How to Stop a Trump
Building a Eudaimonic Society
What an era. We’re all a little hysterical, I’d wager — and we should be. The global rebirth of authoritarianism, championed by demagogues — whether they’re named Trump, Putin, Erdogan — it’s the single biggest rupture in our lifetimes. History repeating like a broken record.
Why this rebirth of authoritarianism — where do demagogues come from? Research says: when a middle class implodes, when inequality spikes, when incomes stagnate — expect it. That is, authoritarian demagogues arise when a society fails at eudaimonia — enabling people to live genuinely good lives.
And that also gives us some vital clues about how to stop them. Sure, in the near term, as the US is obsessed with, it’s important to “take down” a demagogue. But unless the underlying cause is fixed — a eudaimonia deficit — more than likely, another one will just arise in his place, maybe this time named Junior. Because countries like Sweden, Canada, France, and Germany have done better at offering eudaimonia to people, they have been dramatically less vulnerable to demagoguery and authoritarianism than the US and the UK.
Stopping authoritarianism means building societies where every life can, should, and does flourish, develop, and grow. Let’s take those one by one, because they each matter in vitally different ways, using the example of America.
Should. A society must build eudaimonic, humane norms and values if it’s to prevent, mitigate, stop authoritarianism — it must really believe that everyone should live a good life. America never really developed such norms and values — it’s still largely dominated by the unstated assumptions that the weak deserve to be punished, and a good life should only belong to the winners of society. Only the definition of weak has changed from “black” to “poor” to “middle class”. But it is exactly those inhumane norms and values that left it vulnerable to authoritarianism—by shrinking eudaimonia in society — and so until they change, neither is its plight likely to.
Can. Norms and values are just abstractions unless they’re transformed into positive agendas — by political parties, media, intellectuals, thinktanks, and so on — for people to live genuinely good lives. Agendas that outline and delineate real world social contracts. Can means: people can enjoy this level of income, protection, security, mobility, etc. In my adult life, I can’t remember a single example of that kind of “can” in America. Can you?
Does. That positive agenda, in turn, must be built into real world institutions. Like, for example, the UK’s NHS, Germany’s Mittelstand, Canada’s CBC and so on. Real world institutions like these allow the goodness of people’s lives to grow, expand, develop. They allow real human well being to flourish. Without institutions like these — which are usually social institutions providing public goods — well being simply stagnates. Why? Because capitalism is good at providing things that titillate us, tickle our fancies, satisfy our fickle egos — but that’s about all it’s really good at. Just because you have a gold-plated iPhone doesn’t mean you’re happy, content, at peace, educated, virtuous, intelligent, friendly, kind, creative, defiant, graceful, humane, loving. Only good healthcare, education, transport, media, entertainment, and so on, can really do enable human well being to flourish — instead of the little predator in each of us to feel smugly satisfied for a fleeting instant before the emptiness kicks in again.
America needs to craft a society where every life can, should, and does flourish if it is to defeat authoritarianism. Can it do those three things? I don’t know. I think it can. But I think it needs to begin at the beginning. With really valuing human life in a fundamentally richer and more sophisticated way.
Every human life that does flourish in a society can be seen as a kind of insurance against authoritarianism made good. Every human life that can flourish in a society can be seen as the test of how well its social contract is really working. And every human life that should flourish in a society — that is the test of how high into the wide open sky of accomplishment a society will soar, and how far across the oceans of time it is likely to reach.