Would Nietzsche Shake Trump’s Hand?

07/06/2016 09:10 am ET


Peter Wehner’s July 5 New York Times opinion piece about Donald Trump and Christianity has the tone right but the argument wrong.

Wehner, who served in the last three Republican administrations, points out that evangelical Christians’ rationalizations for supporting Trump are not only wrongheaded but farcical. Wehner quotes evangelical leader James Dobson, who after meeting with the presumptive Republican nominee said, “Trump appears to be tender to things of the Spirit.” How absurd, argues Wehner, who notes that the Holy Spirit represents forbearance, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. Who would seriously consider using such words to describe Trump’s personality?

Even more revealing of the knotted logic many Christians use are the public statements made by author Eric Metaxas, who has published a biography of the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Wehner quotes Metaxas saying Trump will keep America “from sliding into oblivion.” Here Wehner might have mentioned that Bonhoeffer is the closest thing Lutherans have to a modern-day saint. He was murdered by the Nazis just weeks before the end of World War II. While he sat in prison for his heroic anti-Nazi activities, he advocated for the idea of a “weak God” who enters the world not through power but suffering. It is extraordinary to hear a Bonhoeffer scholar sing the praises of a politician who promises to “make America great again.”

But when Wehner claims Trump’s worldview is akin to that of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, his otherwise informative piece goes off the rails. Wehner fails to mention that Nietzsche would have found Trump to be a vulgar and superficial man. Nietzsche’s elitism was of an intellectual variety, and it would also have led him to reject Nazism’s plebeian rabblerousing had he lived long enough to witness it.

Predictably, Wehner quotes Nietzsche’s writings about the “Übermensch” and “will to power.” We should no doubt recognize how such concepts steered the philosopher into dangerous ethical waters. But when Nietzsche wrote, “What is evil? Whatever springs from weakness,” he wasn’t referring to politics. Nietzsche’s “superman” became super through his willingness to overcome obstacles and transform his personality in a process of continuous self-fashioning. As one scholar noted, “Nietzsche is truly allergic to the idea of winners.” He hated the self-satisfaction of those in power, whether in politics or business, and he valued individuals who were unimpressed with their success. In Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche said he philosophized with a hammer, and that meant taking the hammer to self and world, repeatedly and without pity.

Likewise Nietzsche hated the moral certainties of institutional Christianity. If individuals gained his respect through self-questioning and self-renewal, then so too did associations and societies. This even extended to the language we use to make meaning of our world. In his “On Truths and Lies in an Extramoral Sense,” Nietzsche famously wrote, “So what, then, is truth? It is a mobile army of metaphors.” This didn’t mean, as Wehner asserts, an indifference to truth, but rather a strong appreciation of its slipperiness and inherent instability. Truth was out there, but it was fluid and recognizable only from specific perspectives.

Nietzsche’s thought reminds me of the younger Karl Marx, who in 1848 wrote, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Marx referred here to the devastating effects capitalist economies had on work, families, and religion, or, as he wrote, the “real conditions of life.” Like Marx, though from a very different perspective and with quite different (often nefarious) consequences, Nietzsche sensed how the modern world, the world we still live in, undermined truth and power. This is far from the world of Donald Trump, who speaks with an arrogance that would have made Nietzsche cringe.

It is important to understand what historical precedents undergird our Presidential candidates’ rhetoric, but we also need to get these precedents right. Trump is no Nietzschean, just as he is no Christian. If Nietzsche met Trump, would he shake his hand? No, the philosopher would turn his back and walk away, muttering like the precocious curmudgeon he was.

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