As the subplots and sub-subplots cascade endlessly around the question of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election and the Donald Trump campaign’s possible collusion, it would do us all good to take a few steps back and reflect more deeply on the big picture. Whether or not there was any covert collusion, there was plenty of open hanky-panky, and far too little awareness on where that might lead. Beyond any concerns that these two authoritarian leaders have been working in concert lies the question of why they might have wanted to.
President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin both believe in democracy of a sort — they believe themselves very popular, and therefore empowered to do whatever they see fit. What they subscribe to is often called “illiberal democracy,” but “anti-liberal democracy” would be closer to the mark, maybe with a second set of quote marks around “democracy.” Liberal democracy operates within a normative framework of rights. Illiberal democracy ignores that framework, while anti-liberal democracy avidly attacks it. Putin attacks it as an outsider, seeing it as a Western imposition. Trump attacks it as a different kind of outsider — a privileged rich kid who has lived his whole life outside its rules, palling around with a variety of outlaws, and enablers like his mentor Roy Cohn, lawyer for Joe McCarthy and the New York mob.
Modern democracy is a child of the Enlightenment, but Trump and Putin’s opposition goes much deeper than simply being a counter-Enlightenment position. The term “counter-Enlightenment,” first popularized by Isaiah Berlin in the 1970s, has mutated considerably since then. While critiques of the Enlightenment have by now been mounted from almost everywhere along the political spectrum, most of these are not attacks on reason per se, but on how critics see the Enlightenment as having conceived of reason and deployed it.
Trump and Putin, however, can be seen as countering something much earlier and more basic: their shared vision of anti-liberal democracy isn't just opposition to the 18th century. It's more like opposition to the 8th century -- before Christ. What is sometimes called the Axial Age, roughly from 800 to 200 BCE, is when most major world religions and philosophies first emerged. It was the age of Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tze, the Upanishads, the Hebrew prophets, Greek natural science and philosophy and so on. Jesus and Muhammad both came after this period, but built on foundations laid at this time. The term was coined by Karl Jaspers, who wrote:
If there is an axis in history, we must find it empirically in profane history, as a set of circumstances significant for all men, including Christians. It must carry conviction for Westerners, Asiatics, and all men, without the support of any particular content of faith, and thus provide all men with a common historical frame of reference.
The spiritual process which took place between 800 and 200 B.C.E. seems to constitute such an axis. It was then that the man with whom we live today came into being. Let us designate this period as the "axial age."
In short, this is when the world as we know it — and have known it for millennia — was created. The first large, semi-stable civilizations were established, and in that new social world new ways of thinking aroused and spread. (More on the reasons behind this below.) Part of what they had in common was a shift from unquestioned — even unquestionable — ethnocentrism and authoritarianism to universalism and inquiry as foundational principles. The religious traditions that emerged brought together people of different ethnicities and even different races, and birthed monastic and scholastic traditions that have profoundly transformed our world.
Of course ethnocentrism and authoritarianism have never gone away, but they have significantly retreated as primary societal organizing principles, and they’ve never regained their unquestioned status. This is one reason why Nazi Germany stands out as a rare example when the clock was turned so far back. It's also how the current rise of ethno-nationalist anti-liberal democracy should be understood as well. Far from defending Christianity from Islam — as Trump and Putin might both suggest — it is a fundamental attack on the universalism that Christianity and Islam hold in common, along with Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Judaism and so forth. It's not a war of civilizations but a war on civilization, in the name of a more primitive, tribal mode that can justly be called barbarism.
There’s no real way back to a pre-Axial Age, but tremendous destruction can be sown in the effort to get there. This can be seen in Trump’s White House and his contempt for process, described by Greg Sargent in a recent Washington Post article, exploring the president's "contempt for facts and reality-based policy.” Indeed, Trump’s contempt encompasses everything all the way back to the pre-Socratics, the Axial Age source of the Western scientific tradition.
