Our Nietzschean Struggle

In a New Republic article entitled “Apparatchik City: Nobody Here But Us Non-Dissidents” (March 5, 1990), Michael Kinsley wrote:

Is the life philosophy of members of the [Communist] Party Central Committee so different from that of members of Congress? . . . [W]hich people in the Bush Administration and associated circles would be members of the Politburo and which, if any, would be dissidents? . . . The President himself, son of a senior regional apparatchik? James Baker? Can you see our Secretary of State freezing in Siberia for his belief in freedom and democracy?

Exactly 27 years later, the same invective could be leveled against prominent members of the Trump administration, especially Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, Mike Pence, and Reince Priebus. These are not John Lewis-es, courageous individuals who would risk their lives for the greater good. On the contrary, they are little more than modern-day Tartuffes, pretending to be righteous while disseminating their boss’s latest lies and denying his obvious immaturity and incompetence. Likewise with most congressional Republicans and the propagandists on Fox News and right-wing talk radio (Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, etc.). None of them would ever give up anything, their lives no less their millions, for the liberty that they constantly profess to cherish. These armchair generals in the modern political and cultural wars are just not the stuff that civil-rights heroes are made of.

Instead, representatives of the American right are reminiscent of what nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche referred to as the ancient aristocrats or “nobles.” In his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche tried to explain the origin of modern morality. His theory, stripped of proto-Nazi references to Jews, Aryans, blonds, and racial superiority, is that morality grew out of the slaves’ resentment – what he called “ressentiment” – toward their masters. The latter treated each other well enough but had only contempt for the former. Eventually, the slaves – the “masses” or “herd” – retaliated against, and subverted, their cruel masters not with physical violence but rather with a more subtle and “clever” transformation of values. They re-defined “good” to mean not what the nobles thought – physical strength, military prowess, tribal loyalty, and ruthlessness in battle – but rather their very opposites, what we now think of as the “Judeo-Christian” virtues: humility, love, compassion, equality, and justice.

With the Republican takeover of our government at all levels, we are witnessing a comparably ugly dynamic churning in the United States. We are, in Nietzschean terms, replicating the primal struggle that gave birth to modern morality.

Like a good ancient noble, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stated at a town hall on Feb. 21 that protestors “had their shot in the election. . . . But in this country when you win the election you get to make policy. I always remind people, winners make policy and losers go home.” Similarly, another good Nietzschean noble, Trump himself, stated at CPAC on Feb. 24, “[T]he [protestors] that you’re watching, they’re not you. They’re largely – many of them are the side that lost, you know they lost the election. . . . They lost the election.”

The message from Republican leaders is very clear: it’s their country now. They are the masters and the protestors their powerless subjects – “not the Republican people that the representatives are representing” as Trump so eloquently put it at his press conference on Feb. 16.

So let the good times roll. Republicans finally have the chance of a lifetime to unleash all of their vile, heartless ideology against millions of people. At long last, they may now eradicate Obamacare, deport thousands of immigrants, build an expensive and useless wall on the southern border, ban and bully Muslims, approve unqualified plutocrats to lead agencies that they are ideologically opposed to, subsidize fossil-fuel billionaires and further climate change by undoing crucial environmental regulations, provide unnecessary and counterproductive tax cuts to their undeservedly wealthy donor-friends, shift tens of billions from desperately needed safety-net programs to the already-bloated military and defense contractors, and offer Judge Merrick Garland’s rightful seat on the Supreme Court to Neil Gorsuch, a younger version of the late, ultra-conservative Justice Scalia.

Republican “nobles” also feel no qualms about discounting a good number of statements and scandals that would otherwise have thrown them into deafening, Benghazi-level tizzies of fury and feverish indignation if Sec. Clinton or Pres. Obama had said or committed them. Most notably, overwhelming circumstantial evidence indicates that the Trump campaign illegally colluded with the Russians to tilt the election toward Trump by leaking embarrassing correspondence among Democratic National Committee members. But Republicans just can’t be bothered. On Feb. 14, after former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn’s ignominious resignation, the most zealous of the zealous investigators into Planned Parenthood and all things Hillary, Republican Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Jason Chaffetz, stated that the situation “seems to have resolved itself with the White House taking some decisive action.” Similarly, on the very same day, Republican Senator Rand Paul said on the Kilmeade and Friends radio show that further investigating Flynn “might be excessive. It looks like the President has handled the situation.”

Sen. Paul then had the nerve – or the candor – to state that party loyalty and depriving millions of poor people of healthcare take precedence over national security, election integrity, and justice: “I just don’t think it’s useful to be doing investigation after investigation, particularly of your own party. We’ll never even get started with doing the things we need to do, like repealing Obamacare, if we’re spending our whole time having Republicans investigate Republicans. I think it makes no sense.”

