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.

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