Sargent pointed to a New York Times report that scores of science and technology officials have departed, and that consequential decisions, including the reversal of Barack Obama’s climate change policies and "proposals to sharply reduce spending for research on climate change, science and health,” have been made without input from those who remain.
But for now, it is hard to avoid viewing all of this in its larger context. As I’ve argued, the Trump White House has been infected from the outset with a kind of deep rot of bad faith — a contempt for legitimate process, fact-based debate and reality-based governing — that has bordered on all-corrosive. This low regard for science may well prove to be another data point illustrating this pattern.
The reason for calling this pre-Axial behavior is straightforward: Science and scientific thinking are products of the Axial Age, along with a whole complex of related critical thinking practices that inform how humanity has flourished since then.
A Twitter thread by historian Seth Cotlar commenting on Sargent’s post brought this deeper significance into focus: “There are many ways to ‘message’ resistance to Trump. This WaPo summary points to one particularly effective strategy — focus on PROCESS,” he began, with a screenshot including the above. “There always will be (and should be) disagreement on policy CONTENT. The resistance will never find total consensus on policy content,” he continued. “But the place where progressives, liberals, moderates, & conservatives should be able to find common ground is around PROCEDURES.”
This highlights the broad-based way people across the political spectrum draw on a shared framework of practices, values, and institutional structures that can be traced back to the Axial Age. One thing that binds all these practices together is the glue of social trust. To make sound decisions, we need sound information, sound ways of gathering and analyzing it, and sound ways of reasoning about it. We are all fallible as individuals, but can become less so if we work wisely together, ensuring the soundness of what we do throughout the whole process.
As I noted here in 2014, philosopher Brian L. Keeley has described how conspiracy theories “throw into doubt the various institutions that have been set up to generate reliable data and evidence. In doing so, they reveal just how large a role trust in both institutions and individuals plays in the justification of our beliefs. . . . In modern science, this procedure involves the elaborate mechanisms of publication, peer review, professional reputation, university accreditation and so on. Thus, we are warranted in believing the claims of science because these claims are the result of a social mechanism of warranted belief production.”
That seeds of that social trust did not come from science itself, though it has long flourished there. The trust had to exist first, in however fragile a fashion, in order for science to gain a foothold. But once it did, it became powerfully self-reinforcing.
The expansive framework of social trust embodied in science is but one of multiple strands we can trace back to origins in the Axial Age. Trump’s obsessive embrace of conspiracy theory reflects just one facet of his wide-ranging hostility to the fundamental essence of the Axial Age — to its values and institutions, to everything about it, really, except for the material goodies it has produced in such abundance.
It has also been argued that we’re in the midst of a Second Axial Age, responding to changes that have reshaped our world in the modern era. Theologian Karen Armstrong explains:
All over the world, people are struggling with these new conditions and have been forced to reassess their religious traditions, which were designed for a very different type of society. They are finding that the old forms of faith no longer work for them; they cannot provide the enlightenment and consolation that human beings seem to need. As a result, men and women are trying to find new ways of being religious. Like the reformers and prophets of the first Axial Age, they are attempting to build upon the insights of the past in a way that will take human beings forward into the new world they have created for themselves.
Earlier, in "The Battle for God," Armstrong explored fundamentalism as a modern, backward-looking reaction to these new conditions. In the political sphere, Trump and Putin represent a similar impulse as well, restoring a lost order that never actually existed. Trump’s anti-science conspiracy thinking is one of the most striking examples of what this entails. This viewpoint also helps explain how two such unlikely figures from the 1980s and '90s — the KGB spy and the New York playboy — have emerged as supposed champions of “traditional religion.”
The reactionary longing to go back to an earlier time is a recurrent theme throughout history. At the dawn of the Axial Age, Hesiod’s "Works and Days" looked back to a series of past eras — from the "golden age" when humans lived among the gods through the silver, bronze and heroic ages -- each less exalted than the age before, down to the iron age when, Hesiod wrote, “men never rest from labor and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them.”
