Surging presidential candidate Donald Trump is often described as having “tapped into” something that the angry American voter now desires. What he has tapped into is something deeper and far more atavistic than is commonly suspected: people want a heroic leader, one in an ancient mold. Donald Trump, in this view, is the last gasp of the honor culture.
This struck me when I attended a lunch for Tod Lindberg, who has just written a book on heroes, classical and contemporary. In The Heroic Heart: Greatness Ancient and Modern, Lindberg compares the battling heroes of antiquity, who asserted their superiority over lesser mortals, to the modest firefighters of today, who inevitably shrug it off when called heroes. It hit me: Donald Trump is our Achilles, the blowhard hero of Homer’s Iliad.
Achilles was not the kind of sensitive guy who would have entertained the notion that Paris’ absconding with Helen of Troy was an act of love.
Achilles was brutal, contentious, contemptuous, a braggart, and touchy about his honor. People followed him, though. The Iliad opens with Achilles sulking in his tent, which was hard luck for the Greeks as Mr. Moody Pants was also the greatest warrior of the Trojan War. But never mind that because Agamemnon had insulted his honor by laying claim to Achilles’ gal pal, Briseis (a Marla Maples-type).
Could Trump’s rise be explained by our hunger for a hero who, like Achilles, is not humble and doesn’t say, “I’m not a hero” after pulling a dozen babies out of a burning building? Trump clearly views himself in the heroic mold. “I bet if Trump thought about it,” Lindberg told me, “he’d say that if he, Trump, had been at Troy, it wouldn’t have taken 10 years to beat the Trojans. Trump might say that if Achilles had been born today, Achilles would aspire to be Trump.”
Lindberg added, “I do think that when Trump looks in the mirror, he sees a hero. He has conquered the business world. It has made him rich, but the riches are more the proof of the conquering than an end in themselves. The conquering was the real point.” Policy is almost peripheral to the Trump campaign because it’s all about the conquering hero. Channeling Achilles (with perhaps just a smidgen of angry Charlie Sheen), Trump, addressing a crowd of opponents of the Iran nuclear deal in Washington, D.C., recently said, “We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning.” When Trump is asked a hard question and doesn’t know the answer, he resorts to braggadocio and attacks the questioner. His supporters love it.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently plugged a paper by two sociologists on why we are developing a victim culture in which so-called microaggressions can send sensitive souls into paroxysms of offendedness. Haidt thinks this signals the second of two transitions in moral codes.
“The first major transition happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it,” Haidt notes. “They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.”
But the dignity culture, Haidt writes, is transitioning into “a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in an honor culture. But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized.”
Part of Trump’s appeal, I fear, is that in a microaggression world, he dares to give offense. He can call Rosie O’Donnell a “fat pig” and live to tell the tale. His latest remarks about Carly Fiorina’s face might have been a mistake, both because they are inaccurate and because Republicans like her, but Trump isn’t likely to stop making offensive comments.
Trump’s supporters aren’t urban sophisticates ready to weep over the latest tale of victimhood. Like their hero, a real estate guy from Queens, they adhere to the ethos of an older, less sensitive moral culture, and they long for somebody who is focused on winning rather than placating the offended (and may, even more thrillingly, make politically incorrect jabs at his opponents). Stanford University political scientist David Brady and Hoover senior fellow Douglas Rivers studied Trump supporters and found them “not particularly ideological,” with twenty percent of them self-identifying as “liberal and moderate” and sixty-five percent as “conservative,” with only thirteen percent calling themselves “very conservative.”
Contrary to popular opinion, less than one third have ties to Tea Party groups. The Trump supporter is also less affluent, with slightly more than a third earning less than $50,000. But what is most interesting in connection with cultural change is that the Trump supporter tends to be older. Slightly more than half of Trump’s supporters, Brady and Rivers observed, are in the 45-64 age group, while a third—thirty-four percent—are older than sixty-five.
These are the people who are most likely to be disgusted with political correctness and a culture of victimhood. They are old enough to remember when the United States, shocked and inspired by the Soviet Union’s Sputnik, vowed to put a man on the Moon—and did. Now, we have to travel to the space station courtesy of Russia. Trump promises to reverse all that, and he seems confident that he will do it, policy details be damned.
One of the more disturbing aspects of the last three U.S. presidential campaigns is that Americans seem to have forgotten the classical underpinnings of our system of government and instead sought a protector and father figure rather than a president. Less developed countries routinely do this. It is new for Americans. As we contemplate a Trump presidency, however, we should remember that he is running as a warrior for a job that, as Agamemnon knew, was about governing, not fighting. This could be his (and our) Achilles heel.