Politico compared Donald Trump to Hugo Chavez and Augusto Pinochet. New York magazine noted a similarity between Trump and Kim Jong-Il and Joseph Stalin. Meg Whitman recently compared him to Benito Mussolini. And pretty much everyone who isn’t voting for him, including two former presidents of Mexico, has publicly or privately (or secretly to themselves) compared him to Hitler. Trump himself, although loath to accept these comparisons, seems to respect, if not like, Vladimir Putin, and it’s even been reported that for a time he kept a collection of Hitler’s speeches at his bedside table.
Boy, does this paint a picture. And what’s more, these aren’t facile comparisons. They actually reflect Trump’s persona, his values and his policies: his misogyny and his ridiculous “machismo,” an almost unabashed narcissism, his skill at blaming our problems on “the other,” whether they happen to be Mexicans, Muslims or immigrants in general, his relentless fear-mongering, and the fact that when he speaks or writes anything he is probably lying. Indeed, these are traits that would make Latin American despots, Communist dictators, eastern European strongmen and Nazis alike proud. And Trump embodies them all.
But while these comparisons can partially explain the Donald Trump phenomenon, there is one glaring omission, one missing piece that solves this puzzle once and for all. Someone who may have had more in common with Trump than any of the above leaders. Someone whose “career” may reveal more about Trump’s candidacy than anyone else’s.
Who am I talking about? I’ll give you a couple hints. Like Trump, he was twice divorced (at least) and had children with several different women. Like Trump, his career success was almost entirely dependent on the small fortune he inherited from his rich father. Like Trump, he possessed an uncanny media savvy that helped him to promote his hate-filled brand. Like Trump, he was the ultimate narcissist who convinced others to believe when the only thing he actually believed in was himself. And finally, like Trump, he posed a profound national security threat to all people everywhere, but especially to Americans.
This person is Osama bin Laden.
Let’s be clear. These men weren’t exactly twins; in many ways, they are completely different. But when it comes to their ideologies, Al-Qaeda and Trumpism respectively, and the ways in which both men advocated for them, they couldn’t be more alike. Stated another way, Trump and Bin Laden are selling the same product to very similar audiences, and their TV commercials look almost identical.
Now you’re probably thinking, this is outrageous. Bin Laden promoted an ideology predicated upon a twisted form of medieval Islam. He recruited Muslims from all over the world to join a holy war with the west, and his subjects dutifully committed barbaric acts of violence against innocent people. What does this have anything to do with Donald Trump? He’s not asking anyone to do anything violent (at least not really violent). At most, he’s asking supporters for their votes and maybe to volunteer for his campaign. And in a certain way, you’re right. Trump may be a nativist and a proto-fascist, but he’s running for president in a democracy, while Bin Laden was a mass murderer of people from that very democracy.
But in another perhaps more important way, you’re dead wrong. This comparison is instructive because both of these men exploit the same weakness in the human condition: notably, our compulsive desire to matter. And they both specifically target for recruitment those of us who don’t feel like we matter. The ultimate objectives of the Trump and Bin Laden campaigns may be completely different, but the psychological dynamics that explain their popularity are exactly the same.
Some of you are probably wondering what I mean by a “compulsive desire to matter.” You’ve probably never felt like you mattered one way or another. You’ve never taken a job, joined an organization, or made any decision on the basis of mattering more or less. So what does that have to do with you, let alone Trump and Bin Laden?
Well, I’d argue that you’ve never taken this into consideration because you live in a society with a culture and economic and political system fundamentally designed to make you feel like you matter. We have a plethora of productive outlets to feel like this: meaningful jobs, a sense of national pride and opportunities for civic, political and community engagement. We don’t think about mattering because we do matter and we always have. But we’re privileged. Most people aren’t so lucky, and some of us are particularly unlucky in this regard, vulnerable to being exploited by the likes of Bin Laden and Trump.
This isn’t hard to see in the Middle East where most countries are either embroiled in civil war or stricken by authoritarianism and rampant corruption. Without the productive options of a functioning civil society, many Arabs seek out other ways to matter, especially those seemingly aligned with their traditions, culture and religion. This is why Al-Qaeda and ISIL are so popular. What these organizations promise more than anything else is a life of purpose, of being a part of something greater than yourself.
This is the dynamic governing Trumpism as well. America isn’t the Middle East to be sure. But to many in the white working-class, it’s not America anymore either. And Trump preys on these folks. Just like Bin Laden, he traffics in the insidious notion that if you join up, if you believe in his ridiculous worldview, you’ll matter. Existential life problem solved. It’s as simple as that.
The proof is everywhere, on his campaign hats, bumper stickers, posters, and in every single one of his rambling speeches. Indeed, Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is not just about making America great again; it’s about making a certain group of Americans feel like they matter again.
It’s important to recognize that even though many of us feel like we matter more these days (women, the LGBTQ community, perhaps minorities in general), the white working-class feels like it matters much less. The way of life that they grew up believing was normal and good is now considered by some to be backward. Their traditional family structures and hierarchy and notions of sexuality and gender have been relentlessly challenged, if not completely flipped on their heads. There are fewer jobs, and the potential opportunities that they can see, the wealth that is being created in the world isn't for them or their friends or their families. The world just doesn’t make sense anymore, and many have looked for a way out of it. The death rate for working-class middle-aged whites has increased 22 percent in the last decade due to suicide and drug/alcohol abuse.
But Trump promises another way for these desperate people. He guarantees a return to the true America, the place where their dreams came true; where a high school degree and a strong work ethic were enough to succeed; where they felt connected to their communities and a broader (white) society that generally accepted their values and culture. However idealized this bygone era, however dependent it may have been on marginalizing the non-white male population, there are tens of millions of people who strongly identify with it, and Trump designed his campaign to manipulate all of them.
Trump has outstripped Bin Laden as a master propagandist. The Al-Qaeda chief didn’t even have a slogan! But if we were to boil his group’s philosophy down to one sentence, it would have been, "Make Arabia Great Again." His stated goal was to reestablish the Islamic caliphate and return Arab civilization to its past glory. His message: We’re not great anymore (and you certainly don’t matter), but if we go back to what it really means to be Muslim, if we purify our lands of the Shia, the Jews, the Americans, and the “other” in general, then we can be great again. Sound familiar?
In many ways, Donald Trump manipulates Americans to join his movement just like Osama Bin Laden manipulated his recruits to join his jihad. Indeed, Trump has more in common with the progenitors of "radical Islam" than the vast majority of Muslims he'd ban from the United States. It’s truly ironic that if we should ban anyone from this country, it's Donald Trump.
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