Observe. See him there, swishing his tale in his oval-shaped shark tank. Here is a man who -- in the midst of a total lack of qualifications and deservedness -- somehow has managed to obtain and hold onto the single most powerful political office in the globe. This is a man who is free as perhaps no other currently on the planet to live out the full scope of his megalomanic fantasies. Yet it is no less evident that he labors each day under a hag-ridden delirium filled with imagined "enemies" and threats.
His mind is a cloud of persecution mania. He felt compelled to ban a popular writer of horror fiction -- along with many others -- from his Twitter page for posting critical remarks. He evidently prowls the internet on long sleepless nights for hints or slights related to the size of his wealth, genitals, and/or inauguration crowds, so that he can issue crude responses to them in the wee hours. This is a man who fears journalists, artists, writers, and comedians as if it were they, rather than he, who held the terrible power of the state in their hands. This is a man fully persuaded of his own powerlessness, in the very apogee of his power.
This is a man who hates above all, it would seem, to be subjected to another's scrutiny, although he loves above all to be seen -- an impossible paradox, for which there will never be a resolution -- only rage, only violence. This is a man who must in some dim way sense the unseemliness of his own behavior, and the injustice of his power, or he would not so fear having them hauled into the light by people with as little formal power as Stephen King. "One can judge the moral character of any regime," wrote Roque Dalton (quoting from memory here, so forgive slight errors) "by the degree of danger it attaches/ to being observed through the eyes of a satirical poet." Or horror fiction writer, as the case may be.
This phenomenon is of course not limited to Trump, however. It can be sensed viscerally among his most disturbed and disturbing supporters. Sitting behind the wheel of my car a couple months ago, I caught on the radio a This American Life episode that spotlighted the so-called "Proud Boys," Jason Kessler, and other fellow-traveler figures of the so-called "Alt-Light." These are the ones who are basically on the "Alt-Right," but who still bother to make some assurances to journalists to the effect that they are not really white supremacists. They are merely, as they put it, "Western chauvinists," or they are just concerned citizens who have observed, ahem, "the disproportionate power and influence wielded by Jewish people in the elite of this country," or else they are passionate advocates trying to fight the "slow genocide by replacement of white people" -- to cite a few of the choice utterances from the TAL interviews.
Listening to this outlandish tissue of grievances -- and it is not easy to do -- one is confronted with the same paradox one faces in contemplating the president: Whence this rage? Whence this paranoia, so unmoored from the actual social realities of the world? And why among these people -- i.e., college-educated white males -- people, in short, who continue to enjoy significant advantages in this society. People who voted for the President who currently occupies the White House. People who are least likely to be on the receiving end of this society's astonishing capacity for violence -- violence of military, police, border patrol, deportation.
Oh, and why are all these allied goons -- president and Alt-Light alike -- so apparently paranoid now, of all times, when they have seemingly reached the high-water mark of their political power? Why so much fear and anger at this very moment, when they are at their zenith?
It is certainly a paradox -- though not an unexpected one. It is as old as social inequality in all forms, and I would propose -- for reasons I will explain below -- that it is written into the psychic DNA of power itself. Wherever there has been an elite or an aristocracy or a privileged caste or a dictator, there has been this depth of paranoia. Before I come to my own theory to account for it, however, let me clear away some of the more obvious reasons behind it.
The first reason why the privileged are so afraid is simply that they are aware of the injustice of their position -- and thus fear the specter of a moral reckoning, or the judgement of God or history. This is why they don't want any media or literature that they cannot control. This is why the first thing all dictators do is to clamp down on the press box. And why, as Roque Dalton observes above, they certainly don't relish the company of any satirical poets.
It is uncomfortable to be sitting on the throne when you start to hear it put about -- and justly so -- that "wrong is ever on the throne/ And truth forever on the scaffold," (James Russell Lowell, but most famously quoted by MLK). This must be especially hard to hear when you have put many on the scaffold yourself, or tried to. Certainly Donald Trump's list is long at this point of the people for whom he has, at one time or another, called for the execution-- a list that includes an American prisoner of war who was held captive for five years and subjected to prolonged torture, as well as five falsely accused and later exonerated people who were teenagers at the time of the alleged offense.
