The Death of Pragmatism

One of the things that has been pretty obvious for a while now is that Donald Trump and Barack Obama are polar opposites – and that applies to their personalities even more than it does their policies. Over the eight years of Obama’s presidency, one of the things that concerned some people on the left was his commitment to pragmatism – especially when it was not ideologically infused. No one captured that better than James Kloppenberg in his book, Reading Obamawhere he describes Obama as a pragmatist in the mold of William James and John Dewey.

That pragmatism was on display with the two pieces of advice Obama had for Trump.

On the other side of the continuum, we have Trump. Here’s what Harold Pollack wrote about the president’s latest executive order on immigrants and refugees:

The President’s team had months to prepare this signature immigration initiative. And they produced…an amateurish, politically self-immolating effort that humiliated the country, provoked international retaliation, and failed to withstand the obvious federal court challenge on its very first day.

Given the despicable nature of this effort, I’m happy it has become a political fiasco. It also makes me wonder how the Trump administration will execute the basic functions of government. This astonishing failure reflects our new President’s contempt for the basic craft of government.

In a must-read piece on the same topic, Benjamin Wittes writes that Trump’s order is malevolence tempered by incompetence. On the latter he says:

How incompetent is this order? An immigration lawyer who works for the federal government wrote me today describing the quality of the work as “look[ing] like what an intern came up with over a lunch hour. . . . My take is that it is so poorly written that it’s hard to tell the impact.” One of the reasons there’s so much chaos going on right now, in fact, is that nobody really knows what the order means on important points.

First of all, note that word…chaos. Many of us have been suggesting that is a feature, not a bug when it comes to this administration. Recently Ondine, MD (an assistant professor of psychiatry) posted a tweet storm that captures what the death of pragmatism means for our democracy.

This is the connection between chaos and authoritarianism (i.e., dictatorship of the strong man). The death of pragmatism is the first step in the death of democracy.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.