This season of America is crazy. I stopped watching during the 08-16 seasons, things got too boring. But season 17 is so exciting, I never miss an episode. I can’t wait for the finale (!) TheoKabala89
Although he has been in office for over a year now, there are surprisingly few scholarly examinations of Trump’s presidency. And even those researchers who have addressed the phenomenon have chosen to pursue the path of demonization and ridicule prescribed by the mass media, to adopt a critical approach, or to concentrate on partial phenomena, such as Trump’s style of speaking. In a text completed in late 2017, I attempted instead to present a comprehensive sociological analysis of this unusual presidency.
The example of Trump supporter Nicholas Taleb, who puts book chapters online before they are actually being published, inspired me to do the same. With this post, I present the first chapter, which introduces my approach and sets out, among other things, my reasons for the somewhat premature decision to subject the ‘Trump affair’ to scientific scrutiny as early as late 2017. To anticipate: the structural pattern I observed, which is responsible for the many ‘conflicts of interest,’ has remained the same despite the many personal decisions taken since; despite a president who is by now explicitly making fun of his role of president („And then you go: God bless America …“); and despite the revelation of Russia’s interference in the presidential election, which has now been confirmed on a legal basis thanks to the work of special counsel Robert Mueller. What this introduction cannot and does not want to do is to apply the systems-theoretical instruments to the subject. I hope to receive additional stimulus and suggestions for improvements from the scientific community before updating the entire text in late 2018 in reference to more recent developments.
ABSTRACT: This text considers the presidency of Donald Trump from the standpoint of systems theory. It views politics, the mass media, the economy, the law etc. as autonomous social units. Although these units may be irritated by the psychic units found in their environment, they cannot be controlled by them. Based on this model, an attempt here is made to move some way towards cooling down the emotionally charged and personalized debate – greatly dominated by mass media sensationalism – concerning the American President and the politics processed by his government. Instead of the rejection or approval of particular individuals, including their interests and motives, this analysis advocates a focus on the social structures that underlie the observed conflicts. To this end, the concept of conflict of interest is recalibrated and construed in the sense of anonymous interests of systems.
The still fledgling American presidency of Donald Trump has been already plagued with an abundance of scandals and affairs. If one trusts media reports, his is an ‘unprecedented presidency.’ One could even seize upon one of Trump’s now almost legendary spelling errors and say it is an ‘unpresidented presidency,’ as the current president certainly does not comport himself as is normally the case for American presidents, namely presidentially.
Even if one adopts the perspective of a Trump supporter and believes that the media and the political elite are engaged in a conspiracy through the use of fake news, it cannot be denied that there is a great deal of commotion concerning the 45th President of the United States. Communication concerning Trump has swelled enormously and the present text only contributes to this profusion. Such a surge in communication is always an indication of a crisis situation, as one of the functions of society is that of error correction, which aims to remediate mistakes and coordinate behavior in such situations. As a result, communication proliferates and differentiates.
This much is clear: the current uproar (July 2017) concerning Trump is vociferous. At best, one can argue as to whether this clamor is due to Trump himself or to the critical accounts of him in many newspapers and television channels. The mass media would argue for the first case. According to this viewpoint, Trump is at once a clear indication of a political crisis as well as a prime contributor to it – first as election campaigner and then as office holder. As is well known, Trump and his supporters argue for the other position. Accordingly, the liberal biased (read Democrat leaning) mass media is conducting a ‘witch hunt’ against him and covering him in a highly unfair manner.
No one would seriously deny that he currently represents the preferred trend in reporting, fair or otherwise. It is also clear that Trump attracts viewers, brings higher ratings, and results in higher click rates. The Trump critical media in particular continuously attract a great deal of attention with stories related to Trump. Even Stephen Colbert, who repeatedly and intensely attacks Trump in his late night talk show, benefits from him. This fact has not escaped Trump’s attention.
Allan Lichtman refers to the ‘Trump age,’ in which “the pace of everything is accelerated – he’s been president for less than 100 days, and we feel like he’s been president for years” (Lichtman, quoted in Willis 2017). As a result of this acceleration, this text will already appear ‘old’ when it is finally published, as time continues to elapse while it is penned, although for the sake of accuracy it is better said that ‘times’ elapse, for it should be obvious that the operations of the mass media, the social media, politics, the law, science, economy etc. run at different speeds. Correspondingly, we will reformulate Kohelet’s insight that there is a proper time for everything as follows: Every system has its proper time. Comedian Bill Maher called the indictments by special counsel Robert Mueller “a slow moving story,” and from the perspective of the mass media, they indeed look as if they were happening in slow motion. And indeed hardly any other sector of society is capable of such a slowdown in its operations as the law; sometimes they are indistinguishable from standstill (Luhmann 1993: 569).
