The President’s Problem, Authoritarianism and Aggression, and How We Really Make America Great Again

President Trump suffers from significant self-loathing, although at first glance, it certainly seems like the opposite is true.

Self-Loathing or Self-Love?

The President constantly engages in self-seeking, self-aggrandizing behavior. Donald Trump’s presidency is an extension of the Donald Trump show. He is not so concerned about how his presidency affects the U.S. He is very concerned about how the presidency affects his image. [1]

These actions seem, at first glance, like the product of the worst kind of self-love, but I believe they are actually the product of self-loathing.

I am not a psychologist, so my purpose here is not to make a medical diagnosis of the President. Rather, I wish to explore conceptually what it means to loathe ourselves and the way in which this can lead to problems of aggression, violence, and authoritarianism.

From Self-Loathing to Authoritarianism

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a French philosopher, actually has quite a bit to say about this topic.[2] Rousseau is extremely concerned about how we create a free society which contributes to the flourishing of everyone in it.

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These famous words (“Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”) can be found at the the beginning of  Rousseau’s work, The Social Contract. 

Of special concern to him is a type of passion called amour-propre, which translates as self-love. Amour-propre is a self-love that is primarily concerned with how it fits in and ranks with others. It is an inherently relational love, and it is not in itself bad.

However, when amour-propre becomes inflamed, it causes significant problems becasue it becomes focused on its standing with others, and it wishes to gain the esteem of everyone and to be the highest in their regard.[3]

A person with Inflamed amour-propre wants everyone to love him and love him best of all. Therefore, a person with inflamed amour-propre constantly wishes to conquer other people, beat adversaries, and be the winner at everything. Rousseau writes,

“Amour-propre, which makes comparisons, is never content and never could be, because this sentiment, preferring ourselves to others, also demands others to prefer us to themselves, which is impossible.”[4]

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A person with this inflamed passion engages in constant toxic competition[5], attempts at domination and control, and may resort to deception, violence, and aggression.

He has a deeply authoritarian[6] streak because he wants everyone to love him best of all, to praise him, and to be the salvation or king of everyone.

Rousseau writes, “Self-love, ceasing to be an absolute sentiment becomes pride in great souls, vanity in small ones, and feeds itself constantly in all at the expense of their neighbors.”[7]

A deep problem of self-loathing propels the person with inflamed amour-propre. While Rousseau does not explicitly state that amour-propre is a type of self-loathing, he suggests that someone with this inflamed passion is divided from, and does not feel sufficient in, himself. He must constantly prove himself better than others to be content (although this contentment is always short-lived).[8]

This description of inflamed amour-propre fits the description of what I take to be self-loathing. By the term self-loathing, I mean the belief with accompanying painful feelings that one’s basic self is insufficient or in question and must be escaped, radically augmented, or proven in some way.[9] 

From this point on, I will generally refer to inflamed amour-propre as self-loathing.

Because a person with self-loathing only values his life in reference to people’s opinion of him, all of his actions are geared towards besting the competition, climbing up the ranks, and continually gaining new accolades and awards. He does not feel secure and confident in himself, and so he must define himself in reference to being better than others.

It is odd, perhaps, to think that someone with this kind of behavior is afflicted by self-loathing. We often think that self-loathing leads to activities such as severe self-abnegation and self-denial. I believe, however, that both extreme self-promotion and self-abnegation are two sides of the same self-loathing coin.

Individuals involved in both extreme self-promotion and self-abnegation believe that there is something radically deficient about the self. The former tries to remedy this deficiency through gaining recognition and accolades from others; the latter, through escaping the deficient self, altogether. (It is also possible to vacillate between self-promotion and self-abnegation when we suffer from self-loathing.)

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The President’s Inflamed Amour-Propre

It is seems clear that President Trump suffers from inflamed amour-propre or self-loathing, as Rousseau describes it. The President defines himself in reference to other people. He lives for their praise and adulation, which is evidenced by his obsession with how he is portrayed in the news, as well as his extreme fragility in regards to any criticism from the press.

