David Gelernter’s unwavering support for Donald Trump is to a large extent grounded in a sense of nostalgia — one of the defining facets of radical right-wing populism.
After four years of the Trump presidency, it is still not entirely clear why a substantial number of voters in 2016 cast their ballots for a candidate who made it glaringly obvious that he lacked many of the most basic character traits needed to qualify for America’s highest political office. At the end of his tenure, fraught with some of the worst incidences of corruption, deceit and plain incompetence, it boggles the mind why anyone in their right mind would still support Donald Trump. Yet according to the most recent polls, around 40% of eligible voters still do.
In a previous article, I have tried to explain why evangelicals and large parts of traditional Catholics have to a large degree stuck with Trump, despite his obvious moral flaws which are fundamentally at odds with the teachings of the Bible. Apparently, they don’t really care, as long as Trump pretends to take their concerns seriously. This means restoring Christianity’s traditional central role in American society, “valorizing” Christian beliefs too long subjected to ridicule and disdain, and actively promoting the one issue most important to them: the reversal of Roe v. Wade, which put American women in a position where they were free to choose what to do with their bodies.
Numerous observers have written about the second group of Trump supporters, the white supremacists — white voters obsessed with, and anxious about, the rapidly changing composition of America’s population. They could probably care less about abortion, given the fact that abortion is significantly more prevalent among African American than white women. In fact, in 2008, abortion rates among black women were five times as high as among white women; among Hispanic women, twice as high. For hardcore white supremacists, this obviously is good news, given their fears of being “out-birthed” by non-whites. Trump’s “nudge nudge, wink wink” when it came to the white supremacist Proud Boys thugs during the first debate with Joe Biden was a clear appeal to the white supremacist vote.
Little has been written about a third group, which is perhaps the most interesting of all, given their ideational stance, which eludes easy classification. One of its most paradigmatic representatives, I would suggest, is David Gelernter, a brilliant professor of computer science at Yale University, an iconoclast and intellectual maverick, whose intellectual curiosity has extended well beyond his main field of study.
Gelernter attained renown — a modicum of fame he certainly could have done without — in 1993 as one of the victims of Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber. The professor lost a hand in the terror attack as well as suffering severe damage to internal organs and one of his eyes. Gelernter incurred Kaczynski’s wrath for his enthusiastic support of technological progress. Technological innovation, the Unabomber’s letter addressed to Gelernter charged, was only possible because “techno-nerds” like him made it “inevitable.” And with it a list of negative consequences, such as the invasion of privacy and environmental degradation.
The attack confirmed what Gelernter appears to have suspected for some time — that America had become hostile to technology and pessimistic about the future. How could this happen? According to a lengthy New York Times expose from 1995, in Gelernter’s view, the United States had achieved something of a “technological and economic utopia — and the country subsequently imploded with its own success.” Evoking the second law of thermodynamics, he charged that “the entropy of American society” had “increased enormously,” and there was no way to put things back together again. What was left was a retreat to pure nostalgia, a yearning for a time when there was still a strong notion of civic virtues, when there were strong moral values and strict rules for sex and marriage and the interactions of people and authorities.
On the flip side, what was left was a strong sense that American civilization was on the decline, provoking Gelernter’s outrage and indignation. The main reason: the incursion of “moral relativism” into the fabric of American society in the wake of ’68, which had fatally undermined what hitherto had held Americans together as Americans, their way of life — strong time-honored moral principles.
Fast forward some 20 years. The year is 2016, and Donald Trump has emerged as the Republican frontrunner in the race for the presidency. Gelernter has chosen sides. In his view, there is only one way to protect the American nation from Hillary Clinton, and that is to vote for Donald Trump. To be sure, Trump was nothing but “an infantile vulgarian” who “had all the class and cool of a misbegotten 12-year-old boy.” But this was nothing compared to the likes of Clinton and Obama, that “third-rate tyrant” who has nothing but contempt for ordinary people, who “doesn’t give a damn what people think.”
Trump, on the other hand, is someone the “empty gin bottle [voters] have chosen to toss through the window,” reflecting voters’ recognition of “the profound contempt for America and Americans that Mrs. Clinton and President Obama share and their frightening lack of emotional connection to this nation and its people.”
Contempt for Democracy
In light of what has transpired since the beginning of this pandemic, with a president devoid of any sense of human empathy for the tens of thousands of victims of his callousness, exhibiting brazen contempt for even the people in his direct entourage, these observations sound eerily prescient, if in a fundamentally opposite sense. Unfortunately, Gelernter so far appears to have shied away from addressing Trump’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis. Even iconoclasts appear to have a hard time dealing with cognitive dissonance.
