Like so many others, I have vacillated between dismay and disbelief while watching Donald Trump's bid for the Republican presidential nomination. The things Donald Trump says--let alone his hubris and his disregard for decency when saying them--are so offensive that they warrant a new word for offensiveness. What has us all scratching our heads, though, is how each beyond-the-pale comment he makes only serves to bolster his popularity.
Surely, we all thought, he'd be stymied from the start by his comments about Mexican immigrants.
Surely, we all thought, he'd lose popularity after his comments about John McCain.
And surely, we all thought, he'd lose popularity after his comments Friday about Megyn Kelly.
Wrong once more.
So at this point we're left to wonder: what is it about this guy that people find so appealing?
Or put differently: what blinds otherwise decent people to this man's blatant indecency?
Most speculations I've read say something to the effect that people appreciate his willingness to say what's on his mind and applaud his refusal to kowtow to an over-sensitive culture. I suspect this is right, but I've sensed it goes deeper than that.
And then something hit me this morning: what if Donald Trump is the first incarnation of Nietzsche's "Superman"?
Go with me here.
In his outline of human history, Nietzsche held that religion--Christianity, in particular--was responsible for the initial demise of humanity. In his view, religion taught people to be humble, to embrace weakness, to pity others, to feel guilt. This was the worst thing that could happen because, as creatures driven by power, a willful embrace of weakness is detrimental to our essential human nature. When we pity others, when we put a check on our selfish impulses, we willingly connect ourselves to sickness and death and drag down our species.
Then, following the Enlightenment and the attendant "death of God", humanity suddenly found itself religion-less, "straying through an infinite nothing"--untethered from the source of meaning. The only refuge humanity could find was in itself: "the community." Whereas people once felt guilt and shame and regret before God, they now felt them before one another--that is to say, they now felt guilt and shame and regret for having privilege and for wielding power. The goal thus became to eliminate all division and difference so as to obviate all guilt and shame.
This, Nietzsche felt, was even more enervating to humanity's essential human nature than was religion, because exercising power "in the community" became for the individual an even deeper cause for censure and ridicule than exercising it under the eyes of "God" ever was. And for Nietzsche, to live in such blatant contradiction to our essential nature left humanity on the brink of extinction, as such contrariness could lead only to melancholy and disillusionment and, ultimately, to the "will-to-nothingness."
To that end, humanity's only hope was for a generation of "Supermen" to rise up: a group who--in reaction to the oppressiveness of "the community" and in open defiance of the community's moral mandates (read: "political correctness")--would stop apologizing for being powerful but would instead claim their rightful place at the top.
And here's how you would know these Supermen: they would be marked by their ability to never feel guilt or regret or shame.
They would be "super" for the very reason that they, unlike the average person, could look at every moment of their lives--the good, the bad, the indifferent--and say (and really mean as they say it): "yes, I did that. So what? I willed it."
In fact, for these men it would never even be a matter of good, bad, or indifferent, because these men would be "beyond good and evil"--for the simple fact that they themselves would determine what was good and evil. Moreover, for these men there would never be any concern for the common good--because, in their eyes, nothing "common" could ever be "good."
Meanwhile, Nietzsche believed that the average person would look at these Supermen as heroes because in the Supermen they would see an expression of their own true nature: the nature they themselves are too weak to embrace but which they, all the same, resonate with strongly. The average person would champion the causes of the Supermen because they would see in the Supermen what they once upon a time saw in God and later saw in the community: a Savior--a source of hope.
Which leads me to this question: could it be that the very reason so many people are inspired rather than put off by Donald Trump is that he, for them, is Nietzsche's Superman?
The things Trump says and does are quintessentially Nietzschean: his unqualified crusade against "political correctness," his unabashed boasts about his own power, his imperviousness to shame and guilt and regret.
And the fact that these are the very things Trump's followers admire about him only underscores my point.
The obvious concern is that--if one rejects Nietzsche's basic premise, which I certainly do--then it's not at all clear that humanity was wrong in being leery of unchecked power; instead, as a pastor I'd argue that we have good reason for believing our essential human nature lies not in our will-to-power but in our examined tempering of it.
Put differently: what Nietzsche saw the Superman expressing is not, in fact, the truest human self but is instead a human with no self at all. To live without guilt and shame and regret is not to be distinctly human--it's to be distinctly inhumane.
So, brass tacks? Nietzsche's whole agenda was to show that morality is arbitrary and that power is everything; in fact, his whole agenda was to show that the powerful determine what morality is, and that the crowd goes along with the powerful because, mesmerized by their power, they mimic their morality.
In watching Trump's popularity surge, it's hard not to see parallels.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying Trump and those fawning over him know anything about Nietzsche. What I'm saying--and what scares me--is that Nietzsche may have known something about them.