If, as Armstrong and others have argued, we’re on the cusp of a Second Axial Age, then it should not be surprising to see reactionary fantasies emerge that call for an unimaginable leap backward. When what has worked for generations begins to fall apart, it’s far easier to conjure up fantasies of an imaginary perfect past than to do the hard work of grappling with the emerging shape of things to come. So at first reactionaries will have a huge advantage: It's an easy sell. No fuss, no muss, no need to confront the difficulty of reimagining what it means to be human — which is precisely what the leading figures of the Axial Age and their followers did.
Along with his unseen tax returns, one of the central mysteries of the Trump campaign was the question of when, exactly, America had been so great. What era did his famous campaign slogan mean to conjure up? Of course there was no such time in reality -- but there was no such time in Trump’s memory or imagination either. He can now pretend that he's talking about the Reagan presidency, which Republicans now venerate as a golden age. But Reagan himself was elected on this kind of backward-looking nostalgia, and Trump said the same things he said in the 2016 campaign when Reagan was in office too.
What Trump has really longed for all along is a return to the pre-Axial world. To better appreciate what that means, I need to make good on my promise to say more about why the Axial Age emerged in the first place. In his 2015 book "Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth," evolutionary anthropologist Peter Turchin traced the emergence of Axial Age civilizations to the impact of Eurasian steppe dwellers developing a new military technology centered around horse-riding. Earlier, smaller and less stable agricultural civilizations were easily invaded and toppled, at least until a new defensive strategy emerged, which required a larger population base in order to field infantry forces large enough to keep the steppe dwellers’ cavalry at bay. As Turchin summed up:
In the perilous new competitive environment created by the military revolution of the Axial Age, states could not afford to crush their own populations in the manner of Hawaiian chiefs or archaic god-kings. The state’s survival now depended on being able to produce large armies of armed commoners. If you want your soldiers to fight bravely, you cannot oppress them. And if you have been oppressing your own people, it’s foolish to give them weapons. In short, the despotic states couldn’t survive in the new military environment.
In short, the only way such large civilizations could be kept together was to become significantly more cooperative and egalitarian than their smaller predecessors had been. Hence there was fertile ground for the universalist and compassionate ideologies of the great Axial Age figures to take hold. There might still be kings and emperors, but they no longer claimed to be gods themselves, only to represent or be aligned with them. Human sacrifice began to disappear.
The power that rulers and the elites around them held from the Axial Age onward was more dependent on vast cooperative networks than anything their earlier counterparts could have imagined. As creatures themselves of that same world, they too were invisibly constrained by shared norms and a shared worldview that made the extreme inequality and brutality of the pre-Axial world unthinkable.
Until now. No, I don’t think Donald Trump conceives of himself as a god-king. But he does have a record of never having admitted to doing or being wrong. He couldn't even pretend, for appearance's sake, to be a good Christian in this regard. And no, I don’t think Trump wants to reintroduce human sacrifice or slavery. But there’s his long, murky, record of predatory sexual behavior, publicly lusting over young teenagers, and his modeling agency that has been accused of practices treating young women as property. He encouraged his followers to “knock the crap” out of protesters who would ultimately be forced to “bow down to him,” as Omarosa so charmingly put it. Add to this Trump's desire to recast America’s diverse immigrant character — “E pluribus unum” — into one homogeneous mass and his profound hostility to Axial Age science, and suddenly it’s not a stretch at all to argue that what Trump really wants is a return to the barbarism and tyranny of the pre-Axial Age world, while hanging onto the consumer goods and luxuries produced by our civilization.
That’s an utterly combination, of course. As is virtually everything Trump proposes, once you figure out what he actually means. Which is why it’s high time we all realized just how far back the “good old days” go for Donald Trump. It’s not just time to reject his ridiculous feel-good fantasy. It’s time to move forward instead, no matter how challenging and difficult it may be. Karen Armstrong is right: Humanity needs to “build upon the insights of the past" in order to build the future.