Yet, neither the law nor politics can fully escape the time pressures imposed by the media. Reactions are perceived as necessary, but both can only react at their own pace. The mass media, which operate under the auspices of acceleration, impatiently penetrate political actors who are then forced to state their positions, but political statements are merely more symbolic acts; they do not execute policy. And when the host of a late night show points to the contradictory statements made by Trump and accuses the president of being a liar, he does not perform a legal operation. It is something completely different, however, when Comey calls Trump a liar in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. In other words, not everything that makes common sense also makes legal or judicial sense. (The extent to which Trump’s tweets should be interpreted as political acts is another question; the answers that have come out of the White House are contradictory – and that is exactly where they prove to be reliable. Sean Spicer, Trump’s former Press Secretary, answered with yes, while we prefer to answer summarily with a no and will later provide reasons for this appraisal.)
What is true for politics and the law is also true for science. This is why this text, which should really wait until the conclusion of the Justice Department’s special investigation, or, in the best case, until the end of the Trump presidency, is appearing now, actually ‘ahead of time.’ But science responds with its own standard ‘tools’. A text such as this one must also satisfy certain as yet to be specified conditions, while its goal is to ascertain the truth. As such, deadlines in science are actually nonsense, for it is impossible to know in advance how much time will be required to establish the truth concerning a set of facts. In addition, one must take into account the organizational requirements in science for publishing a text. After its completion, it is first reviewed by various bodies or panels to determine if it is fit for print, and this seldom occurs without the demand for modifications, which further delays publishing. If its going to be printed, this again requires a great deal of time. In other words, the whole process is slow in comparison to the pace of news reporting in the media.
An editor offered me an appropriate warning: “It’s always a risk publishing during a presidency, and probably even more so during this one.” The problem is, however, that what would be a non-risky or ‘safe’ publication from the standpoint of the editor is nothing less than a social fiction. Such an ideal or hallucination of a safe work is important for editors, as how else can they assess all the submitted texts in terms of their quality and their market prospects? Nonetheless, a completed presidency in no way guarantees more security, neither in terms of analysis or with respect to commercial viability. We therefore prefer to make a different distinction – one that assumes that an element of risk always exists. And in the case of a scholarly text such as this one, any possible future losses are typically kept within limits. In other words: the high-pressure injection of water into a wellbore is more risky. But if it turns out that this text caused irreparable damage to the environment, I will certainly show remorse.
Having said that, this text is also expressly designated as both premature and provisional – an attempt at a first tentative approach to understanding the supposed chaos that reigns in the White House by defocalizing the actions of idividuals and shifting our attention toward social structures. Above all, this attempt legitimates itself and its precarious status through two desires: first, not to simply abandon the field to the mass media; secondly, to do justice to the responsibility inherent in our role as scientists i.e. independent academic researchers (although I would also advise the reader to take this stylization of the author’s reasons with a good dose of precaution).
In short, the thesis proposed here is that there is ‘nothing wrong’ with the chaos in the White House, as the observed defects and conflicts have, first and foremost, structural reasons. To phrase it paradoxically: The chaos is in order. We will regard the personal interests of those involved, despite their perhaps being of enormous interest for the legal system and the mass media, as being of no concern for our analysis.
From our point of view, the demonization of Trump and his associates is hardly helpful, whereby a revival of the social form of the demonic (consistent with the meaning employed by Tillich 1926) with respect to the Trump phenomenon could be enlightening. The demonic promises excitement instead of tedium, confusion in place of reason – and we all indulge in this debauched horror show, which the mass media, itself demonic, currently presents to the world with the help of the ‘demon’ Trump. In the following text, we will make use of a proven analytic option that allows for semantics and social structure, culture and society to be determined from one another relatively independently. A semantic determination of the object is indispensable, especially when taking into account that semantic interpretations permit a description of possible social structures, as well as anticipating, reconstructing, and even constituting them (Luhmann 1980: 86) – but the semantics of demonology is only one option among many others to make sense of Trump.
Before proceeding to the actual analysis, a few words are in order with respect to the method applied in this text. Methods as procedures that regulate how one arrives at a particular result are not exclusively a feature of science, as many operations have methods, be they impeachment procedures or instructions in the manufacture of furniture. Yet, it is only with the employment of the empirical method that science becomes ‘hard science’ – and this also applies to the so-called ‘soft sciences,’ even when empirics are missing, as method alone can guarantee the ‘objectivity’ of an operation.
