Donald Trump and the Cult of the Rebel

Fresno Bee, Oct. 1, 2023

It’s worth asking why Donald Trump remains popular. He’s been indicted for crimes including a scheme to subvert the 2020 election. A court ruled that he committed sexual assault. He paid off a porn star. His language and demeanor are divisive. If you want a soft and sympathetic character, don’t look to Trump. But if you like rebels, Trump is your man.

You would think that all of these accusations would disqualify Trump from the political stage. But the former president is so popular among Republicans that he didn’t bother to show up to the Republican debate this past week. As the underdogs searched for the limelight in Simi Valley, Trump’s shadow eclipsed the headlines.

This past week, a court ruled that Trump’s business was liable for massive fraud. Other headlines reported that Trump suggested that the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Miley, should be executed. The Wall Street Journal editorial board used words like “lunacy” and “unhinged” to describe Trump’s rants.

But people still love Trump. Republican voters appear to think that the indictments are unjustified political persecution. They see Trump as a martyr who is being attacked by a corrupt federal bureaucracy. From this standpoint, it is the cops, the courts, and the generals who are the bad guys.

If we push a bit deeper, we stumble upon a strange theme in American culture: the cult of the rebel. Americans idolize rebels and vigilantes, bad guys and martyrs. We tend to view those in authority as self-righteous hypocrites who abuse their power. And we cheer on those who throw mud at the stiffs in uniform.

We might trace the cult of the rebel all the way back to Jesus and Socrates, rebel martyrs who questioned authority. But this is also uniquely American. The founding of the country was revolutionary. The founders heroically pledged their “sacred honor” to the rebellion of 1776. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson said, “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” He described rebellion as “a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”

Rebels and outlaws are icons of American culture. Criminals like Billy the Kid and Al Capone are favorite fixtures of Americana. Pop culture often portrays bad guys and gangsters as heroic figures who have no choice but to use violence to defend their sacred honor. There is a whole genre of heroic vigilantes, including Batman and Spiderman.

The cult of the rebel implies that for good to be done, good guys have to go rogue and break the law. Instead of obedience and conformity, rebel culture values honor, pride and self-assertion. This is a bipartisan tendency. Leftists wear Che Guevara T-shirts, and right-wingers view the Jan. 6 rebels as patriotic heroes. Rebels on the left and the right think the establishment, the system, or “the swamp,” is made up of biased bureaucrats who are venal and corrupt.

This cult of the rebel is part of the dysfunctional attitude of what I have called elsewhere the moronic mob. The unthinking mob wants heroes and villains, spectacles and melodrama. It is fun to cheer on the rebels in “Star Wars” as they battle the empire. We rally with Neo as he fights the Matrix. And we sing along with the hippies, punk rockers, gangster rappers, and outlaw country stars who celebrate sticking it to the man.

This is all, of course, childish and dangerous. Rebellion is rarely justified and often unpredictable. Vigilantes end up in jail. Modern societies cannot function without widespread commitment to the rule of law. And most cops, lawyers, judges, and bureaucrats are decent folks trying to do their jobs.

But the story of decent people operating within the rule of law is boring. Reform is slow, incremental, and tedious. Rebels spice things up. And the mob is always hungry for what is spicy and spectacular. But ordinary social and political life is rarely spectacular or spicy.

Even if he outrages you, Trump isn’t boring. I personally think that boring would be nice for a change. But we are unlikely to be bored as the next presidential election unfolds. The cult of the rebel runs too deep. And we, the people, seem too fascinated by the spectacle to look away.

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Partisan Division, The Founders, and Moral Philosophy

Search for common ground this Fourth of July

Fresno Bee, July 2, 2016

  • Partisan division is explained by philosophy and psychology
  • Founding Fathers warned against factionalism
  • Solution to partisanship is friendship and respect for liberty

Our country is seriously divided. A recent Pew Center report indicates that we distrust and fear one another. Among committed partisans, “70 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party.”

This crisis of trust threatens the fabric of civil society. But partisan conflict is not new. The Founding Fathers understood its dangers. Ancient philosophers warned against it. And psychologists have explained it in modern terms.

Committee_of_Five,_1776In the Federalist Papers, James Madison warned against “the violence of faction.” He called this a “dangerous vice” and a “mortal disease.” Partisan division inflames us with “mutual animosity.” We would rather “vex and oppress each other” than cooperate for the common good. Madison located factionalism deep within human nature, as a product of self-love.

George Washington agreed. He warned against “the baneful effects” of the “spirit of party.” In his Farewell Address, he said, “This spirit is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human Mind.” Washington connected partisanship with the spirit of revenge and the lust for power.

Two thousand years prior, Plato offered a similar diagnoses of partisan politics. We wrongly think that might makes right. We believe our primary duty is to help friends and hurt enemies. And we lose sight of the common good.

One recent book uses brain science to explain partisanship. In “The Righteous Mind,” Jonathan Haidt traces partisan zeal to the brain’s pleasure centers. Partisan behavior unleashes a rewarding blast of dopamine. This reinforces preconceived notions and our sense of righteous superiority. Noting that cocaine and heroin operate on those same pleasure centers, Haidt concludes, “Extreme partisanship may literally be addictive.”

Sigmund Freud directs our attention to the power of love and aggression. We love those who are similar and hate those who are different. Our desire to belong to a group of worthy people leads us to exaggerate the positive aspects of our comrades. This also leads us to inflate the negative features of those in the other party.

Partisan fanaticism often occurs among those who share much in common. Freud calls this the narcissism of minor differences. When our differences are minor, we amplify them in order to gain power and prestige.

With this in mind, we ought to note that the differences between Republicans and Democrats are mostly minor. A few differences get magnified. But no mainstream party is advocating a truly radical alternative to the status quo. No one in either party offers a radical revision of the constitutional system.

Republicans and Democrats each represent a different side of the same American coin. But, of course, the philosophy and psychology of partisanship predicts that partisans on each side will deny that this is true. Each side vilifies the other. The result is distrust and fear.

Our nation’s founders realized that you cannot eliminate factionalism without undermining liberty. They designed the Constitution to moderate its pernicious effects. The Constitution prevents tyranny. The rights of individuals are protected. Power is distributed. The nation’s size and diversity makes it tough for any single faction to gain complete control.

This approach is pragmatic. It does not hope for a radical change in human nature. Instead, it seeks to minimize the negative effects of our factional affliction.

Let’s hope the Constitution is strong enough to weather the current partisan storm. And yet, partisan hatred leaves us unhappy. And it causes moderate people to disengage. That’s unfortunate, since partisan rancor is curbed by the common sense of the moderates.

One solution points beyond politics to friendship. The Pew Center report suggests that those who have a friend in the other party are less fearful of the other party.

But our polarization makes it difficult to be friendly. We do not socialize in mixed political company. Our preconceptions are reinforced by a closed loop of one-sided media choices and self-selected social networks. This allows self-love to grow – and with it, distrust and fear.

Here is a suggestion for the Fourth of July. Befriend someone from the other party. Search for common ground. Our disagreements are nothing to fear. We should accept them as part of human nature. And celebrate them as a sign of our freedom.
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