If you want to understand the angry support for Donald Trump, seek out your local German Idealist philosopher. And to help you face your own responsibility, contact your friendly neighborhood Existentialist.
Leaving aside G. W. F. Hegel’s concept of thesis provoking antithesis and leading to synthesis, which may apply ferociously this election year, Hegel offered one of our most valuable insights into the individual and his relationship to society: the concept of Anerkennung, or “recognition.” Simply put, Hegel proposed that all humans crave recognition from other humans. He didn’t mean they expected adulation, but only that the individual requires the validation he receives when other men acknowledge his shared humanity (however humble his station). The janitor would like you to say, “Good morning!” as you rush past.
Those of us who value developed ideas miss Trump’s essence. His stage persona embodies the anger of those who feel left behind, who feel threatened, who feel cheated, and who feel the basic human need to blame somebody else, whether a horned devil or a government, for their disappointments. The unnerving dynamism of a Trump-for-president rally comes from the symbiosis between the would-be candidate’s narcissism (the need for recognition run amok), fed enthusiastically by the crowd, and his willingness to absolve the crowd’s members of social or personal guilt (Trump’s cadenced repetitions are those of a skillful preacher). Whereas other candidates, of either party, ask us to blame ourselves or take responsibility, Trump tells his followers “Nothing’s your fault. It’s them, it’s them, it’s them.”
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We, the fortunate, created Trump when we failed to shake the hand of the repairman.
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To collectivize and simplify a message of Existentialist philosophy, our humanity lies in our freedom to choose. Attacked by a furious dog, we still have the choice of fighting back, attempting to placate the beast, or running away. Our choices when assailed by life’s dilemmas validate our worth as human beings.
But the odious Sartre and admirable Camus also recognized that the reality of our lives, from laws to family ties, constrains our choices — we do not exist in isolation. But when the constraints become intolerable — when the walls close in — the individual of character rebels, despite the consequences.
The political, intellectual, financial, and cultural elites of the United States of America intolerably constrained the choices available to tens of millions of citizens they disdained. The political parties gave only the illusion of choice. The intelligentsia mocked the white working man and the working woman without a college degree (feminists must be slender and articulate). Financial elites exploited and discarded the paycheck poor. And our cultural elites championed those who live on government hand-outs while stereotyping the working class and lower-middle class as boorish, benighted, and bigoted.How can believing Christians support Trump, whose demonstrated values run counter to every teaching of the Sermon on the Mount? For those weary of unanswered prayers, he offers an electoral catharsis, an End of Days for unacceptable compromises in Congress.
In all these cases, those in power mocked, badgered, and dismissed the many who now imagine a savior in Trump. We refused to recognize the validity of our fellow citizens who couldn’t afford a Tesla. We did our best to deny our fellow Americans a public voice and reasonable choices. So we should not be surprised when they shout in support of an unreasonable choice.
Now the rest of us, we who, with a muttered curse, race past the battered pick-up blocking traffic, may face a terrible choice of our own in November.
— Ralph Peters is the author, most recently, of Valley of the Shadow.