Great leaders, they say, have “magnetism.” Their “charisma” casts a spell. But it’s really a collaboration. Hitler staged the Nuremburg rallies, but thousands had to show up and stand in the hot sun saluting and throbbing with crowd power. They’d been through a capital “D” Depression. They wanted to be rescued. They believed in a payoff. When it comes to leaders, them is us.
So here we are in our own American funk, telling pollsters who we’d like to rescue us. It’s highly scripted. People have been studying leadership formulas at least since Plato. And tycoons have been manufacturing leaders for ages. Yet followers still want to believe.
Consider candidate Trump, who’s a favorite among some voters. Instead of questioning whether he’s a worthy candidate, let’s look at tools he and others—including Hitler—have used. No, this isn’t to equate the two men. We’re talking tools here. And wondering how them could be us.
Let’s start with the obvious. Adolf and Trump play the roles of “Hitler” and “Trump,” heroes powerful as the parents who raise us as infants. Literally, they raise our morale and self-esteem, rousing us to feel heroic purpose, offering us more life. How can one person do all that? For one thing, they speak in abstractions while winking at you, so you can attribute to them qualities dear to your heart. It’s hero-worship. And it’s like the paradox of love: if you fall in love with someone who embodies your most cherished ideals, you’re in love with yourself.
So how can a “Trump” or an “Adolf” raise anybody up? Yes, they show stupendous self-confidence. But how does that pump us up? The trick is to turn depressive flight into invigorating fight. They gather us into a vigilante posse to drive out hated scapegoats. Trump’s scapegoats are “Mexican” immigrants, plain women, gays, and the losers he fires on TV. The blog Glaad describes him throwing victims “under the bus.” His rejects suffer social death. By contrast, Adolf’s losers—Jews, gypsies, Slavs, Commies, quite a list—get the real thing. “Trump” calls for “mass deportation”; Adolf put mass deportation in cattle cars to Auschwitz. But it doesn’t have to be so sensational. People “put down” others routinely—the same verb that describes euthanizing an animal.
The heroic rationale for this aggression is Social Darwinism and eugenics. Since only the fittest survive, you confirm your own merit by getting rid of the unfit. Eugenics would improve “us” by wiping out disease and death. Adolf’s campaign famously characterized Jews as vermin and germs. Trump trooper Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas vows that “We don’t even know all of the diseases [immigrants carry], and how extensive the diseases are.”
Adolf relied a lot on slave labor. The idea is to drain the losers before disposing of them. Trump has been abusive to labor. But Iowa radio host Jan Mickelson created his own Nuremburg rally on Twitter by calling for undocumented immigrants to become “property of the state” and put into “compelled labor.” When a caller challenged the idea, Mickelson answered, “What’s wrong with slavery?” Even as it rattles the shackles for immigrants, this sort of slave talk points to America’s real slaves, black folks. Substitute “Jews and gypsies” for black Americans, and you’re reading Adolf’s playbook.
Given this sensitive program, “Trump” and “Adolf” have to be unquestionably right. The script calls for both to have infallible intuition and tell truths others are too cowardly or corrupt to utter. They see through journalists, scientists, and what VP and jailbird Spiro Agnew called “pointy-headed intellectuals.” And they never apologize. This enables them to hold demonstrably false ideas without blushing. Like Adolf’s delusions about Jews,Trump’s claims about immigrants don’t square with reality.
The freedom to lie is part of a larger freedom to break the rules that limit ordinary mortals. In The Art of the Deal, Trump brags about deceiving his business partners in Atlantic City. In a PR stop at the Tex/Mex border, “Trump” floated on a cloud of double-talk. Adolf too felt entitled to enjoy what Goebbels called “the big lie.”
To shore up their infallibility, “Trump” and the Führer “double-down” when wrong. Like double-or-nothing gambling, doubling down can be self-intoxicating. Like a Ponzi scheme, illusion requires more and more illusions to keep paying off. Keep it up and you end up in the toybox or the tomb.
When illusions fail, the great leader blames betrayals. For Adolf, defeat in WW1 was a stab in the back; the Gestapo had a full roster of traitors to kill. On a more playful note, “Trump” condemns Sen. McCain for betraying his troops, supporters, and others. But then, if you think that politicians and illegals are secretly undermining the nation, they’re all traitors.
Self-intoxication leads to overreaching. Beginner’s luck lured Adolf into a doomed two-front war. “Trump” begins to imagine that he can control all the vicious chaos in the middle east. Adolf designed triumphal arches and stupendous buildings. As the kids say, speaking for the infant in all of us, Adolf’s monster buildings would be “awesome.” Not to be outdone, “Trump” brags about “his” skyscrapers.
As self-intoxication intensifies, boundaries blur. The actor confuses theater and life. Emergency physiology takes over. More victims died in the last six months of WW2, when the outcome was obvious, than in all the war years before. Survival rage takes no prisoners.
Told about two young followers in Boston who mauled a homeless Hispanic guy and praised Trump to the police, the candidate first said, “That would be a shame.” But he couldn’t resist adding, “I will say, the people that are following me are very passionate. They love this country. They want this country to be great again. But they are very passionate. I will say that.” Of course he was talking about himself too.
This dreamlike response echoes Adolf’s belief that passionate “will” can conquer the world. The idea is that the leader’s superhuman will can rouse enchanted followers to superhuman ambitions. In the ultimate blurring of boundaries, leader and followers imagine that they’re fusing. As in transference—hero worship—the merger of the enchanter and the enchanted creates not problem-solving wits but passionate belief. In reality all is not well, but in the mirror you see a champion.
Superman wears many costumes: politician, priest, lover, parent, celebrity, business executive, and more. In these days of insanely overpaid executives, for example, the formula shows up when the corporate CEO axes “other” employees in lean and mean downsizing, freeing up profits and awesome power for the impressed followers.
“Trump” and “Hitler” didn’t invent the Superman formula. They’re copycats inspiring more copycats. And like rampage killers, Superman copycats try to outdo one another to get noticed. They’re natural extremists—think “mass deportations.” As leaders and followers pump up the Superman dream, the dream is taking control of them, they breathe hot conviction, and salute.
Better not to stick around for the ending.
Some interesting youtube documentaries about eugenics and “eugenics”:
As a cultural style, berserk abandon is terrifying yet also alluring. It promises access to extraordinary resources by overthrowing inhibitions. Berserk style has shaped many areas of contemporary American culture, from warfare to politics and intimate life. Focusing on post-Vietnam America and using perspectives from psychology, anthropology, and physiology, Farrell demonstrates the need to unpack the confusions in language and cultural fantasy that drive the nation’s fascination with berserk style.
<<This book amazes me with its audacity, its clarity, and its scope. We usually think of ‘berserk’ behaviors—from apocalyptic rampage killings to ecstatic revels like Burning Man—as extremes of experience, outside ordinary lives. in fascinating detail, Farrell shows how contemporary culture has reframed many varieties of abandon into self-conscious strategies of sense-making and control.
Abandon has become a common lens for organizing modern experience and an often troubling resource for mobilizing and rationalizing cultural and political action.This landmark analysis both enlightens and empowers us.>>
—Les Gasser, Professor of Information and Computer Science, U. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigne.