When it comes to delusions of Columbus, nobody understood him better than the historian Tzvetan Todorov, who died last month. The New York Times eulogized him as a towering literary theorist and historian of evil, and in these days, we need our historians of evil. His great book, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, is a 1984 cultural history of the European “discovery” of the Americas, but the book’s deeper subject is the discovery self makes of the other.
Todorov mines Columbus’s own words — his diaries, letters, and logbooks — to make a terrifying and prescient warning about what can happen when we fail to “discover” the other. He can do this with no fear of further demystification of Columbus, whose reputation is already at near-Trumpian levels of disrepute. But Todorov’s analysis of Columbus’s “ways of knowing” keeps coming back to me now as I watch and listen to Donald Trump.
Todorov knows how evil looks and how it thinks; his observations are strikingly applicable to our current crisis. Todorov’s chilling description of what he calls Columbus’s “finalist strategy of interpretation” reveals an epistemological framework that is so similar to Donald Trump’s that we would do well to attend to it. It would not be a radical statement to suggest that Donald J. Trump and Christopher Columbus share a worldview that is narcissistic, racist, imperialist, and nationalistic. Both of them persisted in a foolish project that few of their contemporaries thought they could actually accomplish. But both believed, with a touch of hypomania, they were “chosen” or “anointed” in some way for a singular task that no one else on earth could do, and the naysayers from King John II of Portugal to Mitt Romney had no effect on their drive. They could not be stopped by normal means.
More similarities abound. Recall that Columbus set out on his journey not to discover new lands (because he “knew” the East was there already, he found it right where he thought it was), but rather to find gold in order to enrich Spain’s treasury so that Spain could launch another Crusade against Islam. That he himself (and his heirs) got rich in the process was simply a well-deserved bonus. Though his discovery project was internationalist in scope, political theorists of later generations would have called him a classic ethnic nationalist. Columbus all but sailed under a banner reading “Make Spain Great Again.”
Huge egos, disdain for the other, an inability to be dissuaded: these men would have gotten along famously, if they could have stood being in the presence of another so similar to themselves.
Contrary to what American children were mistaught for decades, Columbus was not a forward-looking proto-modern “discoverer” of new lands. He was an archaic thinker — with a medieval mind, not a Renaissance one. He set out for the “East” (by heading west) not because he had a new idea, but because he was returning to an old one. His goal was to launch a new crusade against the “Mohammadean” infidels, even though such 12th-century adventures had been abandoned by the end of the 15th century. Christopher Columbus was at least 350 years behind his own times, a crowning irony for the man credited with “discovering” the “New World.” Todorov argues that it is precisely because Columbus was so committed to outdated medieval ideas that he inadvertently inaugurated something new.
Trump, too, has seemingly dropped in from another time. His casual sexism and overt racism belong not to 2017 but to the days of the Playboy Clubs and the racism of the early 1960s. He also shares a linguistic tic with Columbus, who always used his favorite phrase to discover as what Todorov called an “intransitive action,” a verb with no object. He is not concerned with what he discovers, the object of discovery — new lands, people, languages, animals, plants, foods, customs, et cetera — for which he cares nothing. He just wants to “discover.” On October 17, 1492, he wrote in his logbook simply “I wish to see and discover all day long.” Columbus’s biographer Bartolomé de las Casas wrote in his Historia that “[w]hat he most dearly desired, he says, was to discover more.”
For Trump, the essential action of his life is not “discovering” but “winning.” Trump wants himself and the United States to win and win and win, an intransitive hall of mirrors that never ends. He does not mean he wants to win a particular contest. It’s just winning. No object, just victory as an intransitive action. Just as Columbus planned to discover and discover and discover until Spain would get bored of discovering, there would be so much discovering going on.
