What a year to be a political pundit!
The rise of insult-spewing demagogue Donald Trump as a serious presidential contender, the transformation of long-shot far-right Ted Cruz into a perfectly reasonable mainstream option for the GOP nomination, the strength and endurance of socialist Bernie Sanders in the Democratic race against Hillary Clinton — it may have been a turbulent and troubling year for the American political system, but boy was it a blast for opinion journalists.
I wrote roughly 140 columns in 2015, and an astonishingly high portion of them dealt with the presidential race — with an inordinate number in the past six months obsessing about various aspects of the Trump phenomenon. It's hardly surprising, then, that the two columns I most regret writing this year were efforts to come to grips with the upstart mogul from Manhattan.
In many ways, I'm quite proud of "How Nietzsche explains the rise of Donald Trump," my column from Aug. 11. I certainly stand by the assertion that "Trump's style and substance (such as it is) grow out of a view of the world that overlaps in revealing ways with the ideas of the radical German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche." I also still like the parallels I drew between the way Nietzsche and Trump both deploy "bluster and braggadocio," and my discussion of whether Trump or Ayn Rand is the more consistent Nietzschean.
But then there's the core of my argument — that "Nietzsche understood himself to be reviving what he called the morality of the strong against the morality of the weak," and that Trump champions a similar ethic of strength fueled by fury at the ability of the weak to rig the system in their favor.
Oh, the perils of introducing philosophical complexity into a mode of writing that rewards glibness! I love bringing philosophers into my column, and I work hard to do so in a way that makes their ideas accessible without sacrificing accuracy. But this time I failed. As several philosophically informed critics pointed out on Facebook and Twitter, my portrayal of Nietzsche's thought on this point was at best misleading and at worst a blatant distortion.
Nietzsche did describe a "slave revolt in morality," led by Jesus Christ, in which the weak overthrew the morality of the strong that had justified their suffering and exploitation. And Nietzsche was also convinced that after 18 centuries or so, the morality of the weak had become exhausted, terminating in a nihilism that was dragging down European civilization.
But his proposed solution to this epochal problem didn't involve any simpleminded revival of the original morality of the strong. Rather, it required that modern man push through the "passive" nihilism of modernity to a more active, creative, harsh, playful, postmodern form of nihilism that builds on and deepens the psychological insights (and penchant for self-imposed cruelty) bequeathed to us by the morality of the weak.
By implying that Trump's promotion of a cartoon version of the morality of the strong somehow fulfilled a Nietzschean goal, I badly misrepresented the philosopher to readers. Had I described the Trump candidacy as providing an abject lesson in misapplying Nietzschean insights, I could have made most of the same points without getting tangled up in distortions. But that isn't what I did, and the result was an unfortunate case of mangled argument and exposition.
The problem with the second mislaid Trump column was very different.
Published less than a month ago, on Dec. 8, the column was conceived as an examination of something much broader than Trump. In my original pitch to my editors, I suggested the title, "A nation on the verge of a nervous breakdown," and described a column that would touch on numerous examples, from the political right, left, and center, of unhinged, irrational thinking and acting over the preceding weeks.
Trump was one example, but only one. I would also talk about Ted Cruz, the social-media-driven 24/7 news cycle, recent overreactions to terrorism and gun violence, inane campus protests, and President Obama's failure to strike the right tone in talking about ISIS. When I filed my column, around 4:30pm on Dec. 7, I wasn't sure if I'd pulled off bringing all of these examples together into a coherent essay.
But then, as I waited to hear back from my editor, I saw the news that Trump had just proposed a "complete shutdown" of Muslims entering the U.S. Suddenly my sprawling, unfocused column had a sharp news hook. I wrote my editor to suggest working a reference to Trump's remarks into the piece; he wholeheartedly agreed, and also decided to add Trump's name to the headline I'd proposed.
"Donald Trump and a nation on the verge of a nervous breakdown" appeared the next morning, and I very quickly realized that what at first seemed to be fortuitous timing was actually the opposite. Adding Trump to the headline and referring to his anti-Muslim remarks early on in the column had the effect of making it seem like this essay was conceived and written in response to those remarks. And that left the impression that I meant to draw an equivalence in gravity and seriousness between Trump's statements in favor of banning Muslims, a few overly sweeping anti-gun editorials, and a bunch of foolish (but comparatively trivial) student protests.
I intended no such thing, but it was too late: The appearance of the column in the midst of the controversy surrounding Trump's remarks made it quite natural for readers to assume otherwise.
In retrospect, I should have asked my editor for an extra hour or so to work on the column and spent that time turning it into what most of my readers assumed it was — a considered response to Trump's anti-Muslims comments. Instead, I stuck with my original idea, not realizing that the day's news had reframed it in a way that fundamentally undercut its intended message.
It's a lesson I hope to recall the next time something I've written gets overtaken by events.