These are not easy questions. Who am I? Why am I here? They’re not easy because the human being isn’t wired to function as an individual. We’re wired tribally, to act as part of a group. Our psyches are programmed by millions of years of hunter-gatherer evolution. We know what the clan is; we know how to fit into the band and the tribe. What we don’t know is how to be alone. We don’t know how to be free individuals.
… It may be that the human race is not ready for freedom.
— Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
Populist demagogues like the petulant adolescent now ensconced in the White House rise to power by casting themselves as the only ones who can preserve the rights and freedom and security of the true people, the people of the blood and the soil. Societies and cultures are ever in flux as they respond to economic change and environmental change and new knowledge and human imagination and migrating populations. This flux forces on us those uneasy questions of identity and purpose. Artists and social critics and professional thinkers see burgeoning opportunity to produce new creative and social capital. But most people are not artists, social critics, or professional thinkers. Their response to change is vague disquiet that becomes apprehension that becomes anxiety that becomes fear.
Cynical and ruthless and unencumbered by any sort of moral grounding, preening punks like Trump, Orbán, Bolsonaro, Le Pen, and Farage prey on this fear and promise a return to greatness that never existed but has to be conjured so the demagogues can invent a narrative of the fall. Who is the one destined to lead the true people out of their fallen state? Three guesses.
Populism does nothing to preserve freedom and liberty because it’s a calculated reversion to tribalism. It’s a play on our worst instincts when we’re rattled by the profound questions that true freedom and individual liberty put right before our eyes, confronting us with how little in life is ever stable or certain. Being free is not free. It levies a stiff tax. It requires us to be ever attentive, to face constant hard questions with never enough information, to always confront how little we really know about anything that matters. All we can do is make our best guesses with the only lives we’ve got, but we’d really rather not deal with that. Millions of us prefer to pull on the armbands or put on the red hats or form up for the parade with our torches and our matching polo shirts. It’s way fucking easier than thinking.
A few days ago I decided that the next time I’m asked to designate my religion, I’m going to write “Stoic Pessimist.” Day by day, I mean to keep going, but I have less faith that we can handle freedom or democracy or a republic governed by law and bending toward justice. As a species we may have a fatal flaw, and a fatal propensity for breeding people happy to exploit that flaw. I hope I’m wrong.