Even the architects of the massive leader cults in Nazi Germany or Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship in Italy tried to quell the impression of having deliberately relied on the emotional appeal of personalized politics and symbols. Instead, they tried to emphasize the scientiﬁc nature of their ideologies.
So far as I know, Trump has never even appealed to an ideology, much less to science. He posits nothing but a wholly empty vision of the United States, an ethic of raw greed and will to power, and himself. (In the immortal words of The Big Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak, “Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, […] at least it's an ethos.”)
Trump’s campaign so far has been defined by the absence of a consistent ideological agenda, in favor of: 1) raw venom at his — and, therefore, the United States’s — enemies; 2) sweeping if incoherent criticism of the status quo and the establishment; and 3) a commitment to “Making America Great Again” so vague and apocalyptic that it borders on millenarianism. It adds up to a gigantic middle finger that many dispossessed citizens are happy to rally around in the mistaken belief that it’s pointing at the objects of their own resentments.
Trump has no motive other than to be the dominant and not the dominated. (In his world, you are always one or the other. The Apprentice should have been titled The Subordinate.) The GOP convention paraded a roster of fearmongers to put people in a desperate and anxious frame of mind, all the better to paint Trump as their savior. Yet Trump offers no concrete plan of action, nor does he secretly possess one: he offers only the spectacle of himself. The border wall and the ban on Muslims were casual rhetorical moves to be discarded as soon as they had served the purpose of attracting devotees; perhaps they will be resuscitated one day, perhaps not. Trump supports the Iraq War, then attacks its proponents, then picks one for his vice president. He is pro-choice and then anti-choice, Democrat then Republican, neoliberal then protectionist. He takes you out for lunch, then stabs you in the back. If he won the presidency, he wouldn’t know what to do with it. (Except perhaps, as he has hinted, give it away.) He feels no allegiance to his past promises, nor any commitment to overriding values. There is only Donald.
Trump is one of the most emotionally needy figures in American political history. His candidacy was spurred when he found a niche he could inhabit that would draw the greatest, easiest adulation: this turned out to be the disaffected Republican base. (Had he found a receptive audience on the left, he would have gladly played to them instead.) Unfortunately for all of us, the path of least resistance for him has turned out to be nativism, xenophobia, and know-nothing populism, yet that does not make those qualities innate to him. It only displays how indifferent Trump is to the content of his message.
Trump stands out from other demagogues in that he did not seek political influence from a young age. His overriding concern is not power but love, or at least attention. For most demagogues, from Julius Caesar to Vladimir Putin, the love and devotion of the public serve to shore up their political power; with Trump, it is the other way round. On a fundamental level he cannot be compared to any other politician because he simply isn’t one. He is something else — or perhaps not a something, but not a nothing either. Being a politician requires some conception of bargaining and mutual benefit, which Trump lacks utterly. For Trump, the only acceptable outcome of any transaction is the one where he wins and you get screwed. (Hence his refusal to commit to defending NATO’s Baltic states from a Russian attack, until he sees what they’ll do for him.)
To find a personality that captures the sheer vacuousness of Trump’s anti-ideology, we have to turn to literature, and specifically to Robert Musil’s modernist masterpiece The Man Without Qualities. Begun in Austria in 1921 and left uncompleted at the time of Musil’s death in 1942, The Man Without Qualities is a surgical examination of the varieties of European intellectual pretense and folly in the years leading up to World War I. Musil’s work, begun in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, only became more urgent and desperate in the 1930s as events continued to bear out his direst assessments. The novel stands as a testament to the importance of maintaining independent, sober perception and thought in times of mass hysteria and madness.
The character who concerns us here is Christian Moosbrugger, a working-class murderer of women who becomes an object of fascination for many of the characters in the novel and for the Vienna they inhabit. While standing trial for the brutal killing of a prostitute, he becomes a celebrity due to his cavalier and eccentric manner:
During his trial Moosbrugger created the most unpredictable problems for his lawyer. He sat relaxed on his bench, like a spectator, and called out “Bravo!” every time the prosecutor made a point of what a public menace the defendant was, which Moosbrugger regarded as worthy of him, and gave out good marks to witnesses who declared that they had never noticed anything about him to indicate that he could not be held responsible for his actions.
The rationale for Moosbrugger’s behavior, Musil explains, is his overwhelming neediness, his desire to have himself recognized by others as a superior person:
He was clearly ill, but even if his obviously pathological nature provided the basis for his attitude, and this isolated him from other men, it somehow seemed to him a stronger and higher sense of his own self. His whole life was a comically and distressingly clumsy struggle to gain by force a recognition of this sense of himself.
Moosbrugger will gladly go to jail as long as it reinforces and perpetuates his fame. Yet this formal need for public attention is not backed up by any fixed essence. There is a hole at the core of Moosbrugger’s being. He can’t even commit to being a sociopath:
“Did you feel no remorse whatsoever?” [the judge says.]
