Commenting on the conundrum we find ourselves in, faced with the clearly autocratic mindset of Donald Trump compounded by his lack of emotional maturity, Frank Lawlor, observed recently:
We have … to recognize that, as in most historical cases of upheaval, millions of our fellow citizens have willed this historical event for us all. We have to save our national values and in the process to respect our brothers and sisters who have chosen this path for our nation.
That statement is as paralyzing as it is profound.
Lawlor’s lament is focused on the central paradox: that the problem is not Donald Trump. Narcissistic autocrats like Trump have always abounded. By themselves they are a threat to no one. The problem is that more than 63 million Americans voted to give him power, even after his racist message and truncated character development had been on public display for a year and a half. Like an IED, the home-made bomb of the “terrorist” wars, what detonated unexpectedly in our faces was the myth that the American People could be trusted to prevent any such person from getting close enough to do damage to our hallowed values as a democratic republic. Lawlor’s stunned recognition of popular complicity with Trump’s agenda silently asks: how could such a thing happen?
My thesis is this: vast numbers of the American People embraced Donald Trump’s narcissistic definition of the meaning and purpose of American power as self-aggrandizement — the control of others: Imperialism — as essential to maintaining our way of life. The American People are an Imperial People — the inheritors of the post-war American Empire that has meant wealth for ordinary working people beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. We have come to believe that such wealth is our “right,” earned by our merits, a natural superiority falsely linked to race, culture and religion, and something we are entitled to hold onto. Trump supporters are not the only ones who believe that. All Americans have more than a touch of it, and like any self-exalting self-deception, we all have to work at controlling it or it will devour us.
At the very base of all this is the famous “ring of power” that Tolkien made the centerpiece of his saga. Power feels like freedom because it allows us do what we want. But first we have to recognize that power is a fantasy. Until power takes on concrete existence by being exercised, it’s only in the imagination. One can imagine using power for any number of purposes. This is where the door opens to the demonic. For when the psychopathic imagination — driven to compensate for personal insecurity — couples power to self-aggrandizement it precipitates a behavior the Greeks called hubris: an irrational identification of personal well-being with supremacy over others and its inverse: the belief that another person’s ascendancy represents a net loss for myself.
Some very experienced doctors of the American Psychiatric Association have publicly written to warn us that, and I quote, “His widely reported symptoms of mental instability, including grandiosity, impulsivity, hyper-sensitivity to slights or criticisms, and an apparent inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, lead us to question his fitness for the immense responsibilities of the office.” (Gloria Steinem, 1/21/2017)
When you’re speaking of the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth, whose military and economic stature towers over all others, the possibility that a self-exalting hubris will piggy-back on power projections beyond national borders, augurs ominously for the future of global society. I’m not the only one who thinks this is what drove Mr. Trump to seek the presidency. Already wealthy beyond measure, like Julius Caesar he was looking to secure his historical immortality by finding a Gaul to conquer, and he sold his legions of followers on the promise of plunder if they helped him do it. Like Trump, Caesar rode to triumph on the backs of his supporters. But Caesar was less constrained. He lived in a culture of competing egos; he did not have to disguise his motivations. He could admit openly that he wept because by 33 Alexander of Macedon had conquered the world, and he, Caesar, had done nothing. Trump lives in a “Christian” culture. He has to disguise his intentions: the rest of the world is ripping us off, he said, putting us down, creating a “carnage” of the American People. For Caesar, Gaul was not a threat, it was an opportunity. I believe Trump’s neo-imperialism is the same, and he has harnessed ordinary Americans — an Imperial People — to pull his war chariot because like the Roman legionaries, they think they are going to partake of the plunder. The hubris is collective.
Hubris is an ego-mania that tends to spawn analogous ego-related reactions in others because it threatens their own insecurities. The human species seems particularly vulnerable to this false identification of individual well-being with the emasculation of others. The whole scene descends into the madness of a zero-sum game: anything that enhances you diminishes me, and if I am to succeed at my obsessive task of creating myself by my achievements, you are in my way, you must be correspondingly diminished. It’s bad enough when it’s found in individuals, it’s chaos when it runs rampant in society, but to have it function internationally is the depths of insanity.
I believe that what happened to our country is that the perception of superior power which is a function of our military capability and economic control, was tarnished by the series of debacles in the middle east, starting with the Iraq and Afghanistan disasters and compounded by the failure to control events in Egypt, Libya and ultimately Syria and the “Caliphate” (ISIS) in the aftermath of the “Arab spring.” For an Imperial People who have come to believe that they are destined by heaven to rule the world (and be rewarded handsomely for doing it), any “self-determination” on the part of others that doesn’t mesh with our interests is intolerable.
