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The President of the United States is often touted as the most powerful person in the world. But what kind of power? Is it military might? Or the power to do good in promoting democracy and human rights throughout the world? And how does Trump himself understand power?
The point is not to enter the fray of American politics, but to explore the deeper philosophical truths behind Trump’s election and how it reflects on the spiritual malaise of our entire society.
As Christians with the accumulated wisdom of a 2000-year tradition, we understand that politics flow from culture, and culture is derived from cult, or worship and religion. Certainly, we need to improve the political process and the cooperation of elected officials for the common good. However, we will not discover the ultimate resolution of our cultural anomie in a wiser application of political power, but in a conversion back to Christ and the Christian roots of the nation.
The term ‘will to power’ was coined by Nietzsche, and refers to the desire for power as a goal in itself. I would like to highlight two universal characteristics of the will to power that are apparent in Trump’s life, business, and politics. The first is a lack of respect for other people (e.g. political opponents), along with a denial of human weakness. The second is equally disturbing: the subjectivity of truth. Truth no longer stands alone as a strong tower and beacon of light; instead, truth is subordinate to power. The individual driven by the will to power readily distorts the truth and even creates his own truths.
Why would people seek power for its own sake? In his book Images of Love, Words of Hope, Jean Vanier writes very insightfully on the interplay between weakness and power. He remarks that it is in our weakness and vulnerability that we are loved – in other words, we are loved as we truly are as human beings who are not gods but frail creatures. However, as children, if we were not loved and affirmed in our weakness, but perhaps exploited or abused, as adults, we will gravitate toward a desire for power. In this Fort Knox of the protected ego, we may experience a sense of safety, but we will feel alone. Furthermore, we learn to hate weakness in ourselves and have a tendency to crush the weaknesses of others.
The will to power is usually accompanied by narcissism. It is one of the common insights of psychology that the person with the most massive ego is often the one with the most fragile inner sense of self. They must compensate for feelings of inferiority with an inflated ego, an external image of bluster and boldness, as well as the need to denigrate others to make themselves feel superior. In extreme cases, it borders on a lack of reverence for the inherent value of each human being. We could mention Trump’s ad hominem attacks on his political rivals, or his machismo and the numerous allegations of his mistreatment of women.
There are many reasons for Trump’s popularity leading up to his election. Many average Americans were disgruntled with the political elite; they did not trust Hillary; they were eager for change and rallied to the slogan to ‘make America great again.’ As a side note, it is worth mentioning that many Catholic and Evangelical voters also appreciated Trump’s pro-life statements.
Yet I would like to delve deeper into those dark places in our psyche that we tend to repress. In our sinfulness and brokenness, we can be drawn by the will to power and even secretly admire those who exert it. In a post-Christian culture, many people suffer from a lack of identity. If we live in a society with many people like Trump – a poor self-image covered over by an exaggerated ego, then unconsciously, some people relate with Trump. These types of personalities like someone who has the audacity to make up his own truths and to parade the power of his personality, perhaps privately wishing they could do the same.
Making up our own truths is a dangerous and destructive game. Numerous commentators have noted on countless occasions the patent absurdities emanating from Trump’s mouth. The Atlantic has amassed a compendium of Trump’s lies about the coronavirus. For example, in February, Trump pronounced that ‘the coronavirus would weaken when we get into April, in the warmer weather.’ Not true. In July, he pronounced that ’99 per cent of COVID-19 cases are totally harmless.’ Not true. Trump seems to abide by the unspoken conviction that whatever he says is true. Why? Because he is Donald Trump.
Christ is the truth. Trump claims to be Christian, and his true beliefs are only known to him and God. To be a Christian is to know ourselves as we really are in the eyes of God. We are beloved sons and daughters of our Father, giving us all a sense of identity and self-worth. At the same time, we can admit our brokenness as sinful, fallen human creatures who are entirely dependent on Christ’s mercy to heal us and make us into whole human beings.
I would encourage all of us to reflect on some of the deeper spiritual reasons for Trump’s election. It is a warning: at the root of the narcissistic ego and the will to power, we discover nothing less than a denial of reality. It amounts to a refusal to accept the truth of our weak and wounded human nature, along with an ignorance of the only solution – faith in Christ’s redeeming work.
When Christ took on our human nature, He emptied Himself of power and chose to be weak. He honored the great dignity of our fragile human nature. He never compromised on truth, but at the cost of his own life, spoke truth to power; He testified to us that in the end, truth is indeed more ‘powerful’ than power. Let us repent and believe the good news, while continuing to pray for the conversion of our culture. A culture that chooses an arrogant ego with its will to power reaps the reward of confusion, lies, and violence. Only in Jesus Christ can we discover the way, the truth and the life.
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