Image by T.J. Hawk

‘Our’ Idiot President?

“I would like in the first place merely to point out that in the case of performative utterances, saying something stupid amounts to doing something stupid, and that it is also and especially for this reason that, today, the question of the responsibility of the university, or of professors professing their profession (to speak like Derrida in ‘The University without Condition’) through more or less performative statements, authorizing themselves from their autonomy and their self-assertive sovereignty, arises as never before.”

Bernard Stiegler
“Doing and Saying Stupid Things in the Twentieth Century”
original emphasis

What is the responsibility of the university to respond to acts of stupidity? This question arises as never before in the age of Trump, where critics are baffled as to whether to treat him like an idiot-child who acts off impulse while adult leaders scramble around him or a creative mastermind who crafts incisive messages to receptive audiences.

So often our public discourse while reeling from Trump’s latest seismic activity whittles down to the question: Is our current president stupid or smart?

The distinction helps us gauge the degree to which Trump is awillful president, acting from automaticity or intentionality and as such, less or more responsible for the cruelties he inflicts. The answer communicates the extent to which our national elections are a joke, whether citizens can trust other citizens to vote for a leader who will pledge to protect them, and whether the rest of the world has grounds to mock the US. The deliberation about whether Trump is stupid contours conversations about the degree to which Trump is a threat to national security. Similar to President Bush’s “Bushisms,” Trump’s ineptitudes disclose that something is not quite right.

Public debates over whether Trump’s idiotism often invoke the figure of an infant-president. The infant-president does not read (one theory even claims he cannot read). The infant-president favors television, even when it comes to sourcing important national security intel. Former Director of the CIA and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added “killer graphics” to daily intelligence briefings. It has been reported that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump a “fucking moron,” and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster called him a “kindergartener.” The infant-president gets squirmy and cannot focus for long stretches of time in important meetings. The infant-president has not developed impulse control, especially when it comes to freewheeling Twitter sessions aimed at North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Chuck Schumer characterized Trump’s government shutdown over the wall as a “temper tantrum.”

I want to suggest that the public discourse concerning Trump’s failure to perform intelligence and maturity reveals a pressure that arises as never before: denouncing stupid statements from a position of authority.

In other words, Trump’s election calls into question the role of the university to give an account of the ludicrousness of our historical present. Only by being open to the force of stupidity can we begin to feel it as our own—to begin to look back on ourselves, stupid. Responding to Trump’s limitations elicits facepalms: Are “we,” including those in the university, not responsible for the return of white supremacist fascism?

If so, what is the answer to, as Stiegler urges, “the question of the responsibility of the university”? (original emphasis)

In his 2002 book “The University without Condition,” Jacques Derrida indicates that the university calls for acts like knowledge-production, the building of oeuvres, and the stockpiling of important competencies. Those who teach and research in universities might feel an unprecedented burden to perform expertise. Teacher-scholars might feel the need to be on top of their game in the classroom, to marshal all the forces of truth to check misleading statements, and to help those around them manage their mental health.

Sam Fallon in The Chronicle of Higher Education criticizes the reflexive impulse to become the professor professing their authority. Fallon sees professors responding to Trump with “literalism,” a pedantic performance of expertise rotten with “earnest righteousness”:

Under the circumstances, who could blame historians and literature professors for clinging to the shreds of authority left them? Among those shreds, no doubt, is the possession of expert knowledge, a form of capital whose readiest currency is the potted fact.

I agree with Fallon that acts of quick correction (“well, actually”) as their only or main source of political intervention saddles professors with the unattainable goal of performing as if the smartest source of knowledge. But I also worry that assuming a pedantic stance may forestall a confrontation with stupidity that would do more than correct errors in others’ thinking.

What seems important to recognize is that the university is constative and performative. That is, saying something is doing something. The university’s utterances perform knowledge production and promise a vision for the future. Derrida describes the act of professing as “pledging oneself,” “declaring oneself, while giving oneself out to be, while promising this or that” (original emphasis). It is a “declaration of responsibility.” And professors are not the only ones who profess.

What kind of declarations of responsibility should the university make during a crisis of national maturity?

I propose that the university becomes responsible for revisiting how its utterances reinvest the institution in white supremacy and threaten those already oppressed.

Rather than write off Trump’s statements as mere dumb bluster, the university can focus on utterances that seem to go beyond the boundaries of what makes sense. Public speculation about Trump’s mental health, particularly about what some regard as his delusional statements of intellectual grandeur (“very stable genius,” “very intelligent person”), may miss the effects of these statements. As the Washington Post reports, “Trump has often chosen to describe as stupid people who are not white.” His preoccupation with IQ cleaves the world into categories of smart (white) and stupid (non-white).

The university can begin to look at the extent to which it relies on similar quick hierarchies of smart and stupid to avoid reckoning with its own failures and racist historical presents.

The university then becomes responsible for situating Trump’s statements as historical regressions to and progressions of volatile forces of white supremacy that founded the US. Stiegler writes, “[S]tupidity or Dummheit is a scar of desire—of which regression is precisely the return to its primordial stage, which is that of the drives.” Confronted by a feeling of stupidity, our own and Trump’s, we pick at the scab of white supremacy within our institutions. We confront a felt-inhibition to articulate something we imagine should be otherwise, namely a society beyond white supremacy. The university should see the present moment as an effect of the forced colonization and enslavement that also enabled their creation.

My own institution Pacific Lutheran University sits on Steilacoom and Nisqually land. Members of the university announce this fact before most meetings. Many institutions that currently sit on Native American land announce a similar statement before meetings and events. Such statements enact a disjuncture (this is not the university’s land), and yet, a factual recognition does not go far enough. As Saidiya Hartman wrote in her 2007 bookLose Your Mother,” an appeal for recognition “assumes both the ignorance and innocence of the white world. If only they knew the truth, they would act otherwise.” It is necessary to move beyond the language of diversity, inclusion, and mere recognition steeped in liberal multicultural education toward practices of dismantling white supremacist institutions.

When evaluating its imbrication in a crisis of national maturity, the university should reckon with the fact that not all are equally responsible for (the many returns of) white supremacist fascism. Questions of uneven responsibility come to the fore: What promises to others must the university reaffirm or begin to make? How would these promises remake the boundaries of the university? Who takes on the invisible labor, of the university but often deemed outside of it, toward fulfilling those promises?

The university should institute mechanisms of reflexivity. Self-reflexivity involves a drastic shift. The responsibility of the university is not to reaffirm just how important it is to be smart. If the university feels shaken by stupidity, that is because it has inherited, in some sense, that stupidity as its own. If professors find themselves confounded by Trump’s nonsensical statements, it may be because they feel pressure to denounce stupidity in response. But, to feel that one can be stupid is not altogether bad news. Awe is one manifestation of stupidity.