March 2017
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Donald Trump and Human Agency

by Jonathan Wallace

I coined a phrase I am rather proud of, the "Ladder of Agency"; a Google search revealed only a single use by anyone else. It is a metaphor for the steps we take towards our own full realization as individuals; these include first realizing individuality is possible; then taking responsibility for our own acts; and, of course, learning to look "under the hood" of words and phrases before recklessly using them.

Individuality is what I call a "fellow traveler" of free speech, because any Enlightenment free speech rule-set presupposes that speakers are individuals, or what would be the point? Just as screaming terns off-shore signal there are feeding bluefish below, a liberal free speech rule-set signals there are individuals nearby.

In my book, we deny our own individuality when we try to avoid responsibility, and place blame on other people. A disturbing but powerful manifestation of agency is Hannibal Lecter's response to Agent Starling, when she asks him to fill out a psychological survey which will help him understand what happened to him: "Nothing happened to me. I happened".

Kant was talking about this when he drew his ends and means distinction: I have recharacterized this, for color, as a difference between "Players" and "Tools". We are born into a complex world in which massive forces from our births educate us we are Tools; in the whole scheme of capitalism in which we live like fish in water, we are "consumers", analogous to cows placidly munching feed. I am fascinated by the number of ways we have invented, in our diffuse, decentralized political and economic systems, of denying agency, increasingly treating events that are clearly human-caused as if they were merely bad weather. There were greedy supervillains behind the 2009 mortgage crash, for example, none of whom have ever been punished, while we carry on thinking of stock market slumps as if they were super-storms, mere acts of God. Of course, this is ultimately ironic in a world where even super-storms are the result of human agency. If we can deny that, it is easy to deny the agency behind the stock market crashes as well.

Business, government, our educators, our bosses, naturally want us to be placid Tools; but some of us aspire nonetheless to live free in the world, as Players. To do so we must climb the Ladder of Agency to its lonely top. And it is lonely and frightening, to think, not that nothing matters, but that everything does, powerfully and painfully. As a child I was afraid to walk on grass for fear of crushing an ant.

The sign on Harry Truman's desk, "The Buck Stops Here", is the story everyone remembers of a leader assuming responsibility. That Truman took it seriously is witnessed by a story about Oppenheimer coming to see him after the atom bombing of Japan, moaning and crying. After he left, Truman told an aide, "He didn't drop the bomb. I did." Truman also had an important failure of leadership, fearing the rise of HUAC and Joe McCarthy enough to institute his own Loyalty Board which fired hundreds of government employees, when we needed him to take a fierce stand against bigotry, persecution and lies.

It is an American political truism that Senators are not particularly qualified for the Presidency (though Truman had been one) precisely because they have never had to take responsibilty. Congress is an evasion-machine; it is always the other house or the other party or an act of God which defeated legislation, and the awful effects of bills that do pass are often so far in the future that their progenitors are not blamed, given an impact of years and a public attention span of days or minutes. The Gramm-Rudman "Balanced Budget" act of 1985 has never actually balanced the budget, for example.

Where does Donald Trump stand in all this? He presents the remarkable spectacle of President-as-Victim, blaming everyone in sight except himself for everything that goes wrong: the courts, the Freedom Caucus, the Democrats, the "deep state", and even Barack Obama the no-longer-President. The sign on Trump's desk, if he had one, would say "Anywhere but here".

The first problem in analyzing Trump is to figure out how a man worth hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, who marries super-models and owns a jet, could see himself as a Tool rather than a Player, or pretend to. The answer may lie in a philosophy I fondly remember from a line of thoughtful business books in the '80's and '90's, written by people like Tom Peters. These taught me that authority and responsibility must be paired. A most common failing in the business world, and descriptive of a number of jobs I held, was to have the responsibility to solve a certain problem without being granted the authority to do so. However, the opposite problem, and more monstrous and destructive still, arose from the people in the environment who exercised authority without responsibility. These tended to be inheritors of a family business who hadn't come up through the ranks, had been infantilized and spoiled, and never faced consequences of hard choices. Voila.

