Though the post seems to have vanished from my Facebook, I think it was the New York Times which posted the question: ‘What is Donald Trump tapping into that other politicians aren’t?’
Initially, it’s not that complicated. He is tapping into fear.
Americans, at present, have a right to be afraid. So have many of us outside the US, and for essentially the same reasons.
We are small creatures in a vast world. We have always felt this since when, in early times, darkness, predatory animals, broiling heat, freezing cold, thirst and hunger were inexplicable to us. Before science – and unhappily since, in many cases – we attributed our smallness and our suffering to gods. The suffering did not change, but the god concept allowed us to think that there was some kind of order out there in the world (since extended to the universe), that we were part of some plan, that we mattered to someone or something that was greater than us. We have always feared our insignificance.
We found – and sometimes still find – the family useful in our insignificance. We find – if we’re lucky – that we are significant to others who are themselves significant to us. If we are unlucky that original smallness and insignificance is made only greater, because there are those whom we find significant who make us feel less so. And if it is bad one of the first things we are going to do is to bully.
Just checking, I find that the antonym to ‘elevate’ is ‘depress’. Interesting. The bully depresses his/her victim through some form of oppression in order to ‘elevate’ him/herself in his/her own damaged self-esteem.
An element of purpose which can be attached to almost any social grouping – perhaps any social grouping – is to establish self-esteem, often through the esteem of others. We play constant games with esteem.
To enhance self-esteem, to elevate it, it is not enough to be a Christian because you believe in Christianity’s tenets or a Muslim because you believe in Islamic tenets. It is better to be a Christian or a Muslim who believes that all other beliefs and believers are wrong, and therefore inferior. The moment we believe that someone else is inferior, it elevates us in our own esteem.
The practice is so much a commonplace that we scarcely notice it. Whether we find the opportunity to depress others and elevate ourselves through our chosen Faith, through the football, soccer or baseball team we support, through our chosen political beliefs, through the grades we or our children got in school, through the status of our employment or even the fact of our employment – for nothing is quite as satisfying to the working insignificant as despising those who are unemployed.
The practice is also fundamental to nationalism. By an accident of birth I occasionally regret (oh to have been born in Sicily!) I am English/British by nationality. Being English it is kind of expected that I should be ready to joke about Scottish parsimony, Irish stupidity or Welsh sheep-shaggery. None of these things are true, yet every one is based on a concept of superiority, an idea at some time locked into the psyche, that we are more generous, more clever and more discerning in our sexual habits than other populations. They all embody bullying, the depression of others to elevate ourselves, and the key – as I’ve said – to the cause of that bullying is our own fear of insignificance.
Of course, those who already have a strong sense of self-esteem do not need to indulge in such bullying behavior and, even if they’re not entirely sure what the cause is they tend not to like it. But we are all probably guilty of it to at least some small extent.
Yet the truth is that even if we have fairly good self-esteem we cannot but be aware to some degree of our insignificance in the scheme of things. We are vulnerable. And in America in particular, but elsewhere too, this is a growing and dangerous issue.
As families can build or demolish self-esteem, elevate us or depress us in terms of our sense of significance, so can the larger family we refer to as ‘society’ and the smaller groups or societies within it to which we belong.
We understand that being excommunicated from our church, black-balled by our club, rejected by a potential employer at an interview, having our stories or paintings rejected, being rejected by a partner or love, may have a practical effect, often an economic effect, but we also know, surely, that it has an effect on our self-esteem. It reminds us of our insignificance in that larger scale of things. It reminds us we are vulnerable.
We know, surely, that being unemployed lowers the individual’s sense of self-esteem. We know that poverty does the same. We know that being a victim does it. We know that the indifference of others to us, does it also.
And this is the state in which millions of people live.
This is why, in a long ago study by a Scottish university, it becomes clear that people read the news sources which support their own beliefs, why they are resistant to having those beliefs challenged. To be wrong is not only to be wrong or mistaken, it is to be less, to be inferior to those who are right.
As an internet troll or a demagogue, I have to be right in order to sustain my damaged sense of self-worth.
America today is a dysfunctional democracy. It has outgrown its systems. It is a family, metaphorically speaking, in which some members are eager and willing to succumb to gluttony whilst others of its members go hungry. Its young men, like our own, have fought, suffered and died in wars which had the putative objective of improving life, liberty and happiness yet which in real terms seems to offer its present citizens no more than they would have had in 1916.
Confident in wealth and power, the higher ‘classes’ of the United States (and elsewhere, though elsewhere doesn’t have Trump) are quick to assure the lower orders that the elevated are there because ‘the cream rises’. Well, too much cream isn’t good for you. They will also aver that ‘anyone can get where we are if they try hard enough’, not recognizing that cream exerts no effort in order to float and that they themselves have often ‘gotten’ to the top through no real effort of their own, building on wealth that was left to them, producing nothing of worth. Shit floats too, rather as Trump’s current elevation seems to demonstrate.
In a world where commercial powers have greater strength than government, in which governments have repeatedly failed to check the growth of these crucially undemocratic and un-transparent organisations, the ordinary citizen is aware on some level that he/she no longer has a voice.
Government has become not that which does things for them but that which does things to them. Voters are less participants in this democracy than victims or potential victims of it. They are increasingly alone, increasingly insignificant, and that lies at the heart of it.
What Trump promises is essentially what all demagogues promise, what Hitler promised, what Kim Jong-un promises and what all right-wing politicians promise – that if he or they are followed, he or they will lead them to a position of superiority, that he or they will grant them self-esteem by enabling them to look down on others.
It has worked before.
And this is why good healthcare, good education, housing, jobs and so many other things need to be driven by government. The re-distribution of gross inequalities in wealth is not merely about spending power; it is about a government proving to its people that each of them, individually and collectively, has worth.