Political Realism vs. Political Realism

Trump must be a puzzle to our political realists. He certainly shares their scorn for seeing politics in moral terms. Unlike George W. Bush, he doesn’t speak of an axis of evil in the world; and unlike Obama and the Democrats, he is little concerned with the issue of human rights. As an amoral capitalist he believes in self-interest and the exercise of power, in the use and pursuit of money in politics.

But he is also not much interested in the actual political realities. He sticks to a simple picture of what the world is like, despises experts, and ignores advice. In his factual claims he is often quite unrealistic.

Trump makes us understand that the term “political realism” is ambiguous. In one sense it is a general belief about how human beings act and a set of policies derived from this. In another sense it refers to the recognition of the concrete facts on the political ground. Trump shows us that the two don’t necessarily go together. Political realism can, in other words, go hand in hand with a lack of realism.

1 comment

  1. Your observations reveal the emptiness of the so-called IR conception of realism, as opposed to that developed by Williams and Geuss. Realism means not subordinating the study of politics to moral theory. It’s opposed to moralism, not Utopianism. It cautions against wishful thinking and willed delusion, not normative guidance. That the practice of politics is not entirely subordinate to moral aims (as Kant would recognize them) doesn’t mean those aims can never have any role, for any actor, or are not often imbricated with other, more broadly normative aims—-that’s just not realistic. The normative dimension is just broader than moralists recognize. IR realists are wrong to sever interests from the good, since the former shape the latter. Rights are explained by reference to interests, after all. And even Trump has a vision of the good, however desiccated, repulsive, and contradictory.

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