In my high school and college track and cross-country days I was accustomed to the usual unflattering comparisons between runners and football players. Runners were often mocked as weak and unmanly, while football was a sport for manly men. When Trump’s followers praise his strength, this reminds me of those days and leads me consider the concept of strength.
My conception of strength was influenced by one of my fellow runners. After some joking mocking by football players, he replied by saying that anyone could hurt somebody else, but it took a real athlete to hurt themselves. To be fair to football players, they do endure being hurt by others and when doing serious training they hurt themselves. But this remark does provide a good starting point for a discussion of strength in the context of Trump.
As a runner, I tend to think of strength in terms of the ability to overcome pain, fear and vices in order to achieve excellence. As an example, getting up at 5:00 am to do a 12-mile training run in the freezing rain is an example of strength. Completing a marathon despite the pain and exhaustion is also an example of strength. While running provides a serious test of strength, there are obviously far greater tests. A good example is the case of someone Trump loathed, Senator John McCain.
While I disagreed with McCain on many political issues, I respect the moral courage and strength he showed during the Viet Nam war. As is well known, McCain was shot down and captured. Severely injured, he endured torture and survived as a prisoner of war. When his captors offered to release him as a sign of preferential treatment, he refused in accord with the military Code of Conduct. McCain showed incredible strength—he endured pain and fear and resisted efforts to corrupt him. One can find other accounts of the strength of American soldiers—enduring fear, pain and danger. Strength, obviously, is not limited to the military. The parent who endures the burden of working multiple jobs to provide for their children while also caring for their own parents shows great strength. Those who face adversity, pain and fear with courage show their strength—even if they are broken or killed in their acts of strength. Even the strongest of us has limits, and there is merit and honor even in defeat.
Trump has a rather different view of such people. I selected McCain as an example because Trump’s view of McCain is well known. Trump said of John McCain that “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” I also used the example of American soldiers because Trump has called Americans who have died in war “losers” and “suckers.” Trump’s followers see him as strong, but given his utter contempt for McCain and America’s war dead, one must wonder about his and their conception of strength.
While McCain endured great adversity, Trump has not—he was handed millions in property and money and has enjoyed a life in which others do his work for him (such as writing “his” book) and clean up his messes. Aside from his repeated bankruptcies and failures, he has been able to escape the consequences of his actions. But Trump does face some challenges, and these allow us to see his alleged strength.
A good place to look for Trump’s alleged strength is how he handles even mild criticism and challenges presented by people in the media. One can also look at the harsher criticisms advanced by journalists and authors such as Bob Woodward.
Trump’s response is to throw whiny tantrums and lie when faced with even mild criticism. He , accoridng to Tom Nichols, “…is a vain, cowardly, lying, vulgar, jabbering blowhard.” He is also a blamer who refuses to accept responsibility and turns against his people—throwing them under the bus rather than showing strength of characters and accepting responsibility and exhibiting loyalty. He is weakness personified, unable to endure even the mildest criticism without cracking. So where is his strength?
Going back to the remarks by my running friend, Trump’s “strength” seems to lie in his willingness to hurt others; he is “strong” enough to act in ways counter to empathy, compassion and moral decency. This is the sort of strength praised by Himmler in his Posen speeches: “Most of you here know what it means when 100 corpses lie next to each other, when there are 500 or when there are 1,000. To have endured this and at the same time to have remained a decent person — with exceptions due to human weaknesses — has made us tough, and is a glorious chapter that has not and will not be spoken of.” Himmler also expressed his view of strength when he said ,“Thus I have basically given the order to also kill the wives and children of these partisans, and commissars. I would be a weakling and a criminal to our descendants if I allowed the hate-filled sons of the sub-humans we have liquidated in this struggle of humanity against subhumanity to grow up.”
While people now tend to roll their eyes at Nazi comparisons, this view that strength is a matter of overcoming kindness and moral principles in order to do “what must be done” is one explicitly endorsed by modern thinkers of the right. Ben Shapiro, for example, has come out against empathy. It must be noted that there are critics of empathy who are not on the right; but these criticisms are not that empathy must be overcome by strength so that we might do the “hard things that must be done.” Rather, these tend to be criticisms of tribal empathy—only feeling empathy for your side. There have also been criticisms of how empathy can lead to bad policy, not because caring precludes good policy. The concern is that identifying with a very specific person in very specific circumstances can result in badly crafted laws. Those critical of this aspect of empathy do not advocate being uncaring, but advocate compassion over empathy.
It could be objected that strength is required to overcome empathy, compassion, and moral qualms to do the things that really must be done. Going back to my example of McCain and the dead soldiers, they were generally engaged in combat and willing to harm others in battle. Their strength was that they could do the hard thing that must be done: kill the enemy. While this sort of objection does have some appeal, there is an important moral distinction between the strength required to be a combatant and the strength required to be murderous and cruel. Himmler claims that those who engaged in the murders he described retained their decency and were acting from strength; but that is not true—they were engaged in genocide and thus they lost all claim to being decent people.
In the case of Trump, his “strength” is not the sort of strength that enables a person to do something difficult that must truly be done and can be morally justified, like fighting in a just war. Rather, his cruelty is mistaken for strength-that he readily does cruel and terrible things without any expression of regret, remorse or compassion shows the weakness of his character. He cannot even be given some credit for contending against those as strong or stronger than him—he is the President and even before then he made a point of going after those with far less power. As such, his followers are making the classic error of confusing a cruel moral and emotional emptiness with strength.