The comedian Bill Maher suspects that even if Donald Trump were to lose the election in 2020, Trump might bring his authoritarian fantasies to fruition and refuse to leave office, casting aspersions on the democratic process, recruiting his most militant cultists, and daring the military to forcibly remove him.
Trump’s admiration of dictators — of “strong winners” — is plain, but there’s an even more troubling risk associated with Trumpism. The question we face is whether the very existence of Donald Trump shows that we, too, ought to prefer dictatorship to democracy.
Evil and Physical Monstrousness
Why should that be so? Consider that what President Trump represents is the triumph of evil.
I understand you likely wish to reserve the E-word for cartoon villains or for serial killers, to pretend that evil is naturally impossible or that only the poor and uneducated could be so depraved. This is to buy into the hype for white-collar villains, which is that they’re capable only of “inappropriate mistakes,” as they and the press like to call their selfish schemes.
The upbeat secular humanist would want to reassure us that evil died along with God. On the contrary, the concept of evil is based on a biological fact that predates religion and supernaturalism. The fact in question is just that our instincts to cooperate and to empathize can break down, as in psychopathy which is a kind of antipathy to socializing in good faith.
It’s not just that a psychopath wasn’t taught as a child how to be moral; rather, it’s that this antisocial person can’t care about morality, because she’s unable to feel that other people have intrinsic worth. Whereas the theist has an overactive agency detector, the psychopath has an underactive one: the former sees minds everywhere, while the latter behaves as though she were the only one with mental properties, everyone else being objects that are more or less useful to her.
Now you’ll say a mental disorder can’t even be bad, let alone evil, since the biological dysfunction is just an illness that might be cured, not anything that’s blameworthy. This touches on the naturalistic fallacy, which is the problem of deriving moral qualities from natural facts. Luckily, there’s no need to get into that here, because the basis of evil can be understood in aesthetic terms which are more easily supported by the physical facts.
Our strong feelings about evil amount to disgust with something’s monstrousness or inner ugliness. “Monstrousness” is defined as that which terrifies, shocks, and repulses on account of its hideousness or its grotesque deviation from a norm. It’s no accident that we demonize evil characters by casting them as monsters, as in horror stories. The aesthetic reaction of our disgust for physical ugliness may be at the root of our contempt for moralized evil.
In any case, I go further into this natural view of evil, elsewhere. If you still don’t like the E-word, you can substitute a word that designates an equally horrifying degree of odiousness. It’s the concept that matters, not the label.
The Rise of Evil in the Republican Party
Now that that’s cleared up, I’ll just remind you of some unsettling facts about Trump. Trump is an untreated, long-time malignant narcissist; therefore, Trump is evil (monstrous, hideous, horrifying, egregious, execrable, etc.). Trump became a wealthy and famous real estate developer in the 1980s and after going into bankruptcy he leveraged that fame to write his second act as a reality TV star. For his third act he became president of the United States.
Again, beginning in 2016, an actual monster was put in charge of the White House, of America’s superpowerful military, and of that country’s most important “bully pulpit,” which is supposed to be used to sell liberalism, human rights and other traditional American values around the world.
You may be thinking this is hardly extraordinary, since all politicians are selfish liars, at a minimum. Nixon and Bush Jr, for example, were more deranged than the average person. That’s all true but there’s a difference in scale here precisely because of this ramp-up in evil in the Republican Party.
Trump stands on the shoulders of troglodytes, which means his party has been inured to political displays of monstrousness. Republicans are no longer opposed to shocking abuses of power; thanks to the information bubble of right-wing media, Republicans have become steadily more amoral over the last few decades so that they’ve prepared themselves to stand by a worsening roster of villains.
Decades ago, Republicans eventually turned against Nixon instead of enabling him to the bitter end, because the facts still mattered. But thanks to their embitterment from losing the culture war with liberal values, Republicans have now adapted themselves to the demands of psychopathy and are much more interested in trolling than in governing or in dealing honourably with reality.
Disenchantment with Democracy
Here’s the challenge, then, to those who are disgusted with Trump and with his Republicans and their base of resentful trolls: maybe we should get with the program, maybe democracy and morality are for suckers. If evil can triumph so spectacularly in the United States, perhaps we’re fooling ourselves if we think American values are more than fig leaves.
The founders of democracy, both in ancient Greece and in the US weren’t naïve about the limits of democracy. Communism was likely to fail due to flaws in human nature and every other political or economic system — including democracy — can have only imperfect, perhaps even unsustainable instantiations at best, for the same reason.
Plato took a dim view of democracy, regarding that system as one step away from the lowest form of human interaction, tyranny. As with Nietzsche’s “last men,” democracy is liberal in celebrating our worst instincts and in denigrating myths and traditions, or what we would call “metanarratives” that are supposed to serve as moral guides.
The herd becomes narcissistic and contemptuous not just of traditions but of unpleasant facts, of anything that opposes its liberty to do whatever it wants. Lacking respect for wisdom or for authority in general, what the herd wants becomes more and more infantile until only a lawless strongman can rule, by dominating the infantilized population.
