Trumphalism In An Age Of Pre-Achievement

For many American citizens, we have arrived at a somewhat unexpected and clearly undesirable moment in relatively recent American political history. The Republican Presidential nominee is comfortable using explicitly bigoted language and describes his plans in the least detailed manner conceivable. He either fails to recognize or is unperturbed by the logical incoherence of his various policy positions over time or even at one time. Though this turn of affairs may represent a culmination or even just a mere continuation of long-recognized trends and not a true discontinuity in our political evolution, it is worth noting.

My purpose here, as suggested by the title, is to explore a couple of the important trends that characterize the current political and cultural scene and provide essential context for understanding why our political system has evolved (devolved?) to this point. While I am aware of the dangers of employing neologisms, I am willing to gamble that in this instance I can convince at least some readers of the justification for inventing a new word (clearly related to an old word) and tinkering with a well-established word for the article title because I view both as highly relevant to our current political and social climate. But before defining or otherwise characterizing "trumphalism" and "pre-achievement" some stage setting is necessary.

Increased opportunities for communication, both personal and impersonal, based on technological advances and coupled with the arguably increasing intensity of now global competition among nations, corporations, educational institutions, medical centers, law firms, and other entities have put a premium on realizing and publicizing superiority in one or another domain of activity. An additional incentive for being the best or at least being perceived as the best derives from the widely noted recent tendency for one or a few organizations or institutions in a number of arenas, such as business, to achieve massive dominance (e.g., Amazon or Google). Consequently, the intertwined processes of technological, economic, and cultural evolution have spawned a sometimes-desperate search by the leaders of organizations and institutions for ways to guarantee success as measured by one metric or another. One approach (1) to assuring the best possible outcomes focuses on the substance of whatever activities a given enterprise pursues. Of course, this strategy typically requires enormous and, most likely, continuing investments of time, effort, expertise, and likely, sizable financial resources.

A second approach (2), now widely employed, is based on modifying practices and policies designed solely to improve apparent performance as defined by one or a few specific measures used in external assessments or rankings. That this approach can succeed in some degree has been demonstrated, but it is also well documented that this approach can encourage ethically questionable behavior.

A third approach (3), not necessarily mutually exclusive with the first two, focuses not on the "upstream" factors, i.e., the actual details of performance, or performance as measured but on the "downstream" factors, i.e. the perceptions of those outside of the organization or institution regarding the end products of performance. The advantages of manipulating and thereby improving the image of an operation, as opposed to actually improving the operation, are obvious to many: less investment up front with greater control of the ultimate product, i.e. the image of spectacular achievement as opposed to actually spectacular achievement. Thus, have we entered the world of faux achievement or pre-achievement (i.e. pre-determined achievement) whereby the pinnacle of accomplishment is proclaimed from the start of an enterprise, or at least at the present moment, and in perhaps in some instances, well into the future or in perpetuity, without much commitment to continued monitoring and improvement of ongoing performance. No doubts about the eventual outcomes need be entertained given that continuous "excellence" is ordained.

Of course, the success of marketing efforts of most organizations using strategies (2) and (3) above depends on some combination of the following in the members of the target audience: willing suspension of disbelief, a relative lack of or indifference to knowledge of the relevant facts, or deficient critical thinking skills. Sadly, the above applies to every sort of organization including those, such as universities, that are nominally dedicated to inculcating the desire to seek out relevant information and employ critical thinking.

It is reasonable to suppose that uncritical evaluation of news by voters has significant consequences for political campaigns both in the short-term and in the long-term. When polls routinely reveal that addressing critical political issues in their full complexity involving multiple causes that interact in ways that can be difficult to disentangle, politicians are incentivized to frame their messages in simplistic ways even at the cost of obscuring useful responses. We have been living with the baleful consequences of this process as John Dewey might have predicted. Dewey argued fervently that educating all citizens to think for themselves was essential for the maintenance of democracy.

In this context, consider that the National Institutes of Health began making awards, some years ago, to large consortia of investigators at multiple institutions to pursue research questions related to infectious disease and a number of other research fields. These centers were officially designated "Centers of Excellence in ..." It is fair to reward the impressive past research performance of the investigators and the quality of the application, but wouldn't it be enough to simply award a grant to a center focused on a given problem? In the 21st century American zeitgeist, it has become necessary to pre-judge future performance explicitly, thereby nominally assuring that the participants in any Center of Excellence would continue to produce ground-breaking results to justify the substantial financial investments involved. On the program's website (see link directly above), it is noted that all 10 of the centers funded in 2003 (8) and 2005 (2) were refunded in 2009. Perhaps they all continued to be "excellent," but were they all equally impressive? One might ask: How is "excellence" defined?

Similarly, the U. S. Department of Education makes awards to so-called Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence. While these awards are meant to reward prior academic performance or improvements in academic performance, as above, they may have the effect of conferring an aura of quality that could persist for longer than the high achievement. These comments are not meant to criticize the schools themselves, many of which may have been performing outstandingly, but to point out that it used to be sufficient to reward great performance after the fact. Until recently, only CEOs (and perhaps athletes) could be lavishly rewarded for future performance.

So what is "trumphalism"? I offer my own definition of the new term immediately after defining the well-accepted and extremely similar word ("triumphalism").

triumphalism - exuberant celebration and boastful proclamation of absolute superiority after a victory.

- exuberant celebration and boastful proclamation of absolute superiority before a victory.

As of the night of July 21, we have a nominee for President of the United States who declares his coming victories as President well before actually being elected to the most consequential office in the land. For many years, politicians have routinely spoken with maximal optimism about their electoral prospects and plans for their first 100 days. They may have also promised to take certain actions after the initial few months. What makes the present Republican nominee different at least in degree is that he proclaims that as President he will secure endless triumphs, so numerous as to lead to mass boredom with, as he likes to put it, "winning."

Not surprisingly, in the universe of trumphalist pre-achievement there is no need for bothering to articulate, even in rough outline, the strategies and tactics that will undergird such unlimited besting of any and all opponents irrespective of the complexities of the challenges. Trade-offs, limits, compromises are presumably only for "losers." Victory is guaranteed to be continual and become absolutely routine.

The trumphalism of the nominee is just one aspect of his penchant for uttering statements made without regard for the truth or flat-out untruths. He could be regarded as the logical conclusion of the arguably expanding tendency for speaking nonsense without interest in pertinent facts, i.e. what Harry Frankfurt has defined as "bullshit" in his popular if extremely brief 2005 book on the topic. In fact, this nominee has become the embodiment of several themes dominating recent American culture: 1) the worship of the wealthy, 2) the obsession with celebrities, and 3) the growing production of diverse forms of BS.

Abetted by diverse technological advances and multiple cultural trends, America is becoming a nation in which we prize above all else not merely actual but potentially messy victory, but the glorious and inevitable 'massaged' image of victory ("airbrushed victory"), perfect in every way and everlasting. We are at risk of becoming a nation populated by ever greater numbers of aspiring emperors parading in what they maintain are their spectacular "new clothes" when in fact they may mostly be walking around in their undergarments.

These opinions are solely mine and do not represent the official views of any institutions or organizations with which I am affiliated.