Donald Trump and his Fragile Empire

This is the second piece in a multi-part series on the Orphan and the Empire.


This is the second piece in a multi-part series on the Orphan and the Empire.

Hades: Why do we build the wall?/

My children, my children/

Why do we build the wall?/

Cerberus: Why do we build the wall?/

We build the wall to keep us free/

That’s why we build the wall/

We build the wall to keep us free

—Anais Mitchell, “Why We Build the Wall” (From her Hadestown album, 2010)

“I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”

—Donald Trump, announcement speech, June 2016

In my essay on the Orphan and the Empire, I argued that our culture’s most popular stories were all built around the mythological orphan hero called to do battle with an evil empire, and I suggested that movements seeking to motivate people to join their fights would do well to study the arc of the hero’s journey through the lens of that narrative frame. In particular, I suggested that these stories are so popular because they address the divergent emotional needs that all of us experience as putative orphans and because they offer a resolution of those conflicts that teaches us how to be fully human. Because we fear the death of our parents and the loss of their love, we often seek the security of belonging to or even building an empire, a fortress to protect us. But stories in which orphans take on empires also teach us that the empire always falls when love conquers fear.

As we approach the climax of the ugliest, most emotionally intense presidential election of my lifetime, it is striking to see how Donald Trump’s own life experience made him into an empire-builder, and how his insecurities and aspirations align with those of so many other Americans. At a moment when so many old cultural patterns are being undermined—whiteness as the norm; the president always being a white man; marriage as a heterosexual-only institution; police as heroes who can do no wrong, gender as a binary—along comes a primal scream of white male dominance. Trump is calling on people to be stormtroopers in a battle to maintain his imaginary empire; if his campaign was a movie it might be called, “The Patriarchy Strikes Back.” We need to respond with a different narrative around our interconnectivity.

Boys Will Be Bullies

In his 1993 book, The Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump, biographer Harry Hurt III wrote:

Ever since he was a little boy, his father, Fred C. Trump, Sr. [had] been hammering the same lines into his his head: “You are a killer … you are a king … you are a killer … you are a king…’ Donald believes he can’t be one without being the other. As his father has pointed out over and over again, most people are weaklings. Only the strong survive. You have to be a killer if you want to be a king.

Implicit in this message was the idea that to get his father’s approval, Trump would have to prove that he was, indeed, a killer king. Reporting on the education of Donald Trump for Yahoo, Lisa Belkin quotes Hurt as saying, “It all goes back to his father. Since he was a child, he’s been vying for his father’s attention and everything else in his disturbed existence is rooted in the crazy need to prove he can outdo his father.” With Fred’s money and the mentorship of Joseph McCarthy’s right hand man Roy Cohn, Donald started his career in real estate. Trump Tower was a gaudy beginning to Donald’s insatiable quest to get over the wall that his father had created between them. Donald bought building after building and gave each the name he shared with his father, “Trump.”

Tomes have been written about how patriarchal culture is made up of men needing to prove to their fathers that they are “real men” by erecting statues and buildings shaped like phalluses to demonstrate their virility. And in an election where we have heard more about the domination of penises over policies (remember “Little Marco” and “I guarantee you there’s no problem”?), Trump seems to be running for president of the patriarchy. The wall exemplifies Trump’s obsession with domination. When told that the former Mexican president, Vicente Fox, said that Mexico would not pay for that “effing wall,” Trump reacted as though his manhood had been mocked, saying, “…the wall just got 10 feet taller, believe me. It just got 10 feet taller.”

As the patriarchy’s would-be president, Trump embodies a prevailing idea in normative masculinity: Look tough and be invulnerable, even if that means living an unexamined life. After the publication of their interviews, Trump’s latest biographer Michael D’Antonio essentially told the New York Times that the would-be president had already built a wall: the one between his ego and the entire world. D’Antonio said, “I think he doesn’t want to be understood because that would make him vulnerable, but I also think that he doesn’t even know himself well enough to share what he considers to be genuine. His genuine reality is the most superficial one that you can imagine.”

D’Antonio goes on to say that Trump believes that the public has a conception of a billionaire’s life and that he’s been living not his own life but the life of what he perceives strangers to think is the best life. I shudder to think what a man this insecure would do if given the opportunity to be “a killer” president.

