Donald Trump has done a number of terrible and remarkable things to this country in a startlingly brief amount of time. Could it be he has created a new kind of American, or even a new kind of human being?
Of course the question is facetious: Evolution doesn’t work like that, not even in the more subjective realms of politics and culture. It would be more true to say that Trump took advantage of a new subspecies of stultified, deadened, bewildered American -- an American still half-convinced of his own greatness, his special destiny, but also halfway aware of his cultural isolation and near-total powerlessness. (In this context, I think the sexist pronoun is forgivable.)
That new subspecies, whether we call it Homo Trumpus or something else (Homo Exurbus? Homo Buffalo WildWingus?) already existed, and had been called into being by other factors over many decades. Trump didn’t need social-science wonkery or any brilliant insight to perceive its potential, beyond the native cunning that has served him so well throughout a career of ludicrous, quasi-legal, upward-trending failure. That’s because he is a member of this new species as well as its most prominent advocate and to some extent its discoverer.
Trump loved the “poorly educated,” as he told us during last year’s presidential campaign. He loved the fact they would follow him even if he committed murder in public and by daylight, and no matter what outrageous lies he told about every imaginable topic. He loved that they forgave him not just readily but eagerly for his braggadocious “grab ’em by the pussy” remarks, knowing that even if most males of Homo Trumpus don’t actually behave that way, they shared his views on the fundamental nature of male and female sexual desire.
None of those things were gaffes, unless you were trapped in the worldview of an older species that suddenly found itself unable to compete in the symbolic realm of politics and didn’t even understand the rules. For Homo Trumpus, they were profound truths, sources of wicked and delicious delight, communal celebrations of the birth of something new that might also be something old.
OK, I’m not actually suggesting that a new and dumber species of human has been brought forth on this continent, leading to the election of an orange comic-book villain to the office once held by Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. (And also, sure, by Zachary Taylor, who may have been every bit as weird and stupid -- who would know?) It’s a venerable social-science analogy, the idea that every political system and every nation-state creates or shapes a collective mindset among its citizens that adapts them to survival under its specific conditions. Furthermore, understanding that collective mindset or national culture tells you a lot more about how a society actually functions than its official ideology does.
You can trace certain aspects of this idea back to Plato’s theories of political leadership in “The Republic,” perhaps, but I encountered a much more recent example in the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen’s fascinating new book, “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.” (It will be published in a few weeks, and we'll definitely cover it in more detail. I trust Gessen and her publisher will forgive me for jumping the gun here.)
In telling the stories of Russians born during the Soviet era who lived through the wrenching and catastrophic transition to “capitalism” and “democracy” that fueled the rise of Vladimir Putin, Gessen spends much of an early chapter describing the genus “Homo Sovieticcus." She didn’t invent either the concept or the term. A semi-underground Soviet sociologist named Yuri Levada developed a theoretical portrait of Homo Sovieticus over three decades of unofficial research. (Sociology in the Western sense was either banned outright or viewed with intense suspicion for most of the Soviet period.) A society that had purportedly been founded on a radical vision of collective human liberation had instead, Levada argued, produced a bizarrely constricted and painfully isolated human personality.
Every totalitarian regime announces its intention of creating a New Man, Levada observed, but what it actually produces is “not so much a vessel for the regime’s ideology as it is a person best equipped to survive in a given society.” So it was with Homo Sovieticus, who did not resemble the fearless, square-jawed tractor driver of Stalinist propaganda posters.
The system had bred him over the course of decades by rewarding obedience, conformity, and subservience. The successful member of Soviet society, suggested Levada, believed in self-isolation, state paternalism, and what Levada called “hierarchical egalitarianism,” and suffered from an “imperial syndrome.”
Levada’s concept of “hierarchical egalitarianism” was meant to capture the peculiar character of Soviet society, which had a strong ideology of universal equality but was also rigidly stratified by occupation, education, ethnicity, geography and proximity to power. One could argue that 21st-century America has its own version of hierarchical egalitarianism: We are a supposedly meritocratic democracy in which everyone is taught that he or she can become rich. Yet we are also painfully aware that economic inequality has reached shocking and unprecedented levels, real incomes are stagnant or falling and accidents of birth or race will determine most people’s destiny.