But Todorov is most helpful in illuminating the most disturbing and upsetting aspect of the Trump era: Donald Trump’s relation to the truth. As we know by now, he lies constantly. And what makes his lies different from other public liars is that he lies when the empirical evidence to refute his lies is in plain sight. He lies about inauguration crowds, the popular vote count, his electoral college victory, about things he literally just said or wrote, facts that can be verified, easily, by anyone. He lies about things he said on tape, clear statements that can be viewed on a smartphone or Googled in real time.
Columbus did much the same thing. He was indeed the first European to sight island after island in the Caribbean: Hispaniola, Yamaya (Jamaica), Trinidad, and many others. But he was searching for Asia all the while. And when he reached the island of Cuba, he “knew” that he had finally found it. He knew for a fact that Cuba was part of the mainland continent of Asia, and there was no way to dissuade him. The Indians who lived there told him, of course, that Cuba was a small island. Presumably they assured him that they could circumnavigate it and had been doing so since the dawn of time. But forget what the Indians knew through their experience, Columbus is the only one who had the “truth.” Cuba is the mainland. After they persisted in their claims, Columbus insulted the morality of the Indians calling them “bestial men” who “believe that the whole world is an island and who do not know what the mainland is, and have neither letters nor long-standing memories, and since they take pleasure only in eating and being with their women, they said that this was an island.”
To Columbus, the Indians are losers who have no morals, no wealth, and therefore no access to truth, so it makes sense that only losers would say Cuba is an island. Columbus, faced with this “fake news” about Cuba, ignored empirical evidence and instead asserted his authority and demanded loyalty. Each of his sailors was forced to disembark at Cuba and swear an oath to Columbus that they were standing on the Asian mainland and not an island. Anyone failing to comply would be fined heavily and have his tongue cut out. We can imagine that any empiricism among the crew died on that day, and that the island of Cuba was, through Columbus’s assertion of authority, transformed into the mainland, at least temporarily.
This is a prime example of what Todorov calls a “finalist strategy of interpretation,” in which the subject first believes something must be the case, and then rejects all evidence to the contrary. The ultimate “truth” is fixed from the start, making empiricism irrelevant. For Columbus, his archaic Spanish Catholic version of Christianity — in which world dominance was right around the corner — could withstand any empirical challenge. Trump is also in possession of dubious a priori knowledge — he won the popular vote, his inauguration crowd was yoooouge, all Syrian refugees are dangerous terrorists, Mexico will build the wall — but his truth-knowledge does not come from Christianity, with which he has a transactional relationship even on his best days. Trump’s proof-fix seems to come rather from his own scattered mind, or more precisely, the endless chaos of cable and online news as filtered by his mind. He does not search for truth. He already possesses it. So the only arguments he can engage in are about authority: a reaffirmation of the locus of power, which is, of course, himself.
The only valid questions Trump can ask (though he uses a third grade vocabulary to do it) are: “Who will submit to this narrative, my a priori knowledge of what is true, and who will not? Who will obey my authority when it comes to the truth I possess?” This is why he calls all news reports which challenge his statements “fake news.” According to his finalist strategy of interpretation, news stories that present actual truth can only be fake. They cannot be true because they contradict what he already knows. And by the way, if you are a Trump follower, staffer, or journalist who would like access to press briefings, like a member of Columbus’s crew, you must also accept this formulation. As Todorov explains, “The finalist strategy prevails in [Columbus’s] system of interpretation: the latter no longer consists in seeking the truth but in finding confirmations of a truth known in advance.”
Todorov’s book is dedicated to “the memory of a Mayan woman devoured by dogs”: an anonymous woman mentioned in passing in the journal of the Spaniard Diego de Landa. She was thrown to the dogs when she refused to let a group of Spanish men rape her. Todorov’s moral history of the first encounter between Europeans and Americans insists that we remember this woman, and warns us of what can happen when we “do not succeed in discovering the other.” Any finalist strategy of interpretation will ultimately lead to dehumanization and evil, because its hubris fails to take into account the reality of the other.
Karen Elizabeth Park is a professor of religious studies at St. Norbert College and the author of several essays on American Catholic history, Marian devotion, and the use of sacred space.