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The Banality and Spectacle of Trump’s Leadership

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Even before the election last November, the media has been enthralled by Trump, reporting daily his latest tweet or stumble, as if this was exciting news. News executives readily admit they made money covering Trump during the election, but I wonder if part of all this current coverage is the collective pinching ourselves to see whether this is a bad dream from which we hope to wake up or grim reality we have to face through desensitization. Or, perhaps, media preoccupation with Trump signifies a collective attempt to make sense of a kind of leadership we have not seen before, at least not in the Oval Office.

To be sure, there are people in various fields of psychology who have made sense of Trump’s leadership by way of psychological criteria taken from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM 5). As tempting as this approach is, I find it troublesome because psychological diagnosis should ideally be aimed at deepening one’s understanding of a person in order to provide interventions to help him/her. Moreover, psychology has a long history of using diagnoses to harm rather than enlighten or help. Of course, psychology is not the only frame of reference we can bring to bear in depicting Trump and his leadership. Hannah Arendt’s analysis of Adolf Eichmann and Daniel Boorstin’s classic text, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, are helpful guides in this endeavor.

Let me quickly offer a caveat. Usually, a reference to Nazis is either an ad hominem argument or a way to dramatize the situation by warning readers of the parallels between Nazis and the current situation. Neither is the case here. Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann is applicable to many people, regardless of political orientation. Indeed, one reason she used the term “banal” was to refer to Eichmann’s personality and how common it was and is. I add here that while there are many parallels between Donald Trump’s personality and Eichmann’s, there is currently no parallel between what Eichmann did and what Trump is doing, even though Trump has been involved in puerile, repugnant, reprehensible, boringly tedious behaviors before and during his campaign, as well as during his administration.

Hannah Arendt was assigned to report on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961. Adolf Eichmann, a SS Lieutenant Colonel, was accused of playing an important role in organizing and administrating the deaths of thousands of Jews during World War II.  Arendt read transcripts and observed Eichmann throughout the trial, which led her to identify and describe several of Eichmann’s characteristics. First, Eichmann’s speech, she noted, “was full of clichés, many of them outrageous, self-fabricated stock phrases” (p.53). “Eichmann’s mind,” she wrote, “was filled to the brim with such sentences” (p.53). Indeed, “He was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché” (p.48). Arendt called this feature of Eichmann’s behavior empty talk (p.49). For instance, Eichmann repeated a stock phrase about finding peace with his former enemies, which was said in the context of admitting his crimes without any inkling of remorse. Arendt regarded this and other clichés to be devoid of reality and meaning. Trump’s speech is similarly filled with trite, repetitive phrases and he seems incapable of uttering a sentence without superlatives. If he likes someone s/he is wonderful, amazing, or incredible all of which tells us nothing about the person. For those who criticize him, Trump predictably uses negative terms to ridicule them (crooked Hillary, Ted Cruz a maniac, Jeb Bush a total disaster, Comey a failed leader). Even his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” while appealing to his supporters, is hackneyed and in some ways devoid of clear meaning, if not reality. Trump’s speech is also empty in the sense that it is not based in substantive thoughts/ideas. Indeed, it is not clear that Trump, despite his putative intelligence, has ever made a logical argument based in substantive ideas. This is to be expected with someone who cannot seem to read about anything except when it has to do with himself. Finally, his speech, like Eichmann’s, is empty because its aim is to further or protect his image—an image with no intellectual or self-reflective depth.

Empty talk, Arendt argues, is closely related to thoughtlessness. She writes that “the longer one listened to him (Eichmann), the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected to an inability to think, namely to think from the standpoint of somebody else” (p.49). What Arendt is addressing here, at least in part, is the capacity for empathy. Eichmann was so preoccupied by his image that he lacked genuine empathy for his victims. As a leader Trump has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to be thoughtful or empathic, especially toward anyone who does not hold the same views as he does. One might argue that there was a smattering of empathy when he asked FBI Director James Comey to drop the investigation of General Flynn, remarking that Flynn was a good man who apparently, like Trump, does not deserve to suffer the consequences for his actions. But this kind of “empathy” is tainted by Trump’s own self-interest. One could also point out that Trump appeared empathic to the citizens of Britain after the terror attack in Manchester and to those who were victims of the mass shootings in Las Vegas. I am willing to concede that there are occasions of empathy, but they appear to be scripted and thus not genuine. Put another way, for someone preoccupied about his brand, Trump may appear empathic in social occasions where empathy is expected. To show empathy for the sake of promoting one’s public image, by definition, means one cannot genuinely think from the standpoint of others. More common than glimpses of pseudo empathy is Trump’s thoughtlessness and his lack of empathy, which is evident in his budget proposal that slashes programs that care for the poor and elderly, while also raising military spending and lowering taxes on the wealthy. His thoughtlessness and carelessness are evident in ridiculing a handicapped reporter, vicious and relentless verbal attacks on people who critique him, and public suggestions of doing harm to others (e.g., police arresting alleged perpetrators, political rallies, assaulting women, etc.).

