How Nietzsche explains the rise of Donald Trump

There's something of the radical German philosopher in The Donald's presidential campaign

Donald Trump
(Image credit: AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Enough with the empty denunciations of Donald Trump and failed predictions of his imminent demise. The insults he hurled at John McCain didn't derail his populist juggernaut, and neither will the misogynistic invective he's heaved at Megyn Kelly since the night of the first GOP debate. Trump has tapped into something deep and real in the right-wing electorate. He's here to stay, at least for the time being. And it's time to start doing the hard work of figuring out exactly what's distinctive about his campaign and its appeal.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Donald Trump, Nietzschean Republican.

No, I don't mean to imply that I think Trump sleeps with a copy of Beyond Good and Evil under his pillow. What I do mean is that Trump's style and substance (such as it is) grow out of a view of the world that overlaps in revealing ways with the ideas of the radical German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

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Consider the importance of bluster and braggadocio for both men. Nietzsche titled his autobiography Ecce Homo — Latin for "Behold the Man," the words Pontius Pilate used to introduce Jesus Christ to the crowd that would demand his execution. The chapters of the book are no less extravagant in their self-regard: "Why I Am So Wise," "Why I Am So Clever," "Why I Write Such Good Books," "Why I Am a Destiny."

I'm surprised Trump hasn't written a campaign book modeled on it. Instead he sprinkles his speeches, tweets, and interviews with statements that would have made Nietzsche proud. You know, things like, "I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created" and "Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest — and you all know it! Please don't feel so stupid or insecure, it's not your fault." Perhaps if we're lucky, Trump will collect and publish these bon mots in time for the start of the primaries. Suggested title: Thus Spoke The Donald.

Trump's main competition for Leading American Nietzschean is Ayn Rand, the fanatical booster of capitalism who liked to treat entrepreneurs as creative geniuses deserving of humanity's universal adulation. But there's a big and decisive difference between Rand and Trump — and not just the fact that the latter is the real deal, a (fairly) successful businessman, rather than just someone who made a career out of flattering successful businessmen.

Rand called her philosophy "Objectivism," which would have given Nietzsche a hearty laugh. There's a deep psychological connection, Nietzsche insisted, between working to demonstrate one's own correctness (objectivity) to the world and the kind of moral fervor behind the proselytizing ethic of Christianity, which Rand otherwise deplored. From Nietzsche's standpoint, Rand was too much of a moralist to successfully advance ideals worthy of his name.

Trump's brash, I-couldn't-care-less attitude is much closer to the Nietzschean ideal of pure willful self-assertion. Truth and objectivity have nothing to do with it. Trump wants power (wealth, influence, attention), and getting it is all the justification he will ever need. That's the ethic of might-makes-right in action: I win, therefore I deserve to win.

And that brings us to the core of Trump's Nietzscheanism.

Nietzsche understood himself to be reviving what he called the morality of the strong against the morality of the weak — the outlook that has prevailed in the West ever since Jesus Christ inspired a "slave revolt in morality." Before then, the strong preyed on the weak at will, and both parties took for granted that this was the natural order of things. But Christ taught a different lesson, one rooted in the resentment of history's victims: the cruelty of the strong is a sin, God loves the powerless most of all, the winners deserve to lose, and the meek deserve to win. And they will.

This teaching turned the moral universe upside-down, creating today's world, which prizes equality, fairness, and democracy above greatness. Nietzsche was utterly convinced that this world was on the verge of collapse and deserved to be replaced by a new order — one in which, with his considerable help, the strong would once again justly rule.

From his ranting against the idiocy of the country's citizens and politicians, to his vicious denunciations of Mexican immigrants (surely the politically weakest people living in our midst), to his chest-thumping proclamations of his own self-evident fabulousness, Trump makes it abundantly clear that he views the world through a thoroughly Nietzschean lens.

The outlook even permeates his frequently insulting comments about women (also known as "fat pigs," "dogs," slobs," and "disgusting animals"). As Maureen Dowd recounted in a recent column, "[Trump] once told me, ‘Certain guys tell me they want women of substance, not beautiful models. It just means they can't get beautiful models.'" A more Nietzschean statement has never been uttered: The ugly resent losing out in the competition for beautiful women and then treat their failure as a sign of their own superior virtue.

But you can't fool Trump! He sees through the rationalizations of the losers of the world and as president will work to ensure that only people as brilliant, good looking, and clever as himself come out on top. Just like in the good old days. Before the stupid, the ugly, and the dim took over and rigged the system in their favor.

The question that remains to be answered is how and why such a profoundly anti-Christian message has come to resonate with millions of Republican voters, including (apparently) many self-described born-again Christians. Do they truly believe the system has been rigged to keep them down and reward undeserving mediocrities in their place?

Who could possibly have given them that idea?

Political resentment comes in many forms. The resentment that increasingly dominates the Republican Party is the resentment of people who think of themselves as strong but feel screwed by an organized conspiracy of the weak. Donald Trump is their current champion. He may fade, but the sentiments he's tapped into will not.

Which leaves us to wonder: Just who will be the next Nietzschean Republican?

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