Hope, Hate and Indignation: Spinoza on Political Emotion in the Trump Era
AbstractCan we ever have politics without the noble lie? Can we have a collective political identity that does not exclude or define ‘us’ as ‘not them’? In the Ethics, Spinoza argues that individual human emotions and imagination shape the social world. This world, he argues, can in turn be shaped by political institutions to be more or less hopeful, more or less rational, or more or less angry and indignant. In his political works, Spinoza offered suggestions for how to shape a political imaginary and create collective identities that are more guided by hope than by fear or anger. In this talk, using the framework of Spinoza's theory of emotions, I will investigate how Barack Obama's promise of 'hope' was translated into Donald Trump's rhetoric of hate. Such a transition, from hope to fear is one that would be unsurprising to Spinoza. Spinoza worried about the political and personal effectiveness of hope. He argued that hope can easily be turned into what he called ‘indignatio’ or indignation – an emotion that he believed eroded trust in political institutions and was the limit of state power. Spinoza warned about the danger of governance that relies upon the emotions of anger and hatred. In the Ethics, Spinoza painstakingly reconstructs the way in which individual emotions, ideas and motivations are shaped within social worlds. He argued that emotions based on pain, including hatred and indignation, diminish the power of the individuals who experience them and the political collective in which those individuals reside. Anger, fear and indignation weaken the state. In the second section of the paper, I will set out how the Trump administration’s reliance on the motivational forces of hate and anger risk what Spinoza called indignation. Trump's reliance on exclusionary conceptions of American identity have fanned the flames of racial, ethnic and religious hatred to motivate his base have had widespread social and political effects. I will offer arguments and examples which bear out the Spinozan worries about the effects of anger and indignation on the political and the social. Spinoza’s political works were written not just to explain the worries about an angry and indignant multitude, but also to show how to turn political indignation and anger into a chastened, and perhaps more rational, hope. Finally, I will propose that we may derive from Spinoza participatory, democratic institutions and collective identities that can overcome this indignation.