I suppose we must prepare ourselves for more pseudo-intellectual drivel about the Enlightenment from people who oppose Donald Trump.
David Brooks of the New York Times appears to have gotten the ball rolling with “The Enlightenment Project.” Now Andrew Small has joined in with “The Counter-Enlightenment and the Great Powers.” In his opinion piece, Brooks identified globalist institutions with the Enlightenment in order to claim that Trump is “an anti-Enlightenment man.”
Small quotes Brooks as an authority on the Enlightenment, and makes his argument based on Brooks’ identification of globalist institutions with the Enlightenment. According to Small, “the political DNA for the figures who have most effectively channeled the president’s instincts is not just illiberal but explicitly counter-Enlightenment in nature.” Brook writes “anti-Enlightenment,” while Small prefers “counter-Enlightenment,” but either way the message is the same.
In my recent critique of the Brooks column, I noted that addressing all its confusions might require an entire semester. As much as you and I do not want to spend months untangling the mess Brooks made, perhaps we do need to return to it one more time in order to prepare for what is apparently headed our way.
Let’s start with this statement by Brooks: “The Enlightenment included thinkers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant who argued that people should stop deferring blindly to authority for how to live.”
There is so much wrong with this sentence! I’ll try to keep this simple.
The best place to start is with this fact: Kant is a counter-Enlightenment thinker. In fact, Kant is the most significant thinker of the counter-Enlightenment. As Rockford University philosopher Stephen R. C. Hicks writes in his outstanding book Explaining Postmodernism, Kant’s “attack on Enlightenment reason more than anyone else’s opened the door to the nineteenth century irrationalists…” My copy of the Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment has this to say about Kant and the Enlightenment: “even his contemporaries, such as Moses Mendelssohn, recognized that he [Kant] came to the Enlightenment as a destroyer.”
If Brooks is allowed to get away with defining “Enlightenment thinkers” so as to include the main thinker of the counter-Enlightenment, then all bets are off.
Labels aside, let’s address the “authority” portion of that remarkable sentence Brooks has provided us by taking a look at Kant the political thinker. Kant wrote that humankind “requires a master who will break his self-will and force him to obey a universally valid will” [Italics in original]. I believe you will agree that this does not sound at all like John Locke or Thomas Jefferson, though it may remind you of a certain German political leader who tried to impose a world political order by means of a world war. Kant, too, by the way, envisioned a future international order which, he wrote, could only be achieved by war.
David Horowitz tells us that “inside every progressive is a totalitarian.” Our American progressives are not the intellectual descendants of Locke or Jefferson, actual Enlightenment thinkers, but of Kant by way of G. W. F. Hegel. The modern progressive drive to subordinate Americans to the state and to subordinate America to an ever-expanding collection of international institutions has its roots in the counter-Enlightenment.
Trump certainly does seek to prevent America from being submerged in a globalist world order that would extinguish everything that makes America the exceptional country it is. But championing our exceptional America, which we have by way of the American Enlightenment, does not make Trump an anti-Enlightenment man with “explicitly counter-Enlightenment political DNA.”
The president is quite simply pro-American. Trying to define him as an anti-Enlightenment figure is playing fast and loose with the truth.