“Under the species of Syndicalism and Fascism there appears for the first time in Europe a type of man who does not want to give reasons or to be right, but simply shows himself resolved to impose his opinions. This is the new thing; the right not to be reasonable, the “reason of unreason.”
–José Ortega y Gasset in Revolt of the Masses 1932
In times of societal disruption and decay, it is well to view events in a broad historical context rather than a narrow contemporary focus, particularly if one wishes to understand the implications for leadership. The violence erupting at Trump rallies is to be unhesitatingly deplored, as are the menacing protests trying to silence the presidential candidate and his supporters. These are deeply disturbing developments, but they could hardly be categorized as unexpected in the current climate of brazen attacks on freedom of speech, the descent of public debate into a mean-spirited demonization of opponents, and the progressive polarization of society into angry extremes on Left and Right.
Moreover, the toxic political milieu is not a new thing, but the return of an old thing, best remembered in the many instances of ochlocracy or mob-rule in ancient Rome and during the French Revolution. And this ugly phenomenon is always ignited by demagogues and their intemperate rants. One need only recall the words of Bruce Catton on the pre-Civil War US in This Hallowed Ground: “…angry words were about the only kind anyone cared to use these days. Men seemed tired of the reasoning process. Instead of trying to convert one’s opponents, it was simpler just to denounce them, no matter what unmeasured denunciation might lead to.”
Aristotle was right to see human beings as rational animals, but reason is quickly jettisoned when we get hot under the collar. We are all prone to allowing ego and emotion to override reason, even when we have had plenty of time to think things through. And we are all ready to criticize others when they stumble into this type of behaviour. Leaders in all walks of life should remember that folly is not an intellectual failing; it is a failure of the will.
The political rise of Donald Trump is certainly a startlingly significant development, and whether he wins or loses, it is unlikely that America will ever be the same again after the 2016 election. This dramatic political episode signals the beginning of an epic conflict that has been building since the Sixties and before, and the painful death of reasoned discourse and civil engagement is not the problem, but merely a symptom.
Nor are issues of legitimate alarm that have fuelled fear and anger across the country the problem. Even if a knight on a white charger put an end to middle class decline, ineffective and often corrupt government, profligate deficit spending, the intractable immigration imbroglio, a floundering foreign policy, the smoldering menace of terrorism, and arrogant assaults by officialdom on freedom of expression, the problem would remain, only to be aggravated by other issues.
The problem at the root of all this socio-political disintegration is most directly manifested in the attitudes of people across the land and their political leaders, their attitudes to their community, their work, other people, their civil responsibilities, the environment, the nation itself, and indeed the profoundly troubled world around them.
To be sure, there are many people, probably a substantial majority, who work hard, care for their loved ones, and yearn for a more stable society and a happier nation, but America, like Europe and the West at large, is characterized by a narcissistic, promiscuous, and dissolute consumerism that has seriously undermined the family, the essential building block of stable society, as well as relationships at all levels. It is a society of disengaged individuals whose first principle is self-gratification. The unrestrained ego inevitably results in trust replaced by suspicion, respect by resentment, compassion by contempt, and confidence by cynicism.
The problem itself is that America, like Europe, has lost its defining idea, the central inspiration that provides a compelling sense of identity, unity, and commitment that is the very life-force of any nation. The United States was founded on the noble vision contained in the Declaration of Independence, with its recognition of a transcendent moral authority binding all people, and in the Constitution, one of the the most sagacious documents ever devised. Sadly, allegiance to both is now dubious, to say the least, in a significant segment of the population that includes not merely the dispossessed, but also establishment elites and conniving corporates.
And what can be said about the so-called leaders in this tragic decline? Leaders shape culture, for better or worse, in the home, the workplace, the community, and the nation. That means that the political and corporate elites have either mutinously engineered America’s cultural malaise, or they have been grossly incompetent in allowing it to unfold. Watching the responses of the politicians to the violence at Trump rallies, one suspects that the former scenario is the more plausible.
Where has the President been in his duty to condemn outright the flagrant attacks on freedom of speech, and his responsibility to be the guiding light for Americans of all political persuasions? Where are Congressional big wigs in their capacity as architects of national flourishing? Where are Trump’s Republican rivals coming from when they too try to make political capital out of this shaming of democracy? Where were the civic leaders and law enforcement in their supposed commitment to uphold the Constitution and protect life and property? Where are the leaders?
The time is long overdue for Americans to confront the question of what America stands for. If it is nothing more than endless self-gratification in a consumer paradise, then America is done for, both as an idea and as the inspirational concrete reality it has been for most of its history, and well might we expect the shamelessness and savagery clogging television and movie screens to be increasingly transposed to the streets.
The possibility of this happening was seen long ago by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America: “There is, indeed, a most dangerous passage in the history of a democratic people. When the taste for physical gratifications among them has grown more rapidly than their education and their experience of free institutions, the time will come when men are carried away and lose all self-restraint at the sight of the new possessions they are about to obtain.”
The fact that hard-liners on either side of the political divide are able to pander to the facile fantasies of the wider public with wildly extravagant promises of unbounded wealth under laissez faire capitalism on the one hand, or a socialist utopia on the other, underlines how feeble the culture has become. Surely the manipulation of the masses is obvious when government spends more money than ever on education, and the result is the most dumbed down citizenry in American history? What value is the vote of a person who knows nothing about history or the purpose and mechanics of government?
The French philosopher of History, Remi Brague, noted in an insightful essay reflecting on the seemingly irreversible decline of Europe, that “…modern Europe, in so far as it is modern, lives on former values while constantly undermining them.” Tragically, that is precisely what has been happening in America for several decades. The key to a renewal of hope in America lies in its founding documents and the life of strenuous virtue which alone makes their application possible.
Mahatma Gandhi once said: “There are seven things that will destroy us: Wealth without work; Pleasure without conscience; Knowledge without character; Religion without sacrifice; Politics without principle; Science without humanity; Business without ethics.” Alas, all have become realities in western society, and all arise from a lack of leadership.