Martin Heidegger's decision to embrace the National Socialist movement is the most notorious case of political malfeasance on the part of a philosopher in a century filled with competing examples. The Heidegger case belongs in a separate category both because of the execrable moral status of the movement and its leader, and because of the thinker's status as arguably the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. What accounts for Heidegger's fateful act of political engagement? How is it related to his thought? And is the one unavoidably tainted by the other?
Dozens of scholars and intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic have debated these questions for years, as more and more sordid details of Heidegger's writing and actions during the 1930s have come to light and been published. Perhaps most troubling of all is the fact that Heidegger never really repudiated his Nazism, at least in moral terms. Throughout the remainder of his life (he died in 1976), he emphasized that Hitler and the Nazis had profoundly disappointed him — but his criticisms amounted to saying that they had failed to realize the considerable potential he (and perhaps he alone) had discerned within them.
One might say that Heidegger was and remained an idealistic National Socialist.
Heidegger's judgment of the Nazis has been much on my mind since reading a recent Peggy Noonan column about an obscure but exceedingly interesting website called the Journal of American Greatness (abbreviated JAG) — really an anonymous collective blog for idealistic admirers of Donald Trump.
Now, to be clear: Trump is not Adolf Hitler. And a thoroughly Trumpified GOP would not be a resurrected National Socialist party. (Though it's also true that Nazi sympathizers would be among its most motivated and enthusiastic supporters).
Still, pondering the parallels between Heidegger's judgments and those on display in JAG is a useful and illuminating exercise. JAG's contributors are very smart, very thoughtful provocateurs who recognize many of Trump's faults as a candidate and a person. And yet, they stand behind him. On an informational page of the website, they answer the question "Do you really support Trump?" by declaring, "We support Trumpism, defined as secure borders, economic nationalism, interests-based foreign policy, and above all judging every government action through a single lens: Does this help or harm Americans? For now, the principal vehicle of Trumpism is Trump."
Which is a little like supporting an intellectualized form of National Socialism while conceding that its leader is a bit of a loon.
The parallel is useful and illuminating not because Trump is a would-be totalitarian dictator and mass murderer, but because in both cases the gap between the idealized version of the movement and the actual person leading that movement was and is enormous and almost certainly insurmountable.
Consider the way one of the contributors to JAG wrote about Trump's attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel. In the post "Trump and the Judge," the person writing under the pseudonym Decius is careful to say that "we don't like what Trump said and find the implications troubling. We are not defending that position specifically." Yet according to Decius, Trump's outbursts against the judge nevertheless accomplished something useful: They turned the assumptions of the multicultural left against itself.
When those on the left assume that Sonia "Wise Latina" Sotomayor will rule on the Supreme Court in conformity with what multicultural "correctness" demands, no one thinks twice. They even applaud it. But when Trump presumes the same thing about Judge Curiel — that he'd place his ethnic identity and affiliation ahead of the imperative of judicial impartiality to rule unjustly against someone who's spoken harshly about undocumented Mexican immigrants — he's branded a racist. In the words of author Steven Hayward, a contributor to the Powerline blog who wrote in enthusiastic praise of Decius' point in a post titled "Trump's Jujitsu Overthrow of Liberalism," Trump thereby managed to directly attack "one of the most egregious aspects of liberal orthodoxy today — the premise of 'diversity' embedded in our rigid identity politics that really means uniformity to the liberal line."
As Jonah Goldberg pointed out in National Review, this reading of Trump's intentions is absurd. There's no evidence that Trump had any ideological motive at all in attacking Curiel in ethnic terms. He was merely lashing out in anger and frustration against the judge in a case he's in danger of losing — which is something he's done many times before. And to the extent that an ideological implication could be teased out of Trump's actions, it was the diametric opposite of the one Decius and Hayward claim to discern.
Trump wasn't attacking identity politics. He was practicing it, without apology.
The distinction is absolutely crucial. In several other posts on the JAG site, including a nuanced response to Goldberg's critique, one senses a longing for Trump to use multicultural means to smite the multicultural left so that the colorblind rule of law might be reinstituted in American public life. They want Trump to fight fire with fire and beat the left at its own identity-politics game — not because identity politics is good, but because identity politics is the only thing that can beat identity politics.
The only problem is that there is no evidence whatsoever that Trump sees things this way. He's not an adept in the "jujitsu overthrow of liberalism." He's just a ruthless businessman ready and willing to say or do anything to win (or in the case of a loss, to assure that the blame is fixed on somebody, anybody but himself). If that end will be furthered by impugning in ethnic and racial terms the impartiality of a judge, then he is perfectly willing, and even eager, to do so.
I have no doubt that for some voters (and maybe for more than some) this is what's most appealing about Trump: They want a defender, someone who'll fight like hell for their interests as passionately as he fights for his own, someone who'll respond to the identity politics of the left (which favors people of color and women) with an identity politics of the right (which favors Caucasians and men), even at the risk of being called a racist and a sexist by the politically correct elite of both parties.
This is what Trump appears to have in mind — a politics of ethnic, racial, and gender grievance for white male America. Only someone who lives entirely in and for ideas could believe that an America that descended fully into this kind of Balkanized politics could somehow emerge on the other side ready to re-embrace the colorblind rule of law. It would be far more likely to break apart into angry, rivalrous factions incapable of fastening onto any overarching notion of a common good.
Martin Heidegger wasn't the first thinker to fall for an idealized construal of an illiberal political movement and make a fool of himself in the bargain. And he certainly wasn't the last.