I am a huge Orson Welles fan. This weekend I decided to watch Citizen Kane again to escape the daily Donald Trump soap opera. Bad idea. It became a double-dose of emotional upheaval as I juxtaposed the various personality traits embodied by both characters. Kane’s character is at times pompous, lording over anyone he could belittle. Sounds familiar. At other times he appears shallow and pathetic. Lessons relearned. One cannot accumulate enough material things to make life meaningful and rewarding. There is no escaping yourself and soon enough you will be a lonely, despised character waiting for your inevitable encounter with the grim reaper. Welles was remarkable in that role. I cannot say the same for Mr. Trump; he’s doing a lousy job playing President.
However, for millions of Americans, Donald Trump is that “great man” they desperately need to feel safe. He is the Jim Taylor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, who ensures everyone toes the line and stay in their places in order to keep order. As Ayn Rand wrote in The Fountainhead: “Great men can’t be ruled… The great is the rare, the difficult, the exceptional.” America was built by exceptional men—the Rockefellers, the Gettys, the Vanderbilts. Donald Trump would like us to believe he belongs in that pantheon. Until we see his tax returns, millions share his fantasies as one who can make America great again.
Progressives on the other hand, embrace a nurturing family model wherein both parents have responsibility. Most people are inherently good but may need some support when life’s circumstances turn for the worse. Conservatives see people who want to help others as “do-gooders” who upset the order of things. By not pursuing their own self-interest and helping others, do-gooders hinder motivation and foster dependence. These frames have been hard-wired in our collective psyches. When we talk about issues within this frame, we reinforce these prevailing ideas. President Reagan told us: “government is the problem.” Trump assures us only he can fix our problems.
When people see themselves as being outside of the solution process, they must depend on someone to look out for their interests. The American myth of rugged individualism lends itself well to the great man theory. But it is not limited to the United States. There are charismatic, if not totalitarian leaders across the globe. Many get elected. Most recently, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison was elected for a third term despite predictions that he would lose to the Labor Party’s candidate Bill Shorten who promoted a laundry list of policies that seemed to be more in tune with the electorate. Like Hillary Clinton, he was judged by many to be “uninspiring.”Remember, nine percent of Americans who voted for President Barack Obama abandoned Hillary Clinton for Donald Trump.
Despite a misguided trade war where tariffs are having a deleterious effect on the very people Trump promised to rescue, his base remains solid. If the economy holds up, there is a chance—not a good chance—but a chance, he could be reelected. Like Charles Foster Kane, Trump’s world appears to be imploding. The question remains: can the Democratic-run House of Representatives hold him accountable for his misdeeds. Should Demcrats appear indecisive and timid, Americans may decide to hold on to their blustering leader. It will not be the first time.
Middle-class Americans are pawns in this game of thrones. As long as they are struggling, Trump and Republicans can rely on their divisive tactics to convince white working-class Americans their woes are due to liberal policies, minorities and immigrants. I believe social workers can reframe public discourse to focus on our values—which are American values—and the need for cooperation in pursuing the common good. Government is the problem as long as we leave it solely to the “great” men.