He gains his sense of self by being the winner and beating those he deems losers. He evidences this by his obsession with the elections and his paranoia that he did not legitimately win (which he has shown by discouraging and possibly obstructing the FBI investigation into the election). He has also shown this most recently with his aggressive tweets pertaining to North Korea. 

President Trump has a deeply authoritarian and aggressive streak. He needs people to praise him, to think he is the best, and to find their salvation in him. He does not like to have his wishes or power checked.

It should concern us that Trump needs to be the first and the best because his main goal in the presidency will be to continue to gain as much power, position, and praise as he can, no matter what. He needs it in order to feel secure in himself. 

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The President’s Problem is Our Problem

It is easy to criticize President Trump’s self-loathing, but his issues actually reflect the dark side of the United States, and so his presidency presents us with an opportunity for reflection. At its best, the United States is a county that values the dignity of every human and promotes both the rights of the individual, as well as the brilliance of collective democratic deliberation.

We have had many moments in our history in which we have acted according to our best principles. Our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution are documents that tend to reflect this brilliant side of our nation.

At its worst, United States’ culture is marked by a brutal survival of the fittest and cares a great deal about profit and economic and military power and very little about how these elements of our culture affect individuals, communities, the nation, and world as a whole.[10]

“Make America Great” or “Make America Better than Everyone Else”?

We have seen this dark side of the United States in President Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”, which seems to have a wide appeal to many people.

It is important to consider why this phrase seemed to be such an effective campaign slogan. The United States is one of the wealthiest, strongest, most innovative countries in the world. One could ask, “Aren’t we great already? What else do we need to be great?”

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President Trump has made it clear what he means by the phrase “Make America Great Again”. He advocates building a wall between Mexico and the U.S and making Mexico pay for it, with little regard to how this affects Mexico. He advocates pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement. He bombs, or threatens to bomb, countries capriciously. He advocates travel bans.

He does all of this without any clear consideration about how these policies affect other countries or individuals or without much thought to whether there are better solutions to issues he may be trying to address. (While these are not the President’s only policies, they are certainly some of his most defining ones, according to his Twitter feed.)

With policies like this, it seems then that when Trump says, “Make America Great Again”, he actually means “Make America the Only Country that Matters” or “Make America Better Than Everyone Else”.

When we support political policies like this, it suggests that we believe we can only be a good or powerful country if we dominate other counties. It suggests that we, whether we realize it or not, feel radically flawed or incomplete as we are and that we must prove our worth in reference to other people—mainly by dominating them and having them admire as the strongest nation of all.

We fail to see that our greatness lies not in dominating and being better than everyone else. Our greatness lies in our political virtue, and we demonstrate this virtue when we are courageous, creative, and when we treat everyone with dignity.

These are the virtues we have displayed at our greatest moments in history. Truly great people and countries do not have to prove their greatness to themselves or anyone else. They live their greatness every day through their individual and national character. All of us have this potential.

Self-Loathing: A National Problem?

In Book IV of Emile, Rousseau suggests that self-loathing develops when a country or nation does not provide any means for recognition and relationship other than through dominance, competition, and aggression.

The United States is a great country, but we have increasingly become dominated by the value of economic and military power. We measure success by how much money people make and the financial power they wield, rather than how virtuous or happy or wise they are. We also care a great deal about our military power and being the strongest military power in the world.

If this kind of power (which is actually the power of force) is the primary way we measure people’s importance in our own country, then it is not too surprising if we begin to act as though it is the only virtue that matters in the world. (There are other kinds of power, which you can read about here.)

Furthermore, if power is the only way we measure our value, and our power is threatened, as it was in the 9/11 attacks, it is not too surprising if we become consumed by regaining our power in the world and proving we are better and stronger than everyone else.

When we are consumed, either individually or nationally, with how economically and militarily powerful we are compared to everyone else, our amour-propre becomes inflamed because we are no longer at peace with ourselves and confident about our ability to solve problems and express our greatness through our human dignity.

Rather, we are only content in proving our superiority to others. We are alienated from ourselves and our dignity and feel radically incomplete in ourselves. This is self-loathing. 

In this condition, we should realize that authoritarianism is lurking in the shadows. When we believe that we can only be a good country if we are better or more powerful than all the rest, we favor aggression, control, and violence over cooperation, creative thought, and wise deliberation. We also favor leaders who promote these values.

