Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht is a literature professor at Stanford University, a public intellectual and a naturalized citizen of the United States. This interview took place in Berlin, three days after Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election.

Interview by Chris Fenwick and Dennis Schep

You have written a book about the Stimmung after 1945, describing the ‘50s as a claustrophobic era. How would you see the Stimmung of today?

I feel it is a Stimmung of the end of something. It’s not quite clear what has come to an end, maybe nothing has come to an end, but if there is one motif that goes through all this confusion and the centrifugal interpretations of what is happening, there is always a claim for something ending. We have to seriously ask whether the institutional forms and rituals that emerged under certain historical conditions in the 18th century are no longer viable, whether accidents that have always been possible, like on January 30th 1933 in this city in this country, are now more frequently possible – so that we should imagine something else. Something has come to an end, but we aren’t sure what it might be. This gives us a double uncertainty, for as long as we don’t know what has come to an end, we don’t know what might come, and we cannot develop a recipe or strategy.

Buchcover Gumbrecht Stimmung
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht: Stimmung lesen, München: Hanser 2011. © Hanser Verlag

So it’s slightly different from the famous Gramsci quotation according to which the old world is dying and the new is waiting to be born, in that we don’t actually know quite what it is that is dying.

If you represent a political party, there will always be elections in which you have to pretend that you have some recipe, but it is not part of the present Stimmung that there is something waiting to be born, or something beautiful that is unfortunately still repressed, or that there are birth pangs… One concept has made a quite astonishing career over the past five years, although the concept is older, and that is the anthropocene. The anthropocene starts when humans begin to have an ecological impact on the planet, and it ends with the vanishing of humans. As a frame concept, it axes out every hope for something new to be born. In the long run, however long that may be – 50,000 years, or 50 years, or 5 years if Trump starts a nuclear war – it only allows for pessimism as far as anything human-related is concerned. I’ve written a book about the ever-broadening present, but the limit of this broadening is the anthropocene. And it makes for a not very upbeat Stimmung.

Žižek has said that nowadays it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Is this part of the apocalyptic feeling you talked about? The impossibility of imagining history starting to move again?

When you say history moving, you are referring to what I think is the broadest common denominator and the broadest dimension of the historical world-view as it began to articulate itself around 1800, and found its most explicit, beautiful and also deceptive articulation in Hegel: time is a necessary agent of change. The main thesis of After 1945 is that my generation, the ‘68 generation, felt disappointed that the promise of continuous progress, this Hegelian or Marxist promise, was not fulfilled. Our solution was to confront the old generation. Confrontation happened everywhere, in Germany, in France, in Berkeley – we confronted them to get the historical world-view and progress afloat again. Now, while some people may still cultivate such a mentality, in our everyday, the future is occupied by a multiplicity of threats that come towards us: global warming, exhaustion of natural resources, and so forth. Pastness aggressively invades the present; we can no longer forget anything, everything is present, and that’s what I think is the precondition for this broad present, which is a broad present of simultaneities, a present that contains everything but that has no source of energy for movement. And that’s why I would say you cannot even be apocalyptic, because apocalyptic would always imply a kind of theology of history. It is as if things would not even get worse (except for the natural processes) but everything gets enormously precarious.

That is the feeling with Trump. He has this weird hope that he would get along with Putin. At some point he will make his first state visit to Russia, Putin will treat him like shit, and on the flight home, he has too many whiskeys and thinks “I’m gonna show them who has the greater military power.” So he gives the command for a nuclear attack on Russia, which “we” would clearly win, but humankind would disappear. There is a strangely real feeling that this could happen within five months – he’s going to be president on January 21st 2017, and from that moment on, until he convinces us that he’s like George W. Bush, who was grotesquely incompetent but not horribly dangerous… It’s not a trajectory; there is a sense of the precariousness of the survival of humankind. This precariousness is a predominant feeling, a Stimmung.

We’re lucky Trump doesn’t drink.

That’s a consolation.

How is this different from the feeling you get in a novel like Generation X, this feeling that we’re dancing on the edge of a volcano? In the Cold War years, many people felt nuclear war was right around the corner. How is today different?

I think the image and imagination connected to nuclear war is a different one. Then, there was the possibility of winning. The price would be horrible, but you would clear the planet from the other danger. Take Reagan’s Star Wars project. It was about threatening and controlling the Soviet Union, but it was also about how we are so superior militarily that we can win. Until the Brezhnev era, which was unofficially called the era of stagnation in the Soviet Union, they also thought that they could win. I was 9 years old when the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik, and the year before they had invaded Hungary. In the West, that was seen as a threat of a nuclear war that the Soviet Union could win. This was dancing on the volcano, because it would be the third world war, but there was also the hope that whoever would win, it would be definitive, and after that we would be liberated from that tension.

