Friday, March 25, 2016

Three Phenomena: Hitler, Trump, ISIS (You're Invited to Think . . . )

Now would be a good time for people in the US to see if we can actually engage in some thinking about politics.


Underneath the ISIS Phenomenon

"A man reacts at a street memorial following
the bomb attacks in Brussels, Belgium."
(Source: The Independent (UK))
I have written numerous times about how events in the Middle East, particularly the rise of ISIS, call for us to try to understand motivations, rather than just give in to the urge for violence. (See "The way to respond to ISIS is not through violence.") With the Brussels attacks this week, we are seeing once again that all of the attention of the West gets put onto the question of tactics ("How did they do it?") -- and its obvious counterpart, counter-tactics ("What should law enforcement do differently?" ... "Shall we respond militarily?") -- rather than the real question: what is motivating these people?

(Put aside for the moment that the week saw attacks in multiple locales [Turkey, Côte d’Ivoire], but the only place that existed for Westerners was Brussels . . . . )

True, there was some note in The New York Times that the Brussels attackers included brothers. But it doesn't take too much reflection to realize that it is simply the case that siblings frequently engage in joint enterprise. (Groucho Marx to Warner Brothers: "even before there had been other brothers - the Smith Brothers; the Brothers Karamazov; Dan Brothers, an outfielder with Detroit; and Brother, Can You Spare a Dime") The "brother angle" does not have explanatory power here . . . .

I was encouraged to see an article entitled, "Why Join ISIS? How Fighters Respond When You Ask Them" (The Atlantic, December 9, 2015) I am grateful for information like this, but I think it is important to point out that it is not obvious how to see the forest for the trees. Diverse motivations -- among a very diverse set of respondents -- are identified. Making sense of this will require insightful synthesis. The cheapest and easiest explanations -- "blame it on Islam" -- will get a lot of attention and will be the least accurate and useful.

The Atlantic has published a series of articles to try to illuminate the ISIS phenomenon, including:

"What ISIS Really Wants" (March, 2015)

"What Motivates Terrorists?" (June 9, 2015)

All of these help suggest the range of questions that must be considered to get our arms around the phenomenon.

And then there is the Trump phenomenon.


The Trump Phenomenon and Us

Donald Trump: "Make America Great Again"
The rise of Donald Trump in the US is baffling, and epochal, and it similarly tempts us to attend to tactics (especially Trump's rhetorical style) when we should be attending to motivations.

Several weeks ago, I was reflecting on the Trump phenomenon in light of a book I had been reading, and I said, "It's not his personality that's really at issue; it's actually not really about the fringe views he espouses, either.  It's not even the outward behavior of the supporters of different points of view. What's at stake is: There are a lot of people who are so enormously disillusioned and frustrated and fearful that they are actually finding relief in identifying with all this. What have we got to offer them?"

I found reinforcement for this view in David Brook's column a few days ago:

"Trump voters are a coalition of the dispossessed. They have suffered lost jobs, lost wages, lost dreams. The American system is not working for them, so naturally they are looking for something else. . . . Moreover, many in the media, especially me, did not understand how they would express their alienation. We expected Trump to fizzle because we were not socially intermingled with his supporters and did not listen carefully enough. For me, it’s a lesson that I have to change the way I do my job if I’m going to report accurately on this country." ("No, Not Trump, Not Ever," March 18, 2016)

(Rather a startling mea culpa.)

Well, of course, it is not just the man, and not just his followers, but also the way they both work together with an ideology to (possibly) bring a horrible reality into being against all common sense.


The Hitler Phenomenon  and Arendt

Hannah Arendt: "Niemand hat das Recht zu
gehorchen [No one has the right to obey]."
(Patrik Wolters - see Wikipedia)
So it is that after reading 1924: The Year That Made Hitler, in the hopes of finding clues to how 2016 is turning out to be the year that is "making" Trump, I found myself watching the film Hannah Arendt. (The film tells the story of Arendt's coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961.) Within a day, I was plowing through Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem (and The Origins of Totalitarianism on hand as a follow-up).

As I read, I realize that what Arendt was so interested in is just how hard it is for people to think; particularly, to think in the face of abundant evidence, ranging from the behavior of a particular charismatic leader . . . to the conditions of the masses who follow . . . to the ideology (or perhaps ideologies, both explicit and tacit) that give motive to the phenomenon . . . to the atrocities of the moment . . . and ultimately to the way all of these are reflected in the lived experience of "ordinary" participants.


Some questions . . . 

It seems to me there are four or five important questions to ask, and they need to be asked about each of these phenomena (Hitler, Trump, ISIS):

"Us" vs "Them" - In what ways do see the "us" vs "them" psychology being exploited? Why is the exploitation successful? Isn't there a countervailing norm in each of these settings? What is out of whack?

"Enough for 'us'" - It seems as if each phenomenon has a deep current of "this is the only way we can be assured of getting enough for 'us'." Acquisitiveness is part of human nature; so what is different about this? What allows acquisitiveness to become harnessed in a pathological way?

"Wrapped in the familiar" - How is each phenomenon normalized (made palatable to participants) by being wrapped in reassuring, familiar culture? (Why does this have the power to lull people's consciences to sleep in these situations?)

"Awful but necessary" - Sometimes leaders "lock in" followers by doing something counter-intuitive: by embroiling them in some kind of truly awful behavior. How exactly is it that people acquiesce -- either through direct participation or complicity -- in group behavior that is intentionally awful?

I hope that by looking deeper into each of these I may find some answers about these three phenomena.


Related posts

Anyone who has had to write a speech knows that the hardest part is to land on the main idea. Once you've got that right, the rest practically writes itself.

(See "The way to respond to ISIS is not through violence." )





It's not his personality that's really at issue; it's actually not really about the fringe views he espouses, either. It's not even the outward behavior of the supporters of different points of view. What's at stake is: There are a lot of people who are so enormously disillusioned and frustrated and fearful that they are actually finding relief in identifying with all this. What have we got to offer them?

(See Have a Conversation with a Trump Supporter Today)










I wonder if, years from now, we will be thinking back to today and feeling surprise at how little we thought about some of the developments in our world, and in our country, and how we talked about them even less. Someday will I have to explain to my kids, or to my kids' kids, why it was that "people just weren't talking about it" . . . ?

(See Why Weren't People Talking About It? )





I wonder if the outrage that many Muslims seem to feel at the suffering of other Muslims doesn't put us Christians to shame.

(See Fighting Back: It's alright as long as you're a Christian, right? )