Superman or Salesman?
Donald Trump remains trumpeting atop the Republican polls. His larger-than-life crusade to “Make America Great Again” is enough to get anyone’s attention—complete with WWF-style theatrics, bombastic reality-TV braggadocio, and just a hint of fascism—as the billionaire real-estate mogul shouts about cleansing the country of elitist corruption and forcibly defending it from illegal invasion by virtue of his self-proclaimed benevolent, genius, successful self. With a campaign this campy, Mr. Trump’s strength is strange.
It is reminiscent not so much of the classic American strongman as it is of the conjectural German Superman. Could it be that Donald Trump is an incarnation of Nietzschean social philosophy? A man who has surpassed the common man? A fantasy icon of power, fame, riches, confidence, mass influence, and moral indifference? Is “The Donald” the Übermensch?
Donald Trump is the politician that America deserves, balling up the serious and the silly into the supercilious. He is no philosopher, though his methods, madness, and manners surprisingly evoke those of the radical German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. Mr. Trump’s force-of-will, come-what-may, shoot-from-the-hip, couldn’t-care-less attitude is in keeping with the self-willed assertion of Nietzsche when it comes to the rejection of accepted moral and political norms. Breaking with custom was central to Nietzsche’s philosophy of securing power by claiming them with an insistence that overawed all other takers. The force and will to win was all the justification needed in this system of the strong claiming their natural place over the weak, and seizing what was stolen by the errors of Christian morality. Nietzsche taught that man was destined to pass beyond the concepts of good and evil and correct the topsy-turvydom of Christianity. The Superman was Nietzsche’s corrective: the man who denied the curse of Christianity and struck out with the sheer impetus of his will.
Nietzsche posited that religion—the Christian religion, in particular—was responsible for humanity’s decline. Religion, he thought, trained people to be meek and weak, to feel pity and feel guilty. As beings driven by power, such feelings were devastating, for humility is detrimental to a nature that desires dominance. When people pity others and act selflessly, they condemn themselves to inferiority and retard the social progress of the species. After the Enlightenment rang in God’s death, humanity was well out of religion and well into nihilism; free to define human meaning in the political arena. The same people who once felt shame before God for sin, now felt shame before one another for privilege. The elimination of social difference came next in order to remove all shame. Nietzsche wrote that this cultural leveling was more debilitating to humanity’s power-seeking nature than religion. For Nietzsche, such contradiction to human superiority left humanity racing toward depression, disillusionment, and, finally, the will-to-nothingness.
The only hope for the human race was a generation Nietzsche called the Supermen: men who rose above societal oppression and haughtily defied the community’s moral code. The Supermen would not apologize for being high and mighty, but instead, would claim their rightful place of command willfully and without shame. Their coming to power and the exercise of power would never be a matter of morals to the Supermen who were beyond good and evil. They would determine morality by actions that would focus on their good rather than the common good. Nietzsche posited that the masses would venerate these Supermen, recognizing in them an incarnation of their own inhibited nature: the nature they themselves were too feeble to enact but identified with strongly. Average men would uphold the Supermen, beholding in them what they once saw in God, later in politics, and as yet had not found—a savior.
Could it be that Donald Trump is the American Superman? The man who breaks convention and common sense with impunity and is generally admired instead of generally abhorred? Mr. Trump adopts a Nietzschean slant with his extremist, egotist bluster, crowing over the pathetic rationalizations of the world’s losers, despite cries against him of being a bigot and a racist. As president, he promises that only people as brilliant, good-looking, successful, and fabulous as himself will be the winners. Mr. Trump will restore the good old days before the bad, ugly, and stupid people found a foothold and stacked the deck in their favor.
Donald Trump is, in these ways, Nietzschean: his attack against political correctness; his boasts about his talent and power; his flagrant shamelessness. Meanwhile, his supporters admire these qualities unheard of in the political sphere, which only serves to illustrate the Nietzschean allusion further. The most common reason for approving Mr. Trump’s bid for the Republican nomination is that he appears to be a man who has placed himself above the accepted system and is unafraid to “tell it like it is:” a wild dream to most men. Mr. Trump comes across as a tough-guy who brashly pontificates at the bar over beers—and that quality has won him tremendous public attention and trending public support. Donald Trump is the man no one thought possible; the man who is always unabashed and has the will and the wallet to pull it off.
Though not politically correct, Mr. Trump seems correct on certain issues as he brazenly forces sensitive topics usually left unspoken into the conversation. He seems to have a strong, and sometimes sensible, stance when it comes to the escalating economic threat of China, illegal immigration, racial tension, terrorism, and national debt. Mr. Trump seems firm in a time of fear, perhaps promising a rough corrective to American pathologies by being defiantly absolute (right or wrong) in a relativist society. Mr. Trump seems real in an age of unreality—but has reality ever been Trump’s MO? Manhattan real estate, Atlantic City casinos, Miss USA pageants, reality TV shows. Exploitation, exhibitionism, self-aggrandizement, and self-gratification have been Trump’s bread and butter for decades. But all this certainly does not stop him from fulfilling a philosophic fantasy for frustrated Americans. It qualifies him.
Donald Trump is not a Superman. He is a salesman. He is an elitist critic of the elite, voicing the mass frustration at the fools who run the country. The problem with Mr. Trump is that he is a foolish voice for that frustration because he is insincere in his conservatism and inept in his policy. He wields his ego like a weapon to gain attention and attention is his. Just because Mr. Trump is breaking the rules does not mean he will fix the rules. America’s hope lies not in a Nietzschean will-to-power, but rather in the Christian checking of that will. Friedrich Nietzsche’s Superman represents not the natural human self, but an unnatural human with no self. To live without shame is a denial of human nature—of fallen human nature—and is preeminently inhuman. Nietzsche’s philosophy frames morality as arbitrary and power as all. Nietzsche’s agenda allows the powerful to determine morality, and for the rabble to revere the powerful, mesmerized by their power and mimicking their morality. Mr. Trump’s peculiar popularity bears an interesting philosophical parallel to the Superman, which is not to suggest that Nietzsche knew what humanity needs, but that Nietzsche knew what humanity wants. In the end, however, Donald Trump is irritatingly simpler than anything Nietzsche conceived. What is most irritating is that so many Americans are taking the bait which is as simplistic as a slick sales-pitch.