“God is dead.” Can Nietzsche’s pronouncement explain Trump’s appeal?
“There are Trump supporters outside my parents’ house shouting through megaphones “Lock Her Up,” and I just keep thinking, I hope they’re wearing masks and some day get over 2016.” (tweet from Chelsea Clinton, Nov.15, 2020)
When I read this, I was stunned. I thought how could Americans…how could any sane person behave like that? These people are deranged — it’s beyond sexism or racism or any cogent ideology…it’s pure insanity!
And then I thought of Nietzsche and the implications of his most famous statement: “God is dead.” This earth-shattering prognosis, made in 1882, plunged the world into existentialism — or the individual’s search for the meaning of life. Clearly, not everyone’s found it.
The Jungian scholar and author, Robert Johnson, summed it up in his book Tranformation. In this slight book, he discusses the three stages of human consciousness and relates them to 3 fictional characters: Don Quixote, Hamlet and Faust. In the first phase, the order of the universe is primarily set by external institutions like the church/religion and government/political party — these are shored up by lesser social entities like the Scouts, the Rotary or Country Club.
These institutions provide social norms, rules, regulations, dogma, ritual, etc. that give us a comfortable understanding of ourselves and the world. In that universe, society is bound on all sides by mutual understanding and beliefs. As long as these institutions remain solid, we’re safe from existential malaise — we don’t have to cope with the discomforts of creating our own values and meaning in an often chaotic universe.
The problem is that our trust in these institutions is failing or has failed. For various reasons which I’ll return to later, the universals we depend on for meaning have largely disappeared. We face the extremely uncomfortable dilemma confronting Hamlet: What the f-k to do? Hamlet struggles to figure this out. By the end of the 3rd act, almost everyone on stage is dead. In other words, this stage of consciousness is often brutal.
The 3rd stage, according to Johnson, is enlightenment. Lots of people seek that without necessarily finding it. They’ve usually experienced the two previous stages and are ready and eager to move on. They may find meditation or choose to accept and practice a religious belief like the Bahai faith that doesn’t promise all answers but lifts people’s aspirations with a vision of hope and unity.
Let’s return, however, to Stage Two because that’s where I think many Americans reside at present. And talk about the loss of institutions. The Catholic Church quickly comes to mind. For two thousand years, it offered ideological refuge for millions of people. In recent years, however, the authority of the church has been hugely diminished due to many scandals. A large number of Catholics have lost the security of their belief. Other Christian churches have been similarly tarnished. Even if people attend church and many still do, it rarely has the sense of authority it once did.
Ditto for government and political parties. My parents believed in the Democratic Party. It offered them a strong, clear ideology. I’m sure for Republicans, the same was true. Though I vote Democratic, as the most forward-thinking, ethnically diverse and environmentally sound party, I’m aware of many of the party’s weaknesses and failures. I will never feel as strongly and securely about the party as my parents.
Other institutions ranging from the Scouts to the Country Club no longer have the sway they used to. We rarely experience the simple comfort of “belonging” that once sustained us. The only substitute that’s remained has been sports — being a Cowboys or a Pirates fan — gives us a sort of identity.
I believe many folks (whether they know it or not) are just barely hanging on. For them, the world seems out of control. Environmentally, it’s a truly scary place with nearly constant floods, fires, hurricanes, tornados. Changing demographics are also frightening. Once upon a time, small towns and rural areas and most suburban neighborhoods in the US were largely one color and one faith — white and Christian. No longer. Every corner of this country has been deluged with people of different ethnicities, religious practices and personal beliefs. We all must face the fact we live in a changed and changing universe.
Then comes Covid 19 and we are knocked out of our ordinary orb of their existence. We can’t engage in the activities that kept us busy every hour of evey day — shopping, going to the movies, going to church, eating out, heading for the casino, attending a basketball game, visiting the grandchildren. In this void, the existential abyss looms large. How can we sustain ourselves?
Some people (including me) have taken up birdwatching. I am not being facetious. Watching birds lifts your gaze. It connects you with Nature and the outside world. When you’re observing birds at the feeder, you’re not watching your social media feed. While attempting to ID the sparrow feasting on the feeder, you’re not cramming your head full of conspiracy theories.
In other words, there are folks who have found positive ways to fill their time and their existence and those who haven’t. There are those whose only meaning is joining a cavalcade of Trump supporters and tooting their way through town. Think about it — Trump supporters love to join up with other Trumpies — in cars, trucks, boats. You could call them the Trump clumpers for the way they clump together. Think about it — if you’re unsure about the essence of your life, why not cleave to others wearing red MAGA hats — and gain an instant sense of belonging!
The people standing in front of the Clinton home last November and howling “lock her up” are fueled by anger and hatred that should have been put aside years ago. I believe they’re desperate and their desperation stems from an existential hole in the middle of their lives. It’s Nietzsche’s warning “God is dead” that has finally permeated the suburbs, small towns and rural areas of America.
It’s terrifying when your belief systems have been punctured — it’s horrifying to be Hamlet — and to realize we’re all responsible for our lives and our country and our planet and, perhaps most important, for one another.
And what if this recognition is too baffling and painful? What if we want someone to take charge, give us the answers, reassure us. That’s Trump. He promises people they don’t have to worry because he’s in charge. Don’t worry about Covid-19, don’t worry about the economy, don’t worry about the immigrants hammering at our borders. Ignore the issues or wall them off. Don’t worry cause I’m in charge.
The appeal undeniable — it’s a return to Robert Johnson’s #1 mind-set — when an external institution or individual provides safety and security. It’s what gives every tyrant from Julius Cesar to Hitler to Putin their power and control.
We are so fortunate that the president wasn’t re-elected. We are lucky enough Americans are willing to embrace the doubts and complexities and ambiguities of the world we live in. And that people are willing to embrace one another — because that’s what’s required for any level of enlightenment.
Please, don’t cling to you MAGA hat because that won’t keep you safe. Instead, please, look out the window and lift your gaze toward a greater, more universal humanity than even Frederick Nietzche could have imagined. ##