We have talked about Europe and America, and we are talking about Stimmung as if there’s a general atmosphere that’s common to both of them. People have compared the rise of right-wing populism in America to Brexit and the rise of the far-right parties in the Netherlands and Austria. You have lived on both continents. Do you think there are significant differences in Stimmung between the two? Is it too hasty to make these comparisons?

Structurally speaking, there is an astonishing analogy. Everything that happened in the U.S. could happen here, except for one thing: I cannot imagine a European country electing a billionaire to the highest office. Perhaps someone that wealthy could win, but someone who is bragging about it would never get elected here. The type of politics that goes for resonance instead of content – Trump is all about resonance – you have that in Europe on a relatively cultivated level with Marine le Pen, you have it with the AfD, you have it in Austria. There are few European countries without structural equivalents. The basic political opposition is no longer between what people in Europe used to call the established democratic parties – for example, between die Linke and the FDP. The action is happening somewhere else on the right. In that sense I do see a structural analogy; there are social groups with a certain type of resentment and frustration that all of a sudden play a larger role. It is not only the families in upstate New York who make less that 25,000 dollars a year; it is also families with between 50,000 and 100,000 a year who feel declassé, who feel they are no longer part of the nation. Somebody asked me yesterday, what do they see as positive? I think it’s the ‘50s, the age of milkshakes and petticoats, when everybody would go to church on Sundays… I think that syndrome, reacting to appeal, reacting by resonance, is not uniquely American.

Should we relate this to media culture? There have always been people who are marginalized, who are excluded – whether it’s racially coded or not, they have always been there. Why do we see this unbelievable brutalization of political discourse today?

Replacing argument and a coherent political position with an absolute attempt to produce resonance, that is something that Trump and the Nazi rhetoric share. People said, “Don’t take Mein Kampf seriously,” and Heidegger said, “In the presence of this man, you feel there’s a future, you feel there’s a destiny to the nation.” In 1933 you had radio and party rallies, but today you have a multiplicity of media. But not only has there been a multiplication of media; there are also new genres that emerged out of those technologies. Most people knew Trump before he started in the primaries because he was a host for reality shows. If the 1933 danger has grown exponentially under new media conditions, then perhaps we should start thinking about a different system. I think there’s no systematic way to eliminate the 1933 and 2016 danger from parliamentary democracy. If the people can vote, this can always happen, and if it is 10 times more likely to happen today than in 1933, there are strong reasons to go for a different political system.

Look at China. We have tons of Chinese students at Stanford. My well-meaning colleagues tell them how nice that they come and how much they regret that they are not living in a civil society. But the more intelligent Chinese students make fun of this civil society, saying, “Oh, I’m not living in a civil society, but I still have a brain.” I don’t have a great sympathy for the Chinese system; but there could be something, in the best case, like an enlightened tyrant. The danger there would be that at some point it deteriorates. But there is a certain virtue in having the executive isolated from the electorate.

If Marine le Pen wins next year, if Orbán stabilizes in Hungary, if the Polish government stabilizes, and if all the upcoming elections in Europe go like the American elections, then I do think there are empirical reasons to consider whether the Chinese model is better.

You referred to the protests of ‘68. ‘68 was followed by ‘73, the year of the oil crisis, and then came the Reagan/Thatcher years, which were depressing times for many people. What’s happening now was preceded by Occupy and the Arab Spring. You have written you don’t believe we can learn from history. But should we take something away from these analogies? Does every failed political movement lead to resentment?

We have a tendency to identify cycles. But in the long run, I don’t think we can. Maybe there’s a certain logic of reaction. But the Arab Spring is not comparable to ‘68, and the relative depression of not having work today is not comparable to the early ‘70s. The early ‘70s were very depressed times, and people talked a lot about it. After the hope of ‘68 there was this flat depression, no reforms, nothing was changing. That was very depressing, and psychologically it produced the RAF. You go into reclusion, and then you really want to force it. For me, and that’s because I live in the U.S. and because of my generation, the moment I stopped investing in any optimism was 9/11. If the accumulation of resentment can develop such power, how could you ever have the illusion that you can leave the past behind you?

