Teaching about Justice in the Time of Trump—And Beyond

Thad Williamson

The presidency of Donald Trump has presented a fundamental challenge to those of us in the United States (and perhaps elsewhere too) who teach and write about ‘justice,’ and specifically ‘social justice.’ The aspiration of ‘social justice’ is to organize our shared social institutions and social life in ways that are morally defensible: specifically, to respect and promote the flourishing of each individual while preventing the domination of any one group by another. The nature of our inquiry necessarily takes us into two directions: developing with greater precision, to the degree possible, the moral principles of justice (given that there are multiple plausible views); and examining both the actual and potential organization of our institutions and their impact on everyday life in our society. We need to know what exactly we mean when we throw around words like ‘fairness’; we need to examine both the degree to which current institutions and practices exemplify these principles; and, should we conclude that current institutions and practices are at least partly flawed, we need to explore the ways in which they could plausibly be changed to better match our moral sense of what justice requires.

Now in the way I have usually taught these concepts over the past fifteen years at the University of Richmond I have never pretended that what we might call ‘large P’ Politics are not implicated or involved in this inquiry. That is to say, my course on social justice (unlike perhaps a moral philosophy class proper) recognizes that the actual organization of society is not simply shaped by competing moral views: it is also shaped by ongoing struggles for power, influence and resources. In formally democratic societies, typically we find competing factions offering competing conceptions of justice; while those competing conceptions to some degree reflect differing moral intuitions (or more fundamental differences in worldviews), they also are no doubt correlated and connected with self-interest (individual but especially collective). Marx went so far as to say ‘the ruling ideas of an age are the ideas of the ruling class,’ and even if we prefer a more nuanced formulation the basic point holds: political struggles reflect, in part, struggle between competing material interests.

The ‘in part’ turns out to be important because part of the political success of what some term the plutocratic class in recent American history has come from its ability to shift the terrain of national political discourse away from direct considerations of distributive justice.

But for now, I want to stress that given this understanding of politics-as-conflict, and recognizing that competing conceptions of justice advanced by actual political parties and actors are influenced by material self-interest, most courses on ‘justice’ strive not to conflate the beautiful theories of justice described by great thinkers with the messiness of actual politics. Specifically, in the past I have bristled when students have offered the observation that John Rawls’s liberal egalitarian account of social justice sounds like the platform of the Democratic Party, for two reasons.

First, for much of recent political history this actually has not been true; from the standpoint of a rigorous Rawlsian concerned to advance his fully developed conception of justice (requiring either property-owning democracy or democratic socialism), the Democratic Party (and its platform) has been a part of the problem (arguably a very big part of the problem). Second, by trade theorists of justice want to maintain a critical distance from actual politics; to offer an ‘independent’ standard for judgment, a slightly distanced lens that keeps our theories from being muddied by the real world.

There is a logic to this, because politics so often disappoints and never can be the pure realization of any moral idea, at least in democracies. Further, the competing ideas offered by different political theorists regarding the meaning of justice are worth engaging on their own terms; the hope for even an imperfectly realized just society rests on both people in power and ‘ordinary power’ accepting as normative and valid ideas about justice and fair play and behaving accordingly. So we should debate and discuss and try to discern which specific conceptions of justice are the most compelling; and in a stable society, we should hope that citizens understand and endorse certain basic ideas that are fundamental to our ability to maintain a system of social cooperation. Ideas matter, and the debate about them can and does impact the distribution of resources, the uses of the state’s authority (including carceral authority), and other matters that directly impact how well our lives go.

So there is some wisdom, in academic inquiries, in trying to step back from the specifics of any current political controversy and conflict and focus on more basic principles. When Donald Trump was elected president via the Electoral College in 2016, I thought returning to a consideration of basic principles was exactly the thing to do in my teaching. I started assigning works taking a look at the Declaration of Independence (via Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration), or looking at the founding and early history of our country through the lens of African-American experiences fighting against racial oppression and for democracy in this country, via consideration of the lives, work and thought of Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Ella Baker and others.