America’s founders also recognized that a peaceful and just society would be inevitably fragile, but they trusted that by setting the branches of government against each other, they could establish checks and balances and prevent their democratic republic from collapsing into tyranny.
What the rise of Trump — or equivalently, the fall of American culture — shows isn’t that democracy can be as bad as tyranny. The fake tyranny that a demagogue can perpetrate in the confines of a democratic republic isn’t as bestial as a full-blown totalitarian dictatorship. Trump’s singing the praises of North Korea from Washington DC doesn’t deprive Americans of their liberties.
No, the threat Trump poses is more insidious. If not just American democracy but free nations around the world are presently flirting with tyranny, that backlash may be a sign that we sense certain weaknesses of liberal values and that we long to succumb to the temptations of authoritarian rule.
Trump’s Desecration of Morality
Or consider a simpler form of the problem: The life of Trump proves that bad guys can win. Why, then, be good? The most honest answer is that not everyone can afford to be as bad as Trump. Prisons are full of villains who lost because they got caught. Still, if we acknowledge that morality would be foolish if we stood a great chance of avoiding any significant punishment for our misdeeds, if we were rich, depraved, and shameless, we’re no longer moralists but pragmatists.
Morality would be useful only for the powerless, for those who pretend to be meeker and more compassionate than they really are, because as free as a democracy is, they’re in no position to act on their deepest desires, to “grab others by the pussy” and double-cross business partners, to defraud customers and corrupt a nation to aggrandize themselves.
Democracy entails that all the citizens are free, in principle, to do what they want (apart from hurting others), but that hardly means they’re practically able to do so, because of the unequal distributions of money and power. Trump was empowered by his father’s wealth and connections, but he was also internally liberated by his mental disorders, by his lack of a conscience which allows him to lie and cheat with abandon.
The impeachment of President Trump can never compensate for the fact that Trump won the presidency in the first place. The highest office in the land is no longer sacred, since Trump has trashed its mystique. Even if Trump is followed by a long line of statesmanlike presidents, no one should take American statesmanship at face value anymore, because Trump’s existence has impeached the office of the American presidency.
And Trump’s done the same for the liberal values of decency, tolerance, equality, and selflessness. Why strive to be a hero when nothing prevented such a monster from winning over and over again for decades? (His winning included his winning of bailouts from his apparent business failures.) Why martyr ourselves on the altar of doing what’s right when the abomination of a triumphant monstrosity proves that morality is a fiction?
When the barbarians storm the village and desecrate your temple, why rebuild when the gods were supposed to have precluded any such atrocity? The desecration proves the unreality of the gods, so the defeat extends to the mythosphere. Likewise, Trump’s victory is the downfall of the American mythos and his presidency reveals that the American Dream is a hallucination.
Again, the aesthetic answer to such questions is that we seek to be different from Trump, because Trump disgusts us. However, it’s easiest to be disgusted by that which can be held apart from us. That was how we became adapted to have this emotional reaction, because disgust prevented disease-carrying things from getting close enough to bypass our body’s defenses.
But what happens when an unclean monstrosity makes it through the front gates and bonds with you, so that you become a hybrid monstrosity? Like Giger’s alien that rapes its victims and lays its egg in their belly, Trump transgressed his way into the Oval Office, which means he’s forever embedded in American history and lore. How, then, can Americans be disgusted by President Trump without being revolted by themselves?
The Unnaturalness of Heroism
To appreciate the value of heroism even after the dragon manages to wield Excalibur, we should reflect on the reality behind the hallucination or fiction of morality. The reality is just nature in all its godless inhumanity and Trump is effectively an avatar of that reality. Instead of being a full-blown person, Trump’s mind is a jumble of severe personality disorders which aren’t willed by any responsible agent so much as they’re sustained by the mindless indifference of nature’s creativity. Trump’s monstrousness is just an unmasking of the world’s underlying inhumanity.
By contrast, people and functioning organisms generally are unnatural not in the sense of being inexplicable but in setting themselves in opposition to cosmic norms. Those norms include the pointlessness of sheer physical order, the unfolding of the panoply of natural events for no reason and towards no intended end. Living things inject meaning, purpose, and value into nature and are therefore anti-natural. Personhood accelerates this virtual miracle by literally replacing the wilderness with artificial environments.
To be heroic, then, is to oppose the greater monster; mythic heroism is opposition to the horror of nature’s mindless creativity. Trump’s evil isn’t just a sign of a sick culture, since the glaring incompleteness of Trump’s personhood heralds the complete impersonality of the evolutionary forces that flow through him.
Trump’s victory in American politics is a dark miracle of monstrous nature. But let’s not scapegoat Trump when we should reckon with the greater hideousness that must be kept out of every civilized social interaction, when we must contend with the object of deepest loathing which is just the object as such, the sheer zombie-like thingness of all things, which life seeks to transcend.