In my book, this amounts to intellectual dishonesty — the refusal to own up to one’s unwavering support for a man who would rather risk destroying the very fabric of American democracy than concede defeat. But then, subverting the constitutional order, undermining existing institutions and rigging the results of elections has been one of the hallmarks of populist regimes, from Perón to Chavez, from Morales to Maduro. Populists have little love left for democracy if it does not go their way. Ironically enough, in late 2015, in a commentary for the ultra-conservative Washington Examiner, Gelernter accused the American left for seemingly having “lost its taste for democracy.”
Today, contempt for democracy is one of the hallmarks of Trumpism. As one of his minions in the Senate recently reiterated his party’s position, America was not a democracy, nor was democracy an objective. America was a republic, dedicated to the pursuit of material happiness, and that’s it. For neutral observers, the Republicans’ objection to characterizing their country a democracy was and continues to be, as John Haltiwanger writes for Business Insider, “tied to the fact Republicans have reason to fear a system in which a majority of Americans have more say.” And given the direction of America’s demographics, fear appears to be turning into a nightmare triggering what sociologists call a “moral panic.”
It is this moral panic which might explain Gelernter’s lashing out on the left in a 2018 Wall Street Journal commentary titled “The Real Reason They Hate Trump.” With “they” he obviously referred to “the left.” Gelernter’s central thesis was that the left hated Trump because Trump was “a typical American —except exaggerated.” Hating Trump, Gelernter asserted, meant hating “the average American — male or female, black or white.” And hating the average American meant hating America, what it is, what it stands for, meaning its “exceptional and unique destiny.”
This in itself was not a new thought. As early as 2005 Gelernter, in an essay on “Anti-Americanism and Its Enemies” which appeared in Commentary, had argued that America was “superior to all others — morally superior, closer to God.” Americans were God’s new chosen people, “a unique collective instrument of God in the affairs of the nations,” with a distinct “divine mission to all mankind.”
Those who hated America, did so because they hated the American interpretation of Christianity, if not Christianity itself. At the time, Gelernter’s focus was particularly on Islamic fundamentalism, hardly surprising after 9/11. In the years that followed, Gelernter’s focus shifted increasingly to what he believed were the domestic enemies of Americanism — the liberal Left, which rejected the notion that the US was meant to be the greatest county in the world. This, of course, was a notion Trump apparently wholeheartedly embraced, exemplified by his “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.
The accusation that they hate their own nation has been one of the main tropes on the populist radical right against the left, not only in the United States, but also in Europe. In both cases, the right’s charge has been that the left defends the rights of minorities to a decent life not out of concern for universal human rights but because they hate their “own” people, who in reality should always come first because they hate their own country and everything it stands for. On this reading, the left have nothing but contempt for their own country because they don’t really consider it their home. Their home is elsewhere, anywhere (in David Goodhart’s sense of the word), in the empty space between Berlin, London, New York and Paris, always on the move, nowhere at home, and certainly not in their own country.
Sense of Nostalgia
Gelernter’s unwavering support for Donald Trump, despite his misgivings about the president’s boorish behavior, was to a large extent grounded in that sense of nostalgia which is one of the defining facets of contemporary radical right-wing populism, whether in the United States or in Europe. Nostalgia for the “small-town America” of his youth — Gelernter grew up on Long Island — his “plea for the past” irrevocably lost, reflected in his book on the 1939 World Fair, informed his intellectual trajectory following the Unabomber attack, from techno-geek to Trump apologist.
In the process, Gelernter expressed his misgivings about a whole range of ills and evils that in his view had befallen postmodern American society, each one attributable to the liberal left. At the same time, he adopted the major tropes central to contemporary radical right-wing populism, in Europe and the US.
Political correctness: In 2016, Gelernter wrote an essay in the Washington Examiner where he claimed that political correctness was “the biggest issue facing America today.” Political correctness, he maintained, actually was a misnomer, disguising “the real nature of this force, which ought to be called invasive leftism or thought-police liberalism or metastasized progressivism.” Its primary victims — the traditional American mainstream, “working- and middle-class white males and their families,” furious about the havoc political correctness had wreaked on American society for decades, “made worse by the flat refusal of most serious Republicans to confront it.”
But now there was hope because with Donald Trump, there finally was a GOP candidate who dared to stand up against political correctness. He was the only candidate who found the right words to appeal to his “unprivileged, unclassy supporters” who sense “that their children are filled full of leftist bile every day at school and college” but don’t have the “time or energy to set their children straight.”