The Women’s March on Jan. 21, subsequent grass-roots protests, constituents bombarding their representatives with angry phone calls and emails, and shaming sessions at Republican town hall meetings are the natural reaction – the ressentiment – against the sudden void of moral authority that has engulfed our nation’s capital. America’s Nietzschean “herd” is fighting back. And they are fighting for core values: democracy against autocracy, compassion against cruelty, diplomacy against confrontation, patriotism against jingoism, country against party, humility against arrogance, knowledge against ignorance, facts against alternative facts, caution against recklessness, progress against mere disruption, legislative compromise against executive orders, inclusion against tribalism, religious tolerance against religious intolerance, BlackLivesMatter against white privilege, equality against white supremacy, decency against chauvinism, policing reform against police brutality, reasonable gun control against Second Amendment absolutism, clean energy against pollution, female autonomy and healthcare against fetuses, voting rights against voter suppression, and the 99% against 1%.

At this point, the Nietzschean diagnosis becomes a little more complicated. While the Republican “nobles” have provoked the resistance movement’s ressentiment, some of these provocateurs themselves suffer from deep ressentiment. Indeed, The Trump administration is quite full of it – ressentiment, that is. Both Trump himself and his chief political advisor, Steve Bannon, are the very embodiments of ressentiment, a venomous vendetta against all their “enemies” in the government and the media. As Bannon said on Feb. 23 at CPAC, his – and therefore the Trump administration’s – goals are to “deconstruct” the “administrative state” and defeat the “corporatist, globalist media.”

Bannon hardly speaks for just himself and Trump. Millions voted for, and continue to support, Trump despite his dangerous rhetoric and hysterics because he serves as their instrument of revenge against the haughty “establishment,” the man who will finally put the supposedly self-satisfied “coastal elites” and callous bureaucrats in their place. They are so vindictive, so full of jealousy and rage, so oppressed by the brutal constraints of “political correctness,” that they would prefer to “burn it all down,” to cut off America’s nose to spite its face, than continue along the steady, upward trajectory that Pres. Obama managed to put us on (against relentless Republican obstruction) and a President Clinton would no doubt have extended.

One would think that the evangelicals, people who profess to believe in Jesus’s teachings, would oppose all of this incendiary rancor. But they continue to stand right behind Trump, hypocritically cheering on his most un-Christian behavior and policies.

Why such ressentiment toward the establishment? Just as the ancient “herd” felt disempowered and fought back by “transvaluing” their rulers’ values, tens of millions of Americans feel economically and politically emasculated and fought back by electing the only candidate who promised to “transvalue” (i.e., disrupt) our political system. Trump also conveniently provided his supporters with a smorgasboard of all-too-tempting scapegoats, people who have supposedly taken all this economic and political power from them: “illegal immigrants,” “radical Islamic terrorists,” Muslims, the “fake news” media, unions, and “global elitists” – especially those with the “wrong” color (Pres. Obama) and the “wrong” gender (Hillary Clinton). This collection expands on the more racist and misogynist collection that Steve Bannon, his fellow Breitbart propagandists, Fox News, and Rush Limbaugh have been cultivating for years. And the Bannon/Breitbart/Fox News/Limbaugh collection itself ultimately draws in style and substance from the Nazis’ paranoid fantasy of all-powerful, demonic forces threatening the “motherland”: the media (“Lügenpresse” or lying press), “International Jewry,” and Bolsheviks.

For Trump supporters, not to mention the Brexit voters, it’s all a zero-sum game. They used to have more power and money, now they have less of both, therefore others must have taken – stolen – what is rightfully theirs, and they want it all back – plus interest. “Make America great again!” may sound like a demand for restorative justice, but it is inextricably linked, and fueled by, a thirst for retributive justice.

To a certain extent, the aggrieved, “forgotten” millions are right: globalization and automation have significantly transferred resources and political power to others. But, contrary to the story that Trump, Bannon, and the alt-right have been telling, these others – the main beneficiaries – are not low-income people with darker skin or overly ambitious, abortion-loving women. Instead, they are the top 1%: Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Agriculture, transnational banks that are “too big to fail,” defense contractors, healthcare insurers, gun manufacturers, hedge fund managers, and corporate lobbyists. And with an increasing “deregulation” of campaign-finance restrictions, fully realized in 2010 by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, a good fraction of the top 1%’s billions flows freely into Republican politicians’ campaign funds and, through insider trading and exclusive “sweetheart” investment deals, their pockets.