Have intellectuals had too much faith in the power of reason? Critical theory didn’t stop fascism. If Trump operates on the level of affect or resonance rather than argument…

This is the point. What we call Enlightenment, both as a historical moment and as a legacy, was based on two premises: first, that reason, whatever it was, would prevail, and second (a point that goes back to Rousseau and that Rorty picked up), that the most powerful human instinct is pity or empathy. Rorty still believed that no human being would be capable of not feeling pity when seeing another human being suffering. That is very beautiful, and I wish he was right, but clearly that is not the case. People have been asking me how I reacted to election day. I was on a plane from Washington to Frankfurt, and when I saw it on a laptop, I wanted to hammer into my mind a sentence like, “This cannot be true.” But then I felt that I had somehow expected it all along, but had been in denial, saying it cannot happen. This is quite a horrible experience. The approval rates of Putin are 60 or 70%, in spite of economic crisis. All of this makes you think that maybe the most powerful element in human beings is not empathy or pity, but resentment and the absolute wish to look up to something, to connect with a leader. There are very few reasons left to maintain the optimism that stands at the basis of Marxism (and I would never start a seminar on Marxism without saying it was the most generous, optimistic and beautiful anthropology and political proposal ever developed). It is unlikely that people would forgo their own advantage to share with others. You learn to share in preschools all over the world, and it’s the key word in Californian English – but who really wants to share?

If this is a crisis for the Republican Party, then what about the Democrats? Perhaps it was quite a risky strategy running Hillary Clinton, given that you could tell from the mood during the primaries that this would be an election with an anti-establishment resurgence. You could say the Democratic party has been ignoring an important part of its voters for a while. Hillary Clinton didn’t even bother going to Wisconsin.

Parties have different crises and different chances of revitalization. It’s astonishing that in the Democratic primaries there were only two real candidates. The elimination round until Trump was dominating took much longer. And I have a certain sympathy for Bernie Sanders. He wasn’t a candidate to write home about, and it was mainstream social democracy, not socialism. The enthusiasm he generated among your generation, it was moving, but holy smokes – if people get so enthusiastic about that, they have very little to hope for.

Let’s talk about imagination… There are proposals to replace the state functions with private companies, so you can get exempted from the citizenship obligation to pay taxes, and instead you pay a company that provides all the functions the state provides, for less money than your taxes. In the long run, that logic would completely eliminate elections. The libertarian movement in Silicon Valley is based on a similar idea. It does not say we will not have any social services at all. They say if we organize transportation it will be better than public transportation in the U.S. You could say that’s the disappearance of statehood. The minimal sympathy I have for such movements is that at least there’s some imagination. When I first heard about the idea to replace statehood with private entrepreneurship, it took me five minutes to understand, and that’s a good sign. I’m not saying this is what I’m hoping for, but it does get my imagination going. For 28 years I have been working at a private university, and it runs fantastically, much better than any state university on the planet. 20 of the 25 top universities in the world are private. The idea that you can replace certain functions of the state by the private sector (which can still be non-profit) is maybe not as crazy as one would think in Europe. The Stanford application is need-blind, so the university does not know whether the student’s family can pay tuition or not when they accept. Then there’s a rule: if the annual income of your family is below 100,000, you don’t pay any tuition, and you don’t pay room and board, so you live for free for four college years.

Of course this is based on performance, which is not a very good democratic principle. But if you read Marcuse’s Society and Eros, a book from 1951, he predicts that under conditions of capitalism class struggle will be replaced by performance. That’s a pessimistic prospect for him. But the advantage is that it triggers a social mobility that is exponentially superior to the social mobility in Germany, which is among the lowest in the world.

Social mobility in the U.S. is among the lowest in the world, isn’t it?

No no no… The likelihood that if your parents are truck drivers you become a truck driver is extremely high in Germany; the likelihood that if your father is a university professor you become that again is very high, I think something like 65%.

One last question. In one of your pieces in the FAZ you mentioned two possible scenarios after a Trump victory. The optimistic scenario is that, owing to institutional inertia, it won’t be as bad as we now think. The other scenario is civil war. Is that still on the table?

The thesis was not civil war between Trump supporters and those who are now on the street protesting against him. The social tension is overdramatized. Elections always produce tension. In Legitimation by Procedure, Luhmann had the thesis that we have elections to avoid too much consensus, to produce complexity, to produce options. After a bitter campaign, there’s inevitably a certain polarization. My civil war hypothesis had more to do with private enterprise replacing the state. When people are saying, “Now Trump will control everything” – no, he will not control anything, and that will be the problem. If it’s still possible, he will reduce government spending (which is already very low in the U.S., except for the military) and you could imagine that certain basic functions collapse. The civil war would begin when Google says, “We organize a military and we prevent the state from doing its politics – in Santa Clara county, which is about as large as Lichtenstein, we will run the show.” That would be the civil war I meant, and it could be a horrible civil war. But I do not believe there will be a civil war between those who voted Hillary and those who voted Trump. What’s left of statehood in the U.S. could completely collapse under Trump to a degree that would threaten the most productive industries, which would lead to a separatism that might not be tolerated by the state.