Whoever proceeds methodically must be in a position to disclose the individual steps leading to the results so that the operation can be repeated. Why? Because only this guarantees the independence of results from the person who produced them. According to Carl Friedrich Gauss in his inaugural lecture at Göttingen University, his Antrittsvorlesung on astronomy, with the advent of the empirical method, “idle dreams and hypotheses drawn from thin air” are no longer admissible in science (1808, translated by me, M.H.). Unless, of course, such hypotheses are presented in a controlled format, such as a clearly marked opinion piece. As we shall see, this independence from individual persons and the separation of the personal sphere from the matter at hand constitutes a significant feature of modern society. This is of particular importance with respect to our analysis and also concerns the increasing importance of individuals like Donakd Trump within the sphere of the mass media and politics.
According to the postulated ideal, whoever employs the same method will arrive at the same results, regardless of the person implementing that method. We all know that this belief in objectivity has been severely undermined by science itself. We consider the ‘ideology of objectivity’ an important part of its growing-up or adolescence; it primarily served the purpose of asserting the position of science in modern society. To some extent, its force has been diminished by the constructivist turn and the realization “that the ‘what’ in a statement obscures its ‘who’ and that the ‘who’ obscures its ‘how’” (Baecker 2008: 121).
Nonetheless, there is no getting past the use of a method in science, as this is the only means by which the binary code of science or, one might say, its guiding principle of differentiation can be applied, namely, the means to set out the conditions for determining between the values of ‘true’ or ‘false’ (or ‘fake’) with respect to the matter of investigation. Thus, we have now arrived at the point where the applied method in this text is introduced to the reader: the method of second order observation used within the framework of systems theory.
Systems theory learned the lessons posed by the failure of the ideal of objectivity, without lapsing into hopeless subjectivism and relativism. It suspends the epistemological question in favor of a social theory of the observer, making one’s own perspective an integral part of the theory’s design and thereby, to a certain extent, exerting control over this factor.
It is important to point out the consequences related to the introduction of the observer to systems theory, which, in terms of its evolution, occurred quite late. For Luhmann, everything is “completely different” with the inclusion of the observer. Nietzsche had already called attention to this matter: “Only by forgetting that he himself is a subject … an artistically creative subject, does man live with any repose, security, and consistency.” (Nietzsche 1873) However, it is important to note that the term ‘observer’ refers to an operation and does not refer to a specific person, such as the author of this text, Donald Trump, or Robert Mueller – although, of course, all of these individuals are worthy of consideration as observers. When such observation operations are linked together in sequences that can be differentiated from the environment, then we are dealing with a system, bet it psychic or social; an abstract concept that always arises whenever thought or communication is regarded as a model and the individual, concrete thoughts and communications are excluded. For those uneasy with the term, they can instead employ more general concepts, such as ‘autonomous unit.’ This is not particularly important within the framework of this investigation. What is important, however, is that this term makes it possible not only to comprehend, as hitherto, people as observers, but also social units (precisely: systems), such as politics, law, religion, the mass media, and science. Many observers have considered the operation of observation to be so essential that they even regard everything as owing its very existence to observation: something ‘is’ or appears, because it is observed i.e. distinguished (in the words of George Spencer-Brown: “a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart” (Spencer-Brown 1975: v).
As such, it is possible to construct modern society from diverse chains of observations. This coherence arises from the agitations of various monopolies that are all pursuing their own agendas – ‘large-scale’ social units such as politics, law, religion, art, and the economy. (The number of these functional entities distinguished depends on the interests of the observer. Many consider it acceptable simply to experiment and thereby hope that the results justify the experiment. Others plead for limits, such as the decalogue proposed by Steffen Roth and Anton Schütz 2015.) How they are differentiated is already determined, namely, by closely examining their structure. Two of these essential structural characteristics: the previously mentioned code that they follow (not an encryption code, but the guiding binary opposition), and the specific sort of communication that is processed, or, to put it another way, that they inscribe into society. The communicative boundaries between these spheres become visible when one moves from one system to another.
We have to find our bearings in this environment divided up into ‘system interests,’ as specific permanent places are no longer provided for us within this order. In other words, Donald Trump is not only unambiguously and exclusively a politician. At least in this reality, he cannot only be president. He belongs, for example, to the population, is a customer, a husband, businessman, processed by the medical system as a patient, and so on.
The demands made upon every one of us are therefore quite high. This explains, not least of all, the strengthening of fundamentalism, of ‘identity-giving movements’ that attempt to win back the lost permanency of a fixed place. This represents a clear and fundamental rejection of what functional differentiation stands for. In addition, there is the frustration of expectations linked with functional differentiation, such as with regard to the promises of democracy, namely, the opportunity of the people to engage in joint decision making, which finds its limits in the oligarchic structures of political parties. Not to mention the conventional political rhetoric. Or as Taleb puts it: You can call Trump’s plain-speaking what you like. But the way intellectuals treat people who don’t agree with them isn’t good either. And then there is the supposed impartiality of the mass media, or even its ‘indifference,’ which, as Trump correctly and frequently emphasizes, is not much different.