To live for so long through harming others -- to gain so much power and wealth by stealing so much from humanity -- is to accumulate a sizable moral debt -- one that must eventually begin to weigh on even the most morally doltish. Trump's outward wrath is in some way an externalization of his inward guilt. He is angry at his victims for haunting him. Same goes for the "Alt-Light." They feel keenly helpless, perhaps, before the last best power of the powerless -- that of being right. "I have such meagre power," wrote Langston Hughes in "Poet to Bigot," "Clutching at a moment, while you control an hour./ But your hour is a stone/ My moment is a flower." Well, sometimes the bigot -- accustomed already to getting his own way -- grows discontented with his stone. He starts howling that he wants the flower too.
Then of course there is the age-old plaint of every aristocracy, in seeking to explain why it is truly they who suffer most greatly the indignities of the modern age -- rather than the poor or the captives. This is that the very height of the social pinnacle they occupy, they allege, leaves them exposed to the envy of their neighbors. They are therefore at permanent risk of being the targets of scandal, tattle, and revolutionary violence. As Yeats declaimed, Zarathustra-like, from the clouded heights of his Celtic Twilight of the Gods -- speaking of the "leaders of the crowd" -- "They must [...]/ Pull down established honour; hawk for news/ Whatever their loose fantasy invent/ And murmur it with bated breath, as though/ The abounding gutter had been Helicon/ Or calumny a song."
And who knows, maybe there's some truth to that. Indeed, it's hard not to relish Yeats' lines a bit, for their implied castigation of our scandal-mongering media, which seems so often animated by the Schadenfreude to be derived from the fall of the once-famous -- all the while declaring that it is doing so not in the name of salaciousness, but of justice and right ("calumny a song"). One perhaps wishes, however, that the poem had come from a source slightly lest tainted by overtones of feudalism and fascism. (See Orwell for Yeat's anti-democratic leanings -- though one should treat the decontextualized citations with care -- Orwell, for all his many virtues, was not the most rigorously just in his practice of quotation.)
Why should the specter of scandal and disgrace so beset the rich and famous, however, of all people? They are certainly not the only people who ever fall victim to it. Just ask the multitude of American citizens who have been more or less permanently boxed out of the work force by felony convictions. And even if the rich and famous are at times subjected to the casual cruelty of a scandal-happy media and the periodic moral panics of the American public, they are surely in the best position of anyone to weather both. The people who are swept up in any social panic or witch hunt who don't have social power, connections, a publishing contract, and mutual funds are the ones who truly suffer. So why do the people most likely to survive a social upheaval seem to be the ones who live in the greatest terror of it?
Here at last we draw close to the heart of the matter. I would submit that the reason the powerful are so afraid of the powerless is that they are dependent upon the latter for the fact that they are powerful. Thus, they do have good cause to fear the power of the latter; they depend utterly upon them for their status and sense of self. The rich are at the mercy of the poor, dictators at the mercy of the people they terrorize.
This is not of course a new idea. It is some version -- I eventually realized -- of Hegel's "master/slave dialectic" -- at least as it has been helpfully translated from the original Continental-Philosoph-ese by the likes of David Brion Davis, etc. And for all its appearance of paradox, it becomes -- once it is explained -- a profoundly obvious banality.
The "Master," Hegel/Davis tell us, -- i.e., the rich, the powerful, the President -- only can be "Master" so long as someone else is a "Slave." But this, of course, means that he (and it is a he, in this case -- oh so conspicuously so) is not truly master at all. He relies upon the latter for his identity, his selfhood, his mastery itself. He is therefore never truly in control. He is only a master so long as others relate to him in the role of master.