Empty talk and thoughtlessness, Arendt argued, were inextricably joined to Eichmann’s “extinguishing of conscience” (p.116). Eichmann was able to snuff out his conscience through what Arendt called his defective memory (p.106). He would, for instance, revise personal history by saying he was obedient and law-abiding, while being involved in one of the most egregious crimes in human history. In the court’s summation, the judge noted that “you said you had never acted from base motives, that you had never had any inclinations to kill anybody, that you had never hated Jews, and still that you could not have acted otherwise and that you did not feel guilty” (p.278). Eichmann’s thoughtlessness and defective memory, while part of a lack of conscience and remorse, were joined to a hermeneutic of self-promotion and self-protection, which he used assiduously to revise his history, as well as to seek promotion while in the SS. Arendt considered Eichmann’s hermeneutic to be filled with “self-deception, lies, and stupidity” (p.52), which extinguished any moral sensibility and remorse. The extinguishing of conscience, whether by revising of history or acting out of a hermeneutic of self-promotion and self-protection, is evident in Trump’s leadership. Given all of his egregious behaviors and speech, I have not heard Trump apologize for anything he has done. He has sought to humiliate reporters, debase women and people of color, ridicule political leaders, and demean legitimate protestors all without a whiff of apology. He seems unable or unwilling to take accountability for anything, except his real and imagined successes. Indeed, it is not evident that Trump even knows what remorse is, let alone feels like.  This suggests that Trump, over the course of decades, has become proficient not only at shameless self-promotion and opportunism, but at extinguishing his conscience.

It is important to stress that while Arendt refers to Eichmann’s stupidity, she did not consider Eichmann to be without intelligence; he was simply thoughtless and lacking conscience (pp.287-288). Extinguishing his conscience enabled Eichmann to take a role in dehumanizing and murdering millions of Jews, which points to a kind of intelligence, though an intelligence divorced from morality and empathy. Moreover, his intelligence enabled him to evade capture for years after WWII, while living life without remorse. Indeed, even when confronted with evidence of his crimes during the trial, Eichmann demonstrated a remarkable ability in using his intelligence to remain blameless—at least in his eyes. To shift to the present, when Rex Tillerson called Trump a moron, he elicited a predictable and banal adolescent response from Trump, who assured his supporters that his IQ is higher than Tillerson’s. While this response may simply confirm to most of us Tillerson’s assessment, it would be a mistake to deny Trump’s intelligence, even if it is more reptilian in the sense of constantly calculating his self-interests. Perhaps, Tillerson should have called Trump a fool, because a fool can be quite intelligent, though completely lacking wisdom or prudence.

A final attribute that Arendt identifies with regard to Eichmann is that he was a simple, banal person. “Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement,” she wrote, “he had no motives at all” (p.287). It was, she continued, “this lack of imagination which enabled him to sit for months on end facing a German Jew who was conducting the police interrogation, pouring out his heart to the man and explaining again and again how it was that he reached only the rank of lieutenant colonel in the S.S. and that it had not been his fault that he was not promoted” (p.287). Lack of imagination and having a singular motive makes for a boring or banal person. By contrast, individuals who have multiple motives, interests, and a healthy or active imagination are usually complex and interesting individuals. Trump, like Eichmann, is also a simple man who possesses one over-arching motive, which is relentlessly promoting his brand. To be sure, he might be exciting or interesting to some who are enamored with his financial and media successes, but that only points to the fact that many people are attracted by money and power neither of which make people interesting or complex. Trump’s simplicity and banality are also noted in his predictability, even though people seem to think that he is an unpredictable leader. Boring people are profoundly and tediously predictable because they have only one motive and, in this case, it is self-promotion. Because of this, Trump is predicable because he shows little interest in subject matters that are not about him (Fisher, 2016). Indeed, some news outlets have reported that intelligence officials include Trump’s name throughout their short reports because Trump will continue reading only if he reads his name in the reports (Griffin, 2017). Trump is also boringly predictable whenever he encounters criticism, which he interprets as attempts to tarnish his image/brand. Predictably, he attacks the source of the criticism. Boring or banal leaders are simple in the sense that they have a singular motive, but that does not mean they are not dangerous, as Eichmann’s case shows.