Feminism: In an article from 2008 that appeared in The Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol’s neocon flagship published by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation empire, Gelernter attacked American feminism for having degraded the English language. In the past, the author asserted, English had been there for everyone. Starting “in the 1970s and ’80s, arrogant ideologues began recasting English into heavy artillery to defend the borders of the New Feminist state.” This was largely in line with his earlier charge that prominent American feminists “cast women in the black victim role, men as the bigoted white oppressors.” Feminists routinely attacked women who chose their family over a career. Yet, as Gelernter put it in a Commentary article from 1996, mothers should stay home. If they failed to do so, it was not primarily the result of economic necessity or social pressures to keep up with “the Joneses” next door, but because feminists had convinced them that for a woman to “be worthy of respect is to do what men do” (a line from Goethe’s “Egmont”). Once again, there is a strong whiff of nostalgia informing the analysis, a yearning for the times before “Motherhood Revolution,” perfectly reflected in the black and white TV series “Leave It to Beaver.”
Not Just a Theory
Evolution: It is well known that one of the core constituency of Donald Trump are evangelicals. Evangelicals voted for Trump not because they believed that Trump was a dedicated Christian. Quite the opposite: They voted for him because they believed that he would restore Christianity to its rightful place at the center of American life and, equally important, that he would do whatever possible to reverse Roe v. Wade by appointing anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court. One of the most important dogmas among American fundamentalist Christians is the belief that God created the world and human beings over a period of six days (on the seventh He took a break and rested), some 10,000 years ago.
It stands to reason that for evangelicals, Darwinism is the bête noire par excellence. To be sure, over the past decades, the Darwinist paradigm has come under close scrutiny. A number of its propositions, in light of new empirical findings, have been challenged and revised.
However, Darwinism is not only a theory, subject to scientific falsification but also a creed. And on the American radical populist right, it has been treated as such. This might explain why Gelernter’s widely noted take on the subject, “Giving Up Darwinism,” appeared in 2019 in the Claremont Review of Books. A rather obscure magazine, the Claremont Review gained notoriety with the publication of “The Flight 93 Election,” a pro-Trump polemic that appeared in September 2016 on its website. “Published under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus, the essay compared the American republic to a hijacked airliner, with a vote for Donald J. Trump as the risky, but existentially necessary, course.”
In the years that followed, the Claremont Review turned into “the academic home of Trumpism.” Under the circumstances, Gelernter’s essay on Darwinism takes on a “meta-political” meaning, an affirmation of being part of the tribe. It logically follows from a sentence in his essay on political correctness, his observation that “Political correctness holds that Christians are a bygone force, reactionary, naïve, and irrelevant.”
Human responsibility for global warming: In June of this year, about two-thirds of Americans thought the federal government should do more with respect to climate change. More than three-quarters thought the US should prioritize renewable sources of energy. In 2016, Donald Trump campaigned on a platform that promised he would save coal while promoting other fossil fuels. The plea secured him crucial support in coal-dependent states in the Appalachian region, such as West Virginia and Kentucky.
Coal is known as a major contributor to anthropogenic climate change. This is, of course, if you believe, like most scientists do, that humans bear responsibility for global warming and climate change. Trump, as is well known, doesn’t. In radical right-wing populist doctrine, climate change is but a “hoax,” as Trump claimed during the campaign, and the concern about climate change is nothing but alarmism provoked by the liberal left as a new ploy to undermine the capitalist system and prevent Americans from living as if there were no tomorrow.
Enter David Gelernter. In early 2007, Gelernter was among the forerunner for the position of science advisor for the Trump administration. At the time, he was under scrutiny, among other things on the question of global warming. When pressed he admitted he did not believe humans were responsible for climate change, even if he noted that he was not in a position to make an informed judgment. As he put it in an interview with The Scientist, “The evidence I’ve seen has not convinced me that the cause of this global warming or an appreciable contribution [to it] is human activity.” In the end, it did not matter. Despite his embrace of climate skepticism, he was not nominated.
Perhaps, despite his own distaste for intellectuals, he was too much of an intellectual for a president who has shown nothing but contempt for them. Given David Gelernter’s status as a leading American scientist and intellectual with wide-ranging interests far beyond his immediate field — thus hardly the “typical” Trump supporter — his trajectory from techno-nerd to a convinced Trumpista is more than fascinating. It allows us to understand to what degree the combination of a deep sense of nostalgia and an equally profound disenchantment with the postmodern “left” prepares the ground for a mindset and psychological disposition that elevates a boorish loudmouth without substance and moral decency to an icon of redemption and revival.
For some reason, Gelernter has been remarkably silent over the past year or so. Nothing on the president’s remarkable track record with regard to COVID-19, nothing on the eruption of racism-inspired violence during Trump’s tenure and the Black Lives Matter movement. It would also be interesting to read his views on Trump’s nomination for the Supreme Court of a mother who certainly has not taken his advice to stay at home.
I have contacted Gelernter via email to find out what he thought about Trump’s blatant disregard for the suffering of the victims of COVID-19 (“It is what it is”), a reflection of his obvious contempt for the average American. He never responded. And yet, for some reason, I suspect that in November, Gelernter is not going to fall for Trump once again.