Donald Trump

The End of American Enlightenment

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    President-elect Donald Trump has won this election by holding up a metaphorical mirror to U.S. voters that shows them the worst of themselves and their country. The author argues that there can be nothing more dangerous than a populace wounded in this way.

  • Facts


    • Many voters said they did not believe or trust Mr. Trump after the televised presidential debates. One poll found that over half the respondents said they would not be comfortable with him as president. Yet somehow he still won.
    • Critics say Mr. Trump will eventually be able to wind back some of the achievements of the Obama presidency, such as recognition of same-sex marriage and certain pro-immigrant laws, if he is able to nominate judges to the Supreme Court.
    • There have been anti-Trump protests held across the U.S. over the past two days since he won the presidential election.
  • Audio


  • Pdf
2016 Election Washington
Storm clouds: Preparations for the inauguration of president-elect Donald Trump in Washington. Source: AP

Donald Trump is a relic of a dying America. Now the future of the country belongs to him. The Obama era will be degraded and abandoned. Achievements of recent years, such as the reform of the healthcare system and the recognition of same-sex marriages won’t survive 2017.

Searching for the reasons, you can stare deep into the soul of the U.S.: The two Americas, the race issue, the two-party system, Christianity. But the truth is that Donald Trump is a European import. It is not by chance that “Mr. Brexit,” Nigel Farage, supported his candidacy; it is not by chance that Mr. Trump voiced enthusiasm for both Vladimir Putin and the far-right voters of the Alternative for Germany party. He was inspired by the right-wing populists of Europe and he copied their punchy style of politics.

For decades, American exceptionalism was an article of faith for U.S. conservatives. But this year, it is the left who best represented it, above all Michelle Obama. Even if other countries were cowering before fascist attacks, the U.S. would show the world how a modern, multicultural country responded to this threat.

Simply by being elected, Donald Trump has degraded America. He has transformed the country from a beacon of multiculturalism into one more isolated island of white people afraid of their own shadows.

His supporters are driven by cheap entertainment, rowdy cohesion and a downright Mephistophelean delight in destruction.

The idea of American exceptionalism as a guiding motif was present at the nation’s foundation. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” begins the Declaration of Independence. Anyone who considers those thoughts more deeply, whether a resident of Australia or Mongolia, will recognize their truth. But it was the Americans who came up with it. The notion of a radiant American idealism is intertwined with the idea of enlightenment that came from Europe to the colonies – an idea that involved universal values and the human search for a deeper truth.

Mr. Trump’s election equals the end of all this. The U.S. is no longer a beacon. It is the tired shadow of a barely flickering flame, that also happens to be armed to the teeth. No trace is left of its uniqueness or its exemplary character. Instead there are comforting barricades, a repudiation of the rest of the world. The nationalism of wall-building which, oddly, seems to encounter no limits itself, is a foolish form of tribalism. These impulses, long thought vanquished, are now undermining the foundations of the Enlightenment.

The U.S. maintained the values of the Enlightenment – humanism, optimism, human dignity and civil rights – when Europe turned away from them in the 1930s. America used humanism as a weapon in the fight against fascism, asserted the universality of that ideal as an antidote to nationalism and, by reimporting it there after the World War II, contributed to the European project.

Today these values are under attack in Europe once more. But from January on, the view across the Atlantic won’t offer reassurance. Dignity is an extremely elastic concept for Mr. Trump. He respects it with regard to his followers but considers it an obstacle when it comes to his opponents.

Any sort of universal value system is anathema to him: Some people should have rights, others don’t deserve them. Whether he can impose this view on the American constitutional system, which has a universal outlook, remains to be seen. He seems to have no sympathy for a universalist outlook that says everyone has a right to dignity, regardless of their situation. And this seems to have ignited his followers’ enthusiasm.