Arendt concludes her analysis of Eichmann’s banality by saying “That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together” (p.288). Arendt’s view is similar to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s(1953), a German Lutheran theologian who was executed by the Nazis, though Bonhoeffer uses the idea of folly to refer to Nazi leadership.  He wrote,

There is no defense against folly.  Neither protests nor force are of any avail against it, and it is never amenable to reason.  If facts contradict personal prejudices, there is no need to believe them, and if they are undeniable, they can simply be pushed aside as exceptions. Thus, the fool, as compared with the scoundrel, is invariably self-complacent.  And he can easily become dangerous, for it does not take much to make him aggressive. Hence, folly requires much more cautious handling than malice. We shall never again try to reason with the fool, for it is both useless and dangerous. (p.8)

I think Arendt would have agreed that a banal person who is thoughtless and who extinguishes his conscience is not only banal, but also a fool. When the fool is in a position of leadership, his lack of imagination, thoughtlessness, singular motive of self-promotion, and lack of conscience are factors in his banality. Trump fits Arendt’s depiction of the banality of Eichmann—boringly predictable, yet also dangerous.

While Trump’s leadership is banal, there is also the fact that the media and many citizens are gripped in the seemingly daily spectacles that flash across our varied electronic devices. He is a spectacle, having cultivated this for decades. Daniel Boorstin’s (1961) classic text, The Image, can further our insight into Trump’s leadership vis-à-vis his image/brand and celebrity. An image, Boosrstin notes, “is synthetic. It is planned and created especially to serve a purpose, to make a certain kind of impression” (p.185). This image “is vivid and concrete…and is simplified” (p.193). The creator of “the image is expected to fit into the image” (p.188), which suggests that, like the image, s/he is vivid, concrete, and simple. An image, Boorstin notes, does not invite reflection or deep thought, which is reminiscent of Arendt’s view of Eichmann. Instead, the image titillates or arouses the emotions. Trump has long cultivated an image of himself as an extremely successful entrepreneur, which includes entertainment (and now politics). The purpose of Trump’s image/brand is to create an impression of a powerful, ruthless businessman who is extremely wealthy—an image of a man of means and substance. Yet, the image, from Boorstin’s view, is fundamentally insubstantial; it does not invite deep reflection or thought—either for the promoter of the image or the enthralled followers. Singer (1997) notes two decades ago, that Trump is a man “with universal recognition but with a suspicion that an interior life was an intolerable inconvenience.” Perhaps reflection is an intolerable inconvenience because it interferes with the singular, ruthless, and amoral promotion of his image/brand. Consider, for instance, Trump’s unwillingness to divest himself of his company/brand after assuming the Office of President. While he has handed it off to his sons to protect and expand, his sons are in service to the (Trump’s) image. Even if Trump had divested himself from his company, I am certain his behavior as president would not have changed. Since he has been cultivating his image for all of his adult life, it is certain that his unreflective braggadocio would continue unabated.

The image, Boorstin continues, is a pseudo-event. A pseudo-event “is not spontaneous”…Typically, it is not a train wreck or an earthquake, but an interview” (p.11). The pseudo-event “is planted (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced…Its success is measured but how widely it is reported” (p.11).  Boorstin notes further that the pseudo-events “are commonly fictitious or factitious” (p.11). Whether it is real or not or whether it is factual or not is not as important as whether it is newsworthy. Given these criteria, Trump himself is a pseudo-event. His fetishistic and simplistic tweets become news, even though there is no substance to or behind the tweets. Moreover, the tweets and his interviews are more fictitious, factitious, and fractious than rooted in any known truth. Politifact, an independent news site that assesses whether politicians lie, tell the truth or some mixture of it, has indicated that Trump tells falsehoods and half-truths 83% of the time. I think it would be fair to say that Trump’s falsehoods are in service of maintaining his image/brand. Indeed, truth and falsehoods are not important distinctions given his singular motivation to promote his image/brand.