Something flickers in Moosbrugger’s mind — old prison wisdom: Feign remorse. The flicker gives a twist to his mouth and he says: “Of course I did!”
“But at the police station you said: ‘I feel no remorse at all, only such hate and rage I could explode!’” the judge caught him out.
“That may be so,” Moosbrugger says, recovering himself and his dignity, “it may be that I had no other feelings then.”
Moosbrugger, deeply insecure, is tormented by resentment toward anyone who might claim intellectual or moral superiority over him:
[H]e could rise to the heights of a grand theatrical pose, declaring disdainfully that he was a “theoretical anarchist” whom the Social Democrats were ready to rescue at a moment’s notice if he chose to accept a favor from those utterly pernicious Jewish exploiters of the ignorant working class. This would show them that he too had a “discipline,” a field of his own where the learned presumption of his judges could not follow him.
Moosbrugger’s mysterious “discipline” is akin to Trump’s “art of the deal”: not a teachable skill but an esoteric, innate property that elevates him above others.
Trump, of course, is not a murderer; unlike Moosbrugger, he was fortunate enough to begin life with his father’s millions and the ability to achieve dominance without physical violence. But Moosbrugger is not really a “murderer” either, Musil suggests, any more than Trump is really a “politician.” Their amoral (not immoral) acts express not character but the absence of character, a strange lack of personal agency:
In the judge’s eyes, Moosbrugger was the source of his acts; in Moosbrugger’s eyes they had perched on him like birds that had flown in from somewhere or other. To the judge, Moosbrugger was a special case; for himself he was a universe, and it was very hard to say something convincing about a universe.
Musil’s core insight is that Moosbrugger possesses a sense of himself as a cosmic entity that removes him from the world of human agency and responsibility. His indifference to all values, and even to the very idea of values, threatens even as it fascinates, since it offers us the freedom to give voice to our most egregious selves and see them reflected back at us not as human qualities but as forces of nature. Elsewhere, Musil describes Moosbrugger’s dissolution of self into “universe” this way:
Anyone can conceive of a man’s life flowing along like a brook, but what Moosbrugger felt was his life flowing like a brook through a vast, still lake. As it flowed onward it continued to mingle with what it was leaving behind and became almost indistinguishable from the movements on either side of it. Once, in a half-waking dream, he had a sense of having worn this life’s Moosbrugger like an ill-fitting coat on his back; now, when he opened it a bit, the most curious sort of lining came billowing out silkily, endless as a forest.
This is a kind of super-solipsism, not just a conviction that no one else exists but an inability to conceive of one’s own self as a separable agent within the world.
Trump’s psychology, too, only makes sense once the traditional conception of ego is discarded. Most politicians seek power out of a desire to make their mark on the world and change the course of history (or simply to take credit for it). I don’t think Trump cares how he will be remembered by history; all there is for him is the attention, the worship, the now. The content of such attention is relevant only across a short stretch of time. Trump cares not for posterity. For Trump, who defines himself only against his immediate surroundings, liminal forms of social relation take precedence over any and all values, facts, or even goals. (He is a pathological variant of what the sociologist David Riesman called the “other-directed person.”) This lack of historical awareness and long-term planning may be his downfall, since all he knows is immediate escalation and pandering. If he did amass an army of Brownshirts, he couldn’t be bothered to give them orders.
Moosbrugger and Trump are, ultimately, only whom the rest of us perceive them to be. Such figures only desire that we perceive them as great. Because they are empty in and of themselves, they are constitutionally incapable of taking responsibility for anything they do, or of having any intuition that words and thoughts should accord with an external reality. Trump’s profound and sweeping ignorance of all things outside himself serves his narcissism; knowledge would only put constraints on his ability to be what people want him to be and what people will love him for: “So there he sat, the wild, captive threat of a dreaded act, like an uninhabited coral island in a boundless sea of scientific papers that surrounded him invisibly on all sides.”
Neither Trump nor Moosbrugger cares much for women, at least not as human beings. Moosbrugger is disgusted by what he perceives as their airs of superiority, accurately claiming no sexual attraction toward or arousal by them. He thinks they are plotting against them, using sex as a weapon:
It was those snickering women who were in the forefront of the conspiracy against him. They all had their skirt-chasers and turned up their noses at a real man's straight talk, if they didn't take it as a downright insult. He gave them a wide berth as long as he could, so as not to let them provoke him, but it was not possible all the time […] If one then has to give in [to sexual desire], he can be sure that at the first step he takes there will be, far up the road like an advance patrol sent out by the others, one of those poisons on two feet crossing his path, a cheat who secretly laughs at the man while she saps his strength and puts on her act for him, if she doesn't do something much worse to him in her unscrupulousness!
