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“Credo quia absurdum” — I believe because it is absurd; – Tertullian
This ancient Latin phrase might itself be considered absurd—but it was used to justify Christian faith—not to be achieved by the use of sweet reason. It is apt in these days, for it can help us understand why such an unreasonable candidate as Donald Trump somehow earned the faith of enough of our citizens to be elected President. How can we account for this attraction to absurdity in our lives?
First we must recognize that absurdity is all around us—an everlasting presence. Conscious life is itself a deep mystery, not to be explained by any reasonable account. And death looms as a more conspicuous absurdity, to which we are often forced out of all reason as the times age and as we age in time. We attempt to defend ourselves against the absurd by searching for meaning in events and in our own lives. In this we are aided by social institutions—such as church, family, community, corporation or occupation that can give us stable coordinates—ways of determining North from South, Right from Wrong. But from time to time, we as a people can get lost in a sea of absurdity—as families, jobs, religions, and political institutions are shaken and seem unstable. Even little things can be upsetting, as when a TSA agent in an airport orders someone to take off their shoes and belt, to assume silly postures, and finally to surrender a forgotten corkscrew. Above all, we must not protest at being subjected to such absurd procedures—themselves of doubtful value in achieving safety. We have learned to accept ubiquitous absurdity.
Regulations, orders, commands, rules—these things produce a pool of resentment in us as reasonable citizens—making us vulnerable to an absurd presence, such as Mr. Trump, who seems to exude contempt for any established order. He is manifestly neither good nor kind. He has crude manners and a grotesque appearance—and acts out of impulse rather than reason. He does not calculate, he cares not for evidence nor for scientific analysis. He contradicts himself and yet retains the allegiance of a strong and stubborn minority of people who seem to believe him because he is absurd.
We search for meaning, as the famous psychiatrist Victor Frankl observed, emerging from the absurdity of the Holocaust. But if you are an out-of-work coal miner in West Virginia, whose family has depended for generations on the stability of the mine, you do not have easy search for meaning ahead of you. Never mind that the promise made by Mr. Trump about starting the mines again is absurd. It is believed because it is absurd. It is as if Mr. Trump is giving the middle finger to all of those abiding forces in our world that must be responsible for this conviction that we are being screwed over. It makes no difference that he makes no sense. “Stop making sense” is a line with appeal.
“If I laugh at any mortal thing, ’tis that I may not weep.” – Byron
But Mr. Trump is more than absurd. He is also a fool—and the more remarkable a fool because he does not acknowledge his foolishness. It is a puzzle to know how to react to Donald Trump as President of the United States. Should we be afraid? Fear gives too much credit to the Devil, is unpleasant to experience, and accomplishes nothing. Should we be angry? Anger tends to be blinding, and reduces our capacity to act sensibly, as opposed to lashing out. Lashing out is likely to hurt others, not Mr. Trump. Should we be remote, withdrawn, in denial? This might at least enhance survival in the short run. But isolation simply will not do in the long run–for one may not ignore or be indifferent to a presence so large, so incongruous, so full of novelty and danger. This leaves us the options of either weeping or laughing. We might cry as we submit to the specter of the utter defeat of humanity and civilization as we have known them. Or we might laugh! Laughter is, I submit, beyond compare the best of all possible responses to Donald Trump.
Consider the delicious word, ‘ridicule’. It derives from the Latin verb ‘rire’. It produces the adjectives ‘ridiculous’ and the less common ‘risible’–words that are most apt as descriptive of Mr. Trump’s appearance, utterances, or actions. This is also the root of the word ‘derision’ and the verb ‘deride’ –handy tools in our verbal kit bag.
Mr. Trump is a fool. He does not have, as my grandmother used to say, the common sense that God gave to little green apples. I don’t see him as particularly malicious, even as he is capable of malice in his impulsive churning about. I see humor as the immediate and most natural response to Mr. Trump. I recall the image of Jon Stewart clasping his hands and proclaiming his glee at the news that Donald Trump might actually be the Republican nominee. If you are a professional comedian, always looking for material, then the emergence of Mr. Trump onto the main stage must have seemed like manna from heaven. Other commentators such as David Brooks were much more reserved in their reception of this startling news, and seemed mostly discomfited, not amused, by this untoward development.
The humor that emerges from beholding Mr Trump is multi-layered. He characterizes himself as smart and omni-competent, even as he makes conspicuous display of his ignorance and poor judgement. He talks fluently, to be sure. But he displays a reduced vocabulary with a preference for absolutes and extremes–words like “great” and “terrible”, “disaster” and “terrific”. He frequently exhorts his audience to, “Believe me, trust me,” and usually repeats this command several times. I, for one, am not likely to fall in line behind one who is constantly exhorting me to fall in line.
There is a respectable “theater of the absurd”—with Beckett and Ianesco and Pirandello and even Albee and Shepard guiding us to hone our appreciation of the absurd in life. Dadaism and Dali in art and John Cage in music have understood that “The absurd” has a prominent place in our lives. And so it has—even a place of honor. But it is perilous to allow an absurd fool to take a dominant position in our lives. Mr. Trump should be laughed off the stage.
Karl E. Scheibe is Professor of Psychology, Emeritus at Wesleyan University
He has written extensively on psychology and theater.
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*While Steve Scheibe authors most of the material on the allabroadconsulting blog, this text was written by my brother Karl and is used here with his permission.