Why Would a Culture Make Heroes of Destructive Losers?

This piece appeared in newspapers in mid-April, 2024


When I was getting educated, the idea that things in the human world often have a hidden psychological meaning was fairly widespread. Many thinkers of that era agreed: human psychology is often at odds with rationality.

But that way of thinking has largely disappeared: Whatever oddities may appear in the world are taken for granted, rather than seen as clues to deeper realities. And the notion that people – e.g. in social and political movements — may be doing something for reasons they don’t understand has mostly disappeared.

I have long thought change in our society’s thinking a mistake. And lately, I’ve been led by a chain of thoughts to consider an example of how hidden psychological forces may be necessary for understanding the political currents in these broken times.

That chain of thoughts began with Jefferson Davis, the one and only President of the Confederate States of America.

Here’s what seems not to make rational sense: 1) Jefferson Davis was the leader of the South as it took a course that proved utterly catastrophic for the whole region, including the mass of its white population. 2) Jefferson Davis has always been celebrated by the White South as a great hero.

What does it say about a culture when it celebrates a man (naming highways and high schools after him) whose historic role (though he had not early on favored secession) was leading his people into catastrophic defeat?
I’ve pondered that question for years.

Recently, I’ve wondered whether something of the sort is happening now with Trump and his followers. Despite some of Trump’s rivals stressing how Trump has led the party into three consecutive election losses, the Republican base has made it clear that – regardless — Trump is their hero.

An apparent connection: A leader who leads them into defeat is no less their hero for that.

What is the hero doing for the people that outweighs the cost of defeat?

It seems that both Davis and Trump provided a world that involved a battle of “Us vs. Them”:

• The South at war with the North in the case of Davis;
• Trump as Divider-in-Chief, making every political issue (even a pandemic!) a battle against some Other Side.

Two things stand out: a strong desire for conflict, and an indifference to getting favorable outcomes.

The indifference to getting a favorable outcome seems to bespeak some kind of despair: the preference for war over progress bespeaks people having lost faith in the possibilities of life being more fulfilling.

What can “progress” mean, if the chance for feeling better seems futile to pursue?

If really winning isn’t possible, losing doesn’t matter.

Which reminds me of a sociological phenomenon that’s been much talked about in America in recent years: “deaths of despair.”

Evidently, in a major swath of the nation – a swath that tends very much to be pro-Trump (Trump carried every single one of West Virginia’s counties) – is beset by falling life-expectancies because tens of thousands of people have died from suicide (quick, or slow through opiate addiction or alcoholism). Evident signs of despair.

Is despair — the feeling that nothing good can happen — why today’s Republican base seems not to care that their party offers no vision, no program, no policies for moving America forward? (In 2020, no platform whatever!)

It takes wounding disappointment to get people to feel that nothing good can happen. And such painful experience can readily produce rage.

So the despairing may make heroes of leaders that express their rage, even if they also drive them to defeat. It may be that some people get more satisfaction from expressing such rage – through heroes that insist on conflict –than from anything that requires a capacity for happiness.

Brokenness begets brokenness. The brokenness that leads to despair connects with the appeal of leaders who insist on the brokenness of conflict, rather than cooperation for the greater good, and leave things in ruins.

• With Davis and secession, the brokenness took the form of breaking the Constitutional order and precipitating a catastrophic war.
• With Trump the brokenness now openly takes the form of fascism, — with the Big Lie, the lawlessness (88 indictments), the demonization and dehumanization of vulnerable groups of people, the plan on using the “justice” system against his political rivals, etc.

So with respect to the question, “What leads some political cultures to make heroes out of destructive leaders who launch battles they lose?” I propose it connects with those deaths of despair.

While some afflicted with despair about the life’s positive possibilities, others might choose instead, out of their despair, to follow leaders who will channel their pain and rage into destructive conflict.
(Which might be seen to be another self-destructive path, as those leaders take them onto a path to catastrophe, leaving their world more broken.

Whether or not that speculative explanation is valid, I doubt that those who celebrate leaders who lead them to defeat are aware of what makes such leaders attractive to them. In human affairs, it really does seem true that the motivating force is hidden away in people’s psychological depths.

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