By many measures, authoritarianism is on the rise. Both in the U.S. and across Europe. Let’s not even talk about the Middle East, because unfortunately, there is no good news coming from there – at least for now. Globally, are we witnessing a growth of authoritarianism? A cursory glance at the ongoing developments in the U.S., with the rise of someone like Donald Trump indicates that perhaps, it does indicate a preference among people for more order, growth and discipline, even if it means it is coming from an authoritarian figure.
Whether it is the rise of the Hindu nationalist parties in India, the stunning victories of the far-right groups in elections in Europe or the growing felt-need among Americans for ‘strong leaders’, this phenomenon is truly global and needs greater analysis.
The historical idea of the Superman comes from many sources. But in the modern era, one can look to Friedrich Nietzsche as the originator or reviver of this ideal. Nietzsche’s idea of Ubermensch as the ideal man or the ‘Oversoul’ that Goethe wrote about. This psychological archetype could be considered to be an almost primordial longing for something that is an ‘ideal type’. A Jungian archetype, if you will. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the character of Superman is a playoff on Jesus Christ and the imagery used to depict him, throughout history[i]. As a Nietzsche scholar says “He also saw the Übermensch as a creator of values and as a self creator, who overcomes himself by sublimating his impulses and passions[ii].”
Recent studies in political psychology have shown that there is a greater affinity for ideas of totalitarianism in the U.S., and the rapid rise of someone like Mr. Donald Trump is an example of this phenomenon. One of the pioneers of the field of Political Psychology, Prof. Margaret Hermann at the Syracuse University has developed a method to analyze political leadership profiles and to predict how they might react, in given situations. As the school website says, she has done this by identifying personality traits that may be used to determine how they might behave. These traits include “the leaders’ belief in their ability to control what happens; their need for power; their conceptual complexity (viewing the world as black-and-white versus shades of gray); their self-confidence; the degree to which they focus on problem solving versus relationship building; their distrust of others; and how strongly they identify with a group such as party, government, religion, or country[iii].”
Do we need to ‘evolve’ as people? Absolutely yes. Do we need to become better people, and stronger and more focused? Yes, again to that. But do we need to be told how to do that, by some old man – whose promises are not based in reality? I am not too sure. This older, father-figure, which we end up worshipping, may be deceiving us, to gain power. We have seen this in the past and are witnessing it, again.
The question that Americans and those living in this country – which is the only surviving superpower- need to ask is this: Do we need more ‘ordinary men’ than Supermans? Do we need a little less bravado and a bit more sincerity in thought and action? The answer to this will determine whether we will ‘make this country great again.’ As Eva Cybulska argues in her essay and which I have cited here, Nietzsche’s ideal of the Ubermensch is perhaps a ‘toxic vapor that only alienated him from himself and from those who loved him.’ This is also illustrated in the appropriation of this ideal by the Nazis, a move that Nietzsche would have abhorred[iv]. As she suggests, perhaps this ideal is bound to fail as it is ‘often a mask of unacknowledged weakness that parades as power.[v]’ This bravado is also perhaps a mask of much insecurity that lurks beneath. Perhaps, it is not too late to realize this?
[ii] Cybulska, E. Nietzsche’s Übermensch: A Glance behind the Mask of Hardness. Indo-Pacific Journal of Phenomenology, Volume 15, Edition 1, May 2015
[v] Cybulsksa, E. Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. P. 9