Boredom, Anxiety and Envy: a Kierkegaardian Attempt to Understand The Trump Question (pt. 1)

Stephen Hawking, generally considered to be one of the smartest people on the planet, says he can’t explain Donald Trump.[1] It’s pretty rare that I think I can figure out something he can’t, so I shouldn’t waste the opportunity. In fact, though, Hawking is already onto the solution I will propose, when he adds, “”He is a demagogue, who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator.” And to say I figured it out is also presumptuous, since in fact Kierkegaard, a fairly obscure 19th Century philosopher and theologian, is really the one who described the forces that guide mass culture in the modern age: boredom, anxiety and envy.

First, boredom: Many people have commented on the fact that Donald Trump is not primarily a politician, and (given the wealth and connections he started with and the fact that he would have made more money if he’d just put his money in the stock market and left it there) he’s not even a particularly amazing businessman. He is a reality TV star, a celebrity, an entertainer.[2] Donald Trump himself even supports this claim.[3] Why should this be enough to earn millions of votes for him to become Leader of the Free World?

Kierkegaard explored the concept of boredom extensively in his first major published work, Either/Or. Fittingly, it was considered his most entertaining work in his lifetime, the only real moneymaker he had. This work was written as a philosophical puzzle for its readers, not the least of which was “who wrote it?” Either/Or was allegedly written by four different characters and published by a fifth, and that publisher himself claims that one of the characters made up another; so you have pseudonyms writing under pseudonyms! The different alleged authors have different writing styles ranging from comical to pedantic, and different values ranging from hedonistic to severely religious. In his day, it was considered witty and beautiful by his Danish countrymen and women, with even the king of Denmark claiming that Kierkegaard was one of the finest writers in the Danish language. And, ironically, much of this witty, humorous, tragic, and widely-praised book revolves around the problem of boredom.

Many readers will ask, “Well, which of these characters is really Kierkegaard?” The answer is really “none of them.” None of the pseudonyms gives you all of Kierkegaard’s full understanding of human existence, any more than any one of Tolkien’s Fellowship reveals the full range of his faith; in both writers, the characters are all partial and flawed, some more or less perhaps but none a simple mask or alter ego for the writer. Thus, we can’t just pull out a quote and say, “There, that’s all Kierkegaard had to say about boredom.” And how boring would that be, anyway? Instead, one must jump down the rabbit hole and see how far it goes. And we start with a character with no name, called in Kierkegaard’s various writings “the Young Man” or simply “A.” We know him to be young, unattached, and apparently financially self-sufficient. And like most of us would be in such favorable circumstances, he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He doesn’t need to work to support himself, he has no physical aliments or challenges to struggle against, he has no obligations or responsibilities such as a family or official office. He is perhaps more intelligent and imaginative than most of us, however, and that is perhaps his greatest burden; he has understood his life pretty thoroughly already, and he is bored by it. Looking at all the things most people obsess over—-careers and social ladders, money, sex, power, pleasure, whatever—-he has concluded that none of it is really important. Whatever you choose, you will eventually regret. He is simply tired of everything. The Young Man’s remedy is not essentially different than most people’s: variety. However, he is clever enough to see that simply doing more and bigger will eventually burn out; instead, he focuses on the details, on little things, and varies both his actions and his moods. He takes great enthusiasm in some arbitrary project, to drop it later if it gets boring; he goes to comedic plays to be happy or tragedies when he wants to feel sad; above all, he remembers that when pleasure wears out, even pain can be welcome relief from boredom. He is like most people in that he lives for himself and for sensation; he doesn’t wish anyone ill, but he primarily needs to be entertained, and even his sympathy for others is primarily a mood, not a commitment. He may be better at it than most of us, but in the end he is just an egoist.

Kierkegaard’s primary spokesman for the ethical life, Judge William, thinks that this boredom is highly revelatory. The Young Man is bored because he feels nothing matters. The fact is that he is right, at least about his own life. Boredom is the experience of meaninglessness. The one who has felt it then has two choices: distraction or despair. To despair is to admit that one’s life is without hope, and then to admit that one needs a new sort of life. The Judge does not say it is a choice between “good” versus “evil;” he says that first one must choose to make good and evil the important values in one’s own life. When one does that, one lives his or her life for responsibility for one’s own actions, for care for one’s neighbors, and for higher, eternal moral principles. One sees one’s life as meaningful, as a task, a calling to make the world better; and when one sees one’s life in that context, boredom can never be the same threat it was before. For the person primarily living on a pain/pleasure axis, which we all start with and most remain with, boredom is “the root of all evil.” It is the one motivating force, the one real threat to happiness; even misery would be better, if it were interesting. For the morally motivated person, boredom is only relatively significant; it has meaning only as an obstacle that would try to knock you off the ethical track. It is a temptation, and in that context it has meaning; it is not simply an experience of the nothingness of one’s life but instead the experience that what is significant is also challenging, and sometimes the challenge is to your patience.

Everyone is motivated by pain/pleasure, egoism, what Kierkegaard calls “the esthetic” at least sometimes. It is part of having a physical body and being bound by time. Some people have moral principles and/or spiritual inspiration, which can provide a firmer foundation for their lives; but most live solely for sensation, which means they are in a frantic, life-or-death struggle against boredom. Rome stood for a thousand years because the Caesars provided the masses with “bread and circuses,” knowing that they could riot from boredom as easily as from hunger. As long as they were entertained and their lives were safe, most people cared little if the emperor was Marcus Aurelius or Gaius Caligula. In fact, initially the psychotic and sadistic Caligula was very popular, because he was so entertaining. His problems only really began when the people became bored with the shows in the Coliseum, and his only response was to try to put on bigger shows. In the short run, a government can be about nothing and can perhaps be even more popular since it exists only to entertain; but eventually, as the Young Man found, even pleasure bores. Rome alternated between competent emperors who got things done that needed doing, and entertainers like Caligula and his orgies, or Nero who competed in the Olympics and won every prize (since he threatened to kill the judges otherwise), and Commodus, the ultimate in pre-television Reality TV stars, who became a gladiator—- as shocking in its day as it would be if Obama had taken a couple weeks off from being President to co-star on “Keeping up with the Kardashians.”

People joke about “no-drama Obama.” He can give a great speech and he can tell a great joke, but often he seems cerebral and professorial. His response to stress seems to be to avoid displaying emotion. For the bored masses, Trump is a better show than they could have hoped for. He doesn’t demand people think about economic theory or learn the difference between Shiite and Sunni. Thinking’s hard; even if it is essential for making informed decisions, it is boring. Making fun of people who are worse off than yourself (such as the disabled) or mocking them for being a different skin color or because their parents came to America twenty years after yours, that’s easy. Trump is the perfect president for the generation that grew up on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” that wants Middle East policy to be as easy as watching The Iron Sheik get beat up by Hulk Hogan, and thinks economic policy should be as fun as watching Gary Busey sell pizzas. Even the mystery of his actual policies adds to the entertainment value. In the 1980s I watched “Remington Steele” and wondered week-to-week if he and Laura Holt would ever “do it;” now, I can watch Donald Trump and wonder if he’s going to screw an entire nation. Say what you will, but one thing you can’t say is that Trump is boring, at least not in the short run. In the long run, of course, we are left wondering if The Trump Show will ever find a sustained narrative or simply remain a series of schticks, until one day we see The Donald on water skis sailing over a shark.

To be continued….


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