Nothing has highlighted the fact that nations and governments often do a poor job of choosing leaders over the long arc of history than seeing Donald Trump and Putin holding court in a spectacle that could only be described as theater of the absurd. Given such a troubling turn of events, it seems important to ask how nations have so often ended up with leaders who don’t lead, but instead dedicate themselves to creating huge amounts of social and political anguish, disruption, and chaos. How is it that these sorry specimens, along with the political operatives who support them, have come to exert such vast control over the quality of our lives?
We have to hope that there might be a way to change these recurring patterns as they have played out over the course of world history. However, any necessary correctives must go well beyond the simple notion of politics as it’s now practiced. Transformative and lasting change needs to occur at a deeper level to address the core values being pushed to the forefront in our media-driven “global village”, as Marshall McLuhan described it.
The Forces of Irrationality
Transformative change of the “dominant paradigm” is not fundamentally political but rather socio-cultural in nature. As Charles Peguy wisely observed, “Everything begins in mysticism but ends in politics.” The ascension of Donald Trump as an American president and “influential” world leader has underscored the fact that the human condition remains subject to the forces of irrationality despite an impressive body of academic rational thought that seeks to convince us otherwise. This is an insight that was explored extensively by Jean-Paul Sartre and other French existentialists in the aftermath of WWII and the horrors of the German occupation.
The glorification of rational thought associated with the Enlightenment has dominated our thinking since the 18th century and is still on life support, even as it continues to be pumped up by academics such as Harvard University’s Steven Pinker. This worldview should have come to a crashing halt with the realization that Nazi Germany’s atrocities represented a reflexive and atavistic throwback to tribalism that the grand structures of Western exceptionalism still seem incapable of fully acknowledging or explaining.
The obvious answer to humanity’s ongoing plight and frequent penchant for selecting unworthy and often dangerous leaders is the fact that, despite appearances to the contrary, money, power, and military might remain the prime movers of many key social and political initiatives. Death and destruction by inference or by overt threat then become the means of ascension to and retention of power. The ability to control a nuclear arsenal coupled with skillful manipulation of social media and the Internet has allowed ex-KGB operative Putin, with understated cunning, to ascend to a position of power on the world’s stage. A recent CNN special even dubbed him “the world’s most powerful leader”.
In Donald Trump’s case, media manipulation was also applied skillfully. Clever control of the images that inform our perception of events and actors was, in many cases, uncritically accepted by large segments of the American populace who were woefully unprepared to fully understand exactly how they were being manipulated. Trump’s gaslighting and media tweaking has strong parallels to the techniques that allowed Hitler to gain power, as described on the Holocaust Museum web site:
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Once they succeeded in ending democracy and turning Germany into a one-party dictatorship, the Nazis orchestrated a massive propaganda campaign to win the loyalty and cooperation of Germans. The Nazi Propaganda Ministry, directed by Dr. Joseph Goebbels, took control of all forms of communication in Germany: newspapers, magazines, books, public meetings, and rallies, art, music, movies, and radio. Viewpoints in any way threatening to Nazi beliefs or to the regime were censored or eliminated from all media. During the spring of 1933, Nazi student organizations, professors, and librarians made up long lists of books they thought should not be read by Germans. Then, on the night of May 10, 1933, Nazis raided libraries and bookstores across Germany. They marched by torchlight in nighttime parades, sang chants, and threw books into huge bonfires. On that night more than 25,000 books were burned. Some were works of Jewish writers, including Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Most of the books were by non-Jewish writers, including such famous Americans as Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and Sinclair Lewis, whose ideas the Nazis viewed as different from their own and therefore not to be read.
As president, legitimate or otherwise, Donald Trump has done much of the same through the skillful use of the realty TV techniques he perfected well before becoming president -- techniques that have proved to be very powerful now that he and other strongmen-type leaders have embraced them. However, unlike the Internet, television and other more traditional mass media remain largely controlled by powerful corporations and big money. The formula is simple: control the information filtering into people’s perception and you control their lives, albeit indirectly. Access the deeper emotionally charged aspects of their psyches using these tools, and the game becomes rigged as it tilts towards significant levels of clever authoritarian control.
Fear of “The Other”
The sad reality is that populations are very much controlled by fear – fear of loss of life, injury, livelihood, position in life, and, above all, change. Strongmen and other unworthy leaders who have historically risen to power have done so largely by becoming masters of manipulating that fear. They outsmart enough segments of the populace to succeed by being more in touch with “shadow side” of the collective psyche. In this context, Winston Churchill, who suffered from depression and was keenly aware of the shadow side astutely warned: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”.
Donald Trump ascended to power by creating fear of “the other”, a deep archetype in the human psyche. This technique --- and it is just that -- combined with his genius for manipulating the media via the double whammy of twitter and television, has been the primary means of his unlikely rise to power. The new oligarchs such as Trump and Putin also have access to vast financial resources that can be used for unprecedented levels of behind-the-scenes influence peddling targeting powerful entities, allies, and global political and financial players.
This is a seminal time in human history. It offers an opportunity for deep and sustainable change if enough of us rise to the challenge and reject the sorry status quo to break these long-practiced patterns of domination and control. Contemplating this prospect is not about utopia --- it’s about the survival of democracy, the rule of law, human dignity, and perhaps even the survival our species as the environment continues to deteriorate.
Both mass media and social media still have the potential to become instruments of a new kind of thinking and awareness. Amid the discouraging tsunami of negative news and information, there are hopeful signs that, as more Americans become more media savvy and learn to think more critically about the how media can be manipulated, they will begin to react to and categorically reject such failures of leadership --- a badly needed step towards real transformation. The future of humanity and the survival of our poor tired planet depend on it.