Modern Demagoguery, or Why Trump Is Not To Blame
History always and understandably focuses its judgment, criticism, and disdain on the famous leaders who “caused all the damage”: the demagogues, cult figures, or scheming rhetoricians who exploited human weakness and/or difficult times for their own benefit. Rarely do we consider the fuel that powered the destructive excesses of these historic leaders, namely the populations that fell for the demagoguery, joined the cult, or allowed themselves to be manipulated by the clever connivers.
Iago was an evil man in his heart, but the tragedy in which he figures is called Othello because without the Moor’s moral weakness, feelings of inadequacy, and willingness to believe the worst of the most innocent person in his life, Iago would be just another petty flatterer or frustrated sycophant.
Donald Trump is a bad man on numerous levels: a willful idiot, a sociopath, a serial manipulator, a cynical schmoozer, and perhaps the most famous vulgar self-promoter since P. T. Barnum.
But the world is full of vulgarians without a moral compass or a working set of principles. What sets Trump apart from the typical case is that, through a combination of lucky timing, a savant-like ability to read the mood of a mindless or hopeless crowd, the simplistic popular allure of money, and a lust for power that is part infantile overcompensation, part desperate craving for respect, he has managed to establish a following of ten million Othellos: men and women stretched spiritually thin by generations of government schooling, increasingly grotesque popular entertainment, and anti-rational dependencies or habits of all kinds; people full of incoherent anger and ready to leap onto a bandwagon that promises a reckless mixture of caution-to-the-wind rebellion against the tiresome status quo, and pie-in-the-sky easy solutions for a lifetime’s disappointment.
At a slightly “higher” level of demagoguery, we might say the same of men like Hitler, Lenin, Che Guevara, or — the historical leader Trump most resembles — Mussolini. Who were they, in ultimate fact? Garden variety sociopaths and power-mad infants — except for their better-than-average knack for reading crowds and latching onto a mood, and the greater-than-average perseverance to follow through on their grandiose schemes where others of their spiritual ilk would relent or settle for smaller, safer game. In each case, ridiculous characters, almost parodies of men, in the sense that they lived out exaggerated manifestations of various insidious vices all men know could be their downfall if allowed to run wild.
The most infamous tyrants, cult leaders, and demagogues lived those vices without restraint. But so might anyone, in his or her own personal sphere. In fact, I suppose such people occur often enough around us in our daily lives. The difference between the ones you know personally and the ones who enter the history books may be little more than a matter of chance, specifically the fateful confluence of a little extra chutzpah from the individual and a moment of social upheaval of the sort that engenders mass lethargy and/or mass hysteria. (Lethargy and hysteria can be two sides of the same coin, as is obvious in the case of what used to be called, misleadingly, manic depression, and is now called, meaninglessly, bipolar disorder.)
The difference, and the chief opportunity that history’s great opportunists exploit, comes by way of a populace in the throes of: (a) a fit of desperation caused by a sense of collective social failure or disintegration; and (b) a general breakdown in moral independence (i.e., mature adulthood), which engenders a weakness for clinging to the strength of a group. The blend of (a) and (b) makes the mass of men, or a massive subgroup within a broader society, susceptible to the gruff charms of the opportunist who says, “They hate us, they want to destroy us, but if you follow me, I’ll lead us back to glory!” It may help, as in the current example of the Trump cult, that there is more than a grain of truth in the rallying cry about what “they” want to do to “us,” since American progressivism really is a movement bent on unraveling everything earlier generations believed in, and consigning it to a figurative internment camp through incessant anti-American indoctrination and propaganda in the schools, TV sets, and newspapers of the nation.
Nevertheless, the gushing Trump worship — “worship” may be too weak a word for it, and certainly not too strong — that one finds all over the internet comment sections, and throughout the so-called conservative media, is all the evidence one needs of the reality of the dangerous confluence of factors (a) and (b), as described above. It is dangerous because, as Trump himself noted almost three years ago, these people would not abandon him if he shot a man on Fifth Avenue. As it is, they know what he is, but they do not care. They know he is a shameless manipulator and reality TV showman, and they are proud of him for it. “But he’s our shameless manipulator and reality TV showman!” they boast, gleefully, as Trump flouts all previous conceptions of statesmanship, dignity, and decency, in the name of promoting his image as the fearless rebel president who “takes it to the Democrats” and “wins.”
It is the crowd, in other words, and not the man himself, that is ultimately responsible for Trump the infamous vulgarian demagogue as such. Donald Trump is just Donald Trump, one man, and not a very good one. Trumpism, by contrast, is a popular movement, which could have been someone-else-ism, had there been another suitable person available to exploit the crowd’s fear, desperation, and unwillingness to think and live as fully independent adults, i.e., individuals in the political, moral, and even metaphysical senses.
History’s great demagogues and schemers were not so great, in the end. For all the fashionable German socio-babble about charisma, what such men really “had,” if you will, was a critical mass of willing dupes, people prepared to give their minds unreservedly to a dear leader of one sort or another, whether it be one representing a quasi-religious ideology, one rallying the people’s angry urge to tear down the castle, one merely promising to return the people to a romantic conception of past greatness, or some combination of the above. Charisma, in other words, as that term has been used since Max Weber, is not really a description of the leader at all, but rather little more than a euphemism for, or personified projection of, “a society in distress.”