Another facet of pseudo-events is celebrity. Celebrity, Boorstin argues, is being known for one’s well-knownness (p.57). The celebrity “is the human pseudo-event. He has been fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness” (p.58).  This does not imply that the celebrity is a great person. Boorstin points out that the hero is “distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark….The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name” (p.61). We might say that the hero, like a real event, has substance and complexity, while the celebrity, like a pseudo-event, lacks depth and complexity. Trump is clearly a celebrity who has spent decades cultivating and mercilessly protecting his image/brand. Where Hollywood often fabricates celebrity, Trump has used Hollywood and the media to further his celebrity. When he announced he was running for president, Trump, the celebrity, planned a pseudo-event wherein the viewer is pulled into the spectacle—a spectacle that screens the lack of substance that pervades the celebrity who would be president.

Pseudo-events and celebrity, as noted above, are planned. Real events, for Boorstin, are spontaneous, not deliberate creations. A celebrity is not spontaneous, because s/he has to plan what s/he is saying and doing, calculating its impact vis-à-vis his/her image. Reporter Natalie Walters (2016) interviewed candidate Trump and noticed that his desk at work was covered with magazines and newspapers, which all had to do with Donald Trump. President Trump has a different desk now but the same obsession for watching multiple news outlets about himself. Anyone who has worked with someone who is obsessive and preoccupied knows that person lacks the spontaneity of playfulness and is seemingly incapable of caring about anything or anyone except whether they advance the brand/image/celebrity. Someone may point out that Trump seems spontaneous in his speeches before crowds, but spontaneity is not equivalent to rashness. What about his tweets? Again impetuousness is not spontaneity. A singular motivation to advance his image/brand reflects a kind of seriousness that belies playfulness and spontaneity.

The lack of spontaneity and playfulness suggests a calculating mind and here we see an interesting connection between Arendt and Boorstin. In Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann, she viewed him as unthinking and amoral, though intelligent. Boorstin similarly argued that the celebrity “is neither good nor bad…He is the human pseudo-event…[and] is morally neutral” (pp.57-58).  Being morally neutral is a core attribute of pseudo-events and celebrities, because the primary motivation is to be well-known and to protect and further the brand. Put another way, amorality signifies flexibility with regard to the truth or facts. Lying and exaggeration, for the celebrity, are simply put to use in service of his/her brand. Character and virtue do not concern the celebrity. Of course, the celebrity can be moral, just as long as it serves the purpose of his/her image/brand. It is an accidental morality. Evidence of Trump’s amorality is legion. He has repeatedly failed to pay contractors (Jackson, Rappleye, & Reynolds, 2016). It is well-documented that he played a hand in bankrupting his casinos, ruining investors while making millions. The pseudo-event of Trump University financially harmed hundreds. These and other examples reveal that his primary motivation of promoting his image/brand places morality into the shadows. The celebrity, to use Simon de Beauvoir’s (1948) philosophical perspective on serious persons, “is one who remains indifferent to the content, that is, to the human meaning of his action, who thinks he can assert his own existence without taking into account that of others” (p.65). In the service of his celebrity, “He will treat them like instruments; he will destroy them if they get in his way” (p.66).

A celebrity, like Trump, is a spectacle that can titillate some people and capture anxious attention of others. In this he differs from Eichmann, but both, lacking the capacity or desire for reflection and morality, are exceedingly banal, while also being dangerous.

References

Arendt, H. (1965/1994). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. New York: Penguin Books.

Bonhoeffer, D. (1953). Letters and Papers from Prison, E. Bethge (Ed.). New York: Collier

Books.

Boorstin, D. (2012/1961). The image: A guide to pseudo-events in America. New York: Vintage Books.

de Beauvoir, S. (1948). The ethics of ambiguity. New York: open Road.

Fisher, M. (2016). Donald Trump doesn’t read much. Being president probably wouldn’t change that. The Washington Post, 17 July 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/donald-trump-doesnt-read-much-being-president-probably-wouldnt-change-that/2016/07/17/d2ddf2bc-4932-11e6-90a8-fb84201e0645_story.html?utm_term=.50280086ee1b accessed 18 August 2017.

Griffin, A. (2017). Officials put Trump’s name in as many memo paragraphs as we can because he keeps reading if he is mentioned. The Independent, 17 May 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-intelligence-reports-white-house-read-them-mentioned-name-president-a7740726.html accessed 19 August 2017.

Jackson, H., Rappleye, H., & Reynolds, T. (2016). Hundreds claim Donald Trump doesn’t pay his bills in full. NBC News, 10 June 2016, http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/hundreds-claim-donald-trump-doesn-t-pay-his-bills-n589261 accessed 19 October 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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