Trump, Fear and the Big Man

Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, waves to t
Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, waves to the crowd after speaking during a Liberty University Convocation in Lynchburg, Virginia, U.S., on Monday, Jan. 18, 2016. Real Clear Politics average of recent opinion polls show Trump running marginally ahead of Senator Ted Cruz in Iowa but holding a bigger lead in New Hampshire. Photographer: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Donald Trump is nothing more -- and nothing less -- than what anthropologists used to call a "Big Man." As I listened yesterday to his hour-long speech at Liberty University I began to understand him as a prototypical Melanesian Big Man. More than a generation ago anthropologists used the Big Man model to try to understand the contentious arena of political relations among the peoples of Melanesia. Writing in 1963 anthropologist Marshall Sahlins argued that the Big Man is.. "reminiscent of the free-enterprising rugged individual of our own heritage. He combines with an ostensible interest in the general welfare a more profound measure of self-interested cunning and economic calculation." Through his economic accumulation and redistribution and through the bluster of his talk, the Big Man builds a name for himself, a development that enables him to gain power and achieve political leadership.

The Big Man's political status, however, is unstable. If he shows weakness or if he is outperformed in the political arena, he loses prestige and power, which means that the Big Man is continuously plotting and scheming, making sure that his big talk performances reinforce his renown. If someone challenges him, he will meet that challenge and raise the ante, daring any opponent to meet him face-to-face.

Donald Trump's economic and political behavior seems to fit the Melanesian model. For him, America is a mess, a disaster. For him, the U.S. Government is run by people who don't know what they're doing -- incompetent people who don't know how to do a deal. His Republican opponents, politicians all, are also incompetent. They are all talk, low energy and no action. They are weak.

In contrast, Donald Trump promotes himself with the big talk of the Big Man. He says he is strong. He says he knows how to negotiate a good deal. He says he knows how to find "the best people" who can solve problems and project strength. He says he knows how to bring back jobs from China so that college graduates, who are in deeply in debt, can find jobs. He says he knows how project power to the leaders of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. He says he'll show them who's the boss. What's more, Mr. Trump suggests that if he is unsuccessful, we will succumb to an unimaginably fearful set of social, economic and political disasters -- fear mongering laced with a showman's attractive charm. This entertaining rhetorical tack compels many people to resepct his judgment and believe his claims.

In his Big Man discourse, Mr. Trump says that no one else can do what he can do. He offers no specifics about how he will fix the world and "make America great again." For this Big Man -- not to forget the ever-growing number of his followers -- specifics and the accuracy of his assertions, which have already made fact-checkers weary, count less than the trust one places in the great leader.

There is one essential difference between Mr. Trump and Melanesian Big Men. The latter have a nuanced sense of cultural sensitivity. They contour their language and shape their exploits to fit the cultural specificities of small-scale non-hierarchical societies. Beyond his capacity to stoke our fears of an uncertain future, Mr. Trump has demonstrated little, if any cultural sensitivity. Has he expressed any comprehension of the complexities of sociocultural life in multicultural and multilinguistic America, let alone in other parts of the world? His worldview, as far as I can tell, is shaped entirely by business models -- of negotiating deals, of how to get things done, of building walls to keep "undesirable others" from polluting the purity of America.

But are Mr. Trump's business models applicable to all social problems in all cultural contexts? Are social relations in the world that cut and dry? Mr. Trump's talk exacerbates our fears and frustrations. In so doing he convinces his followers to accept a fantasy world in which there are simple and easy solutions -- business solutions -- to complex and messy problems. If you have a strong leader, he says, it's easy to restore jobs, easy to face down our enemies and easy to build a wall along the Mexican border. Using Big Man bluster, he encourages people to follow him back to the future of American greatness.

Such simple talk is full of emotion but empty of fact. It is a very seductive tonic in times of unreason. Consider the thoughts of French philosopher Bernard Stiegler. In his his recent book States of Shock Stiegler laments the state of a world in which unreason has eclipsed reason.

The impression that humanity has fallen under the domination of unreason or madness...overwhelms our spirit, confronted as we are with systemic collapses, major technological accidents, medical and pharmaceutical scandals, shocking revelations, the unleashing of the drives, and acts of madness of every kind and in every social milieu--not to mention misery and poverty that now afflict citizens and neighbors both near...

For Stiegler, the absence of reason brings on....

the reign of stupidity, baseness (vulgarity) and madness that, disturbing us greatly but preventing us from transforming this inquietude into thinking, instead gives rise to fear, which is a bad counsellor.

Fear is indeed a bad counselor. Even so, in times of uncertainty, it's very comforting to follow the path of a Big Man like Donald Trump who says he'll "do what it takes" to make us feel safe.

But fear is multi-dimensional. For me, I am fearful about the built-in instability of the Big Man, which is why it's very troubling to think about where Mr. Trump's path will lead.

Can we come to our senses? Will reason prevail in 2016?