Donald Trump: A Hero of Our Time?

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

How can we explain that the victim of another Trump slur nonetheless stated afterward that this president “is the best thing that ever happened to this country”? How—after the president bawled out his victim, Frank Dawson,  for being overweight and told him to go home to his mother—could thousands in his Manchester, NH rally on August 15 just  sit there and stomach Trump’s claim that his campaign is based on “love”?

Of course, this is not the first time the president’s backers have ignored some of his most egregious statements.  Lots of women voted for him even after he claimed to do anything he wished with them because he was famous. Many veterans backed him despite his put-down of war hero John McCain as one who surrendered to the enemy. Some moderate voters side with Trump despite his claim that the Charlottesville neo-fascists included “very fine” people.  Some Evangelicals rationalize backing a man whom others see as a godless hypocrite.

Mikhail Lermontov’s novel A Hero of Our Time (1840) offers a way to think about all those who forgive or just accept ugly behavior. “Russians have an amazing ability to adjust to the ways of every culture they encounter,” Lermontov observed. “This quality can be condemned or praised. When Russians see evil, they ignore it because it seems necessary or because it is impossible to destroy.”

The “hero” of Lermontov’s story is Grigorii Alexandrovich   Pechorin, a 25-year old officer in the tsar’s army seeking to put down the Chechens and other Caucasians  being subjugated by the Russian empire. Pechorin’s faults, however, have almost nothing to do with Russian imperialism but with his treatment of human beings close to him. For starters, Pechorin gives another man’s prized horse to the brother of, a Circassian princess, Bela,  to kidnap her for Pechorin himself.  After days locked inside the fortress where officers live,  Bela admits her love for Perchorin and they enjoy weeks in conjugal embrace.

But Pechorin soon becomes bored with his unschooled beauty, just as he recently did the refined dames of St. Petersburg. He goes off hunting and contemplates foreign travel to ease his ennui, leaving Bela in despair. While Pechorin is out looking for wild boar, a local bandit steals Bela from the fortress and carries her away strapped to his saddle. Alerted, Pechorin follows and shoots the man’s horse. The bandit escapes on foot but only after stabbing Bela in the back.  Pechorin and his companion, army captain Maxim Maximovich, sit by her side as her life drains away.  Maxim observes that Pechorin does not cry but seems to smile as this tragedy climaxes.

Soon after Bela’s death, Pechorin and the captain go their ways and do not meet again for several years. Travelling on army business, Maxim Maximovich, now departing middle age,  finds himself in another Caucasian town where, he learns, Pechorin is visitng a local mogul. The captain sends word to Pechorin that they can reconnect at Maxim’s hotel. The captain waits outside the hotel till late at night and then early the next day, but Pechorin does not appear.  Finally Pechorin’s lackey rides up in an elegant horse-drawn carriage and says his master will come soon. When Pechorin finally arrives, Maxim rushes to embrace what he thought was his old friend, now dressed as a  Petersburg damdy. But Pechorin is frigid and just extends his hand. Even when he smiles, his  eyes remain cold like steel. Maxim begs him to stay for lunch (he has two pheasants read to grill), but Pechorin says he must depart immediately for “Persia and beyond.” His carriage pulls away, Pechorin showing little interest in another encounter with Maxim. The captain is let down. He has no family and little education but thought that Pechorin and he, having shared intense times together, had become close.

At the end of the tale,  the “hero of our time” duels with a twenty-year old cadet  over a woman and kills him, after the other’s poor shot leaves him disarmed. Pechorin remounts and rides away, a stone  in his heart. The sun’s rays no longer warm him.

If readers are offended by this portrait of a “hero,” Lermontov explains that Pechorin is a composite of many persons in our time.  The novelist  (himself  killed in a duel at not quite twenty-seven years old in 1841) leaves it to his readers to evaluate Pechorin’s actions.

Trump’s backers, according to political analyst Thomas Hawley at Eastern Washington University simply do not see evil  Celebrity politicians like Trump  leverage their origins from outside the political sphere. Their backers hold them to different standards than they do ordinary humans.  The celebrity politician fools his followers into thinking they gain power through him. Collective actions are not needed because the boss will do everything. Thus, Trump assured Republicans at their 2016 convention: “I am your voice. I alone can fix it. I will restore law and order.” Given a  constant need to shore up his image, the celebrity politician lives in a  zero-sum world where he must produce strong shows by which to dominate others. He  rejects the commons, the feminine, the downtrodden, and the state itself.

Considering all this, social psychologist Stephen Advocate commented (e-mail August 17, 2019) that “Pechorin is way too high-class a character to represent our furtive Führer. Pechorin is a Weltschmerz kind of guy, replete with all the social graces but lacking some inner particle that relates to another human being with interest and joy. A depressive rather than a psychopath, a lost soul rather than a blowhard self-promoter. Unlike Pechorin, Trump would pump himself up with memories of the women he betrayed, the people he hurt. Trump riding away from a duel would feel no stone in his heart but  triumphant pride for himself and scorn for his victim. The sun would burn brighter for him with every murder. Nor would Trump ignore evil. He’s on the hunt for each new occasion.”

“Many voters still see Trump as a hero,” the British pollster Lord Michael Ashcroft wrote in Time (November 7, 2017). Trump remains their guy, doing his best to change the way things are done in Washington and to put ordinary Americans at the heart of the political agenda. A parent who reads his tweets might say, “If my kids did that, I would be ashamed.” Trump’s supporters, however, believe that the media and the political establishment are out to get him. So, they say,  he must hit back.

Nicholas Barber at the BBC on August 12, 2019 reflected on the Wizard of Oz film to explain how people can be fooled by an incompetent but  fast-talking showman who waggles levers and tricks to keep his subjects both loyal and afraid. It turns out the Wizard is no wizard. He landed in the land of Oz when his hot air balloon was blown there.  He did not control the balloon and admitted, “I don’t know how it works.”

The Wizard assures Dorothy’s three comrades that they are that they are as accomplished as anyone “back where I come from.”  The Wizard derides  academics and philanthropists. He mocks war veterans as people who “take their fortitude out of mothballs and parade it down the main street of the city” once a year, but “have no more courage than you have.” The film’s  script scoffs at the idea that power and prosperity come to those who merit them–even when it  deals  with Dorothy herself.  She manages to kill two witches by pure chance rather than by her bravery or skill. But “Dorothy is instantly hailed as a conquering heroine, just as the Wizard was when he touched down in Oz.”

Barber concluded: “The message is that people will march behind any authority figure who makes a splash, however undeserving they may be. It’s a subversive message in 2019, and it was even more pointed in 1939, when fascist dictators were stomping across Europe.”

If many Americans still think that President Trump is a hero of our time, do they also believe that his tweets, insults, and other actions are “necessary” to make America great again?  Or, since they continue day by day, are they just “impossible to destroy”? Are his actions to be endorsed or censured? Each voter must decide.

Walter Clemens is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University and Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He is the author Complexity Science and World Affairs and the Republican Virus in the Body Politic.