in the 1960s, many on the right now see themselves as opponents of what Frankfurt School theorist Herbert Marcuse (one of Breitbart’s main nemeses) called the “totally administered society.” Those on the left, conversely, revere the institutions Frankfurt School theorists and Foucault viewed with suspicion, such as the media, entertainment, education, medicine, and government bureaucracy. This is in part because that’s where their paychecks tend to come from.
A further hint of the overlap between critical theory and the Trumpist insurgency comes in the only article Hahn wrote for Breitbart related to her theoretical training: a brief write-up of Slovenian Marxist cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek’s 2016 endorsement of Trump. As she paraphrases Žižek, “he believes a Trump presidency could result in a ‘big awakening’ that could set into motion the formation of ‘new political processes.'” She quotes Žižek crediting Trump with having “disturbed [the] whole network of unwritten rules, how politics works, and how you build consensus.” Again, Trumpism’s ambition to expose and undermine the pseudo-neutral procedures by which liberalism wields power has an unexpected intellectual ally in “theory.”
The career of our next subject points to a similar conclusion. Just prior to becoming a Trump speechwriter and policy adviser, Darrien J. Beattie completed a Ph.D. in Political Theory at Duke, with a dissertation on “Martin Heidegger’s Mathematical Dialectic.” Beattie’s dissertation, the abstract tells us, “attempts to elucidate Martin Heidegger’s diagnosis of modernity, and, by extension, his thought as a whole, from the neglected standpoint of his understanding of mathematics, which he explicitly identifies as the essence of modernity.” Heidegger was not a postmodernist or a critical theorist, but he was a key influence on French post-structuralists like Foucault and Derrida, and on the Frankfurt School, especially Marcuse.
Beattie’s dissertation overlaps thematically with the bodies of theory brought up in relation to Breitbart and Hahn. The theorists discussed by both of them, as we have seen, shared a preoccupation with the way that power is exercised in the modern era by means ostensibly neutral institutions and ostensibly objective scientific techniques. Heidegger’s famous account of technology as an intrinsically violent “enframing” of nature influenced the way thinkers like Marcuse and Foucault challenged the nominal objectivity and neutrality of scientific expertise and technological control. Beattie’s investigation of Heidegger’s account of mathematics – broadly seen as the epistemological basis of this objectivity and neutrality – as the “essence of modernity” fits in well with this set of concerns.
Beattie’s trajectory has certain parallels with Hahn’s. After a successful career as a student of theory at an elite institution, he went on to become part of the Trump White House communications team. Whereas Hahn preceded this with her stint at Breitbart, Beattie is now involved in revolver.news, a pro-Trump news aggregation site. He is also currently writing a book “in defense of Trumpist nationalism.”
Along with Hahn, Beattie has been heavily criticized by organizations like the SPLC for his associations with extreme anti-immigration groups. An exposé of his participation in a 2016 gathering that also included white nationalists let to his firing from the White House. Recently, he again attracted additional criticism when Trump appointed him to a commission that “helps preserve sites related to the Holocaust.” Beattie, like Hahn and Breitbart, is Jewish, but all have been faulted for excessive proximity to white nationalism.
In Beattie’s case, these controversies are something of an echo of the one that once surrounded his dissertation subject, Heidegger, who notoriously became a member of the Nazi Party in the early 1930s. Beattie addresses this fact in a prefatory remark to his dissertation, in which he states that there are “important cautionary lessons to be learned from a careful study of Heidegger’s monumental political blunder,” but also explains that he will not be addressing these lessons at length in his own work. He writes that “out of respect for the magnitude of scholarly literature devoted to this question . . . one must conclude that sheer limitations of space and scope simply prohibit an adequate treatment of Heidegger’s political involvement with National Socialism within the context of a study that intends to explore seriously and comprehensively any separate feature of Heidegger’s thought.” However, he also states the following:
“[T}o study Heidegger’s disastrous political involvement to the exclusion of other aspects of his thought would not only be damaging philosophically, such a stance would also run the risk of unwittingly inviting the repetition of new political misjudgments in the future. To put the matter in more general yet more concrete terms, just as it is important to understand the extent and nature of the philosophical errors behind the 20th century’s most brutal and illiberal totalitarian regimes, it is equally important—indeed, perhaps more so—not to allow an exclusive or inordinate attention to such blunders detract from a deep and critical attention to the dangers that might be lurking within the seemingly more benign political expressions of modernity that have survived the downfall of fascism and communism.”
In other words, Beattie seems to say, an emphasis on Heidegger’s complicity with Nazism risks sidelining the insights his work offers into the “seemingly more benign political expressions of modernity” that shape our reality. It seems safe to infer that Beattie is referring here to the technocratic liberal consensus ascendant today.
In a more overtly polemical piece of writing, in which he attacks neoconservative interventionism and defends an “America First” foreign policy, Beattie states that “the chief threat to America, and indeed the West, is not an overseas regime like the Soviet Union or a foreign-born movement like radical Islam. To the contrary, it is a home-grown threat: the corruption and de-legitimization of our domestic institutions and the elite entrusted with the custody of the American way of life.” Again, these institutions, as has been evident during the pandemic, rest their assertions of authority on assertions of their own expertise, objectivity, and neutrality – claims that are increasingly in disrepute. Heidegger, as well as a number of the later theorists he influenced, have provided their followers with the means to critique of this form of power. It should be no surprise that such an approach is of interest to some adherents of a political movement that aims to exploit and accelerate the crisis of these institutions.
