Prescience is not a category historians should trust. That is a first principle you may not agree with, but it is a principle I hold and I feel I should set it out before anything else. On the other hand, I don’t think one needs to cleave to such a doctrine in order to consider or even accept the rest of what I have to say.
You have likely seen by now the paragraphs from Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America which many have touted as having predicted this year’s election, particularly in terms of its class dynamics and the “strongman” nature of its victor. You can read the paragraphs and a bit of the context for the original publication of Rorty’s book in this New York Times article, titled “Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Suggested Election 2016 Was Coming.” (Or you can check out Cosmopolitan, which has also run a story, with the more click-baity title “A Book Written in 1998 Predicted Trump’s Election in a Scary-Accurate Way.”) But I want to make two arguments for why we ought not to take seriously this rapidly congealing story that Rorty’s anticipatory version of the events was accurate. First, Rorty’s story only makes sense by leaving out materially important developments that took place between 1998 and 2016, and the omission of these events from Rorty’s “prediction” fundamentally mars not only its accuracy but its explanatory power. Second—and somewhat less straightforwardly—Rorty’s particular hobby-horses and distinctive temperament (which are on ample display in the book, believe me) are almost uniquely antipathetic to the role of prophet: Rorty’s peculiar understanding of history and society, his models of cultural change and human character, are not only ill-suited to prophecy, but actively negate any kind of thinking which we might regard as prophetic. Putting him to such a use is a misreading of what he actually stood for and depends on a willful blindness to his (self-acknowledged) limitations.
Let me also get another throat-clearing gesture out of the way. For many years, I have thought I was one of the few people I knew who enjoyed reading Rorty and who thought he still merited our attention. I encountered him very briefly in a religious studies class my freshman year of college, and then again in an advanced seminar on pragmatism and religion my sophomore year taught by Nancy Frankenberry, whose guidance of that seminar probably turned me into an intellectual historian many years before I knew that it had done so. The most intellectually stimulating readings from that course (I thought at the time) were not by William James or John Dewey but by Richard Rorty. I’ve moderated a bit on that judgment, but have continued to believe that he deserved a serious second look from my generation of scholars, or the generation that is young enough to have thought of him largely as a grand old man/windbag. So, first, please do not read the following as unsympathetic to Rorty; second, it is somewhat amusing to see him revived in this way, but please do not let Rorty become merely the “philosopher who predicted Trump!”
All right, to business.
As I see it, Rorty’s argument for what was likely to happen consists of four elements:
- Globalization would be the most disruptive and transformative socioeconomic force for the indefinite future, and would mean a persistent leakage of well-paying jobs and social cohesion from those areas of the U.S. which had been heavily industrialized.
- All levels of government in the U.S. would increasingly cater to groups that reliably turned out to vote—principally tax-averse suburbanites—resulting in indifference to the fates of those laid off by the factories which had fled and a gutting of any social programs (including higher education) which might have permitted a recalibration and reignition of the motors of social mobility. As Rorty says (in a line reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s essay on the “Me Decade”), “It is as if, sometime around 1980, the children of the people who made it through the Great Depression and into the suburbs had decided to pull up the drawbridge behind them.”
- One of those groups which had already made it over the moat was the bloc that was the professoriate, or, more broadly, “knowledge workers” or the “creative class.” This class or class fraction was already and would remain a magnet for criticism and resentment because of their attempt to combat what Rorty aptly referred to as the everyday “sadism” of American life—the misogyny and homophobia, the violently casual and casually violent racism. Because that interaction—the conflict over manners or public behavior—was in essence the only contact between this class and the class whose jobs were disappearing, an inveterate antagonism would continue to grow.
- This antagonism and the hopelessness of help from the government in finding some economic solution to the jobs crisis and the deterioration of social cohesion in deindustrialized communities would create an opening for a “strongman” who would promise, first, to put an end to the p.c. police’s dictatorship over public behavior and, second, to curtail globalization, perhaps even to reverse it. The election of this strongman would resurrect the open sadism which the left had, with so much effort, mostly banished.
I think it is mostly that last part which jolts us most intensely, and which seems retrospectively most prophetic. The largely economic analysis which constitutes the bulk of Rorty’s analysis was not really so difficult to imagine, but many of us are still adjusting painfully to a world where, as Rorty said, “Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words ‘n—r’ and ‘kike’ will once again be heard in the workplace” (90).
That is the nail that many people feel Rorty hit on the head. But there is so much that we cannot find in his account. First of all, the future that Rorty imagines is a smooth extrapolation from where he was: there is only a continuation of trends already present, no abrupt crises or bubbles. That Rorty did not think about a severe economic crisis as playing a role in this future is not a minor omission; many times in the book he ridicules Fredric Jameson and other marxists for their use of the term “late capitalism,” insisting tacitly that capitalism was, all in all, in the best of health, humming along like a Cadillac. So, 2008 is unimaginable to Rorty. Unless we want to begin making the argument that the 2007-8 financial crisis had no influence on the election of 2016, that is a serious fault in Rorty’s “prediction.”
