The Trickster’s Apprentice, by David Eller

My plan is to post something of interest every Monday morning. These posts will include excerpts from my books, submitted essays, posts made here in the past, and new ones. Enjoy.

The Trickster’s Apprentice

By David Eller

At the end of the first part of Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche has Zarathustra withdraw into his solitude, asking, “what matter all believers? You have not yet sought yourselves: and you found me. Thus do all believers; therefore all faith amounts to so little.” In a previous essay, I introduced the figure of the trickster, the mischievous, unrestrained, shape-shifting boundary-crosser to whom many pundits have likened Trump. I realize now that that essay was the first of a two-part musing on faith and following, inspired by this cross-cultural fact: people don’t usually follow tricksters. They may laugh at him (since, as I pointed out previously, a trickster is almost always a male, at least at first), they may be aghast at his disrespect of morals and traditions, they may dread his baleful influence. A trickster is always a destroyer, usually a creator, sometimes a buffoon or cautionary tale, but virtually never a leader. Who would choose the trickster’s world of chimeras, deceptions, and insatiable appetites? 

But this leaves us with a problem: if Trump is a trickster, how does he have followers? Why are there those—and plenty of them—who want him for their leader? This raises the question of the follower or the believer (since more than a few “believe in,” revere, even blasphemously worship Trump). Most of the speculation and theorizing about Trump has focused on him and his pathological personality, which is fair enough, but some has also cast an eye toward his legion of fans and devotees (we cannot call them “political supporters,” since their dedication to him goes far beyond the standards of political endorsement: what politician of any party has had the cult-like following, complete with MAGA paraphernalia and absurdly deified images, that he commands?). Much of this commentary has not transcended the “basket of deplorables” level, which is probably accurate in many cases but not sufficient.

I think back to two classic texts on followers, written after the fascist regimes and at the height of the communist regimes of the twentieth century. The Authoritarian Personality, which sounds like it is about the personality of the authoritarian leader, is actually a study of the individuals who submit, often willingly if not enthusiastically, to authoritarians. The authors attribute much of the followers’ approval of authoritarians to “ethnocentrism,” a cultural narrowness of thought and identity that results in the acceptance of those similar to the followers and rejection of those different. Anti-Semitism was one of the commonest forms then (and now). Other traits of followers include “submission and obedience to the ingroup” and what the authors call a “pseudoconservative ideology” that hides behind patriotism and militarism but is “antithetical to democratic values and traditions.” At bottom they are driven by superstition, cynicism, hostility, and fear—especially fear of losing their status and their privilege and hostility toward those who would compete for it, or what Nietzsche called ressentiment.

The second book has the apt title of The True Believer, but its subject is not belief in the religious sense. Rather, its author, Eric Hoffer, describes the eager recruit to some aggressive mass movement like fascism or communism. In a world that no longer makes sense, and in which we and our kind are not “winning” anymore, some people are keen to surrender their wounded selves to restore lost “pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth.” They find (or think they find) the answer in a demagogue who projects not truth or intelligence—Hoffer deems intelligence a disadvantage in would-be dictators—but certainty. What the mobilized masses want is a person (almost always a man) with 

audacity and a joy in defiance; an iron will; a fanatical conviction that he is in possession of the one and only truth; faith in his destiny and luck; a capacity for passionate hatred; contempt for the present; a cunning estimate of human nature; a delight in symbols (spectacles and ceremonials); unbounded brazenness which finds expression in a disregard of consistency and fairness; a recognition that the innermost craving of a following is for communion and that there can never be too much of it; a capacity for winning and holding the utmost loyalty of able lieutenants.

For those who are about to pledge their fealty and commit the most heinous acts, the leader’s job is to identify (or manufacture, if need be) a complaint or grievance, to discredit the existing social and political order, and to rally a cohort of the disgruntled and send them into battle. For this purpose, two things are needed: first, uniformity (even literally a uniform and shared symbols and slogans) and second, an enemy. Hoffer opines that a mass movement can survive without a god but not without a devil.

A trickster, to reiterate, is not ordinarily looking to start or lead a movement or party, and his motives are strictly selfish; any “good” he does is purely accidental. In most societies that recognize the trickster, members hardly want to follow or emulate him. However, the trickster motif and the Christian motif make a volatile cocktail: theists are taught to prostrate themselves before a lord, but—in the absence of the second coming—the only lord on offer is the trickster. So we get this odd hybrid of a trickster-leader with a bizarre church-like following. Then the trickster-leader, who is more like a P. T. Barnum-style conman or huckster than either a traditional trickster or a Christian saint or savior, lures a certain kind of person or brings out certain traits in people (which—licensing what is already there or instilling something that was not already there—is an unsettled but essential question) who become the foot-soldiers in the demagogue’s solipsistic campaign. Other thinkers in the mid-twentieth century called such a leader an “agitator,” and there were lots of them then and now.