To understand the appeal of the sociopathic big dreamer, then, we would need to turn our view from the sociopath at last, and begin to look instead at the material upon which he works his magic, namely the people prepared to sacrifice their dream to his, or rather to persuade themselves that his dream is theirs. In this case alone, then, a little “people’s history” would be in order.
And if we were to engage in that sort of popular analysis, we would find that just as the cult leader depends for his success on the widespread availability of potential cultists, the susceptible population itself is also a dependent entity. A people does not emasculate itself, or refuse to think and act as mature individuals, in a vacuum. Such a sacrifice of spirit is unnatural, and therefore occurs under the influence of anti-natural moral and intellectual forces, which is to say anti-natural ideas. As Nietzsche said, it is around the creators of values that the world revolves, silently. That is, every civilized or semi-civilized society is, in one sense or another, essentially the embodiment or instantiation of a seminal philosophical idea, and this is true whether anyone within that society gives a damn about philosophy or not; and it is true no matter how smugly the practical materialists among us declare philosophical ideas irrelevant. (They declare it so because they have unwittingly imbibed too much materialist philosophy.)
The danger of crowds, as we have known at least since Socrates, is that they are invariably as ignorant as their most ignorant member. In other words, the crowd, insofar as it is thinking and acting as a crowd, naturally inclines away from wisdom, rather than toward it. The reason is that a crowd, as opposed to a rationally ordered social group, is inherently egalitarian, inasmuch as nature has made each man’s voice as loud as every other’s, each man’s laughter as boisterous as every other’s, and each man’s anger as ferocious as every other’s. Thus, just as an individual man whose soul is not ruled by reason and rational habits of self-restraint will eventually devolve to the rule of his irrational mass of emotional impulses and immoderate bodily desires, so a crowd without a rationally-imposed hierarchy of interests will succumb to the tyranny of the majority that suffocates rational deliberation and sober reflection in a cacophony of mindless enthusiasm.
When a whole populace falls into this well of crowd-think — the natural egalitarianism of the mob — the society effectively loses its intellectual core. This fall is the inevitable fate of any movement, society, or age that devalues the individual human being, which means the individual mind, even if it does so in the name of some fantastical notion of a “collective reason” or “social mind” that is purported to be able to access truths which an individual soul working alone cannot reach.
Modernity took this turn into dangerous seas in the nineteenth century, and never righted the vessel. Romanticism and idealism of the German sort, which came to inform and even define the tenor and trajectory of the theoretical, educational, and political realms throughout the advanced world, gradually but comprehensively established new norms of human understanding and aspiration, supplanting the study of human nature in favor of the creative reinvention of mankind as a social entity, and rejecting the search for permanent truth in favor of reality redefined as the social progress of passionate ideals. This grand German project, undoing the human rational faculty in favor of Reason, and the practical human realm in favor of History, overturned the essential individualism of previous philosophic thought, a perspective that had not only been inherently resistant to crowd-think, but which had made the resistance to crowds per se a defining indicator of human completion.
Today, under the two-century sway of this German theoretical romanticism of “The People,” this idealism of abstract humanity, the crowd is the thing, which means the individual is an unthing, a dead letter, though perhaps a remnant of his clothing is still run up the flagpole by those clinging to a nostalgic dream they call “America.” The crowd is ubiquitous, and forms the political essence of both major tribes in the New World. The socialists, under their Marxist star, claim to reject idealism, but are nonetheless ardent romantics. The conservatives, with their rejection of romantic illusions of historical progress, are nevertheless idealists in their hearts, which is why so many of them regard their Christianity, particularly of the evangelical kind, as indistinguishable from their politics (and why so many evangelicals support Trump). They are emotional Lutherans, and Luther was a spiritual progenitor of German idealism. (In fact, it was by way of such Protestant factions that German idealism first made its way into America, particularly as the driving force behind the common school movement.)
In sum, then, the demagogue is nothing, almost literally non-existent, absent a willing populace. Demagoguery’s willing victims, in turn, are nothing but men of emotional immaturity, pre-men if you will, who in the absence of a substantial belief in themselves as individual rational animals, cling to a saving illusion of substance they believe they have found in one crowd or another. And the lifeblood of the modern political community’s devolved existence as warring crowds, susceptible to demagogues of all stripes, is the intellectual fallout of German idealism, romanticism, and historical progressivism: the “value-creation” of a nineteenth-century philosophical movement dedicated to the dismantling of the idea of philosophy itself as an ennobling human endeavor — the fulfillment of the human individual as such — in favor of philosophy as a collective enthusiasm, an academic game, and an illusion of idealized oneness achieved by way of social manipulation, which in practice means by way of the tyranny of the crowd.
Who is to blame for Donald Trump’s ascendancy, and the corresponding degradation of American political life that made this ascendancy possible? Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, if you want to know.