In this situation, Trump can exist parasitically as a politician. It is this functional differentiated structure that lies at the heart of the many conflicts of interest that we are able to observe with respect to what we shall subsequently refer to as the ‘Trump affair.’ It is a designation that allows us to describe the many conflicts and events connected with Trump as an invariably vague unity. If nothing else, the concept of an affair – derived from the French affaire, or matter – refers not only to a public scandal, such as the Russian connections of Trump’s election team, but also to a romantic adventure. In the case of Trump, we are actually dealing with numerous affairs – the unconditional love of his supporters, the problematic relationship with his own party, and the love-hate relationship he has with the mass media, which have already profited by their coverage of him during the election campaign and continue to do so. The love story between Trump and the mass media could be described as a fatal attraction. “Trump is a drug — and the media is addicted.” (McClennen 2017) The reason for the media’s love of Trump is directly related to its working mechanisms – one could even talk of a filter function. The mass media prefer to inform about conflicts, including a conflict between themselves and the 45th president of the USA. As clever as the characterization of the Trump-critical (whether liberal or, shall we say, democratic) media as the ‘opposition party’ may be, it was Trump himself with his attacks that turned this into a real conflict, which requires the communication of disagreement as its precondition. (We will later examine in greater detail other reasons for the media’s interest in Trump, including Trump’s entertainment value on account of his ‚extraordinariness.’)
Systems theory, often seen as an opponent of Critical Theory, agrees with Adorno in one point: „Das Ganze ist das Unwahre“ The ‘unity’ of society is no longer available to us; our social reality is constituted from a multiplicity of various perspectives – and there are no competent observers who possess an overview of the whole of society any longer. (Already the legendary observers in the theory of relativity, moving relative to each other and experiencing differing realities, constitute two different realities – perhaps one in which Trump is still president and the other in which Mark Zuckerberg is sworn in as the new leader of the free world. There is, admittedly, still one competent observer in this case; Einstein, who sees both.)
In this regard, systems theory makes use of an insight from the field of computer science: an operation employed by a program takes place within the system. There can only be this level of operation and not a second or a third. To put it in other words, a theory of society is always a theory by society. Which is why, as mentioned above, an investigation like this must be able to take into account its own – in this case, a scientific, more precisely: systems-theoretical – standpoint at any time. The entailed partiality is thereby not dialectically annulled; it remains, but is enriched with greater complexity.
The recognition that truth is only a construction has long since been assimilated by other social spheres, such as the mass media, which have accused constructivists of being responsible for the phenomenon of fake news. According to newspapers and blogs around the world, Trump’s electoral victory and the career of so-called ‘alternative facts’ has only been possible because certitude as a guiding principle has been discredited by science (see Pörksen 2017). “By undermining science’s claim of objectivity,” so asserts an article in Scientific American, “these postmodernists have unwittingly laid the philosophical foundation for the new rise of authoritarianism” (Otto 2016). The Washington Post regards Trump as “the ironic, self-referential embodiment of the newer postmodern conception of truth” (Swaim 2016). In short, it has been the constructivists who have conjured up the evil spirit of fake news. Accordingly, constructivism is seen here as a Pandora’s box, from which fake news, alternative facts, and even the Trump presidency have been released into the world – evils from which mankind had remained untouched. But what else is this accusation if not a construction?
Constructivism begins with Plato, with a search for a reality beyond the ordinary everyday experience perceived as mere opinion, and ends with the discovery that this reality is knowledge itself. (Luhmann 1993: 511) Certainly, many causes contribute to the realization of this knowledge – linguistic, psychological, social – but therefore that knowledge is far from being a mere (linguistic, psychological, social) construction. For instance, these causes cannot explain why observers agree on whether a crowd is large or small, on whether Trump is (still) president and Obama is no longer – one may not like it, but reality does not care about what we like. Here we concur with the words of the TV host Don Lemon: “Don’t call something fake because you don’t agree with it” (Lemon 2017)
Our variant of constructivism in no way denies reality (one could say it is not radical). Our aim is not to rehash the program of epistemological idealism or even solipsism. Constructions are real in themselves. We are therefore not denying reality, but merely removing the ontological underpinnings. The word fact comes from the Latin ‘facere,’ meaning to make, to do. In this respect, every fact is actually a construction – but not necessarily a free-floating construction in denial of reality. Whoever calls attention to the constructedness of facts, or better yet, the sustainability and, thereby, the plasticity of these constructs, only indicates that facts do not simply lie about in the world, but are produced. In this text, we are producing the truth about Donald Trump – it is a construction that is aware of its inherent constructiveness and, thereby, of its own history. Every ‘is’ encountered here is marked with the index ‘observation.’