“Make America Great Again” romanticizes a time when a much more robust patriarchy invited white men to kill, torture, abuse, and dominate other men and women. This is a powerful message that appeals to (largely) white men who fear that the “nasty women,” ”the blacks” in the “inner cities,” and the “bad hombres” are going to take something away from their sense of safety or worth. Fortunately, time, demographics, and culture are not on their side.

Photo: Michael Vadon

Photo: Michael Vadon

A New Silent Majority

In 1972, Richard Nixon—another patriarch whose presidential campaign has been a model for Trump’s—won his re-election by appealing to the desires of “the silent majority,” a term coined by Nixon senior adviser and speechwriter Pat Buchanan to refer to a white “Middle America” that was seeking stability in a time of turmoil and cultural upheaval. The supporters of George McGovern’s 1972 campaign were mostly made up of college-educated white liberals (with a smattering of racial minorities) loudly working against the patriarchy’s war in Vietnam, but the “silent majority” resoundingly rejected the New Left agenda and re-elected Nixon in a landslide. Though louder, McGovern’s supporters were still a minority of the voting population. By 1988, Jesse Jackson tried to expand the McGovern base into the “Rainbow Coalition” by building an alliance between increasingly enfranchised black and brown voters and liberal whites, but it still wasn’t enough. Twenty-six years later the “new silent majority” is indeed a Rainbow Coalition led by educated women, youth, and people of color. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias recently wrote, “there’s a new “silent majority,” and it’s voting for Hillary Clinton.” In short, Nixon’s silent majority built on white working class men has become a shrill minority.

The rising majority has been raised on a radically different cultural diet than the one that nourished Fred and Donald Trump, or Roy Cohn and Richard Nixon for that matter. Cultural theorist Joseph Campbell predicted in the late 1980s that new myths would emerge based on the non-Western ideas that Chief Seattle had around interconnectivity: “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”

In the last three decades, Campbell’s predictions have proven true: Disney’s Pocahontas puts Chief Seattle’s words to music. The highest grossing film in history, Avatar, plays them out in the story of the Na’vi, and the Lion King invokes them with the Circle of Life. And then there is the “all you need is love” message of both the Beatles and the Harry Potter series.

In 2014, two studies were published, one about Harry Potter and the power of empathy, and another about Harry Potter and reducing prejudice. According to the latter, “reading Harry Potter books improves children’s attitudes toward stigmatized groups that included: immigrants, refugees, and members of the LGBT community.” This year, a study called Harry Potter and the Deathly Donald?” suggested that Harry Potter fans may be less likely to vote for Trump because reading the books have taught them to see him as Lord Voldemort. Not coincidentally, millennials find Donald repulsive. In a recent four-way poll, 49 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds chose Hillary Clinton, while only 21 percent went for Donald.

So maybe the times they are a’changing, and Trump’s battle to stop a woman from becoming President is just the death rattle of a cultural mode that is ending. In 2009, New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat lamented that Hollywood’s “pantheism” was threatening traditional patriarchal values. Douthat is right about these emerging myths: They are indeed threatening the patriarchy. Other conservatives have made similar arguments questioning Hollywood’s motives, but it is hard to argue with big box office numbers.

So what is the alternative to Trumpism? Instead of dominance, we celebrate interconnectivity and interdependence. People who have grown up with the internet already know this. We are no longer communicating via top-down linear structures but instead in complex, interdependent networks. And in a networked age, it is highly fitting that a woman should be rising to the center of attention. As Carol Gilligan has written, men see power in the form of hierarchies and try to get to the top; women see power in networks and want to be at the center. Now the great wheel is turning.

Defeating Donald Trump is one small step for this election and one giant leap for our emerging Revolution of Interdependence, a subject I will have more to say about. It may not feel that way, and indeed the story may not end that way next Tuesday. But I don’t think I’m alone in sensing the change that’s gonna come. As for Donald Trump—who recently said he saw Hillary from behind, and “believe me, I wasn’t impressed”—well, his being “a loser” would give us the opportunity to see that the empire which we call patriarchy has no clothes. And let me tell you Donald: we are not impressed.