Recently I read an interesting article from Gideon Rachman. As the chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times, he has been one of the few journalists with a truly inside view on the subtle decline of Western power over the past 20 years, and the rise of the East (in particular China) as a viable challenge to a Western led world order. His most recent book Easternisation is a fascinating account of this topic.
But in this article Rachman turns his attention to Trump. Rachman is seemingly no great fan of Trump, however, he questions whether the 45th president could go down as one of the few individuals who have changed the course of history and embodied the spirit of their age. He describes that: “Mr Trump is a habitual liar, whose administration has set up detention camps for children. Rex Tillerson, his former secretary of state, is reputed to have called the president a “moron”. But none of that need stop Mr Trump from being what the philosopher Georg Hegel called a “world-historical figure.”
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a 19th century idealist philosopher with a teleological view of world history. Hegel’s complex theory is often summarised as being made up of a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (although Hegel himself never used these terms). The beginning proposition of an argument is the thesis, a negation of that thesis is the antithesis, and a synthesis occurs when the two conflicting ideas are reconciled to form a new proposition. As in logic this process also occurs again and again throughout the progression of history. According to Hegel, universal history is the realization of the Idea of Reason in a succession of National Spirits. These are manifested in the deeds of heroes, or world-historical individuals, such as Alexander the Great and Caesar whom embodied an aspect of their particular moment in history more than any other.
In Hegel’s own era he particularly admired Napoleon. Even though Hegel was forced to leave his adopted city of Jena in 1806 when Napoleon’s troops occupied it, the philosopher was undoubtedly impressed with the Emperor’s presence, as he described in a letter to his friend Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer: “I saw the Emperor – this world-soul [Weltseele] – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.”
Interestingly, Rachman describes that the best definition he has heard of Hegel’s ‘World-historical Individual’ came from another powerful Frenchman, current French president Emmanuel Macron, in which he told German newspaper Der Spiegel that: “Hegel viewed ‘great men’ as instruments of something far greater . . . He believed that an individual can indeed embody the zeitgeist (world spirit) for a moment, but also that the individual isn’t always clear they are doing so.” Macron’s summary comes from a few select passages in Hegel’s own Lectures on the Philosophy of History where he describes that:
[A World-historical individual] had no consciousness of the general Idea they were unfolding. … He is not so unwise as to indulge a variety of wishes to divide his regards. He is devoted to the One Aim, regardless of all else. It is even possible that such men may treat other great, even sacred interests, inconsiderately; conduct which is indeed obnoxious to moral reprehension. But so mighty a form must trample down many an innocent flower-crush to pieces many an object in its path (§ 33, 35)
So, where exactly does Trump fit into all of this? Well, we could see how Trump’s role as a World-historical individual may in fact be twofold. First because Trump, with his bullish and narcissistic tendencies, may well fit the bill of an individual who behaves with “conduct which is indeed obnoxious to moral reprehension”. And second, his fear mongering and anti-intellectualist rhetoric embodies the complete antithesis of the thoughtful, learned and statesman-like Macron, whom, to Rachman, ‘looks more like the embodiment of a dying order.’ An argument backed up by Marion Van Renterghem of The Guardian:
Because of his political inexperience, his intellectual arrogance, his hubris, and by taking himself for a solitary Jupiterian hero, Macron has locked himself into the image of the president of the rich. … The most anti-populist leader France could have hoped for finds himself actually reinforcing populism. And the experience of his centrist cousins doesn’t bode well: Barack Obama gave rise to Donald Trump, Matteo Renzi to Matteo Salvini, and Angela Merkel’s departure could result in chaos.
In other words, if Macron’s measured demeanor and globalist tendencies are the last examples of the dying order of 90s and 2000s centrist politicians, Trump and the rising right-wing populist movement in Europe may well be the antithesis. Indeed, Trump’s reckless and impulsive behaviour is something that may have even been praised by Hegel as an individual who embodies the world spirit, even if he “had no consciousness of the general Idea [he was] unfolding.”
But what exactly has Trump done to break himself away from this previous Presidents? Rachman summarises that:
Mr Trump decided that globalisation, embraced by all his predecessors, was actually a terrible idea that was weakening America’s relative power and eroding the living standards of its people. After more than 30 years of stagnant or declining real wages, the American people were receptive to that message. Unconstrained by the politeness of his predecessors, Mr Trump bullied friends as well as enemies.
With his instinctively zero-sum approach to the world, Mr Trump also decided that a richer and more powerful China was obviously bad news for America — and became the first president to try to block China’s rise.
It’s undeniable that Trump’s rhetoric and his approach to the global economy marks a significant break in what had previously been a consensus among Western powers. The speed of technological progression and the increased capacity for shared information among a large swathe of the worlds population had made globalisation seem like a necessary step in the progression of history. But here we have the supposedly ‘most powerful man in the world’ arguing against it.
In fact Trump’s decision to block the rise of China, culminating in the current trade war, could easily be the first steps in a long lasting conflict between the world’s two most powerful nations. Graham Allison of The Atlantic argues that to avoid falling into ‘The Thucydides Trap‘ (in which a rising power confronting a ruling power has almost always resulted in bloodshed) it’s imperative that America does not overstep the mark with China:
The rise of a 5,000-year-old civilization with 1.3 billion people is not a problem to be fixed. It is a condition—a chronic condition that will have to be managed over a generation. Success will require not just a new slogan, more frequent summits of presidents, and additional meetings of departmental working groups. Managing this relationship without war will demand sustained attention, week by week, at the highest level in both countries.
Trump’s isolationist home policies, and his economic aggression towards China undoubtedly marks a significant development in the history of the West. He is currently in the process of reversing more than 40 years of American foreign policy, which has sought to integrate China into a US-led global order. Whether or not this is a good idea in regards to how history looks at Mr. Trump remains to be seen. However, according to Rachman this could well lead to his downfall:
In the event of another global financial crisis, a Trump-led US will struggle to lead a co-ordinated global response. If the Trump administration continues to undermine America’s alliance system, US power could erode even faster than before. In the worst case, Mr Trump’s instinctive risk-taking style could lead to a major miscalculation — and a war with China or Russia or on the Korean peninsula.
If this happens, the current world order would be thrown into potentially irrecoverable jeopardy at the hands of Trump’s recklessness. Is this really the kind of individual Hegel is referring to? Hegel describes that “World-historical men — the Heroes of an epoch — must, therefore, be recognised as it’s clear-sighted ones; their deeds, their words are the best of that time … for it was they who best understood affairs; from whom others learned, and approved, or at least acquiesced in their policy.” (§ 33) So, for those of us who are critics of the president it’s certainly difficult to comprehend the idea that it will be he who best understood affairs and from whom others learned, and approved.
Arguably, the best we can hope for is that Trump is a mere stepping stone in the next stage of history. Once Trump and his ilk have shown us what we should avoid, perhaps we can create a lasting synthesis of the two previous global-political ideologies. Perhaps history will not look upon Trump as kindly as he would like, but maybe it will be his actions that lead to changes through which we can usher in a new era that exists beyond the binary of left and right, or of thesis and antithesis. Perhaps that will be Trump’s legacy as a World-historical Individual.
As Hegel pointed out, “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at dusk”.
Only time will tell.