Looking back at this painful history—which truly should always have been the starting point for discussions about ‘justice’ in a United States classroom—became essential both to understand the deep historical roots of our present situation and to reconsider the deeply contested nature of concepts like ‘democracy.’ John Rawls by all accounts was a humble man but to claim or imply, as he did in 1971, that we had then, or have had at any time in American history, ‘settled’ moral convictions about justice, democracy and fairness now looks deeply hubristic, if not ignorant. Democracy—that is, inclusive democracy in which a community of political equals deliberates on a common future—has always had enemies, has always been imperfectly (if at all) realized, and has always been fragile.

Hopefully students have learned that in my classes over the last few years. But what I have been reluctant to do in this arena is directly discuss Trump and his ideas. As noted, this is partly because of the academic convention of trying to keep critical distance between academic concepts of justice and actual politics.

But it’s also because while Trump himself, like all politicians, invokes ideas and rhetoric and policy proposals, and hence can’t be said to be devoid of ideas, it’s hard to see how his ideas add up to a coherent set of political or moral principles. That is, if we are looking for principles that map onto coherent philosophical perspectives or that could withstand even minimal scrutiny. What we have found in Trump is an embrace of the principle of egoism, and the elevation of this to a normative ideal.

Egoism does not simply mean that Trump constantly seeks his own advantage, and is willing to break rules and laws, lie and distort, demean and defame, in order to gain both economic and political advantage. It means that he upholds this as normative—as the right way to live. You strive to take and get as much as you can get away with. Those who do this effectively—for instance, living a luxuriant lifestyle while only paying $750 in income taxes a year—are smart, and those who do not are suckers.

This is why winning is so important to Trump: because visible success is the only standard he values. He is currently invoking words like ‘fraud’ (or ‘FRAUD’) not because he has a consistent moral commitment to the fair counting of votes but because he hopes to carve out a political and legal path to rejecting the election results and holding onto power. This effort is almost certain to fail at the first hurdle, but that is not my main point. The main point is Trump sees our institutions, including law itself, as vehicles to be manipulated for his own advancement; and assumes that ‘smart’ people view institutions and law similarly. That’s why he denigrated John Lewis, John McCain, military veterans, and many others who made personal sacrifices: to sacrifice for the common good is stupid, a loser thing to do, when the only good that matters is your own.

Trump has on his own terms been enormously and indeed improbably successful in this approach to his life and his business and political affairs. It still may end in public shame and ignominy, but no doubt on his own terms he has had a good run.

Yet however it ends, Trump has forwarded and embodied a deeply cynical view of life and morality, in which we are all to view one another as simply instruments for our own advancement, restrained only by our own prudential self-interest. Indeed, ‘cynical’ isn’t strong enough for this view; ‘pathological’ might be more appropriate.

And while we can imagine a cold, clinical manifestation of this viewpoint, Trump’s personal manifestation is indeed a nearly perfect replica of the tyrannical soul described by Plato: constantly driven by desires, grievances, the need to dominate, the need to be honored, to be the centre of attention, having as much power and attention as anyone could ever have and yet never calm or at peace, enslaved by his own appetites, incapable of self-control.

This description raises a hard and disturbing question: if Trump is an egoist with a tyrannical soul, why are so many people drawn to him?

Four kinds of reasons come to mind.

First, many people may in fact share his moral cynicism: that of course the world is rigged, so the smart thing to do is do whatever you can to get ahead and not be bound by a higher moral principle. The thing to take seriously here is that many people, millions, do experience the world this way; especially the relatively disempowered working class. When people see hard-working people being taken advantage of, losing their jobs, being ripped off, being subject to arbitrary authority, and being walked over by more powerful people time and again, some cynicism is inevitable. In the absence of a coherent explanation about why the strong dominate the weak and why it doesn’t have to be this way, some will conclude that this is the way of the world, inevitably: the strong dominate the weak, and it’s better to be strong than weak. (‘It’s a dog-eat-dog world.’) Marx and others would say that this in fact is the morality of capitalism; Trump in a sense is courageous because he is willing to articulate it openly without pretense or disguise. He’s the one who tells it like it is.