He lives, therefore, in a world of appearances, where his status is only truly vouchsafed for as long as he can maintain the illusion of his supremacy. His power lasts as long as the half-second it takes the human mind to form the notion of its falsehood. As Thomas Hardy wrote, in lines Graham Greene borrowed -- fittingly -- as an epigraph for his great novel of dictatorship, The Comedians:
[A]spects are within us; and who seems
Most kingly is the King.
Of course, the more tyrannically and abusively those with authority wield their power, the more they have good reason to doubt the continued respect and admiration of their subordinates, and the more reason they have to fear some eventual reprisal. In other words, the less paranoid becomes their paranoia. But this only leads to yet another round of the vicious circle, as it did with Stalin, because the more their insecurity increases, the more they desire affirmation, and so the more sadistic tests they devise to gauge the loyalty of their followers. Then their followers hate them all the more for these tests, the dictators senses this and becomes more lonely and insecure, perhaps he then kills off those followers and thereby further increases the loathing of the few who remain, and on it goes. Stalin by the end of things was apparently forcing his associates to taste all of his food before he ate it, convinced that one day, it would be poisoned...
Thus, Trump's unending pattern of showing the vilest disloyalty even to his most long-standing associates begins to make sense in this context. As does his strangely maudlin need for love and affirmation, even in the midst of his cruelty and sadism -- his essentially childlike dependence on the opinion of others. When Friedrich Reck imagines Hitler in his bunker, in the closing years of the war, he conjures the image of the "sleepless nights... of the sentimental gangster." (Rubens trans.) "Sentimental" is right. Gangsters are always sentimental. As are dictators, as well as those who would very much like to be dictators, were it not for the pesky matter of a still somewhat functional system of law and Constitution.
Given the fact that social power is, then, ultimately an illusion -- given that the socially powerful are only powerful because of society, and are thus utterly dependent upon society, hence not really powerful at all -- given all this, I say, elites have attempted to devise various impersonal-seeming institutions to try to make their power more permanent, less dependent on human volition, and to provide them with a feeling of transcendent safety. Property, the law, money, wealth, blood, birth, caste, etc. etc.
Since all of these institutions are -- in the last analysis -- social, however, they cannot really get around the chief problem. The law, for instance, protects property and office. But the law only lasts as long as people implicitly agree to recognize and uphold it.
Likewise, while money seems at first to be something tangible -- a source of definite and incontrovertible power in this uncertain world -- in reality it is a social convention as well. In itself, it is useless. Its value goes only so far as the worth people tacitly agree to attach to it -- to currency, to gold, to stocks, to real estate and other markets that have been known -- I need hardly remind anyone -- to fluctuate considerably over time. As Alfred Hayes -- the guy who wrote the lyrics to "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," and the screenplay for Bicycle Thief -- writes in a poem on the subject of a rich man he observes in a bar (to be found in his collection The Big Time): "Though he stirs the demitasse with an engraved spoon/ How shall he feel secure/ Whose world is founded on what his stock will do at noon?"
Okay, fine, fine, but the actual things that one actually owns -- that surely is safe for all time, no? Well, no, apart from the ones that one can grab and hold onto with one's bodily strength, I suppose, if there are no laws and conventions dictating the legal meaning of ownership.
Some have even held money and property to be -- far from the most secure form of social power -- the most ultimately insecure. Tocqueville actually had a warning for American society -- or at least its emergent ruling class -- on this basis. He feared that the American industrial aristocracy, precisely because it was based on wealth, money and property, rather than birth or blood, might grow to be uniquely viscous and obdurate, precisely because their sense of self would be tied up with what they had, rather than with who they were. "I never perceived amongst the wealthier inhabitants of the United States that proud contempt of physical gratifications which is sometimes to be met with even in the most opulent and dissolute aristocracies," he writes, among whom "The comforts of life are not to them the end of life, but simply a way of living[.]" (Reeve trans.)
