The Devil and the Demagogue

In the presidential debate on Sunday, Donald Trump charged that Bernie Sanders had sold out to “the devil.”  The devil?!  Oh, yes, of course.  Hillary. “She’s the devil.” That’s how the aspiring exorcist-in-chief put it in a Mechanicsburg, PA rally in August.  And he has reportedly repeated this rant once again on the campaign trail this week.

Trump’s Manichean disposition – his tendency to demonize or dehumanize opponents – has been on such stark display over the past year there’s no need to offer further documentation.  That may be found among the 36,600 hits that a “Manichean Donald Trump” search calls up on Google today.

What is of interest from the complexity perspective advanced by this blog is the reality disconnect in which political Manicheanism is rooted.  It is a phenomenon that Norbert Wiener, writing at the height of McCarthyism, devoted attention to in his still timely and exciting work The Human Use of Human Beings (1950, 1954).  In that book, Wiener took aim at another reality disconnect – the assumption in Newtonian science that absolutely certain, unquestionable laws govern all natural processes.  And he extended that critique to the absolutism manifest in the political demagoguery of his time about which he observed “…it is only in an atmosphere in which witchcraft is genuinely possible that witch-hunting flourishes as a significant activity. Thus it is no accident that Russia has had its Berias and that we have our McCarthys” (1950, 1954:262).

The bigger picture into which Wiener placed his critique of McCarthyism was the probability revolution that overthrew the absolute reign of the Newtonian deus ex machina.  Wiener championed the role of physics pioneers Ludwig Boltzmann and Josiah Willard Gibbs in demonstrating the need to introduce “a fundamental element of chance in the texture of the universe itself” (1950, 1954:19).  This resulted in one of the great reality breakthroughs of modern science, namely that disorder and uncertainty (both the mathematical equivalent of entropy) can never be eliminated; they can only be reduced.  This open-ended, probabilistic approach to disorder and uncertainty knocked Perfect Order and Absolute Certainty off the pedestal that had become the Holy Grail of science for many disciples of Newton.  And it provided a framework within which Wiener could situate his critique of political intolerance.

Wiener sewed his critique of political demonizing into this picture by calling upon St. Augustine’s view of evil.  Augustine was, before he converted to Christianity, a Manichean.  For Manicheans some people embodied evil; they were the devil incarnate.  In disowning this philosophy, Augustine proposed instead that evil is impersonal and cannot be personified.  He sought to depersonify views of evil.  Wiener likened this impersonal view of evil to entropy.

“For this random element [entropy], this organic incompleteness, is one which without too violent a figure of speech we may consider evil; the negative evil which St. Augustine characterizes as incompleteness, rather than the positive malicious evil of the Manichaeans.” 1950, 1954:19.

In lieu of a malevolent, metaphysical view of evil, Wiener proposed a view of evil rooted in nature, one with political ramifications.

 “The view that nature reveals an entropic tendency is Augustinian, not Manichaean…In Augustinianism, the black of the world is negative and is the mere absence of white, while in Manichaeanism, white and black belong to two opposed armies drawn up in line facing one another.  There is a subtle emotional Manichaeanism implicit in all crusades, jihads and all wars of communism against the devil of capitalism…” 1950, 1954:259-260

As vying claims on what is evil or not, Augustinian evil looks to the disordered phenomena made scientifically accessible by the statistical mechanics of Bolzmann and Gibbs whereas Manichean evil summons supernatural forces for which there is no natural explanation.

It is fair and very important to ask whether a physical concept like entropy can extend to politics.  To assert that Augustinian evil is analogous to entropy is a rather weak claim.  A stronger claim, the one I hypothesize in a complexity theory of power, is that uncertainty and disorder in human social and political systems are homologous to entropy in the physical realm.  By applying this theory to various events in the news, this is essentially the claim I’m putting to the test in this blog.  To the extent that this hypothesis resonates in the face of diverse empirical testing, the claim can stand that political Manicheanism, including the variety now being broadcast by Trump, is a reality disconnect not merely in a metaphorical but in a very real sense.

When Donald Trump demonizes Hillary Clinton or entire groups like Muslims and Mexicans, it is hard to know whether he actually believes what he is saying or if he is just appealing to voters known to be susceptible to such pitches.  Either way, he has joined ugly company.  Adolf Hitler, for example, wrote in Mein Kampf “…in our people the personification of the Devil, as the symbol of all evil, assumes the living appearance of the Jew” (447).  Whether or not he is aware of whose playbook he is borrowing from, it seems clear that Donald Trump easily fits the dictionary definition of a demagogue — someone who appeals to “popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument” (Google’s online dictionary).

Hitler, Adolf. 1941. Mein Kampf.  New York: Reynal and Hitchcock.
Wiener, Norbert.  1950, 1954. The Human Use of Human Beings.  New York: Avon Books.

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