A philosopher considers Trumpism through the lens of history, classical thought, and a bit of Hamilton.
Like any clearheaded thinker, Nussbaum (Law and Ethics/Univ. of Chicago; Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, 2016, etc.) was unsettled by Trump’s election, but she’s troubled also by the way people of all political persuasions have succumbed to fear and mindless fear-slinging. She tries to keep Trump at arm's length and focus instead on what philosophers and psychologists going back to antiquity have had to say about fear (“genetically first among the emotions”), its role in stoking anger, disgust, and envy, and how those emotions in turn perpetuate divisive politics (sexism and misogyny especially). That approach gives this important book both up-to-the-moment relevance and long-view gravitas. Athenian debates over wiping out enemies, for instance, reveal the enduring ways that “fear can be manipulated by true and false information.” For centuries, irrational fear about others being unclean and untouchable has been shaped into discriminatory policy and violence. Envy has long provoked attitudes of one-upmanship that support systemic oppression or foolish practices like dueling—Nussbaum writes at length about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical in this context, focusing on Aaron Burr’s and Alexander Hamilton’s competitive natures. But while the author generally takes the long view on these conflagrations, she also wrestles with contemporary rhetoric and social media. Unlike the Stoics and Cynics of the past (or her more emotionally cool contemporaries), she’s more willing to subscribe to hope and faith as solutions, using Martin Luther King Jr. as a key exemplar. Her main prescription for fixing a fear-struck America is straightforward: effectively making AmeriCorps mandatory, an act that “would put young citizens into close contact with people different in age, ethnicity, and economic level.” Nothing would do more to eradicate fear of the other, she argues, though she acknowledges that America at the moment would be too scared to pull it off.
An engaging and inviting study of humanity’s long-standing fear of the other.