U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Covfefe; or, Intellectual History in the Time of Trump

When new bloggers come onboard the USIH Blog, they make a commitment to provide a post every week (or, if they so choose, every two weeks). It can be their own work or a guest post.  I can hardly object to this rule. I more or less created it years ago.  When I was among the first bloggers to take on the promise of a post a week, I considered it a kind of discipline. And it was. I made a point of not missing a post. Sometimes I’d blog about my work, sometimes a spare thought that I had about something unrelated to my work. Sometimes I’d respond to things that other bloggers posted. The posts weren’t all equally good. But they were regular. And that was the point. Blogs rely on a steady stream content. And I could tell the handful of people I know who might be interested in reading what I had to say: look on the blog on Monday (and, more recently, Friday). You’ll find a post from me there.

But this discipline has collapsed for me in recent months. Some of it is that we now have enough bloggers that a fairly steady stream of content happens even if we don’t all post as regularly as we say we will (and I’ve grown soft in cracking the whip at other bloggers as I’ve grown soft on myself). Discipline may be a little less necessary. Some of it is that I am at a relatively late stage of the book project that I’m working on and there are fewer occasions when I have new thoughts that feel bloggy.[1]

But something else has happened, too.  In the past, when push came to shove, one of my go-to subjects for blog posts was current events…or rather the intersection of current events with intellectual history.  If anything, in recent months I’ve been following current events more closely even than I usually do.  But somehow that intersection with intellectual history feels more and more slight.

Two of the big “events” of the end of this week, one trivial, the other of major importance, capture this absence.

In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, President Trump posted this now infamous tweet:

Though it was soon deleted, this tweet and its mysterious final word became a huge topic of online discussion. As is typical of this White House’s world historical inability to admit error, spokesperson Sean Spicer insisted that the post had meaning, though he refused to say what it was.  Trump fans online developed a bizarre theory that it was a secret Arabic message aimed at Afghanistan (despite the fact that it wasn’t Arabic and Arabic is not one of the languages of Afghanistan). At least one (famously shallow) pundit suggested that “covfefe” was the key to understanding Trump.

But however you look at it, “covfefe” is an unusually empty signifier.

Yesterday, focus shifted to the President’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. To a very great extent, analyses of Trump’s decision focused on raw emotion.  The President, reports suggest, felt insulted in one way or another by his European counterparts at the recent G7 meeting in Sicily.  Withdrawing from the Paris agreement was an emotional response to this situation.

Even this potentially consequential choice seems not to be about thought in any simple sense.

Now I have a very capacious sense of what intellectual history should be about. Ideas are in action everywhere and we can trace their workings in all the nooks and crannies of the past (and the present). Even irrationality has its intellectual history.

Yet I feel at a bit of a loss about how to conceive of an intellectual history of our current political moment.

[1] Though it’s just possible that I’ll put something together for the blog about Alex Haley’s Roots, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred and their nearly opposite views of the value of history.  If it doesn’t show up here, y’all will just have to wait for the book…

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Good luck. Since I was fifteen, I have been trying to understand a society in which significant numbers of people believe that the moon landings were fake but pro wrestling is real.

    • Nobody (in a statistically significant way) really believes pro-wrestling is real though, right? They just say they do to maintain the fun of the illusion, has always been my understanding.

      Not that this detracts from your main point at all.

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