Trump, by contrast, poses as a ladies’ man, but I’d argue he comes closer to Moosbrugger’s paranoid misogyny than it might appear. There’s little indication in Trump of genuine sexual attraction to women. A schoolmate told The New York Times that Trump was primarily concerned with how women would reflect on his status: “For Donald, it’s display.” Trump certainly exploits women as status objects, but his disgust toward them comes out when he’s riled — women are “fat pigs,” “dogs” with “plastic breasts,” and, most tellingly, blood-spewers, as in his infamous quote about Megyn Kelly after the first Republican debate in August 2015: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”
In an unpublished passage from The Man Without Qualities, the maid Rachel falls deeply in love with Moosbrugger, projecting a form onto him that he easily fills with his cosmic unpersonhood:
Rachel saw in Moosbrugger not a hero without his peer on earth — for comparison and reflection would then have killed the power of imagination — but simply a hero, a notion that is less definite but blends with the time and place in which it appears and with the person who arouses admiration. Where there are heroes the world is still soft and glowing, and the web of creation unbroken.
This is why Musil concludes that “if mankind could dream as a whole, that dream would be Moosbrugger.” Only a formless, empty vessel could shape itself around such a collective dream. For her part, Rachel satisfies Moosbrugger’s need to be adored; though he is disgusted by her, she is sufficiently devoted to him that he merely beats her regularly but does not kill her. In a 1990 Vanity Fair piece written by Marie Brenner, Ivana Trump is described as being similarly blinded by Donald:
The phrase “Stockholm syndrome” is now used by Ivana’s lawyer Michael Kennedy to describe her relationship with Donald. “She had the mentality of a captive,” Kennedy told me. “After a while she couldn’t fight her captor anymore, and she began to identify with him. Ivana is deaf, dumb, and blind when it comes to Donald.” If Donald worked eighteen-hour days, so would Ivana. […] She went to work running Trump Castle casino in Atlantic City, often spending two or three days a week there supervising the staff.
For a person incapable of equal-footed emotional transactions, such worship and adulation becomes one of the few mechanisms of maintaining an ongoing relationship. Trump may not respect those who worship him, but he does lay off of them, because they feed his need (for now). He’ll screw them over later, just as Moosbrugger will inevitably dump, or kill, Rachel, but for the time being they serve a useful function.
Musil believed that a Moosbrugger could not exist independent of the particular society that formed him. He is a symptom of a sick nation vomiting up its professed values. (Musil’s biographer Karl Corino has identified the Moosbrugger plot as being closely based on the carpenter Christian Voigt, whose trial for murder in 1911 was covered breathlessly by the Viennese press.) So it is with Trump, a reality television star who rode free publicity to his nomination while hardly spending a dime. A narcissist needs a mirror, and we have gladly provided it. Somehow Trump, born rich, has become the reflection of the United States’s own lumpenproletariat, casually breaking whatever barriers of hypocrisy buffeted against the blunt incursion of religious discrimination, rampant xenophobia, gleeful torture, and thuggish violence into popular discourse. Since giving voice to these tendencies produces the adulation that Trump gladly mainlines, he has no compunction in proposing ideas like the Great Wall of Mexico or the ban on Muslims, nor does he care that people are dumb enough to take those ideas seriously. When it comes to any political content, he has to be a mirror, since he possesses no content of his own.
The Austrian newspaper industry, pilloried by Musil’s contemporary Karl Kraus, gawked thoughtlessly at Moosbrugger-like scandals even as they celebrated militarism and the values of empire. Trump’s rise accompanies the commodification of value-neutral attention on the internet. As the ballooning of new media and analytics have facilitated the microscopic examination of consumer attention, the analysis has been performed with indifference to the consequences of that attention. Just as Donald Trump does not care why we pay attention to him, we have seen the media industry turn to clickbait and propaganda in pursuit of viewer eyeballs. The danger of such indifference to substance is obvious: by mindlessly mirroring fearmongering and tribalism, the new media machine has racked up a dangerous amount of collateral damage.
In the bubble economy of pageviews and rageclicks, the reasons for the attention fall away. And so a perpetual attention-generating machine like Donald Trump becomes not just a symptom but an attractor: the news media turned him into a phenomenon in pursuit of attention to their properties, even as the “serious” members of the press denied he could ever become a candidate. After all, all he was was a bid for attention, devoid of any real political program. Alas, such a distinction between politics and attention is no longer meaningful.
Only in a world where raw attention is an ultimate end could Trump have become a presidential nominee. By being deaf to all ulterior motives beyond self-aggrandizement, Trump is oddly incorruptible, apparently unwilling to be tamed by teleprompter or Svengali. By refusing to have any principles, he can’t be manipulated through them, nor can he betray them. “This was clearly madness,” Musil writes of Moosbrugger’s hothouse rhetoric, “and just as clearly it was no more than a distortion of our own elements of being.” Trump’s secret is that there is no secret. He is the Pollock canvas on which we’ve flung our collective vomit and feces. In the chaos that results, we can almost make out our reflection.
An earlier version of this piece appeared on crookedtimber.org.
David Auerbach is a fellow at the New America Foundation. He is currently writing a book on the impact of algorithmic and computational methods on public policy and social life.