Meanwhile the president’s seething need for adulation continues to blow through the nation’s skull like a playground shriek that will never end. “Usually the megalomaniac, whether insane or nominally sane, is the product of some excessive humiliation,” wrote Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness, a meditation on the anxieties of modern life first published in 1930—and a reminder that today’s agitations, while amplified and warped by our screens, remain the same age-old conflict between fact and fear, whether in our private lives or on the public stage.
Russell’s diagnosis of a creature like Trump is unnerving: “Since no man can be omnipotent,” he writes, “a life dominated wholly by love of power can hardly fail, sooner or later, to meet with obstacles that cannot be overcome. The knowledge that this is so can be prevented from obtruding on consciousness only by some form of lunacy, though if a man is sufficiently great he can imprison or execute those who point this out to him. Repressions in the political and in the psychoanalytic senses thus go hand in hand.”
Although there are slow-moving rumblings of buyer’s remorse and investigative committees, there are no checks and balances on Trump’s lunacy. If we had a rational government or a functional press, this child would never have made it into the primaries, let alone the White House. Perhaps the only saving grace is, to borrow another term from Russell, that Trump is unusually stupid—and hopefully his lizard-brained need to be admired will lead to a swift and magnificent unravelling before he becomes sufficiently great.
I find reassurance in another passage from Russell written shortly after World War II. In Philosophy and Politics, he outlines the insanity of any kind of fanaticism, no matter how well-intentioned, in philosophy as well as practical matters. The inflexible views of fascists, Marxists, ecclesiastics, anarchists, etc cannot be tolerated because they would prefer to “inflict a comparatively certain present evil for the sake of a comparatively doubtful future good.” He reminds us that society is dynamic rather than static and we should always aim for “order without authority.” He tackles the perception that liberalism is too middle-of-the-road to succeed against the ferocious single-mindedness of conservatives:
“It is commonly urged that, in a war between liberals and fanatics, the fanatics are sure to win, owing to their more unshakable belief in the righteousness of their cause. This belief dies hard, although all history, including that of the last few years, is against it. Fanatics have failed, over and over again, because they have attempted the impossible, or because, even when what they aimed at was possible, they were too unscientific to adopt the right means; they have failed also because they roused the hostility of those whom they wished to coerce. In every important war since 1700 the more democratic side has been victorious. This is partly because democracy and empiricism (which are intimately interconnected) do not demand a distortion of facts in the interests of theory.”
Liberalism and reason may indeed triumph in the long run—but at what cost? How many of these unnecessary battles continue to arise through complacency, a failure to communicate rationally and compassionately, and an inability to tackle the more difficult symptoms of capitalism? People who do not feel financially exploited do not tend to respond to politics of tribalism, fear, and megalomania.
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