Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) foresaw the future and it wasn’t pretty. We are literally, today in the United States, living in a country whose president is, in many ways, a perfect example of Nietzsche’s infamous Ubermensch, which is usually translated into English as the Superman — an unfortunate translation because our American comic book hero bears no similarity to the Nietzschian Superman. The comic book Superman is all about good and evil; the other Superman is beyond good and evil. Those antiquated concepts simply don’t apply to him. He has no interest in them. They do not concern him. Sound familiar?
Nietzsche hated Christianity because it was “a religion of slaves” that taught “a morality fit only for slaves,” a morality unfit for man in his true, glorious state: the state where the pure, unbridled “Will to Power” is allowed to take its rightful place as the greatest virtue of all. In Nietzsche’s best of all possible worlds, humankind will cease holding itself back; will cease reining in ambition and weakening the drive for “advancement” at all costs; humankind will no longer accommodate or protect the weak and the less than perfect. Of course, rational democratic debate, compromise and recognition of any failings have no place in such a system. Everything is about winning; the world is a zero-sum game; there are only winners and losers — nothing in between.
For Nietzsche, the rulers of the planet must become post-Christian. In his mind, brilliant classical scholar that he was, the Greeks and Romans were on the right track. They valued strength and conquest above all else, period. They worshiped the god of war (Mars) and the goddess of victory (Victoria). In fact, a large statue of the goddess Victory presided over the Senate in Rome for centuries, until the Christian Emperor Gratian removed it in 382 CE. In the Nietzschian system, man himself, as the Superman, should be the arbiter of everything, the Alpha and Omega, and the highest object of worship.
Does that sound insane? Well, yes. And Nietzsche, himself, had a complete psychotic breakdown at age 44, from which he never recovered. Nonetheless, the impact of his philosophy has been truly immense and truly frightening. If we want to understand Donald Trump, we have to start with re-reading Nietzsche. It bears noting Nietzsche was German and Trump has often stated his great pride in his German heritage. Well, there’s the German heritage represented by Schweitzer and Bonhoeffer and there’s the German heritage represented by Nietzsche and Hitler — never the twain shall meet.
Does Trump know his Nietzsche? That’s unlikely, but it doesn’t matter. Nietzsche’s point was that “God is dead and we have killed him,” and once society has crossed that threshold, as his Germany had done to the late-1800s, the forces of history and Will to Power will open the floodgates for the rise of the Superman. The Superman-Messiah will arrive, pushing out the weak and unfit pseudo deity of Jesus Christ.
I think it almost goes without saying that the U.S. has never had a president more un-Christian and non-religious than Donald Trump. Yes, he has paid lip service to the Evangelical Right and shamelessly courts their support, but his life, his morals, his manner of speaking, his whole reason for being is completely counter to any and all Christian values. Many on the Evangelical Right openly admit this and say “We don’t want a pastor-in-chief.”
So, my question is this: To those who are of the dyed-in-the-wool “secular humanist” school and who have long expressed a desire for us to embrace, like Europe has, a post-Christian ethos, I ask, now that we have our first post-Christian, post-religion president: How do you like him? We have a Superman, an Ubermensche, for a president. We have unbridled Will to Power in the White House. And, like Nietzsche, he is insane.
But it is not a trivial, run-of-the-mill type of insanity. This is an Uber-insanity because it is all bound up with nationalism, racism, protectionism, cronyism and some of the worst excesses of capitalist-corporate oligarchy the world has ever seen. At least, the worst of those excesses ever seen outside of Russia. Trump and Russian capitalist oligarchs have a lot in common — not the least of which is that they both, having no religiously instilled morals whatsoever, have no self control to combat their worst inclinations.
Contemporary secular humanist philosophers, some I count among my friends, love to say there are plenty of good, upstanding people who don’t have any religion at all. And I answer that statement with this observation: But those people you’re talking about don’t tend to become politicians. Politicians, as a class, are not exactly known for their goodness and upstanding character. The profession of politics, especially at the national level, attracts a large number of “ethically challenged” individuals. There is a moral hazard built into the profession. There are exceptions, thank God, but those are exceptions that prove the rule.
Of all the professions on Earth, we can say with certitude that politics is the one that presents, day in and day out, the most temptation for engaging in Nietzschian Will-to-Power behavior — behavior that is utterly destructive to human persons and to the well-being and the human community. And most importantly, when we allow Will to Power to merge with laissez-faire capitalism, we have a perfect storm. And that’s what we have in the U.S. right now with the GOP in control of the White House and the Senate.
Someone wise once said, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. That’s the crux of the problem (pun intended). Without being in constant dialogue with a moral system built on foundations far firmer than populism and utilitarianism, politics will always (repeat, always) run wildly astray. There will always be that politician who thinks of himself as the Superman and — even more dangerous — there will always be those who are ready and willing to believe in Superman. He’s a mythic hero of almost endless appeal, but he is a mere myth all the same.
We have entered Aldous Huxley’s (and Nietzsche’s) dystopian Brave New World. Do we really want to stay here? Do we really want a system that rewards the Superman Ruling Oligarchy of our society at the expense of everyone else? Or do we want a society that is built, at least to some degree, upon the humane and merciful values of the Sermon on the Mount?
The question facing us now is that large and that important.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.