A former political refugee from Hungary, I came to this country in 1959 with high hopes and a favorable predisposition toward the American political system. I also harbored positive conceptions of Americans as a people and of the American national character as infused with generosity and idealism. In the course of my professional life I have written or edited several books on anti-Americanism, a form of global scapegoating based on a wide variety of grievances, real or imaginary.
Donald Trump’s popularity has tempted me to rethink my views. I find it distressing that millions of Americans can admire a person who combines a resounding lack of qualifications for any political office (let alone the presidency) with a thoroughly repellent personality. It perplexes me that millions of his supporters are willing and able to overlook his grotesquely inflated ego, ceaseless bragging, unembarrassed intolerance, and staggering ignorance. The enthusiasm he inspires makes me wonder if the critiques of American culture, political life, and perhaps even the national character that I dismissed in earlier times bear more truth than I was able or willing to discern.
Trump’s popularity raises disconcerting questions not only about American voters but about human nature as well. My recent completion of a study of political hero worship prompted further thoughts about the similarities and differences between Trump’s popularity and the reverence accorded to the notorious dictators of the recent past—Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and others.
While the historical circumstances of Trump’s pursuit of political power are fundamentally different from those of these and other dictators, there are some notable similarities between their appeals and those of Trump. Most strikingly, they share an immense, irrational self-regard that is deployed as a substitute for any specific credential or qualification for high office. This unfounded self-confidence enabled them and now enables Trump to make, without the least hesitation, implausible and outlandish promises and to offer breathtakingly simple-minded solutions for complicated social and existential problems. Dictators and Trump alike benefit from the deep-seated human capacity for wishful thinking. Trump also has in common with these dictators an unshakeable self-righteousness, an authoritarian temper, and a coarse, violence-prone rhetoric.
A significant difference between Trump and the dictators of the past is that the latter took some steps, however misguided, ineffectual, and ultimately counterproductive, to improve the lives of their subjects early in their careers. Trump has done nothing that would indicate any idealism or concern with the public welfare. He made money assisted by a substantial inheritance and has led a life of luxurious self-indulgence. His early fortune came from casinos, a parasitic endeavor that creates no wealth and preys on the psychological vulnerabilities of others. He benefits from the disposition of many Americans to conflate being rich with various impressive personal qualities, and to project that conflation further into qualification for high office.
The profound public misperceptions of Trump include the peculiar idea that he is an unvarnished truth-teller, that he “tells it like it is.” A study of a selection of his speeches and press conferences found five-dozen untrue statements, or more than one for every five minutes (as David Brooks notes). Similarly noteworthy, as Nicholas Kristof noted, is that “when fact-check website Politifact was ready to choose its ‘lie of the year’ for 2015, it found that the only real contenders were falsehoods by Trump.” None of this matters to his followers, who are neither in a position to check the truthfulness of his assertions nor care about it, as long as he can crudely personify their grievances and sense of victimization.
Trump’s popularity also confirms the political importance of the human disposition to blame others, groups or individuals, for one’s deprivations and misfortunes, real or imagined. Trump excels in denouncing and vilifying such potential targets, catering to the free-floating hostility of his audiences, grateful to him for validating their beliefs.
Arguably, the most important needs Trump addresses (as did the dictators) are not tangible deprivations that could be alleviated by reducing unemployment or raising the minimum wage. It is the implicit promise to restore the self-respect and honor of his supporters that is at the root of his appeal. “Making America great again” is code for making his supporters feel great by feeling respected. The craving for respect is the common denominator of his followers, just as it is for the supporters of authoritarian leaders, such as Vladimir Putin, who promises to make Russia great again by the use of military force. It is hardly an accident that Trump and Putin like one another. The intense nationalism of Putin’s supporters is a compensatory response (like the sentiments of Trump supporters) to feelings of deprivation and frustration that may originate either in broad social-political conditions or circumstances peculiar to an individual’s life and failed aspirations, or both. A deficit in self-respect is also reflected in the routine demand of American juvenile gang members for respect, and their violence is aimed at those who, they believe, have “dissed” them. The violent responses of Trump supporters at his rallies against protesters not sharing their reverence for him suggest similar impulses.
It is also likely that a substantial deficit in self-respect, or just plain insecurity, plays a part in Trump’s apparently insatiable need for homage, approval, favorable publicity, and winning in every conceivable endeavor. It shows as well in his compulsive bragging about his alleged accomplishments ranging from sexual prowess to golf, from deal-making to getting rich.
Admiration for Trump provides the most clear-cut example in recent times of what “false consciousness” means. It is reverence for a vacuous demagogue who is equally incapable of improving the lives of his supporters or the global standing of their country. His histrionics allows his supporters to overlook the total lack of substance of his incoherent promises and proposals. I can only hope that these delusions are a passing phenomenon, and that I will be able to retain my benign (but not uncritical) conceptions of this country and its people.