Professor William Lawrence of SMU's Perkins School of Theology looks at the modern-world Clinton versus the post-modern-world Trump.

By William B. Lawrence

William B. Lawrence, Dean of Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University
William B. Lawrence

Hillary Clinton is remarkably suited to be a modern candidate for president of the United States. She possesses the gift of reason. She is the product of a coherent combination of intellectual curiosity, spiritual integrity and professional achievement. She knows what will be required of the next president in a modern world.

The difficulty for her is that she faces Donald Trump, a post-modern candidate in what actually may be a post-modern world.

Until now, non-academics could remain indifferent to this academic jargon. But voters this year face a philosophical earthquake, moving from a modern pursuit of the Oval Office to a post-modern one. 

While modernists constructed ideas, post-modernists have deconstructed them. In political life, modernists took concepts like the inalienable rights of human beings and fashioned revolutionary theories of government and God; post-modernists pointed to the people whom such theories ignored (like those who were marginalized by gender, race, poverty or lack of property). 

If a modern approach trusts reasonable logic, a post-modern approach trusts emotional reactions. If a modern approach values coherent connections, a post-modern approach values immediate intensity. Modernism sees merit in reason, order and effective results. Post-modernism sees merit in emotion, image and a reactive affect. Modernism values the durable. Post-modernism values the immediate. 

Modernism views the world through persistent principles that provide structures for big ideas implemented by big thinkers in big organizations. Post-modernism views the world through insistent experiences and validates feelings of people who have not found a place in the structures and systems of modern society. Modernism mulls whether to call the foe ISIS or ISIL or DAESH. Post-modernism focuses on the fear that the foe induces.

Clinton invites voters to consider her ideas and her track record of effective accomplishment. Trump invites voters to receive the emotional impact of his words, to perceive the image of him as a leader, and to trust the caricatures of his opponents as losers or liars.

Clinton brings to her presidential campaign a resume that any modern person would love. Her educational formation happened at superior academic institutions. Her intellect allowed her to think critically about the conservative Republican attitudes of her upbringing. Her spirituality blends the personal and social dimensions of Wesleyan Methodism. She thrived in managing massively complex, rationally organized, bureaucratic institutions. She coped with the White House as First Lady, with the arcane world of Congress as a senator and with the entrenched apparatus of the State Department. Her marital challenges with a philandering husband were resolved not with divorce but loyalty to the institution of marriage and to the man she loves.

Clinton can deliver a thoughtful, compelling and logically coherent speech. She can ask probing questions in private conversations. She has the ability to consider multiple ideas, even conflicting ones, before reaching very realistic decisions. Her approach seeks outcomes that will achieve solutions to real world problems.

Trump is amazingly adept at giving the impression that he is intensely present in every setting. His speeches convey raw emotion. His feelings are at the surface, always on display. He never nuances his messages. Unlike modernist public figures, who seem to measure or modulate or muddle their thoughts, he speaks in simple and clear superlatives. Unlike modernists, who rely upon teams of thoughtful advisors to assemble complicated policy statements or draft speeches, he consults mainly with himself and trusts his gut. 

Trump does not deal with human beings as whole persons who are complex accumulations of intellectual, spiritual, educational and vocational experiences. Rather, he characterizes individuals by the feelings he has about facets of their personalities. A person is "great" or "a loser." A judge is dismissed as a "Mexican." A person is feared for being a "Muslim." A Supreme Court Justice should resign because "her brain is shot." A political opponent can be dismissed with a brief nickname, like "Little Marco" or "Lying Ted" or "Pocahontas."

Trump does not even deal with his own ideas as coherent pieces of a larger plan or puzzle. He offers proposals in a non-linear, ad hoc, disconnected fashion. 

Often the images are conveyed in terse tweets. Rather than a coherent paragraph of 140 words or a complex report of 140 pages, a text of 140 characters or fewer stands alone. His tweets require no link to previous ones. In a post-modern world, what has immediate value need not have lasting value. And it certainly does not need to be correlated with other things that were asserted as valuable at another time or place.

Since he is a post-modern candidate, Trump can focus on each facet or each phase of his life as discrete from other forces that have formed him. He can speak to anti- abortion groups without holding himself accountable for his previous pro-choice views. He can bewail Bill Clinton's marital infidelities without acknowledging his own. He can talk about taxes without divulging whether he paid any. He celebrates his success in business without detailing his failures in bankruptcy.