This is also true for our theoretical axiom, that of autonomous social and psychic units that reproduce themselves. Whether these entities exist in actual fact is a secondary matter. This is Luhmann’s minimal ontology: We assume that they do (Luhmann 1984: XYZ). But of course we have good reasons to follow him in this assumption. It is not an arbitrary decision. That can of course not mean to become apodictic, but only to insist that this research, just like any other scientific work, has not found out the one and only truth about Trump, but only makes a proposal.
Those who recognize that we are only dealing with constructions will also have to accept the subsequent costs of this recognition. But contrary to the assumptions of the mass media, these considerations do not lead to a post-factual indifference. Instead, we have to accept greater responsibility. All at once, we are officially entrusted with responsibility for this world and this society. It is now “more ours that we would have liked” (Baecker 2008: 114, translated by me, M.H.). Science may be free and, in this sense, only responsible to itself, but this freedom entails obligations. These are not to be misunderstood as moral obligations, but rather as the necessity to take a closer look at the construction of morals as well as the stylization of one’s own motives.
In this respect, the term ‘alternative facts,’ which Kellyanne Conway introduced to the debate, makes considerable sense. It could be that an observer denies the facticity of a phenomenon observed as fact, be it the existence of a system of politics, be it the low turnout at Donald Trump’s inauguration, and instead offers an alternative reading of events. This could, but does not necessarily mean that one foregoes one’s reference to reality. An appeal to ‘deutero truth,’ a concept conceived by Gregory Bateson, could prove helpful here. Bateson considered it to be a “function of belief” and, unsurprisingly, viewed it within a religious context. “In very many situations an increase in belief permits an increase in validity.” (Charlton 2008: 92) We will later examine the neurological correlates of these beliefs, as neurology can provide important evidence as to their remarkable tenacity (see Kaplan et al. 2016). On the basis of such beliefs, we all, and not only Kellyanne Conway, who is nevertheless obliged in her official function to say all sorts of things, deny facts that contradict our convictions, or believe in pizzagates.
The only ‘objective’ criterion for the evaluation of facticity that is available to us is that of plausibility. If one prefers a more aesthetic wording, one could choose to speak of coherence – everything has to fit together. We could also endeavor to apply Kantian pragmatism, whereby intersubjectivity is considered to be the only possible form of objectivity. When a number of observers concur that something ‘actually’ is the case, then there is a high probability that this is ‘how things are.’ Along with Ernst von Glasersfeld, we would like to refer to this correlation between plausibility, coherence, and intersubjectivity as ‘viability’ (Glasersfeld 1981). Of course, we assume that these observers make their observations, if not necessarily scientifically, then at least rationally and in accordance with reason, not belief.
When one denies reality, nothing remains that can be observed or can be grasped. “What is disputed here is only the epistemological relevance of an ontological representation of reality. When a discerning system cannot obtain access to its external world, we can deny its existence, but we can just as well and with greater plausibility adhere to the position that the external world is as it is.” (Luhmann 1990: 37, translated by me, M.H.).
III. Conflicts of Interest
When we subsequently refer to conflicts of interest, we do not wish to restrict ourselves to the legal meaning of the term, even though our inquiry requires that we also closely examine American law within the important context of legal interest. This should not be confused with the private or ‘personal’ interests of groups or individuals. We regard such conflicts of interest as comparatively trivial. Instead, we would like to focus on the interests of systems.
Of course, in a strict sense, systems or social spheres have no interests – they do not forge plans, but rather continue to maintain themselves. This continuation is not due to any plan or intention. This applies to communication in general, and not just for systematic communication, as it can be easily be demonstrated by problems related to the break-down of communication, e.g. the problems that arise by nearly every farewell or the unpleasant experience of ‘awkward silence’ in elevators. Although spontaneous communicative cluster formations, such as identity-giving social movements, and institutions, such as the Grand Old Party, officially pursue particular aims or goals, they have to cede the implementation of these aims to society.
But in a certain sense, systems do pursue particular interests, or, more precisely, a single interest, of which we are all familiar: to continue. A more dramatic formulation of this would be ‘to survive.’ In passing, one should note that not only systems like intimate relationships and social movements share this interest in survival – conflicts do as well. The difference is that conflicts, with their tendency towards escalation, eventually resolve themselves because they quickly become ‘exhausted,’ especially when they occur at the level of interaction. The mass media, however, knows how to counteract this conflict fatigue, even when, in the case of Trump, it is evident that they are gradually approaching their limits and rely on a certain familiarization effect, which has been stigmatized by the same media as dangerous: “There is now a tendency, even among many of my Never Trump friends, to shrug their shoulders at his latest shenanigans. It is simply too difficult to stay outraged nonstop for 100 days, much less for 1,461 days — the length of one presidential term. Trump continues to say and do things that are, by any reasonable standard, egregious, but we notice his offenses less and less because they are such a frequent occurrence” (Boot 2017). This sets the stage for popular psychologists, who invoke the phenomenon of habitualization by referring to the fake myth of the frog that was slowly boiled alive (Feldman 2017). Are we being boiled alive, too?