Referring back to Hannah Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism, Gessen observes that by design a state like the one Levada describes robs its citizens of their individuality and their ability “to interact meaningfully with others.” This results in a “profoundly lonely” personality who is simultaneously the ideal subject of the totalitarian state and its most important product.
I’m inclined to believe that we have reverse-engineered this process in the United States, creating an Information Age update of the totalitarian personality, in advance of an actual totalitarian state. It may seem like mean-spirited mockery to describe Trump’s voters as a downgraded subspecies of humanity, but in fact they are adapting to survival in a degraded pseudo-democracy, just as Homo Sovieticus evolved to survive in a so-called worker’s state run on terror, corruption and incompetence.
We have been defining democracy downward for several decades, at least -- the anger and frustration that led Homo Trumpus to rally around its fourth-rate Führer did not come out of nowhere. Our political parties traded power back and forth every few years without anything visibly changing. They professed to be implacably opposed to each other, appealing vigorously to different constituencies and competing sets of cultural values, while behind the scenes management of the economy and foreign policy -- which is to say management of American empire -- continued uninterrupted, entirely in service of the global elite and with little or no public debate.
Along with our downgraded politics came downgraded notions of both rights and freedoms, the twinned and sometimes conflicting concepts at the heart of the American experiment. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the global triumph of capitalism, both rights and freedoms essentially became privatized. We have the right to buy as many cars or houses (or guns) as we can afford, a right that was gradually extended to nearly everyone, with great celebration. We have the right to order alarmingly cheap Chinese-made electronics from the sofa at 2 a.m., and the freedom to work long hours with no job security to pay for them.
But all talk about collective rights and freedoms went right out the window about the time Bill Clinton told us the era of big government was over. There was no universal right to public space and the public sphere, a decent living, health care or higher education that did not require a lifetime of debt slavery. Maybe some of that squishy bullshit had been necessary to fend off the Red menace, but now we were all about market-based solutions, and Mr. Jefferson’s “inalienable rights” didn’t measure up. To the extent that such issues abruptly resurfaced during the norm-busting 2016 campaign, they caught both political parties by surprise.
In other words, just because the United States insists that it’s a democracy -- and still has much of the machinery of democracy, in approximate working order -- doesn’t make it true. That fact continues to befuddle the political and media castes, but Homo Trumpus was less confused. It came to species consciousness in a society whose actual democracy was broken, and where the real democracy was one of symbolism, spectacle and “consumer choice.” It knew what it wanted: the most outrageous creep on the reality show, the biggest middle finger to the lying hypocrites who ran things, the ugliest possible vessel for its rage and disappointment.
While the creation process was very different, and the newer model makes a lot more noise, Homo Trumpus resembles Homo Sovieticus in some ways. Both are “profoundly lonely,” with a damaged capacity “to interact meaningfully with others”; both are prepared to believe, and simultaneously to mistrust, blatant contradictions and fabulous untruths about themselves and their country.
Does that mean Homo Trumpus actually wants a totalitarian or fascist state, as proposed by the Redditor baby-Hitlers of the alt-right? It strikes me as a meaningless question. Homo Sovieticus didn’t “want” seven decades of brutal and soul-deadening one-party rule; he simply learned to put up with it. By different pathways and in different contexts, both groups embody the deep human urge to abdicate from politics and leave the decisions to a supposedly strong father figure. If our current president is the most risible example of that trope to be found in all of world history so far, at least he’s not a mass murderer. (Yet.)
Whether you think the emergence of Donald Trump and Homo Trumpus is a new phenomenon or just the resurgence of a current of paranoia, bigotry and know-nothingism that’s been visible in America since at least Alexis de Tocqueville’s first visit -- and it’s a little of both, maybe -- it clearly reflects a widespread loss of faith in democracy. For that we can't blame the annoying dads in the too-tight Callaway golf shirts and MAGA hats, although they badly need to be exiled to the den with whatever is on ESPN right now that isn’t soccer. They happen to be right about democracy; it’s taken the rest of us a while to catch up, and we’re pissed about it.