The King and the Court Jester: Jordan Peterson and Donald Trump

It is interesting to ponder how historians a century from now will analyze the day-to-day reality of the Trump years. From the tedious everyday hissy fits on Twitter, the endless, boisterous self-glorification, the moment-by-moment interpretation and arguing about a president’s very words and motives by cable news talking heads, even the future Gore Vidals or Mary Renaults may have a hard time encapsulating it all. Of course there is already shelves worth of books about just how an obvious, oft-sued charlatan rose to the presidency in the first place. These themes have been repeated ad nauseam from immigration, to deindustrialization, Clinton fatigue, gay marriage, postmodernism, the cult of celebrity, etc.

Then there is the lurking idea of bruised masculinity. For all his diatribes about his many accomplishments and ranting about the injustice of fake news, if there’s one thing Trump wears on his sleeve above all else it’s the insecurity that he isn’t all that he’s cracked up to be. It’s quite pathetic to listen to Trump witlessly call every critic a ‘loser’, refer almost daily to ‘falling ratings’, ‘failing’ newspapers, while all along desperately pleading for affection a scrap of affection from the establishment he claims to be overturning.

Now take an anecdote from Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency. Green briefly describes Bannon’s failed effort to build a business around selling virtual goods inside video games. While that failed Bannon, himself a thrice divorced misfit, stumbled upon an epiphany:

An underworld he hadn’t known existed that was populated by millions of intense young men (most gamers were men) who disappeared for days or even weeks at a time in alternate realities. While perhaps not social adepts, they were smart, focused, relatively wealthy, and highly motivated about issues that mattered to them…

If you trace backward from Trump’s election, it doesn’t take long before you encounter online networks of motivated gamers and message-boards denizens such as those who populate Trump-crazed boards like 4chan, 8chan, and reddit.

David Frum, George W. Bush’s former speechwriter now one of the few remaining Never-Trump conservatives, goes on to expand about the implications of this in Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. Noting that non-college young men out of work have reported playing 8.6 hours of video games a week, more than double from before the recession, Frum writes:

The observation about sexual frustration was astute. Millennials were having less sex than their elders. The percentage of people in their twenties neither married nor cohabiting rose from 52 percent in 2004 to 64 percent in 2014…

Despite the agitations and anxieties of their disapproving elders, millennials are not doing much “hooking up”: in the 2015 and 2016 General Social Surveys sponsored by the federal government, the percentage of people under age twenty-five with zero sexual contacts since turning eighteen had spiked to levels not seen since before the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

If disaffected, sexually repressed white men found their political champion in Trump, perhaps it was inevitable that their philosopher would emerge at the same time: so here is Jordan Peterson. Peterson’s, a professor at the University of Toronto, claim to fame is vocally resisting Canada’s Bill C-16, passed by the Canadian Parliament in June 2017, that added gender identity or expression to Canada’s discrimination laws. Peterson particularly objected to the idea of gender neutral pronouns. His resistance made him a Youtube sensation where his lectures have drawn around 40 million views. Some of these are drawn out talks about Classical texts, others portend to give stern life advice, however the most popular videos by far feature the very eccentric Paterson railing about Islam, identity politics, and most of all what he terms ‘neo-Marxist postmodernists’, a completely meaningless term outside of Peterson’s brain. For Peterson the narrative is ‘identity politics’ emerged in universities in the late 1960s as a convenient absorbent for when he claims the idea of Communism was finally discredited. Therefore communism then, identity politics now, Marxists to Neo-Marxist postmodernists and the unceasing war for civilization rages on- as if actual Marxists paid no attention to the plight of women or minorities at any prior point. While Peterson lacks Trump’s bombastic gift of babbling showmanship, in intense moments Peterson can dial up outraged corniness to a level that is at times humorous.

Like Trump, Peterson will also be famous for releasing a bestselling self-help book. Trump’s, of course, was The Art of the Deal, a silly work whose real author has spent his recent days shouting about just how much Trump is a sinister creep. Peterson’s new book has a somewhat more typical self-help title of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Released on the heels of an interview, where Peterson appeared to get the better of TV newswoman Cathy Newman, going viral, Peterson has gotten recent plugs from David Brooks in the New York Times and Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal. Brooks acknowledges the general banality of Peterson’s advice but also claims ‘At some level Peterson is offering assertiveness training to men whom society is trying to turn into emasculated snowflakes…and for millions of young men, it turns out to be the perfect antidote to the cocktail of coddling and accusation in which they are raised.’ All this babying, of course, taking place in a country with the highest rates of incarceration, capital punishment, police killings, and poverty in the Western world. For her part Noonan was only slightly more cliché: ‘We live in a time when so many young (and not so young) people feel lost, unsure of how they should approach their lives, or life in general, Mr. Peterson talks about the attitudes that will help find the path.’

In truth Peterson’s writing isn’t terrible. The opening chapter has an interesting take on lobster behavior, how serotonin levels rise and fall depending on the result of lobster confrontations. That 350 million years of evolution separate lobsters and Homo sapiens is no reason to dismiss Peterson’s Rule #1 and ‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back.’ Rule #5 seems to offer useful advice to parents in ‘Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.’ Far from loving unconditionally, parents’ instinct is for tyranny and being much stronger than their children there’s risk of parental revenge. Provide enough discipline in advance to avoid the temptation. The relief of children echoes.

The thing with self-help boilerplate, oddly missed by its many readers, is that when one has read a single self-help manual one has read them all. After all, how helpful could a self-help book be if one feels compelled to read another so soon after as is the case for most self-help readers (speaking as a public librarian it can be said without hesitation the self-help books get much more action than the poetry section).

Whether it is the outright kooky, such as much sold, Oprah endorsed The Secret or A New Earth, or the phony rebellious in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, or the infinite list of titles with whatever number of rules or steps to attain personal nirvana, the thread that ties them all is the same. Besides being generally full of shit, the whole self-help industry deliberately wears the banner of political neutrality, which for all its mantra of change this invariably makes it a status quo force, meaning a conservative one. It reinforces the myth of rugged individuality essential for social Darwinism.

Is workforce participation low? Think happy thoughts for positive attraction or follow Peterson’s Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not who someone is today. Are opioids wrecking your neighborhood? Rule 6: Set your own house in order before you criticize the world. Is all the wealth flowing to the elite? No need to complain for those are the winners in the Hobbesian battle Peterson puts forward as basic reality and anyway life is suffering so learn to suffer like a man.

For the wretched in the Age of Trump, it’s probably the right tonic.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).