His post-modern candidacy accommodates itself to a post-modern perspective on religion, which is self-motivated and self-authenticated. He has said that he takes communion but does not make confession. As he told CNN's Eugene Scott last year, if he does something wrong he just tries to make it right, feeling no need to "bring God into that picture." Unlike modern Christians or Jews, a post-modern Mr. Trump sees no value in the theology or the liturgy of atonement.

Trump does not invite voters to fathom the complexities of international diplomacy, the limitations of military power, or the mutual benefits that potential trade partners have for global commerce. He simply touches voters' fears about immigrants who slink across borders to steal jobs, and he offers an image of a wall to prevent such intrusions. He lets the affect of the phrase "America First" generate an emotional response rather than asking his listeners to think about the troubled history associated with that phrase 75 years ago. He sees no link between his political condemnation of China and his professional connection with China, where his line of neckties is manufactured.

In part, his success derives from and depends on the state of journalism in the country. Most coverage of the presidential campaign arises from the need of electronic media to generate enough content so audiences can be delivered to advertisers. Viewers stay in front of a screen, or return after having moved temporarily away from the screen, as the images and emotions of the programming have an affect on them. A bit of sound and fury from a candidate is more likely to accomplish that than a data-driven presentation that asks the audience to draw logical connections. Having four or five commentators speak sequentially or simultaneously, preferably with intense emotion, is deemed much more important than hiring reporters to discover and develop information that they could present rationally (rather than emotively) for the audience to consider.

The image of Clinton that has been most often repeated shows her in dark glasses staring at a smartphone. That image carries a message that conveys all sorts of nefarious things about her: that she has something to hide; that she has a problem with emails; that she does not want to reveal who she is or what she is doing.

The image of Trump that has been most widely associated with him is the two-word phrase from his television show, "You're fired!" That image conveys the affect he can have on people: he is in charge; others react to him with great emotion, either with weeping or applause; people around him are disposable commodities. We do not have to know him or his ideas. We only have to know how we feel about him.

Trump has mastered the technique of phoning a television or radio talk show to offer hyperbolic rhetoric that may be "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." By doing so, he touches the audience's emotions, reinforces his image as a figure who is strongly in control, and adds yet another layer to the affect that his image and emotions have on the public. Recently, he tweeted an insult about a commentator on one television network and then called another network to amplify the insult. In post-modern fashion, all of this deconstructive activity was covered by multiple media.

Meanwhile, the modern Clinton has problems that seem to have eluded her modernist explanations. The modern mind craves careful, coherent, critical, compelling conversation about her use of a private email system, or concise answers to the questions about international incidents like the Benghazi episode, without having to watch 11 hours of Congressional testimony. The modern mind desires a description that reasonably encapsulates both costs and benefits of a better health care system. The modern mind seeks signs that her spirituality serves as a source for her Samaritan-like interest in children's education. The modern mind seeks answers about her intentions to restrain huge financial institutions when she seems personally to have benefited from those huge financial institutions.

When John F. Kennedy was a candidate for the presidency, he responded to personal questions about his religion with a thoughtfully modernist analysis of his commitments both to Roman Catholicism and to American democracy. Now that Clinton is a candidate for the presidency, she could respond to personal questions about her commitment to a very complicated marriage. Her inability or unwillingness to do so leads not only to skepticism about her candidacy but also to cynicism about the capacity of the modern mind to be persuasive in a post-modern age. Meanwhile Trump, who has treated multiple marriage promises as oaths that can be discarded, is never expected to answer such personal questions.

This election could be a crucial test of whether the modern way of thinking and acting can lead a post-modern world. Perhaps the issue is not whether Clinton has been in the public eye too long and Trump is the shiny new figure. The issue might be whether the set of her mind and the perspective of her ideas belong to the modernist age that has been surpassed by a post-modern one.

In Clinton's most compelling speech in the pre-convention campaign, she quoted Trump's remarks on an array of public policy matters. Her most compelling television commercials so far juxtapose video of offensive comments from Trump with faces of children hearing his words and show him admitting on the David Letterman show that his menswear is manufactured outside of the U.S.

Still, she must make the case that she has the vision, character, integrity and trustworthiness for the Oval Office as a modern thinker. Meanwhile, Trump has shown that he can be successful as a post-modern thinker, but he has no desire or capacity to function in a modern world.

On election day, we not only will know which candidate will be the next president. We may also know if modernity has been replaced permanently by a post-modern way of life.