Second, people admire success and power, as a general rule. People who have positions and authority and fame get treated with a deference that most of us do not. When I read Trump’s tweets and reflect on his state of mind, it seems like an almost nightmarish existence, to have that much constant anger and turmoil in one’s soul. But there’s no doubt his ego gets fed a lot, and that he has had many euphoric highs. I suspect Trump’s supporters don’t see him the same way I do. They perhaps see him as entitled to enjoy his success, but prevented from doing so by the persecutions of the liberal media and the deep state. His struggles make him if anything more relatable.

Social and political theorists have more work to do: to understand better what his hard-core supporters hear when they hear Trump speak or read his tweets. We should resist reductive explanations or explanations that in effect say Trump’s supporters are stupid, and start on the assumption that there is some rationality or logic at work, even if we believe it to be misguided or morally unacceptable.

Third, there are some who vote for him because they approve of his policies. They are Republicans, a major party with a venerable tradition, and appreciate his tax cuts, Supreme Court appointments, and more.

Fourth, and perhaps most tellingly and disturbingly, Trump mobilized a political identity around whiteness and nationalism (while also implicitly supporting white nationalism proper). The whiteness component consists in naming the fact that working-class whites are struggling (which is true) and implicitly or explicitly laying blame for this at the door of people of color and immigrants. The struggle of working-class whites is framed not as the result of anti-labour plutocratic class politics, but as (unfair) loss of white privilege. The nationalist component consists in embracing the myth of American goodness. ‘Make America Great Again’ is about restoring the belief in America’s goodness, and restoring white privilege at least notionally (if not in actual pocketbook terms, although Trump could claim some success in that area pre-Covid.)

More must and will be said about these matters, but here’s the two basic observations I would make: first, we’ve seen how a political movement based at bottom in a philosophy of egoism and hostile to democratic norms became in a short amount of time a major political force that captured the White House for four years and had a credible chance to keep it another four years. That is terrifying, and has been experienced by many people as such.

Second, unlike previous ‘conservative’ political leaders, Trump’s philosophy is a challenge to the very concept of social justice. The root premise of ‘social justice’ is that we value institutions for the common good they can help bring about, and that we have a concern with the flourishing of other people in our society, not just ourselves and our immediate circle. On the social justice view, because we value these institutions in this way, we are willing to comply with their requirements (like paying taxes) and bear some of the burdens involved in maintaining them; and indeed we should be striving to rectify their flaws. On the Trumpian view, the institutions are there to be used for our private purposes, and if we can get away without contributing to them or bend them to our own purposes, we are smart. And if they are producing results contrary to our interests, we are right to attack them or dismantle them—even if this means dismantling democracy itself.

So if anything I feel I have been too silent in engaging directly with what has been going on over the last four years in the classroom, because if Trump’s way of being in the world is right than studying or doing social justice is a waste of time.

To me it’s interesting and hopeful that young people reject Trump and his ideology at a higher level than any other group. I’m hopeful that newly rising generations will refresh both our academic and our political understandings of what a just society is. I still find myself attached to and instructed by the ideas and debate inspired by John Rawls over the last half century, but if the Rawlsian project had been successful, we wouldn’t have found ourselves with a President Trump at this late date. It’s time for a fresh consideration both of what ‘social justice’ is and how it can be made meaningful and attractive to the millions of people who have found truth in the deep cynicism Trump has offered, while also speaking to the experiences of the millions more Americans of color, women, LGBTQIA+ persons, immigrants and others who have experienced the last four years with fear and terror. 

I’m not at all sure what this means, and welcome input from all directions. But framing inquiries within the existential, urgent struggles of the current moment and the deep history that underlies it, rather than in abstract moral reasoning, seems like a good place to start.

Thad Williamson is Associate Professor of Leadership Studies and Philosophy, Politics, Economics & Law at the University of Richmond