We all got just a little glimpse of all this “crony capitalism” through Trump’s cabinet appointments – especially Tom Price, Betsy DeVos, Wilbur Ross, and Steve Mnuchin – which is highly ironic given Trump’s relentless attacks against Hillary’s supposed corruption and his equally relentless promises to “drain the swamp.”

Over the past few months, threats and hate crimes against Muslims, immigrants, and Jews have surged. They are the direct result of a long-simmering, pent-up ressentiment that is fundamentally economic and political but – thanks to Trump, Bannon, and their fellow haters – layered over with racism, nationalism, and xenophobia.

While Trump condemned recent anti-semitic crimes at the beginning of his congressional address on Feb. 28, he still didn’t acknowledge or condemn anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant bullying and violence. His vague reference to “last week’s shooting in Kansas City” doesn’t quite do justice to what happened – and to the toxic, Islamophobic environment that Trump himself has encouraged over the past two years. White terrorist Adam Purinton walked into Austin’s Bar & Grill, told two Indian men to “get out of [his] country,” and shot them both. While Alok Madasani survived, Srivinas Kuchibhotla didn’t. To make matters even worse, in response to an inquiry from a prominent author and columnist, Anand Giridharadas, a White House staffer, Lindsay Walters, responded that “[t]he President condemns all acts of violence against the American people.” One big problem with this response: Mr. Kuchibhotla was not an American; he was an Indian immigrant.

While Trump cannot quite bring himself to condemn violence by whites against non-Americans, he has no problem condemning far less frequent violence by “illegal immigrants.” Only 42 minutes after claiming that “we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,” he informed the nation that he “ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American victims . . . who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests”: VOICE, which is an acronym for Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. It’s an old, cynical trick, going back at least to Joe McCarthy:  highlight what is actually the vast exception, let the average human brain mistakenly infer that it is the norm, and then build nasty, despotic policies – in this case, persecution and mass deportation – on this mistaken inference. Never mind that for every violent immigrant, there are thousands more immigrants, legal and undocumented, who make net-positive contributions to the American economy and culture. Too bad Trump didn’t invite some of them to watch his address. The optics – and message – would have been much more accurate and constructive.

Nietzsche describes the ancient nobles as honest and the slaves who ultimately toppled them as clever, sneaky, underhanded. To this extent, my application of Nietzsche’s herd/nobles dichotomy must be qualified; if anybody is being clever, sneaky, and underhanded, it is the Trump administration, not the resistance movement.

Four examples. First, in a letter dated March 1, Stefan C. Passantino, a White House deputy counsel for compliance and ethics, basically exonerated Kellyanne Conway for advertising Ivanka Trump’s clothing line from the White House briefing room on the Feb. 9 episode of Fox & Friends, even though she was clearly using public office to promote the President’s daughter’s business and even though Republicans would never have tolerated this kind of glaring ethics violation from anybody in the Obama White House.

Second, as is well-known, this is hardly the Trump administration’s only conflict of interest. Trump himself is using the stature of the highest office in the land, to make money for his businesses, which he refuses to divest himself of. (Indeed, membership fees for the Trump Organization’s Mar-a-Lago resort doubled from $100,000 to $200,000 on Jan. 1, well after Trump had been elected President.) For this reason, on Jan. 23, the liberal watchdog organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a lawsuit against Trump in the Southern District of New York on the grounds that he is violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause.

Third, Trump still adamantly refuses to release his tax returns. Clearly, he is trying to conceal something very bad – most likely tax crimes, embarrassingly little wealth, and/or business ties to Russia. Fortunately, now that the perjurious Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the investigation into “Russia-gate,” there is a much better chance that these tax returns will be subpoenaed by the Department of Justice and Trump’s ulterior reasons for hiding them will finally be revealed.

Fourth, the Trump administration has been working very hard to shove Russia-gate under the rug by repeatedly attacking the media, issuing categorical denials, enlisting the chairs of the congressional committees charged with the investigation to deny damning media reports, and trying to wrest the same public denials from FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.

Michael Kinsley might as well have been talking about the main players in the Trump administration when he described the Bush 41 administration as “especially characterized by ambitions unhinged from principles of any sort, good or bad.” So might Nietzsche when he offered this description of the “man of ressentiment”:

[He] is neither upright nor naïve nor honest and straightforward with himself. His soul squints; his spirit loves hiding places, secret paths and back doors, everything covert entices him as his world, his security, his refreshment . . . [P]icture ‘the enemy’ as the man of ressentiment conceives him – and here precisely is his deed, his creation: he has conceived ‘the evil enemy,’ ‘the Evil One,’ and this in fact is his basic concept, from which he then evolves . . . a ‘good one’ – himself!

Ken Levy is the Holt B. Harrison Professor of Law at the Paul M. Hebert Law Center, Louisiana State University.