Schopenhauer likewise famously warned against the dangers of basing one's selfhood on external things, rather than internal qualities. And William James echoed -- with some caveats of self-awareness --much of Tocqueville's rather romantic notion of the detachment and freedom from mere earthly possessions that an aristocracy of blood, rather than wealth, supposedly made possible. As he writes in the Varieties: "This ideal of the well-born man without possessions was embodied in knight-errantry [... and] hideously corrupted as it has always been, it still dominates sentimentally, if not practically, the military and aristocratic view of life. We glorify the soldier as the man absolutely unencumbered. Owning nothing but his bare life, and willing to toss that up at any moment when the cause commands him, he is the representative of unhampered freedom in ideal directions. The claims which things make [by contrast] are corrupters of manhood, mortgages on the soul[.]" As Emerson said: "Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind." Or, as the notorious punk rocker GG Allin -- known for his on-stage coprophagy, among other things -- once put it in a lyric: "People and possessions only slow me down." There's our modern knight-errant, for you.
But the aristocrat, the knight-errant, etc. is not truly secure in his power either. He is ultimately in much the same position as the industrialist or the bourgeois elite. Even if he is not so dependent upon the particular social convention of money, he depends upon another, equally insubstantial one: the social convention of caste. The latter, like the former, only exists so long as people believe it does, and behave accordingly. The aristocrat is only an aristocrat so long as he lives in a society that recognizes aristocracy.
Every regime, then, every form of social power, does ultimately depend upon its ability to maintain public legitimacy. This is why the powerful are right to fear. This is why they are right to tremble. They need to be accepted as powerful -- by at least the larger part of the rest of society -- if they are going to remain such. This is what Ortega y Gasset means when he writes -- using the standard anonymous translation of his "Revolt of the Masses" -- "Rule [...] is always based on public opinion, to-day as a thousand years ago[....] Never has anyone ruled on this earth by basing his rule essentially on any other thing than public opinion."
They thus launch themselves into Stalin's vicious circle, described above. In order to reassure themselves that their rule is still absolute and unquestioned -- that their "legitimacy" remains firm -- they subject others to ever greater debasements, they deprive others of ever more forms of social power -- or try to -- so that they can feel more powerful. They are compelled to test the loyalty of the have-nots to the prevailing system. But the more tyrannically they insist upon these displays of relative servitude and power, however, the more their stock falls in the eyes of the public, the less their victims accept their rule, and the less actual power they in fact have.
This explains the paradox of why the "Alt-Light" and its chosen president should be more virulent, paranoid, and shameless in its growing promotion of "white nationalism," and other racial ideologies, at the very moment when they are closer to the seat of formal power than they have ever been before in recent history. This explains why, when "white nationalism" is closer to being implemented in this country than one ever could have dreamed in one's worst nightmares, its proponents are most loudly proclaiming that they are the victims, the persecuted ones, the "voiceless." They genuinely feel threatened by the loss of the one thing they cannot force others to concede them through violence or the power of the state -- respect.
Thus, it is the most racially and socially stratified societies that most fear the minority, the poor. Thus, the longer the military occupation of the West Bank lasts, the more afraid the Israeli government becomes of extending the franchise and full equal civil and political rights to all Palestinians. They recognize that Zionist political parties have no right to expect any legitimacy in the eyes of the latter, after all that has happened. They recognize that they would be voted out of office, and a fundamentally different sort of state would be created.
Likewise, the most rabidly misogynistic of societies have always been the ones in which women have actually held the least formal power. Male-dominated societies have feared women most when the latter have the least obvious legal or political means of challenging men's power. One can thus see much of the roots of our present psycho-political crisis revealed in a 19th century anti-feminist play, The Father, by one of literature's most notorious and obsessive misogynists -- August Strindberg.
As the Captain points out in Srindberg's play -- women in his 19th century Scandinavian society have few if any legal rights. Upon being asked by his wife if she has any voice in the matter of the faith in which they raise their children, he retorts: "None whatsoever. [A wife] has sold her birthright by a legal transaction, and forfeited her rights in return for the man's responsibility of caring for her and her children." Yet, the whole play serves to emphasize his actual powerlessness and paranoia before the possibility that his wife has deceived him. Even if the law grant his absolute formal power over his wife and children, he cannot escape the possibility that she does not in fact love him and respect him. Thus, the whole arrangement does still depend upon his wife's inward acceptance of his authority. He relies upon her playing along.