Cooperation, creative thought and wise deliberation require us to lay down some of our power. They require us to be self-reflective and humble to some degree. They require us to listen to other people. If we desperately desire control and dominance, if we desperately desire to be better than everyone else, these political virtues threaten us, and so we reject them and resort to power moves instead.

If the only thing that matters is winning, then the end justifies the means. This is always a dangerous position to be in. When this becomes our preferred mode of being, democracy cannot flourish, nationally or internationally.

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The Only Way for America to Be Great

The only way for us to be truly great, individually or collectively, is to realize that our greatness lies in something everyone already possesses: it is in our ability to be moral, wise, loving, creative, compassionate, and just. These capacities are our human dignity.

Every person in the world has the capacity to express and honor human dignity, but we cannot cultivate this dignity when we are caught up in power struggles and the race for domination. We cannot cultivate them when the most important thing to us, individual or nationally, is proving that we are better and more powerful than everyone else.

What is the Alternative?

The only way we cultivate our capacity for dignity is to recognize that our purpose[11] here is to create a world in which human dignity and freedom can express itself fully.

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Immanuel Kant, who wrote after and was inspired by Rousseau, suggests that if we want to create a world in which humanity is fully free and moral–this is the epitome of honoring human dignity—we must focus on working for our own perfection and the happiness of others. (He discusses these ideas especially in 6:385-6:388 of Metaphysics of Morals.)

When we work for our own perfection, we honor dignity in ourselves and in others. [12] We do the action that we could will to become the law for everyone, rather than making ourselves the exception to the law.

In addition, we  must work for the happiness of others because when we do this, we make it easier for them to honor their own dignity and the dignity of everyone else. Kant writes,

“Adversity, pain, and want are great temptations to violate one’s duty. It might therefore seem that prosperity, strength, health, and well-being in general, which check the influence of these, could also be considered ends that are duties…”[13]

Kant suggests here that it is our moral responsibility as human beings to work to relieve the suffering, pain, and want of others. When we do this, we make it more possible for people to honor their own dignity and the dignity of others.

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This is what true self-love and true love is: honoring and cultivating dignity to create a world in which everyone can be free and fully human.

Too often we get it backwards: we worry about our own happiness and the perfection of everyone else—and by the perfection of everyone else we mean everyone else caring about our happiness and greatness more than their own.

This seems to be the project of our current President of the United, who seems to care much more about own happiness and greatness than anything else. When we endorse his behavior, it seems that it is our message, too.

We can change this. We can recognize that the United States is great already. Her greatness lies in the virtue of her people to work with other people in the world to create a world safe for human dignity and love.

Is This Too Much to Hope For?

One of my friends asked me the other day if I believed the world was getting better. I understand why he asked this. Sometimes it seems like the human race is so consumed with violence and aggression that it is hopeless to try to work for a world that is safe for dignity and love.

I can not really say if the world is getting better or not—I suspect some aspects of it are and some aspects are not. Whatever the case is, I don’t think it is too much to hope  that we can make the world a better place no matter what our currently trajectory is.

All it takes is a growing number of people who realize that our old, stupid habits of violence, dominance, and aggression get us nowhere. They only create cycles of more violence, domination and aggression.

All it takes is for a growing number of people to realize that we already have the resources we need to make the world a better place: it is our human dignity, and everyone has it.

All it takes is for a growing number of people to realize that constantly striving after economic and military power is an inferior mode of being in the world and that modes of cooperation, creativity, thoughtful reflection, and nurture are not only possible but far superior.

All it takes to create a better world is for these people to say, “Enough! Let’s figure out a different way of life.” If we are willing, we will find it.

Here is the good news: There is a growing number of people who are, indeed, recognizing all of these things. We are putting our heads together. We are going to find the solution. I think you are realizing these things, too. Why not join us?

