Dying to Be Great
The hidden story
Posted Jan 23, 2017
Whatever your politics, the inauguration of the new president was a troubled affair. Protesters outnumbered the attendees, and Mr. Trump’s speech climaxed in his bizarre reference to American “carnage”—a word that means “slaughter, massacre, mass murder, butchery, bloodbath, bloodletting, gore; holocaust, pogrom, ethnic cleansing.“
The “carnage” points to a story almost as hidden as Mr. Trump’s tax returns. On the surface it’s the familiar superhero thriller: a corrupt elite have nearly exterminated “forgotten Americans.” They’re socially dead, like their “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape.” A celebrity tycoon will save them. He wins them over by acting informal and bluntly candid. He speaks and tweets ordinary TV vernacular, implying that considered political speech is elite and phony.
Beneath this surface story is a deeper story. The superhero speaks plain language, yet he uses nonsense to reduce critical thinking to gut feeling. While leaders usually advertise their policies and achievements, the superhero mystifies everything. He makes things paradoxical, self-contradictory, and exaggerated. Hides important information. Rants about fake news yet also disseminates it. He’s a family man but also a sexual buccaneer. He is caught lying so often that his followers shrug and discount it as normal. He mugs for the camera with a practiced grimace that to a psychologist signifies dominance.
So he is an ordinary guy but also a genius, even a messiah. “I alone” can fix things. His wealth and celebrity glamor entitle him to conquer businessmen and beautiful women. Campaigning, he pumped up followers with far-fetched claims about crime, immigrants, terrorism, voter fraud, and his opponent’s evil.
Those claims were lies, repeatedly disproved, yet they make sense as a strategy because followers can dismiss the lies and nevertheless absorb the intense emotions—the gut feelings—that the lies excite. It’s the basic premise of fiction and ads. You know they’re not real, but their impact lingers. Why else would studios and corporations spend billions to hook you?
Come to think of it, why would a billionaire who has everything want to rescue the downtrodden? Especially a billionaire with a record of cheating employees, avoiding taxes, and being deceptive about his charity?
To be sure, the poor have reason to feel starved while bankers and corporate honchos pork up at the trough. FDR’s New Deal, LBJ’s Great Society, and Obamacare are about the only government programs that directly included marginal folks in the nation’s well-being. And Mr. Trump’s party has fought to kill those programs from the start.
Systematically, then, Mr. Trump uses nonsense to reduce critical thinking to a gut feeling about his story of rescue from “carnage” and resurrection by “Making America Great Again.” What he says matters less than his effect on the quality of your thinking. His opponents fear that his gut feeling is inadequate for a complex and conflicted economy. They also fear that by blurring together his personal life and official powers, his story will unleash corruption.
This is where Mr. Trump’s story resonates with the psychology of emperors and pied pipers in history. Hero-worship (“I alone can fix it”) means followers identify with the hero. If Mr. Trump used his office for private gain, a North Carolina businessman told NPR, that would be OK, because it would mean that business was good for him too. If the hero prospers, the worshiper will too. If the emperor is a god, some of that prestige rubs off on his servants as well.
The personal blurs the official in other puzzling ways too. Since Trump's daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism to marry the Orthodox Jared Kushner, how much is family influencing Mr. Trump’s support for rightwing expansion of Israel and his hostility to Muslims? Is it reflected in his use of “carnage” ( = holocaust)? Does Mr. Trump give Russia a blank check because he has refinanced his business failures by borrowing from Russian oligarchs? Who can say?
Like his use of the Obama “birther” conspiracy to open a wedge into politics, that is, Mr. Trump’s convictions all smack of strategy. And because he has trashed traditions and all rivals, we can’t be sure what he believes. What if at heart the man only has a gut belief in his heroism? This would explain his desperate appetite for superlatives: the richest, the most beautiful, the smartest, etc. And also the truculent selfishness of America first. Me first.
This would shed light on his vindictiveness. His thin skin may be the older man’s wish for “greatness” and resentment of those replacing him. In lashing out, he is fighting for his life. Even his big lies make sense this way. They function as a threat display. Like a soldier amok in the face of death in combat, his extreme lies say, I will stop at nothing. For me, winning is survival.
The main risk of course is that if you don’t believe, you’re likely to be alarmed. It’s not just Mr.Trump’s policies or his egotism, and not just his fabulation. These qualities together force a choice on you: shudder at a threat of “carnage” or believe in the superhero. If the choice seems simplistic, you may be a critic or even an enemy.
Another risk is that nobody fully understands how America works: not politicians, not experts, not voters. This is why reform kills fewer people than revolution. This is why fantasies of carnage and resurrection may end not in resurrection but in regret. To live together, civilized people need to share and solve problems together.
History shows us legions of leaders who have been seduced by the appetite for glory. All too often they pump up their own conviction of immortality by draining the lifeblood of scapegoats. This is why the Karen Horney’s psychology deems the search for glory a Devil’s pact.
Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (Free Press 1973
Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon (Leveller's Press, 2016)
Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth (Norton, 1948)