Rejecting the Great Man Theory of 2016

Megan Carpentier says that liberals should stop asking whether Donald Trump is a Nazi—not because the comparison is meaningless, but because the question misses the point in an extraordinarily American way.

The Nazis gained power in Germany through democratic elections and maintained it through maintaining the support of a plurality, if not a true majority, of Germans well into the 1940s. Thus, the question isn’t whether Trump and his ilk are Nazis; it’s whether Americans are, or would be willing to accept it if they were.

She goes on to talk about the way our country has been steeped in the nineteenth century Great Man philosophy of history.

Under this view of things, all historical change is a project reserved for our leaders; the rest of us are just drawn along in their wake with little agency or responsibility.

In the prose of governing (as opposed to the poetry of campaigning), we’ve come to see this Great Man theory of history expressed on both the left and right as Green Lanternism, where presidents or congressional leaders are seen to be imbued with magical powers to overcome opposition to their agenda.

This Great Man philosophy has led to a very different approach to history in America as compared to  Germany.

In America, we learn that Hitler and the Nazis committed the Holocaust; in Germany, German children learn that they all participated in it, because the Germans came to believe that acknowledging their collective culpability as individuals was the only way to prevent it from ever happening again.

Americans, meanwhile, continue to debate whether the Civil War was fought to preserve the institution of slavery, as stated by actual Confederates at the time, or to settle a far more abstract and nebulous quarrel over the less morally indefensible concept of “states rights.” History isn’t always written by the victors, especially if there’s a version that makes everyone feel a little less guilty.

While the Great Man theory absolves us of collective responsibility, it makes a mockery of the idea that this country is a democratic republic. The trade-off for recognizing that responsibility is that it brings tremendous power. That is why Hillary Clinton once wrote this about Saul Alinsky:

If the ideals Alinsky espouses were actualized, the result would be social revolution. Ironically, this is not a disjunctive projection if considered in the tradition of Western democratic theory. In the first chapter it was pointed out that Alinsky is regarded by many as the proponent of a dangerous socio/political philosophy. As such, he has been feared — just as Eugene Debs or Walt Whitman or Martin Luther King has been feared, because each embraced the most radical of political faiths — democracy.

Much of the talk about what happened in the 2016 presidential election has focused on what Hillary Clinton did wrong (the Great Woman view) or on the need for Democrats to have more empathy in understanding what led so many white people to vote for Trump. In other words, we tend to hold our leaders accountable and give voters a pass in terms of responsibility for electing the man who some compare to a Nazi. Charles Taylor refuses to go there.

Although cable television and the Internet can be a haven for misinformation, they also make responsible journalism available to a wider audience than ever before. It’s not like the facts about the candidates were somehow unavailable to voters in red states. Despite the mainstream media’s craven narrative of two equally untrusted candidates — an approach which declined to say in what case distrust was matched by actual duplicity — the facts were available to prove that the charges of Clinton’s lying and Trump’s business genius were both the sheerest fictions. That Trump voters chose an easily disprovable myth over readily available facts is one sign of their willful ignorance.

And still this imperviousness to fact pales next to the racism and xenophobia and misogyny — in other words, the moral ignorance — that Trump’s supporters wallowed in. All of the condescension of which liberals have been accused can’t begin to match the condescension of the current storyline that Trump voters are too disenfranchised or despised or dismissed to be held morally responsible for their choices.

To the extent that our president-elect’s campaign bears any resemblance to the Nazis’ in Germany, we would do well to jettison the Great Man theory of focusing solely on him and recognize that nearly 63 million people voted for someone who bragged about sexual assault, openly displayed his racism toward brown and black people, mocked a journalist with disabilities, maligned people of one religious faith, and consistently noted his admiration for dictators. Even within the epistemically closed bubble of right wing media, these facts were known. They voted for him anyway (or perhaps because of those things).

To avoid the facts of collective responsibility in this election is to strip us of our agency in a democratic republic, just as we have so often tried to do with this country’s original sin of slavery. Embracing responsibility doesn’t have to mean simply wallowing in blame and shame. But it does mean holding people accountable for their choices as a way to open the door to learning from those mistakes.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.