To paraphrase Schopenhauer, as much as systems are alike in their will to reproduce, they are very different with respect to the specifics of their reproduction. An excellent illustration of this general conflict of interest, which I prefer to call a conflict of systems, is profiled by the Kyoto Protocols, which have assumed symbolic form as a conflict of interest between money and power.
The usual or pertinent definition of a conflict of interest is: “A conflict of interest is a set of conditions in which Professional judgment concerning a primary interest (such as a patient’s welfare or the validity of research) tends to be unduly influenced by a secondary interest (such as financial gain)” (Thompson 1993: 573). In terms of the ‘travel ban,’ the definition could be formulated as follows: A conflict of interest is a set of conditions in which professional judgment concerning a primary interest (national security) tends to be unduly influenced by a secondary interest (such as keeping a promise made during a campaign). Another possible definition that also derives from the sphere of medicine reads as follows: conflicts of interest are circumstances “that create a risk whereby professional judgment or actions, themselves based on a primary interest, are inappropriately influenced by a secondary interest” (AWMF 2010).
For our purposes, we would like to modify this definition as follows: A conflict of interest is a situation in which there is a risk of secondary (external to the system) interests endangering the primary system interest. Take the example of art, which is ‘interested’ in beauty. In accordance with our definition, we observe a conflict of interest when political interests transform art into propaganda. Such was the case in 1932, when Stalin ordered all artist associations of the Soviet Union to be disbanded and artistic policy was placed under direct party control. As a result, the country’s artistic avant-garde was forced to undergo a stylistic paradigm change and ‘revolutionary romanticism’ was promoted, making the representation of figure and object once again the main concern of art instead of black squares. On the other hand, under certain conditions propaganda can achieve the status of art if it re-enters the system, in other words, represents the interests of art, as seen in the works of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid and their ‘Nostalgic Socialist Realism.’ If and when such a re-entry takes place depends on observation.
When politics in the USA confers a dominant role to secondary interests, in Trump’s case: economic, then what we are seeing is such a systemic conflict of interest. Even the sanctions against Russia, which were adopted by the American Senate in June 2017, can be seen as such a conflict of interest, as here professional political judgment was disproportionately influenced by a secondary, economic interest, namely, securing the sale of American liquefied natural gas to the European market by marginalizing Russian natural gas deliveries (according to the unanimous interpretation of German and Austrian politicians, who claim that this secondary interest was presented with “remarkable candor” in the draft legislation). In the same way, “using political tactics to go after lawenforcement“ (John Campbell on Trump’s tweets against Mueller and McCabe) can be considered such a conflict of interest.
But what exactly is a conflict? An issue appears as a conflict when it can be shown that one party takes the position ‘for’ and another the position ‘against.’ It therefore requires, as we have previously noted, not only a contradiction, but the explicit communication of such an ‘against.’ Of course there can be undecided or mediating positions in the case of a conflict. Yet, these depend on the very form of the conflict and could not even arise if there were no conflict to begin with. Reflection on the nature of conflict shows it as something that should be ‘resolved.’ The paradox of public opinion, however, is expressed as follows: conflicts are regarded by the public as undesirable, and this is why there is a preference for their reproduction. Again, Trump can be seen as a parasite, living on i.e. in that host, adapting structurally to it.
In the modern age, the mass media can be conceived as an almost exclusive contractual partner in the reproduction of conflicts. Any feedback refusing to comply with the imposition of selection faces particular difficulties within the communicative interaction. One only has to think of Trump’s comments to James Comey: “I hope you can let this go.” Comey refused to risk a conflict, at least in this interactive situation. And he can hardly be blamed, and not only in respect to the social dependence on his employer. Systems of interaction only offer the choice between avoiding conflicts or being a conflict. Differentiation, innovation, and organization depend on a normalization of conflict behavior. The solution to this problem lies in the differentiation of interaction systems and social systems – a separation of interaction and society –, the consequence of which is that society becomes independent of its interaction system in conflict mode. Without endangering its continuity, it can to a large extent permit the cessation of interaction as a mode of conflict resolution. One can fire James Comey. And society can profit from this situation, especially within the framework of the legal system, as particular interaction systems that specialize in dealing with conflict situations are permitted here.
To repeat, many of the conflicts and defects that we have been able to observe relating to Donald Trump over the course of the last months can be explained in terms of this social structure of the autonomous social spheres.
VI. Acts and Actors, Moments and Men (and Women)
As we already know, the political system does not consist of individuals, but rather of observational operations. We refer to these processed forms of social systems as communications. Individuals such as Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, or Emmanuel Macron cannot control the social entity known as politics, but can merely irritate it externally.