Who are these people, in the end? That Trump’s trickster-leader persona garnered the incongruous support of 81% of evangelical Christians in 2016 is no surprise, since that constituency consistently votes for Republicans; however, a telltale sign, according to Philip Gorski, is that a majority of non-white evangelicals did not vote for him. So, as has been amply documented, Trump’s appeal was significantly racial, or shall we say racist. Other research has established that adherence to white Christian nationalism was a “robust predictor” of support for Trump. Viefhues-Bailey argues that white Christian nationalists believe themselves to be “commanded to maintain cultural and blood purity, often through war, conquest, and separatism” which inevitably requires “exclusion of other religious faiths or cultures” and “cultural purity with racial or ethnic exclusion.” Smith and Hanley, meanwhile, identify eight attitudes or values that predict support for Trump, namely conservative identification; support for domineering leaders; fundamentalism; prejudice against immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, and women; and pessimism about the economy.

To come back around to the matter of “domineering leaders,” there is something unexpected but profound going on here. First, Americans, proud “don’t tread on me” individualists, should not in principle want a leader who will dominate them, and it is more than ironic that the Trump crowd is the loudest about “freedom” and “small government” and all those buzzwords when their man is the epitome of Hobbes’ leviathan. Second, the thinkers of the previous century, who were eyewitnesses to the carnage of fascism and communism, were acutely aware of what Erich Fromm called “the escape from freedom,” to which we could add the contemporary escape from democracy. “Freedom” of course is an empty signifier, meaning whatever the speaker wants it to mean; it can easily translate into my freedom to deprive you of the freedom to do the things I disapprove of (like getting an abortion, reading about black history and LGBT identity, or even flying a rainbow Pride flag, which got a California woman killed recently). As for democracy, one wonders honestly whether there was ever a sincere commitment to it on their part or whether some people valued it while they were, once again, winning, but once democracy stopped filling their pockets and ensuring their domination, they were willing to toss it aside.

Third and subsequent to both of these, the question remains, what—or whom—do the followers want the domineering leader, the trickster-leader in Christian clothing, to dominate? They seem happy to blindly obey, excuse, and praise him, even (or maybe especially) if he, as Trump himself bragged, were to kill someone on the street. But is that brag really the exception? What some observers have called “the dictator aesthetic” includes “cruelty, menace, violence and arbitrariness”; Smith and Hanley call such leaders “aggressive authoritarians” (although it is hard to imagine an authoritarian who is not aggressive—how else would they preserve their power?). The dictator, authoritarian, or agitator is almost always, perhaps by definition, a bully, a brute, and a brawler, exceling in dishonesty, resentment, and delusion. More than anything—and here is the ultimate point—he wants to hurt someone, and his devotees want him to hurt someone, namely, those who they believe are hurting and oppressing them. Trump has been repeatedly cheered for urging his brown-shirts to punch protesters, for calling police brutality “a beautiful thing,” for mocking opponents and critics (including the disabled) with childish nicknames and insulting gestures, and lately for promising bloody vengeance on any who dare to resist his criminal activities. In 2020, the allegedly Christian radio host, Rick Wiles, actually advised Trump to use the two billion bullets at his command to “put down” his enemies “so the rest of us can live our lives peacefully.” Where is the supposed Christian charity of “love thine enemy” and “do good to those who hurt you”?

Adam Serwer compiled a series of his essays on Trump and America’s dark future under the title The Cruelty is the Point. He is right. In Christianity, they want us to think, cruelty is not the point (although Christianity has often cruelly and ecstatically persecuted heretics, nonbelievers, and members of other religions), but the trickster is an inherently cruel figure. That is why he was never meant to be a leader or master. Followers might foolishly believe that the trickster is looking out for them, but the trickster always only looks out for himself. Therefore, Christianity (with its slavish prostration to power and its self-appointed moral superiority) and tricksterism (with its selfishness, excess, and indifference to others’ pain or any truth) make a volatile and corrosive mixture, the trickster-leader unleashing the very worst instincts of a congregation that has been waiting for two thousand years to burn the house down.