But this election is not a triumph for an anti-Enlightenment lobby, clerics or conservatives. Because Mr. Trump has no values at all; he isn’t big on religion. His supporters are driven by cheap entertainment, a rowdy sense of cohesion and a downright Mephistophelean delight in destruction. Anything that is part of the status quo must go, and simply because it is part of the status quo. Mr. Trump has no interest in truth; for him the election was a game of wheeling and dealing until, unexpectedly, he won. Of course, his fans don’t notice that because they seem to be living in a post-truth world where feelings are all that matter: anger, hostility, tribal affiliation.

Only a few of those who voted for him believe he will build a wall along the Mexican border. Not many think he’ll bring back jobs by cutting some sort of deal with China. Instead Mr. Trump is their guarantee that, once again, they are “American.” Young people used his name to insult African Americans or Hispanics, when they yelled “Trump, Trump, Trump!” There were enthusiastic queues of fans who looked like they were going to a rock concert. Mr. Trump is a talisman, but an empty one, who only cares about himself.

Of course, like every republic the U.S. has had its tribunes – Andrew Jackson, Huey Long – who simply channeled people’s anxieties. But as emotional as elections can become in this country, at least rational arguments, statistics and visionary policies always played a role before. Mr. Trump, who didn’t even bother to keep his nonsense consistent, who advocates both state infrastructure projects and privatized highways, wrung the last notes out of this hollow instrument.

It is senseless to argue about opinion polls after such an election. But every time Americans saw Mr. Trump debate, surveys showed they weren’t convinced by what they heard. No politician of stature supported him, no serious newspaper endorsed him. With hackers, Twitter feuds and finally the FBI he raised so much dust that Americans could no longer see clearly.

This spring, a New Yorker cartoon showed sheep following a wolf even though the wolf says it will devour them, because “he’s telling it like it is.”

Mr. Trump pushed the idea of “the people” and popular sovereignty ad absurdum. Barack Obama’s historical achievement was to address Americans’ self-image and to inspire them toward new, more liberal and international policies. His optimistic image of Americans was a fiction too, but one they were eager to recognize themselves in. Right from the start, the mirror that Donald Trump held up to America was an image of a declining, impotent, eternally duped and idiotic nation. President Obama gave the U.S. the feeling they had the strength to confront problems they had previously avoided. President-elect Trump has convinced America that it was so idiotic that it should simply let him handle things.

The beacon of Enlightenment has lost faith in itself. As disturbing as Ronald Reagan’s fantasies of omnipotence were, Mr. Trump’s fantasies of impotence are far worse. Because they numb any sense of justice. Because they cause perpetrators to appear as victims and callousness as equal to candor. Because they permit no sympathy, except for oneself. This spring, a prophetic cartoon in The New Yorker showed sheep following a wolf even though it says it will devour them, because “he’s telling it like it is.” It describes the fatalism with which Mr. Trump’s voters submit to his manipulations, but also their shocking nonchalance regarding the inhumanity that has always surrounded his popular movement.

The enthusiasm of his followers has a brutal aspect because they are taking such joy in their own regression. Those sheep know the wolf is a wolf – but they like that. The wolf stands before them, free and untamed, a toxic cocktail of incoherent criticism of globalization, megalomania and mourning for lost community – so the sheep can project their own loss of control onto him. He shows them how regression could be fun. He promised them an imaginary realm that frightens even him and his followers, but is superior to the outdated American Dream. Mr. Trump buried the liberal, modern American on Palm Beach.

At its best, the U.S. defended the values of the Enlightenment against tyranny and barbarism. And although Europeans were justifiably worried that the country was too fast and loose with the use of violence, at least the U.S. went to the trouble of finding some justification for each new war, based upon its own stated values, ideals and mission.

But now even this fig leaf, as ridiculously flimsy as it was, has been ripped away. Mr. Trump and his followers have no need for ideals. They are motivated by America’s “greatness” and the loss of that cherished illusion. A hegemonist that sees itself as the eternal victim. It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more dangerous.


Adrian Daub is an academic and critic based in San Francisco and Berlin. He is Associate Professor of German Studies at Stanford University, where he specializes in the thought, literature and music of the nineteenth century. To contact the author:

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!