The crime of unused power
In this context, you can understand the rise of Donald Trump, floated to the surface by none other than the Imperial People of the United States. After what has been a series of Vietnam-type humiliations, the ordinary American has come to accept the right-wing argument that his aspirations to a living standard above that of the majority of mankind have been undermined by the failure to exercise American power, rather than the failure to control a capitalist economic system that breeds massive inequality. Rising standards of living in China, India, Brazil, Korea and other erstwhile “third world” countries accompanied by an increase of their international clout are taken as indications of a corresponding American decline. But I want to emphasize: there is no decline. It is pure fiction. What is causing consternation is that American Imperial status is no longer acknowledged by people who are beginning to feel and act like our equals. What’s wrong with that? This is what the Imperial mindset, silently harbored by the American people and rallied into a deafening roar by Trump’s rhetoric, will not tolerate. The talk of “American carnage” is in reality a nostalgia for an imagined superiority and accompanying wealth that are pure fantasy, and to which, at any rate, we have no right. The fantasy has been fanned into obsessive demand and made to work in tandem with Trump’s personal megalomania.
Many people agree about Trump’s emotional morbidity, but what explains the totally unexpected identification of tens of millions of people with those adolescent needs? In the case of the 2016 elections the perception projected by Trump was that there was American power lying around that was not being used, and that the refusal to use power for our own ascendancy was a direct cause of the ascendancy of our enemies and therefore was contributing to our national abasement which he said was reflected in the ordinary American’s economic stagnation and insecurity. That was the excuse he offered and the people who supported him rushed to buy it. But please notice: the rush was a distraction. Its effect, if not its purpose, was to bypass rationality … because everyone knew it was a lie. It was meant to blur the undeniable fact that the country was doing quite well economically by every parameter, especially reflected in the continued growth in the upper sectors’ share of national income. Reality was not allowed to dampen Trump supporters’ eagerness to embrace his message. Instead of repairing the system that has created the massive inequality that is really responsible for middle class discontent (and secretly hoping someday to be the beneficiaries of it), I contend that these people consciously decided to join Trump in employing the excuse that their own problems were the result of a non-existent national abasement in order to justify the use of American power to control and plunder the rest of the world. The ultimate reason for the Roman conquest of Gaul was that landless, impoverished Roman soldiers wanted Gallic land as much as Caesar wanted Roman glory. Likewise, the ultimate reason for the election of Donald Trump is that the Imperial People want to maintain their higher standard of living by lording it over the rest of the world and refusing to share what they have with those they consider non-Americans, even if they happen to live here and are citizens. They want that as badly as Trump wants to enter Valhalla. It’s a pact made in hell.
That was Trump’s message, and despite losing by almost 3 million votes, the fact that he got 63 million people to agree with him would pose a major problem for this country no matter who happened to be elected president. You can’t have half the politically active people of a nation sympathize with the marginalization of large segments of their own population and the employment of international thuggery to plunder other nations in the name of national ascendancy and expect that your democracy is going to endure in anything but name. Democracy is predicated on mutual respect. Without it, it is a dry empty shell waiting to shatter into dust. Even if Clinton had won (and it’s not clear that her foreign policy would have been all that different from Trump’s), the presence of massive numbers of these Imperial People ready to follow their next champion in the work of engorging themselves on the wealth and labor of others around the world, and suppressing efforts to share wealth and security among the poorer strata of the American population, would have continued the gridlock obstructionism that the Republican Party has made the hallmark of its contribution to American Politics for the last 20 years. By making that accusation I do not mean to exonerate Democrats who now can be expected to begin to dance to the tune that Trump has proved is a delight to the ears of so many Americans. We have to remember what the term “Clinton Democrats” meant.
The fantasy of Empire
Such Democrats would convince us that there is a way of being “Empire” that is “win-win”: i.e., good for us and good for others. But it’s a contradiction. Cooperation and collaboration can be “win-win,” negotiation and arbitration can be “win-win,” but no version of “empire,” which means only and always that one people rule and control others, can be win-win no matter what the kick-back arrangement. For empire means control and servitude even when for some reason and at some moment it doesn’t mean oppression and exploitation. No such relationship between nations and peoples is humanly valid, therefore it is not durable and must be constantly maintained by force and fear.
It is time we disabused ourselves of that fantasy. The Age of Empires is over, relegated to the virtual realities of video games; the harsh violence they assume as the functioning motivation of all human enterprise is a thing of the past. We, as a species, have turned that corner even if there still exists an Imperial People who have yet to accept it. It’s time we cast these demons out of our heads. We know better. “Empire” won’t work because it can’t work.
If we are to have a future as a species it will have to be characterized by international cooperation, negotiation, and collaboration derived from mutual respect and a sincere esteem for all people as people. We are never going to stop 63 million people from doing what they think is the best thing for them. Our only hope going forward … and in the long term … is to help them to understand what the best thing for them really is. They must begin to think of their well being in terms of humankind itself. That is the enduring task, there is no alternative.
“Trump is a nut,” I shouted at my Trump supporting neighbor before the election. He agreed with a dismissive grin. What does that tell you? Trump’s supporters know all too well the pact they have struck with insanity. But they have chosen it freely. There is no point in denying what we are up against. The blindness and gullibility that may exonerate our “brothers and sisters” of individual guilt, make the situation even more dire and desperate. If you are blind, you can’t change what you can’t see.
The question for the rest of us is whether we will have the courage and confidence to overcome the paralysis that the fear of that blindness arouses in us.