Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice. It is the view that humans define their own meaning in life, and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. An existential threat is a threat to a people’s existence or survival. If you wrestle with big questions involving the meaning of life, you may be having an existential crisis. Although the word existence was known in the 14th century, most people wrote about philosophy in Latin at that time and used the word existentia. The verb exist waited another couple of centuries to appear, not being known before Shakespeare used it in the mouth of King Lear, who swore to disown poor Cordelia ‘by all the operation of the orbs/ From whom we do exist and cease to be’. It’s the threat of ceasing to be that worries people now.
Existentialism believes that individuals are entirely free and must take personal responsibility for themselves (although with this responsibility comes angst, a profound anguish or dread). It therefore emphasizes action, freedom and decision as fundamental, and holds that the only way to rise above the essentially absurd condition of humanity (which is characterized by suffering and inevitable death) is by exercising our personal freedom and choice. Existentialism is more a reaction against traditional philosophies, such as Determinism, that seek to discover an ultimate order and universal meaning in the structure of the observed world. It asserts that people actually make decisions based on what has meaning to them, rather than what is rational. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were interested in people’s concealment of the meaninglessness of life and their use of diversion to escape from boredom. Nietzsche further contended that the individual must decide which situations are to count as moral situations.
Kierkegaard saw rationality as a mechanism humans use to counter their existential anxiety, their fear of being in the world. Kierkegaard also stressed that individuals must choose their own way without the aid of universal, objective standards. Thus, most Existentialists believe that personal experience and acting on one’s own convictions are essential in arriving at the truth, and that the understanding of a situation by someone involved in that situation is superior to that of a detached, objective observer. According to Camus we live in an absurd universe, in which meaning is not provided by the natural order, but rather can be created by human actions and interpretations. Sartre saw rationality as a form of “bad faith,” an attempt by the self to impose structure on a fundamentally irrational and random world of phenomena (“the other”). This bad faith hinders us from finding meaning in freedom, and confines us within everyday experience.1
Friedrich Nietzsche observed, “Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.” Even what we believe we see with our own eyes is made up from memory. When referring to blind spots in our vision that we do not notice, much of what you see ‘out there’ is actually manufactured ‘in here’ by your brain. Malleable memory, the brain filling in gaps in vision, and the biggest culprit, defense mechanisms, as well as the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain leading to an implicit preference toward a lie, should at least contribute to one realizing thinking cannot be trusted. People want to hear what they want to hear. When two candidates are running and one of them tells the truth and the other says what the public wants to hear, the one who says what the public wants to hear wins the election.
There is not one big reason Trump won. His election promises represented an appeal to popular resentment, to so-called herd instincts. Donald Trump made a string of promises during his long campaign to be the 45th president of the United States. Taking back control of immigration included banning all Muslims entering the US and building a wall along the border with Mexico. He echoed Republicans attacking Obamacare, saying the law imposes too many costs on business, describing it as a “job killer” and decrying the reforms as an unwarranted intrusion into the affairs of private businesses and individuals. Under his ‘America first’ doctrine in January, 2017 the president promises his plans will create 25 million new jobs in the next decade. Trump claimed, “We will bring back our jobs … our borders … our wealth, and … our dreams.”
Donald Trump is an authoritarian, we can all agree on that. He proclaims it at every opportunity. He’s selected some of the most ridiculously hardline authoritarians for his administration. Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian style may excite Trump and his supporters, but it’s hardly a quality that would make a good president. However, that’s the strength Trump admires, the willingness to achieve your own ends no matter how much harm you might do to others. Trump may claim (falsely) that he opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, and periodically express skepticism about overseas adventures. But that won’t bother most Republicans, because no candidate has ever fetishized the conservative brand of strength more than he does. Pollsters have asked for decades whether voters consider candidates to be strong leaders, and their answers correlate highly with their choice for president.
Donald Trump is unique in that responsibility washes over him and into the shower drain like a layer of dirt; he is devoid of it even in personal interaction. The only rational explanation of his behavior is the term extreme individualism. In Trump’s mind there are winners and losers. His basic issue over several decades has been bad deals – bad deals in defending allies who he feels do not pay enough for their defense and bad trade deals. Like any business owner or high level executive, he intends to issue orders expecting them to be carried out. By invoking a return to an imaginary past and ignoring reality, Trump is putting at risk a sustainable future, not just for America and its economy, but for the very survival of civilization. There are very pressing threats to human survival that can only be addressed with clear-eyed realism. Seeking to make America great while risking destroying the world is hardly a viable approach to our future.
Ultimately, there are only two primary political belief systems, which are poorly captured by any label such as liberal, conservative, republican, or democrat. The two, fundamental political belief systems are: In the first system, the belief is that there are circumstances people are born into which largely determine their choices and outcomes, and that each of us is fundamentally responsible for helping others overcome the negativity associated with their disadvantages. Because of this, the happiness and suffering of every person is inexorably tied to that of every other person. The second belief system declares every person has his/her own choice to fail or succeed, and that those who suffer are doing so in some part due their own personal failure. As such, it is not the moral obligation of those who chose correctly to sacrifice in order to help those who chose poorly.2
One group thinks that those who are in positions of advantage are there by way of good fortune alone, and that they therefore are indebted to society, and humanity, as a whole. Nietzsche named the original system of social control in small communities, the morality of outcomes (of actions), the consequences of one’s conduct being the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or the wrongness of that conduct. This means that the morality of an action is dependent on both the intentions of the action and its consequences. The other group feels it was their individual choices that yielded their success, apart from any advantages they may have had, and that they therefore owe nobody anything – least of all those who made poor choices when they should have made the right ones. For this group, determinism rules out free will. Existentialism is a complete rejection of Determinism.
Existentialist thought concerns itself with trying to understand fundamentals of the human condition and its relation to the world around us. Existentialism puts special emphasis on personal choices and on the problems and peculiarities that face individual human beings. As a result, meaning is not provided by the natural order, but rather can be created, however provisionally and unstably, by human beings, actions and interpretations. For Nietzsche, the celebration of a man like Trump was the inevitable result of a democratic culture built on the virtues of ignorance and self-fulfillment. For Nietzsche, culture has to do with overcoming yourself, while anything that is static and non-moving is the death of culture. All this nostalgia and looking back (turning to a traditionalist world view) you see from Trump supporters is poisonous to culture for Nietzsche because it stunts any possibility of progress.3
How does one respond to this existential threat? It is necessary to resist this regression into a petty, fragmented brand of politics rooted in resentment and fear. There is a need for a morality of unintended consequences. It isn’t necessary to buy into the big lie all of the time. You can step back from thinking. As Eckhart Tolle says, “Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.” Question from where your thinking arises. How do these thoughts or feelings relate to your history; what is this event tapping into? What is the root of this feeling? In what ways am I lying to myself? These are questions that can begin the process of seeing reality more clearly.4 This will counter the intentional blurring of the relationship between proposed facts and reality that dominates the present political climate.
1 The Basics of Philosophy http://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_existentialism.html
2 Miessler, Daniel. (8 Sept 2009) Free Will vs. Determinism as the Core of Political Disagreement https://danielmiessler.com/blog/free-will-vs-determinism-as-the-core-of-political-disagreement/#gs.qpGGL7o
3 Illing, Sean. (20 Dec 2016) What Nietzsche’s philosophy can tell us about why Brexit and Trump won http://www.vox.com/conversations/2016/12/20/13927678/donald-trump-brexit-nietzsche-democracy-europe-populism-hugo-drochon
4 Berry, William. (23 March 2013) The Big Lie https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-second-noble-truth/201403/the-big-lie