This break with the notion of the actor as agent is difficult to convey, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries, despite the efforts of Ervin Goffman, in particular his shift from “men and their moments,” to “moments and their men” (Goffman 1963, let us be politically correct and add: women) paving the way for our current understanding. Network theory pursues a similar path to that of systems theory and, abstracting from concrete actions of individuals, points out that social processes have their own moment, i.e., momentum.
Along with Stephan Fuchs, we recognize that the most important facet shared by systems theory and network theory is their ‘antihumanism’ – “bidding farewell to the agency framework and its derivatives, such as intentionality, the unit act, and rational choice,” “dropping ‘person,’ ‘individual,’ and ‘act’ as foundational constructs” (Fuchs 2001: 63). But unlike network theory where individuals are still part of the system i.e. network, we locate them on the outside. One could therefore say that network theory is more humane in its antihumanism than systems theory. The most important difference, however, is that network theory is ‘less reflexive’: “Network theory does not occur in its own theory of networks, while systems theory does” (ibid: 64).
However, persons and individuals are not deemed unimportant, as they remain prominent devices for making sense of social outcomes, „such as blaming the responsible parties, distributing rewards, or acknowledging intellectual property” (ibid.). But instead of presupposing them, we comprehend persons as something produced by social structures. There is no denial that we encounter them (and they us) in our every day communications and our environment. This is where agency still enjoys its rightful place, especially when stories about persons are meant to teach us a moral lesson (Louis CK showed his penis to her, that wasn’t good for him, he should have acted differently). To what extent the question of different performance choices is at all worth considering and to what extent a person can be understood as a constant are not matters that normally concern us in our daily lives for obvious reasons – one is to save time. Even less of a concern is the question as to how far we can understand the individual or agency as the origin or source “of all things social” (ibid: 64).
There is, however, some consolation in the ‘excommunication’ of man, especially with respect to the influence wielded by Donald Trump. He may be the President of the United States, yet even the president is nothing more than an environmental irritation for the political system of the USA. Or in the words of aforementioned comedian Louis CK: “The good thing is: He’s one guy.” We might even like to join Eugen Rosenstock-Hussey and add: “No individual can go very far.” (Rosenstock-Hussey 1969:8)
Most of all, no individual (indivisibility) can be included into systems, quite simply because the activities of our bodily organs, that we have fingernails that grow, or that we have feelings, are not socially relevant until these states or processes are articulated in language. “No cellular exchange, no digestive process, no nervous switch, and no intentional actualization of consciousness is, as such, communication.” (Luhmann 2002: 30) For this reason, the participation of individuals in communication must be symbolized within communication, using its own resources. The form, with which this takes place, has already been encountered numerous times in this text. We call it ‘person.’
Persons have names, such as Donald Trump, and in contrast to society, politics, or business, they are approachable and, at the same time, bound to the past performance of their individuality. Formulated differently, we expect that Donald Trump will behave like Donald Trump. To date, he has not disappointed us – both his supporters and opponents – in living up to these expectations with respect to his person. Take the case of Trump’s comments in the guest book at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum. “This is what one writes when standing at a mountain top and admiring the landscape below,” said Mosche Zimmermann, professor emeritus at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He added, “This is not at all fitting for Yad Vashem, but typical for Trump” (Zimmermann 2017).
A person, therefore, is whoever can be socially determined. Should this determination become damaged or defective, as a result of, for example, expectations being disappointed, then the determination is reassigned. For Max Frisch, the reciprocity of this determination is important: “We are also the author of the other; in a secret and inevitable way, we are responsible for the face that they show us.” (1985: 30) The future terrorist knows that others expect him to display a certain degree of personhood, such as continuing to offer neighbors a friendly greeting, which, in turn enables them to form their expectations concerning him. She also knows that the compulsion to behave as such will be rescinded with the performance of the terrorist act. People no longer expect a friendly greeting on the street from someone who has gained notoriety through the murder of innocent children – she is, as it were, freed from this obligation. Instead, what people now expect of her is that she will kill children.
A similar process obtains for Donald Trump. He has already los his reputation and therefore has nothing else to lose. (In German: Ist der Ruf erst ruiniert, lebt sichs gänzlich ungeniert.) “Mr. Trump has bragged about his non-consensual touching of women. He has Brachet about intruding on beauty pageant contestants in their dressing rooms. He acquiesced to a radio host’s request to discuss Mr. Trump’s own daughter as a ‘piece of ass.’ Multiple women not mentioned in our article have publicly come forward to report on Mr. Trump’s unwanted advances. Nothing in our article has had the slightest effect on the reputation that Mr. Trump, through his own words and actions, has already created for himself.” (McGraw 2016) This was the formal response by David McGraw, lawyer for the New York Times, to Trump’s lawyer Marc Kasowitz, who had threatened to sue the newspaper for libel. Trump’s misbehavior is exactly what constitutes a large part of his personal identity. Clearly no one no longer expects him to behave presidentially. In Trump’s case, we do not observe behavior that conforms to his role as president, but rather behavior conforming to Trump. It is the person that dominates the role. Here, we find another conflict of interest that we will be investigativ more closely later.
