Idealists, Fanatics, Fundamentalists, and Donald Trump

The 2016 campaign for President in the U.S. has me feeling alternately amazed, dismayed, energized, and disgusted. Today I’m going to look at the Trump campaign, since this is the one that is causing my reactions and I think Seth offers quite a lot in the way of an explanation.

When the campaign began and Trump and his supporters almost immediately started garnering asymmetrical attention, the news reports focused a lot on the demographics of Trump’s followers: mostly white, blue-collar, skewing male, high-school educated, middle to lower-middle class socio-economic status. As time went on psychological descriptors were added: angry, frustrated, fearful, and some volatile or even dangerous. Of late, Trump’s supporters are called xenophobic, isolationist, racist, and nationalistic.

What about the candidate himself? He has been called sexist, racist, bombastic, narcissistic, arrogant, shallow, materialistic, and ignorant, among other things. Trump seems to view every problem or opportunity from the viewpoint of a salesman, deal-maker, or celebrity; it makes no difference if it is foreign policy, dealing with allies or enemies, the economy, trade, or budget issues–his approach is pretty one-dimensional and based on “power over” or as he might say, strength.

Trump evades substantive questions about policy and pre-empts any bad news that might befall his candidacy by stirring up controversy to change the subject, whenever possible.

Although Donald Trump has upended the status quo–not necessarily a bad thing–it is almost unimaginable to me that he could be the President of the United States, standing for American values at home and in the wider world. It was in thinking about the values that Trump does espouse and those attributed to his supporters that I thought about Seth, remembering that he had a lot to say about worldviews. When I dug into “The Individual and the Nature of Mass Events”* once again, I found Seth’s remarks almost tailor-made to today’s political situation. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised given simultaneous time and Seth’s vantage point outside of physical reality!

Worldviews are important, according to Seth, because “The organization of your feelings, beliefs, and intents directs the focus about which your physical reality  is built. This follows with impeccable spontaneity and order. . . You organize your mental world in such a way that you attract to yourself events that. . . will confirm your beliefs.” (p. 164) If we follow this line of thought, then we Americans have created Donald Trump, his campaign, and the way it is going.

Seth calls the American experiment with democracy heroic, bold, and innovative and said Americans, although never really achieving the “equality” that is the hallmark of democracy, still hold on to that American Dream in which everyone has the opportunity to achieve their goals and be happy, which is the “ideal.” Seth noted, however, that American society was disrupted when an older, predominantly religious worldview was overtaken by a newer, scientific and materialistic worldview. In the religion-grounded worldview “The individual lived out his or her life almost automatically structuring personal experience so that it fit within the accepted norm.” (p. 156) That is because in a religious context order is provided from on high. That which is moral and good is clearly spelled out, as is evil. There are established rules, and people with this worldview are happy to abide by them.

When modern society began to emphasize science, technology, and individualism, the boundaries shifted for those with a religious worldview. Darwin’s theory of evolution and “survival of the fittest” affected peoples’ sense of safety and place in the universe. Seth said that after Darwin, “You take it for granted that the species is aggressively combative. You must out-think the enemy nation before you yourself are destroyed. These paranoiac tendencies are largely hidden beneath man’s nationalistic banners.” (p. 177) The so-called improvements that were to be the result of scientific and technological advancements have not necessarily improved these peoples’ lives either. The result is a rebellion against scientific intellectualism. There are many examples of this, but a good example is the skepticism about climate change in the fundamentalist religious community.

With changing worldviews, Seth says, “The individual must make his or her own way through a barrage of different value systems, making decisions that were largely unthought-of when a son followed his father’s trade automatically, for example, or when marriages were made largely for economic reasons.” (p. 156)

According to Seth, the “improvements” of the materialistic/scientific worldview, while convenient, robbed humanity of its heroic impulses and true instinct, which Seth describes as the need to feel that life has purpose and meaning.

In the wake of these sea changes, “some people. . . are looking for some authority–any authority– to make their decisions for them, for the world seems increasingly dangerous and they, because of their beliefs, feel increasingly powerless. They yearn toward the old ways. . . Their idealism finds no particular outlet.” (p. 210)

It is understandable that Trump supporters feel put out. They find themselves in a society now where marriage may be between two people of the same sex, where a Muslim may move into their workplace and be excused several times a day to answer the “call to prayer,” or where they are turned down for jobs which are then given to immigrants. On top of that, the order they once relied on has either imploded or been corrupted somehow. The financial crisis of 2008 was especially rough for them; they lost homes, retirement accounts, life savings, and jobs. At the same time, globalization resulted in many of their jobs being moved to countries with low-wage workers. The world around them changed very quickly, with new technologies, new ways of communicating through social media and the Web, and many social changes that seemed to fly in the face of the religious and moral values they hold. Without higher education or the ability and desire to “reinvent themselves” they did not prosper as once was possible. So, where before they could be “idealists” about what it meant to be an American, now they see that whole way of life threatened. It is no wonder that Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” appeals to them.