I have covered Peter Thiel’s career, written oeuvre, and theoretical interests at greater length elsewhere. Here I will merely attempt to trace his affinities with the themes discussed above. Thiel was never part of the Trump administration (and publicly stated in early 2017 that he would not take a government post if offered one), but he did serve on the transition team after after serving as a Trump delegate in 2016 and speaking at the Republican National Convention that year. However, by late 2017, he was expressing disappointment with the administration’s “incompetence” and failure to make good on its policy promises. Thiel, then, is more peripheral to Trumpworld than Hahn or Beattie. However, he deserves consideration here because of his recently influential status among dissident intellectuals on the right.
Thiel is best known for his close association with the work of French social theorist René Girard, the subject of most of my previous writing on him. Girard was an intellectual outsider in his later career, strongly critical of the “postmodern” paradigms that became dominant in the humanities and social sciences in the 1970s. However, he was also one of the people responsible for the emergence of those paradigms. As a young professor at Johns Hopkins University, he co-organized the 1966 conference that first brought French luminaries like Foucault, Derrida, Jacques Lacan and others to the United States, a watershed event for the US reception of “French Theory.” One could detail Girard’s convergences and divergences with the other thinkers present, but more to the point is simply to state that he shared with these contemporaries the interdisciplinary ambition, methodological innovativeness, and concern with reassessing fundamental questions that made their work a radical break from what had come before it.
In terms of the institutional critique of modern liberalism (in both the broad and narrow sense) that has been my central theme up to this point, what Girard offered Thiel is probably on clearest display in “The Straussian Moment,” a text I have written about before. At risk of oversimplifying, I will add the following synopsis: for Girard, all institutions have their historical origins in violent scapegoating, ritualized in the form of sacrifice. The modern liberal state, he argues, has attempted to distance itself from this sort of “all-against-one” mob violence, but is unable to extirpate it entirely because scapegoating is embedded in the most basic social mechanisms by which human communities coalesce and resolve periodic conflicts. It follows that when institutions become weak and lose credibility, as has occurred in the West, we risk sliding back into violent sacrificial dynamics.
Whereas the previous perspectives considered here tend to emphasize the sheer domination exercised by liberalism and its institutions, Girard’s work points to the obverse concern: the threat posed by the weakness of these institutions. This is approximately the subject of “The Straussian Moment.” That text and other pronouncements of Thiel’s suggest a somewhat different emphasis from Breitbart, Hahn, Beattie, and others in the Trump circle. Rather than prioritizing the critique of liberal institutional power, he sees that power as already waning, with potentially catastrophic consequences. His real concern, instead, is with building robust alternatives. We can infer from the fact that he distanced himself from the Trump administration that he ended up disappointed by its lack of commitment to such a project.
As its critics from the 1980s to the present have emphasized, “theory” attempts a fundamental break with the liberalism, in the broad sense, that first became ascendant in Western societies beginning in the 18th century. This break took a variety of forms, but the major thinkers placed under the “theory” heading shared a broad concern with the crisis that had come to afflict the epistemological frameworks and political assumptions inherited from the Enlightenment and embodied in science, technology, and the modern state and its institutions. This preoccupation is present in Heidegger, with his account of technological “enframing”; Horkheimer and Adorno, with their pronouncement that “the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant”; Foucault, with his systematic critique of the institutional structures by which modern power operates; and Girard, with his apocalyptic vision of a world that risks reverting to archaic violence.
The best-known house intellectual of the early Trump administration was Andrew Breitbart’s successor Steve Bannon, who brought Hahn into the White House. Bannon does not seem to have been influenced by the theorists listed above, although he by most accounts reads widely. However, the sensibility he brought into the White House at minimum shares some common ground with the sorts of thinking discussed here. A White House aide summarized this sensibility to a Politico reporter shortly after the 2017 inauguration as “a revolt against managerialism, a revolt against expert rule, a revolt against the administrative state.” Again, Bannon once even deployed the “theory”-linked term “deconstruction” to describe the ambitions of this revolt.
“Theory,” as it first entered the American arena of ideas in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was associated with the radicalism of 1968, the counterculture, and the anti-institutional transgressive spirit of the era. This was as much true of figures like Derrida and Foucault as of Marcuse, who despite his age and old-world airs was a hero of the student radicals. In this sense, the affinity I have attempted to sketch out between this disparate group of thinkers and the Trump-era nationalist right parallels the cultural phenomenon explored by Angela Nagle in Kill All Normies by which the transgressiveness and anti-authoritarianism of the 1960s left was later embraced by the extreme (and extremely online) right in the years before the 2016 election.
What made this appropriation possible was that “theory” had long since become normalized within the institutional structures of the university its exponents originally set out to critique. It thereby lost any capacity to challenge those institutions and indeed was absorbed into their self-justification. The “long march through the institutions” undertaken by 60s radicals ended up not with the liberation of those institutions but with the integration of pseudo-liberationist ideologies into the worldview that sustains them. That works of “theory” have lately been feeding into intellectual realms radically opposed to these institutions is a further symptom of their ongoing crisis of legitimacy.