Similarly, the election of an African-American man to the Presidency is impossible to locate in Rorty’s forecast. It is not just that Rorty “failed” to foresee Obama, but that there is really no room in his analysis for something like Obama’s election. I find it difficult to accept any analysis of the 2016 election which does not look at two terms of a black man in the Oval Office as a significant factor, probably as an accelerant of narratives about white people having “lost control” of the country. As we can see with Trump, there are few things in American life more powerfully symbolic than either electing “one of us” or, conversely, “one of them” to the Presidency.
But the larger problem with Rorty’s analysis—and anyone today who takes it to heart as an accurate prophesy—that is highlighted by its inability to imagine Obama’s election is that it has no room for the agency of people of color or other minorities. The story is entirely about how an unmarked but obviously white population feels and what it ultimately decides to do. It describes conflicts within a basically white country—conflicts between a white working class pitted against a mostly white professoriate that acts on behalf of minorities. Minorities don’t get to change history, they don’t get to do surprising things.
Well, obviously the election of an African-American to the Presidency is a surprising thing, but so is the #BlackLivesMatter movement and so are, on a more granular level, the protests of Colin Kaepernick and other athletes. The presence of a woman in the race as the opposing nominee only reinforced a sense of “minority” agency, even potency.
This absence of minority agency is significant because Rorty imagines the future revolt of the white working class as a response to largely faceless forces—globalization and bureaucracy. If, on the other hand, we acknowledge that an essential dimension of the revolt which elected Trump is instead the fact that there was a ready demonology for Trump to make use of consisting of readily recognizable faces, we can both understand better the essential historical question—why now?—and make room for an acknowledgment of the much broader class base of Trump voters. If we can only imagine the revolt as occurring against faceless top-down forces, it becomes difficult to understand how any movement could grow beyond the people being crushed by those forces: they lash out blindly not because they are ignorant, but because there would be nothing to see. If, however, there is a roster of faces to be condemned, anyone who is repelled for whatever reason by those faces can be added to the coalition; anyone who feels limited by or challenged by those faces can add their voice to the throng. Without minority agency, there would not be those faces.
The two final elements which we cannot find in Rorty are, in a sense, also about the agency of “others”: immigration and terrorism. Rorty imagines a United States that can only leak—jobs leave, factories flee for other nations. Its exterior seems to be impermeable; social conflicts arise within the nation because of tensions between already present groups. Everything is endogenous. But that is obviously not the America that Trump presented to his supporters: that imagined America is incredibly porous—the nation leaks jobs but takes on a “flood” of immigrants and refugees and is infected with terrorist cells (those damn Skittles). You really can’t find that in Rorty—anywhere in the book, in fact. Rorty’s America is like a strange kind of garden: new rows might be added, but they are added at the perimeter—the inner rows are always planted the same, and they never grow weeds or volunteers.
That limitation of Rorty’s imagination brings the first part of my critique to a close and, because this is already long enough, I’ll pause for now and pick up next week.
 The Times, if I may be permitted a grousing aside, has a penchant for atrocious headlines, but this one is egregious: “suggested” is such a weasel-word and clearly replaces something stronger that we are meant to impute to the headline—“predicted” or “prophesied.” For if one takes the title wholly out of context—if one does not transport the portentousness of what we know “Election 2016” to mean back to “suggested”—then the headline by itself is laughably trivial: of course an election “was coming” in 2016—it’s a year divisible by four! The headline only makes sense by intimation or imputation: word for word, it’s idiotic.
 Neil Gross’s biography is, of course, a wonderful book and the necessary first step in any future serious study of Rorty’s thought.
 Let me say again that Rorty did not offer this plausible future as some kind of prophecy: he was forthrightly extrapolating from where he stood, trying to draw attention to already present problems in society. That he followed them to a point he believed they could lead to—the election of a “strongman” and the erasure of the gains made by identity politics—was less an attempt to forecast the future than an effort to diagnose the latent maladies of his present.
 Two possible objections to this can be quickly dispatched: the presumption that because Clinton lost a number of blue-collar counties which Obama won twice, race should be discounted; and the idea that Obama represented less the ascendancy of a racial other than the continued domination (exacerbated by the nomination of Clinton) of a technocratic elite—the professoriate now dictating directly from D.C. (rather than the Ivory Tower) what was permissible public behavior.
The first objection presupposes a remarkably static idea of racism, as if past “non-racist” actions (like voting for Obama in 2008 and 2012) were predictive of future anti-racism. It would be nice if that were true, but I sincerely doubt it is. It also understates the degree to which an accumulated eight years of attacks from Republicans may have had a greater effect on voters in 2016 than the four years of attacks had by 2012.
The second objection is contradicted by the first—if there is evidence that a number of voters preferred Obama to Clinton, then they cannot really be thought of as equally part of the same technocratic elite. So either Obama should have lost because people wanted someone not from the elite, or Clinton should have won the Electoral College because voters were willing to accept Obama’s technocratic elitism. Or, just possibly, many voters were more willing to accept someone from the elite as long as he wasn’t a woman…