If you would like to read more posts like this, you might enjoy the following:

https://shellypruittjohnson.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/being-and-non-being-in-trumpland-and-the-strange-work-of-love/

https://shellypruittjohnson.wordpress.com/2017/03/19/overcoming-our-political-and-personal-self-loathing-we-need-a-new-outlook/

https://shellypruittjohnson.wordpress.com/2017/03/21/a-cure-for-our-personal-and-political-loathing-a-new-outlook/

 

[1] This seems clear, most of all, in his irresponsible Twitter use. If the President was really and practically concerned about the good of the country, he would stop using Twitter to engage in personal skirmishes with individuals. It seems that the President is not concerned with how his behavior, as the head of our country, makes the United States look or threatens her. He is only concerned about defending his personal image.

[2] Rousseau expresses these ideas in various writings such as The Social Contract, Discourse on Inequality, and Emile.

[3] Rousseau, Emile, pg. 235

[4] Rousseau, Emile, pgs. 213-214

[5] When I say toxic competition, I mean the kind of competition someone engages in when he must be the winner at all costs, and winning is his main reason for existence. This type of competition is toxic or poisonous because it deadens other virtues or modes of being such as compassion, cooperation, and love.

[6] Authoritarian figures desire to rule with complete power and without any control or checks and balances from other power entities. They do not like to share power or have their power limited.

[7] Rousseau, Emile, pg. 215

[8] Rousseau, Emile, pg. 221

[9] I think that self-loathing is the extreme end of a normal spectrum of self-regard. On one end of the spectrum is confidence and self-love (or self-acceptance). On the other hand is self—hate and self-loathing.

I think it is fairly normal for humans to find themselves at different ends of the spectrum at various points in their life. However, when someone becomes consumed with dominating others, it suggests that the person constantly feels radically incomplete and inadequate and adopts these postures in order to prove his worth.

[10] We have shown this dark side many times throughout our history, unfortunately. Two such times were in our general decimation of the Native American population and our internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. In both of these instances, our desire for power, wealthy, and security lead us to perpetrate violence and aggression against people, many of whom were living peacefully and were no credible threat to us.

This side of us, unfortunately, lives on in our tendency towards radical individualism. We often have a tendency to vote for and support policies and laws that are beneficial to us without regard to how they affect other people. You can read more about this issue here.

[11] I realize that the word purpose is a loaded and controversial word. I do use it purposefully here. To read more what I mean by purpose, you might enjoy reading this post.

[12]Kant argues that our duty as humans “Consist in his being conscious that man possesses a certain dignity, which ennobles him above all other creatures, and that it is his duty to act so as not to violate in his own person this dignity of mankind (Lectures on Pedagogy, pg. 101).

[13] Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, 6:388

Works Cited

Kant, Immanuel.  Lectures on Pedagogy.  Robert B. Loudon, trans.  The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant:  Anthropology, History and Education.  Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY:  2007.

______________. Metaphysics of Morals. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant:  Practical Philosophy.  Mary J. Gregor, trans.  Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY, 1996.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.  On the Social Contract.   In Jean Jacques Rousseau: The Basic Political Writings. Donald A. Cress, trans. Hackett Publishing, Co. Indianapolis, IN:  1987.

____________________.  Emile.  Allan Bloom, trans. Basic Books, Inc.  New York:   1979.

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3 thoughts on “The President’s Problem, Authoritarianism and Aggression, and How We Really Make America Great Again

  1. You wrote, “He does not feel secure and confident in himself, and so he must define himself in reference to being better than others.”

    I tend to agree with this but will like to ask some questions.

    What sort of person do you think feels secure and confident in himself?

  2. Hello Ontological Realist: Thank you for your question. Feeling secure and confident in one’s self is more of a practice than a state of being because most of us tend to have both days when we feel secure and confident and days we do not. Nevertheless, I believe it is possible to create a general place of security and confidence by practicing a type of self-love that I write about on my blog. Here are three posts you can read that may more clearly illustrate what I mean by feeling secure and confident in one’s self through the practice of self-love:

    https://shellypruittjohnson.wordpress.com/2017/06/19/the-love-we-have-been-looking-for/

    https://shellypruittjohnson.wordpress.com/2017/03/19/overcoming-our-political-and-personal-self-loathing-we-need-a-new-outlook/

    https://shellypruittjohnson.wordpress.com/2017/03/21/a-cure-for-our-personal-and-political-loathing-a-new-outlook/

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