And so, despite the Captain's absolute legal rule, he regards himself as a slave -- and even uses that term. "I have worked and slaved for you, your child, your mother, your servants; [...] I have borne everything without complaint, because I thought myself the father of your child. This is the commonest kind of theft, the most brutal slavery." (Oland trans.) Our Captain has managed to convince himself -- and it is a matter of psychic reality for him -- that he is the "slave" of a person whom he has earlier informed has no legal rights whatsoever. How's that for a master/slave dialectic?
And so in Strindberg's play -- in spite of himself -- there is a sort of unwilling critique of misogyny, and an unintended call for the emancipation of women from the Victorian yoke. Strindberg wishes to be freed from the impossible scenario of a system of power that depends on the acceptance of the very people who have the least cause to accept it, because it deprives them of everything. Strindberg -- for all his public sparring with Ibsen, and his insistence upon playing the anti-feminist foil to the latter's support for women's emancipation -- couldn't help but reveal the necessity of feminism. Just as in all Trump's rages against the watchful public eye, there is a sort of roundabout admission of guilt -- a confession that he has something to hide.
Such men really are, as it were, the prisoners of their own power. They have benefitted -- superficially -- from a social order that gives them voice and authority at the expense of the rights of others. Yet, that very voice and authority, and that very social order that conferred them, rests ultimately upon the will and acceptance of the ones who have been deprived. The Captain cannot lord over his wife without her willing collaboration. Trump cannot last as President if he is no longer accepted as such. Gandhi was perfectly right when he said that no oppression lasts when the oppressed refuse any longer to cooperate with it. This is what terrifies the oppressors.
It has been said and repeated to the point of cliché on the Left that one person's liberation is inseparable from another's. I hope I have suggested in this post -- in answering the question: "Whence this Rage?" -- that this is more than just an appealing bromide. It is a logical and inescapable fact of human psychology. So long as there are "Slaves," there cannot really be "Masters." So long as some are powerless, no one can ever really hold power. Or, as Eugene V. Debs famously put it, "So long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
Human equality is thus, in some sense, written into the nature of things. Deviations from it weigh heavily upon both the haves and the have-nots as something fundamentally wrong and artificial, which cannot truly last. As powerful as unjust regimes may seem, as much violence as they are in fact able to inflict, they are also "paper tigers," liable to be blown over by the sheer fact of human thought, by the reality that they depend upon their victims -- thus -- by their ultimate powerlessness, and by the first dim dawn in which people begin to awake to the fact of that powerlessness.
Trump, his followers, the goons in question, the tax bill that will insulate ever more and greater fortunes from being spent on public and social purposes -- while further entrenching an aristocracy of wealth in this allegedly free and equal society -- the immigration policies, the fact that the children's health insurance program has yet to be funded for the year, even as more than a trillion dollars are being carved into the deficit by the loss of tax revenues -- all of these things seem likely to fortify the power of the already most powerful in this society. It is easy to despair in the face of them.
Yet one should never forget that the more tyrannically the American rich behave toward the American poor -- the more we arrogate for ourselves and take from others -- the more we trample upon TPS holders and child refugees and others of the most vulnerable -- the more they forfeit the legitimacy, the public acceptance, that is the only basis for wealth or power in the first place. Power thus crumbles in the very moment it makes itself most violently and cruelly felt. Trump et al. are thus "feeble tenants of an hour/ debased by slavery or corrupt by power," to quote Bryon. Or: debased and corrupt by both slavery and power, we should perhaps say, since one is the inevitable face of the other.
This is why all of us, whether we acknowledge it or not, actually long for both ourselves and our neighbors to be free. This is why equality is the only thing that is right for us -- the only way for human beings to live. And this is why we will be free and equal, some day, and the current prisoners of privilege will recognize it -- in spite of themselves/ourselves -- as a liberation.