According to Seth, a frustrated idealist “projects his betrayal outward until betrayal is all that he sees in the socio-political world. . . They demand immediate action. They want to make the world over in their own images. They cannot  bear the expression of tolerance or opposing ideas.” (pp. 214-215) Rather than projecting everything bad onto others, the better antidote, Seth says, would be if every person worked on actualizing his ideals through his own private life. “When you fulfill your own abilities, when you express your personal idealism through acting it out to the best of your ability in your daily life, then you are changing the world for the better.” (p. 215)

Instead, some of these thwarted idealists become what Seth called “fanatics” or they turn to fanatics for answers. Seth says:

A fanatic believes that he is powerless. He does not trust his own self-structure, or his ability to act effectively. Joint action seems the only course, but a joint action in which each individual must actually be forced to act, driven by frenzy, or fear or hatred, incensed and provoked, for otherwise the fanatic fears that no action at all will be taken toward ‘the ideal’ (p. 229)

This is where Trump masterfully channels the outrage of the group and brazenly promises that things will be different once he is in charge. He castigates “the establishment,” the liars, the hypocrites, and the sell-outs. His rallies consist of chants, threats, and litanies of problems caused by all kinds of groups and people. The rally takes on a life of its own.

Through such methods, and through such group hysteria, the responsibility for separate acts is divorced from the individual, and rests instead upon the group, where it becomes generalized and dispersed. The cause, whatever it is, can then cover any number of crimes, and no particular individual needs bear the blame alone. Fanatics have tunnel vision, so that any beliefs not fitting their purposes are ignored. Those that challenge their own purposes, however, become instant targets of scorn and attack. (p. 229)

What can we take away from Seth’s analysis? I am sure that most everyone getting involved in this election to endorse any candidate is doing so to pursue some “good” that he or she hopes will come of it. However, we should keep in mind that pursuit of a good has resulted in Nazism, Hiroshima, the Inquisition, and the Salem witch hunts, just to name a few tragedies. Seth reminds us that when ideas of “right” are aligned with “might” a perfect storm can result as happened in Hitler’s Germany.

If the Republican Party hopes to stop the Trump phenomenon, as they are rushing to do right now, they should listen to Seth’s words about fanatics and search themselves for the ways in which they have created just such fanatics:

Fanatics exist because of the great gap between an idealized good and an exaggerated version of its opposite. The idealized good is projected into the future, while its exaggerated opposite is seen to pervade the present. The individual is seen as powerless to work alone toward that ideal with any sureness of success. Because of his belief in his powerlessness [the fanatic] feels that any means to an end is justified. behind all this is the belief that spontaneously the ideal will never be achieved, and that, indeed, on his own man is getting worse and worse in every aspect. (p. 231)

Between the Republican establishment’s unceasing refrain that President Obama and the Democrats are destroying the country and partisan cable, radio, and Web outlets that fear-monger and divide people, it is no wonder that fanatics have hijacked this election.

It seems to me that Donald Trump has done a service to the Republican Party. He jarringly woke them from their bogus dream of lower taxes for the rich, fewer benefits for the poor, and disdain for regulations that might protect average people from corporate predators. The insensitivity they have shown to anyone not of the moneyed or Washington consultant/pundit classes has been exposed and now they need to change.

The idea [of democracy] expresses the existence of a high idealism–one that demands political and social organizations that are effective to some degree in providing some practical expression of those ideals. When those organizations fail and a gulf between idealism and actualized good becomes too great, then such conditions help turn some idealists into fanatics. (p. 246)

Even though Trump looks unstoppable at this point, there is still time to change the outcome. As Seth told us so often, we can change our world if we just change our thoughts and beliefs. Instead of adding more negative emotion to the situation, we need to envision the world the way it can be, share our vision with our friends, turn off the shows that magnify differences, and help people that feel forgotten.

The job of trying to make the world better seems impossible, for it appears that you have no power, and any small private beneficial actions that you can take seem so puny in contrast to this generalized ideal that you dismiss them sardonically, and so you do not try to use your power constructively. You do not begin with your own life, with your own job, or with your own associations. . . Yet this is precisely where first of all you must begin to exert yourselves. There, on your jobs and in your associations, are the places where you intersect with the world. Your impulses directly affect the world in those relationships. (p. 255)

* All of the quotes in this post are from “The Individual and the Nature of Mass Events (Amber-Allen, 1981/1995)



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