Trump is that saddest combination in human nature, the braggart with no chops to back up his claims. He is the man who starts a fist fight only to get creamed, who brags about his expertise in cars and is cheated on every purchase. A good way to understand him is the proposition, which is probably true, that if he had just stashed all his inherited money in a conservative Fidelity mutual fund, he would have done much better than he has as a businessman. I recommend Mathew Josephson's classic The Robber Barons; Rockefeller and Gould never licensed their names for steaks or board games, nor, though they caused tremendous social harm, were they ever involved with anything as cheesy as Trump University. Trump is a man who inherited money and has been floundering and posturing ever since, but who doesn't know that.

Trump isn't good at anything. His self-vaunting of his deal-making abilities mystified me. I understood the term to include negotiation, as explained in Roger Fisher's Getting to Yes: that means looking for a middle ground, a "win win", which Trump never does. His thousands of law suits are sufficient illustration, as every litigation represents the break-down of a negotiation. His definition of deal apparently means instead threatening and bullying the other side to get your way, but he isn't even good at that, as his abject failure to pass the Obamacare repeal indicates. He is (a favorite Texas expression, shame on Texans for voting for him) "all hat and no cattle". Substantial blame for his presidency attaches to the reality show producers who created the fiction of "The Apprentice" to suggest Donald Trump knew something, was good at something. And the fact that a sufficient number of Americans bought his crap to give him the electoral college victory, throws the future of our democracy bleakly into question.

On a metaphysical level, Donald Trump's victimhood may have been a large part of his appeal to voters. Pity and its inwardly directed variant, self pity, are among the most ambiguous and controversial human emotions. We typically want others to feel compassion for us, not pity. Compassion implies equality and an attempt to understand us; "nothing human is alien to me". Pity is something quite different; it usually implies judgment, instant categorization instead of an attempt to understand, and therefore gross inequality. A few times in my life, struggling with extreme social awkwardness, I have detected pity in the eyes of others, and resented it terribly. Almost nobody could stand Hillary Clinton feeling sorry for them.

Self pity is the most unpalatable of emotions to others. A proof is that there have been great novels and plays about jealousy, rage, and of course love, but not a single one about a protagonist feeling sorry for himself. Self pity is cheesy, tacky, self indulgent; our knee jerk is to say "Snap out of it", to lecture the victim about climbing the Ladder of Agency and to walk away.

Trump may have backed into--he doesn't seem smart enough to have consciously invented--an approach that had visceral appeal to white working class males feeling sorry for themselves: the fact that he pitied himself for similar reasons. This would tend to get past the defenses. In the schoolyard as a child I always sat in a corner with the other rejects and outsiders, and every once in a while, a fascinating phenomenon, one of them would be stronger or handsomer, or have more money, than the rest of us, yet still be a freak for some other reason. Donald Trump is that child. He might be a billionaire, but he felt just as strange and marginal in Manhattanworld, where he didn't know how to hold a fork or chew with his mouth closed, as an unemployed coal miner feels in liberal diverse America.

On the one hand, shame on white people for believing that poverty and suffering are primarily products of laziness and entitlement or personal chaos; capitalism and government have relied on large Tool populations, who could be crushed at will, since the beginning. On the other hand, humans under almost any circumstances have ways of climbing the Ladder of Agency (even by dying on the electric wire at Auschwitz in lieu of grabbing a crust of bread from a dying person). Self pity renders us passive, and Trump reached out to that sorry population with a classic fascist message that you don't have to do anything; I will do it for you. "I alone". I think they believed him in significant part because he felt sorry for himself as well.

This appealed to a visceral human need, which has a basis in religion. A Google search on the "weeping God" turned up a number of fascinating essays, among them David A. Bosworth, "The Tears of God in the Book of Jeremiah": "YHWH weeps, wails and laments over the loss of a cherished relationship, and weeps too because YHWH must inflict the angry blows that threaten the relationship". The Weeping God is more immediate, more connected to us; we are passive, almost like bottoms in a sadomasochistic relationship, but we are never alone. God clearly feels sorry for Himself (my guess is that most human tears involve at least an element of self pity, even when we think we are crying for someone else). Donald Trump weeping in vexation for his own victimization by Manhattan elites, Obama, the deep state, and women who claim he groped them, has resulted in him being abjectly adored by a passive, self pitying base which believes that a Weeping God alone can save them.