I am a sucker for antiheroic television. Walter White, Vic Mackey, Gregory House, Analise Keating and others have given me hours of entertainment, blurring the lines of right and wrong in pursuit of their own personal versions of truth. Antiheroism has long been a staple of popular Western entertainment, yet today it seems that if a hero protagonist isn’t anti, he or she is boring, unrealistic, or just not that interesting. Even Superman is an antihero these days (a bridge too far if you ask me). I’m not sure whether life is imitating art or art is simply illuminating a long trend in our society, but this year we have a genuine antiheroic candidate for President of the United States in Donald J. Trump. While others have focused on how we have gotten here, speculating on the role of celebrity and “reality t.v.” in fomenting the rising popularity of Trump’s antiheroic candidacy or mistakenly conflate anti-establishmentarianism with antiheroism (despite the silly “Breaking Bern” memes, Bernie Sanders is no antihero), I want to tackle the psychology of antiheroism to determine what the rise of Trump says about the nation.
Dr. Peter K. Jonason and a team of psychologists write that the antiheroes of popular literature and media all possess some combination of the three traits that make up the “Dark Triad” of personality: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.1 Narcissists believe they are “inherently better and more deserving of the respect and admiration of those around them.”2 Psychopaths display a constellation of antisocial behaviors including “low remorse, low fear, low empathy, egocentrism, exploitativeness, manipulativeness, impulsivity, aggression, and criminality.”3 Machiavellianists are characterized by a manipulative self-serving strategy rooted in the belief that the ends always justifies the means.4 Antiheroes, as depicted in popular culture, inhabit all three traits.
From this description of antiheroism, we can posit that Donald Trump embodies the Dark Triad and has transformed himself from a popular culture antihero (see his work on the Celebrity Apprentice) into a political antihero. His narcissistic belief that he is better and more deserving of the presidency than anyone else is evident when he degrades others to make himself seem superior (see his taunts of John McCain for getting captured in Vietnam or his disqualification of Carly Fiorina’s candidacy because of her face). His psychopathic tendencies are revealed by his utter refusal to apologize for any of the offensive, outlandish things he has said about whole groups of people over the years (see the announcement of his candidacy where he declares that many undocumented Mexican immigrants are rapists and murderers or this powerful political ad where women repeat many of the sexist remarks Trump has made about women over the past few years) and his impulsive aggression on the campaign trail and in debates where he is more likely to name call than to have substantive discussions on policy. Finally, his Machiavellian tendencies of ends justifying means are apparent in his desire to ban all Muslims from entering the country, defeat ISIL by “taking the oil,” and advocacy for torture as an effective and worthwhile interrogation technique.
The political antihero Donald Trump will likely enter the Republican National Convention with the most delegates, perhaps even more than the 1,237 pledged delegates needed to clinch the nomination. Even if he doesn’t have enough to clinch and a brokered convention ensues, we must pause to consider the character of a nation that would allow his candidacy to capture our collective imaginations. Perhaps his candidacy signifies the rise of an “Antiheroic” America. If so, I worry for our nation’s future. An antiheroic America trades in the aspirations of a nation that strives to be a city on the hill for the narcissistic hubris that by birthright it is inherently better than every other nation (even if the statistics say otherwise). An antiheroic America shows little remorse for its history of devastating and exploiting less powerful populations, egocentrically romanticizing that past and whitewashing its sins to legitimize itself. An antiheroic America justifies waterboarding, carpet bombing, indiscriminate drone strikes, the seizing of foreign natural resources, and the like, operating with a winner-takes-all, history-is-written-by-the-victor mentality. An antiheroic America desires to win at all costs, by any means necessary.
If this is what America truly longs for, then Donald Trump should be our next president. I will be praying that we take the advice of Bonnie Tyler and insist on holding out for a hero (gender inclusive of course).