[Heisenberg note: this is an instant classic and we’re fortunate to reprint it here with permission]
The nostalgia of greatness and the deconstruction of a déjà vu
It takes a lot of history to make little culture.
Populism is like pornography: Everything is explicit, but the plot cannot be taken seriously. Populist reality is actualized through the positive feedback loop of suspension of disbelief: A political figure infuses a human interest and a semblance of truth into an unrealistic and far-fetched agenda, while the audience suspends judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative. Populist politics has a very rigid form. Irrespective of its platform, its backbone consists of three basic building blocks: Flattery/seduction, self-pity, and vengeance. Systems in need of legitimation create especially fertile ground for populism. This is the key reason for its resurgence in the last decades. The mystique of populism’s appeal has the same origin and logic as pyramid schemes — when easy money (or quick fixes) is offered, we don’t ask for rationale. And we always take the bait believing that we are the perpetrators and not the victims.
Making promises gets politicians elected. Populists tend to make grand promises, but generally fall short of honoring them. They inevitably vouch to deliver greatness, bring country back to its citizens, restore the national pride, save the culture, create jobs and prosperity, and last but not least, kick some butt along the way. Populism is really there to restore the natural order of things. And while list of promises varies across regions, histories and personalities, restorative commitment to greatness is a must in all of them. Without it, there is no serious candidate.
But, what does it take to make a country great? This is a complex long-term project that requires vision. The road to greatness involves disappointment and defeat and the ultimate challenge is to stick to that vision regardless of the odds. But, more than anything, what people refuse to understand and accept, greatness is not a destination, it is just a stop on a journey.
Irresistible reasonableness of nonsensical redux
Trump’s appearance on the scene has been pure entertainment from day one. Comedians cheered, Fox news hesitated, the audience loved it. No one was indifferent. Republican debates became the greatest show on earth. All social rules were suspended. The dismantling of the sixteen opponents in the first stage of the republican debates became a blueprint for how the US will kick global butt. Everybody quickly got what they deserved: Little Marco, Low-energy Jeb, Lying Ted, Weak-little-boy Christie, there’s-something-wrong-with-her-face Carly Fiorina… Ben Carson was out before he had a chance to say a word.
However, as Trump began to lead in the polls and ultimately capture the republican nomination, collective sense of humor gradually subsided. Although his public appearances continued to be entertaining and drew high ratings, people found them progressively less funny. The passions that surfaced in his rallies, general tone of the dialogue, and a lingering sense of latent violence, ready to erupt at any moment, created an unmistakable feeling that storm troopers are among us again. A thick cloud of déjà vu gradually invaded political landscape. Suddenly, Trump was no longer funny. The laughter became silent, reactions subliminal, possibilities frightening.
Nevertheless, it remained difficult to pinpoint the exact source of the underlying uneasiness. And, as it is the case when it comes to pornography (as Hugh Hefner remarked), life can often imitate art.
Several years ago, an interesting book hit the market, Timur Vermes’s Look who’s Back Again (Er is wieder da). It became an unexpected bestseller in 2012 and was later made into a move (released in Oct 2015). A very clever book, a comedy of errors of sorts, its premise is simple: Hitler wakes up in 2010 at the exact spot where he supposedly shot himself in his bunker, now a quiet residential area in Berlin. He’s not a day older than he was in 1945, wears his uniform and speaks and behaves as Hitler would. He is mistaken for a method actor and through a strange set of circumstances becomes a YouTube sensation and TV talk show star assuming the role of a TV prophet, something like Howard Beale in the Network.
There is a moment in the movie when Hitler is asked the inevitable question: Why did you return? What is your mission? His answer: To make Germany great again!
The key word here is again. The mystique and appeal of populism is condensed in this single word. It is also the most frightening word that sends chills through our bones. Let’s compare the two sentences, one without and the other one with the word again.
There is nothing problematic about the desire to make a country great. However, nobody can promise greatness without automatically overextending and discrediting himself. Honoring such a promise would require perfect foresight and control of the future. Greatness is a long-term project, which in its initial stage requires sacrifices, sometimes of entire generations. Adding the word again changes the meaning completely. To make Germany (or America, or any other country) great again, is very different from making it great for the first time.
Again is a highly troubling word here. To begin, it implies that the country was great once, but not anymore — the romance with greatness had been sabotaged. Naturally, this begs two questions: why is the country no longer great, and who is responsible for that. In reality, the answer lies somewhere between “us” and “nobody”. Civilizations rise, evolve and disappear. Spontaneously. That is how things are. The Roman Empire was great once. It no longer exists. But, this is a hard sell – one cannot build a political platform based on these facts; this line of thinking has to be abandoned.
Again is the magic word here. It accomplishes three things in one stroke. The first effect is flattery, its purpose eminently seductive – we are the sons and daughters of great ancestors so we are entitled to greatness. Second, it establishes the emotion of self-pity – our greatness has been hijacked. And finally, it automatically provides legitimation for any and all means required to reclaim the lost greatness, and restore the natural order of things. This aspect alone has strong overtones of labor camps, gas chambers and genocide.
Again simplifies things greatly: It reduces the job of achieving greatness to extermination. All it takes to recapture greatness is to purge the social body of perverts, degenerates, aliens, and all impurities. This one word transforms an elusive, open-ended project into tangible short-term actions. No waiting, no self-sacrifice, only immediate results. What can be simpler and more appealing than that?
This is the first step in establishing false equivalence between business and politics. The methodology of corporate restructuring aimed at sustaining profits and market domination is mapped onto politics of extermination. Once that is done, the job is handed to political technocrats (present day Eichmanns) for implementation. From this naturally follows a mistaken belief that successful (or even unsuccessful) business personalities can also be good political leaders.
New rules: who’s got to be great?
When it comes to greatness, there should be some rules. The world is a global place. Everything is a zero-sum game – for anyone to prosper, someone has to suffer. Because of this, there should be an international Greatness Committee that makes decisions about all issues related to greatness: Who deserves it and who gets it and in which order, long lists, short lists… It should operate like the Olympic committee when it decides the host of the games. Greatness has to be distributed and countries should take turns. You want to become a great country? Take a number. A country that used to be, but is no longer, great, cannot have its second shot right away – has to go to the back of the line. There are no fast tracks. After all, they fucked up. Getting a second chance at greatness should not be the same as repeating a grade or retaking a test one just failed. That aspect has to be considered and accounted for so that the second shot is not wasted. Otherwise, what about Egypt? Greece? They were really, really great once. Not to mention Mongolia. They deserve a chance. Or, how about Persia? Or Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq)? Oh, yes, and China? The list is long. I bet, the Swiss wouldn’t even bother. Switzerland actually never showed interest in becoming great.