With respect to these expectations, it is indicative that the concept of person originated in the context of ancient theater. The term ‘per-sonare’ refers to the mask worn by the actor, that through which he spoke (Fuchs 2010: 163). Later, the term was also applied to the role of the actor. Even today, we talk about the personae of a drama.
Although we would like to differentiate the person from the concept of role, person and role do have much in common, and ‘to-be-a-person,’ or, better put, ‘having-to-be-a-person’ entails the social compulsion of behaving like a person. This demands from us, among other things, certain theatrical skills (some might say duplicitous skills). And this is where Trump comes into play with the modern demand, to be discussed later, that one must be an ‘I’ in order to oppose this objectionable distortion, which, not without good reason, is seen as a characteristic feature of professional politicians.
While we prefer to refer to a person as a “complex of individually attributed limitations of behavioral possibilities” (in accordance with Luhmann’s classic definition), or, succinctly, a collage of expectations, a role is concerned with general attributed limitations of behavior, or in this case, how one should act as a president. At this point, it should be clear that our person does not comprise our ‘true’ intrinsic characteristics, or that which is really and truly ‘inside’ of us, but rather is based on long-term observations by others, which are then condensed into this multiple structure called a person. Trump has to live with his attributions just as we do with ours. We all must, and this is why we sometimes break out of this prison of the persona. We could do something unexpected, something untypical, or out of character.
What a person is, has a great deal to do with repetition, in other words, with what we repeatedly do. My university has a recruitment poster with the motto: “We are what we repeatedly do.” One could say, that the university is advertising for the demand to be or to become a ‘person.’ Although I do not exactly see things in this way, as I am also that which I do time and again, it is the case that education plays a large role in becoming a person and the slogan is understandable for an educational institution. “People are born. Persons arise through socialization and education” (Luhmann 2002: 38, translated by me, M.H.). However, we can and intend to only touch upon this matter in the following text – and not only because we lack adequate information on the ‘youngster’ Trump, but also because we are not sufficiently interested in the socialization and education of an individual person. At the very least, we would like to include the assumption that in the case of Trump, the milieu in which his socialization took place played a far more important role than his education, which in itself could only marginally augment, yet certainly not correct, the socialization guided genesis of his persona.
Having hereby completed a general outline of the most important theoretical premises of our analysis, we will now set out to apply them. Any other additional information will only be raised when the argument demands it.
In order to ensure that we do not lose track of the facts while engaging in a high level of abstraction, our analysis will continue to return to facts, whether in the form of examples or concrete statements by interested parties. As Luhmann writes in the first page of his Social Systems: “Our flight must take place above the clouds …” (Luhmann 1995: 1). This is because too much emphasis on detail obstructs our view of what is essential, and in our case, this means the conflicts of function that we aim to investigate. Our analysis, however, will tend to break through the clouds more frequently than is usually the case with systems theory, not only to demonstrate the capacity of systems theory to provide answers to current social issues, but also in order to offer the non-specialist interested in our topic an easier read.
Having said that, we will not lose sight of why we resolved to fly above the clouds in the first place and thereby solely rely on our instruments. The concrete, repeatedly mentioned specifics (or, following Luhmann, „points of reference”) cannot guide this flight. Yet, fly we must, as we want to comprehend the connecting pattern of the Trump affair. At least here we are moving along a traditionally established path. Marcus Aurelius, for instance, advised those “discoursing about men” to look at earthly things “… as if he viewed them from some higher place; should look at them in their assemblies, armies, agricultural labors, marriages, treaties, births, deaths, noise of the courts of justice, desert places, various nations of barbarians, feasts, lamentations, markets, a mixture of all things and an orderly combination of contraries” (Aurelius 2003: Book VII, 48). Even Francis Bacon argued the case for the observer to occupy an elevated position, while at the same time stressing the necessity for the researcher to maintain a sense of humility: “It is a pleasure, to stand upon … the vantage ground of truth (a hill not to be commanded, and where the air is always clear and serene), and to see the errors, and wanderings, and mists, and tempests, in the vale below; so always that this prospect be with pity, and not with swelling, or pride” (Bacon 1908: 5f.). In our observations, we will attempt to practice the humility demanded by Bacon in our employed method, while not forgetting our ‘subjectivity’ in those moments of oblivion when immersed in our primary observations.