In the overwrought battle for the soul of the country which the press and the Trump administration have convinced their respected partisan foot soldiers is being waged, defense of “the people” is the common shibboleth around which each side rallies.
For Trump and his acolytes, “America First” is an all-encompassing justification; it bestows upon those who march under its banner a kind of sanctity, which at one and the same time empowers a broad array of actions and absolves the overzealous of the sins they commit in the course of their campaign.
For the press, the self-appointed vanguard of democracy, the commandment to speak truth to power sanctions a great deal of belligerence, so long as it is done in the name of informing the populace, while conveniently allowing those who question the methods of journalists to be positioned as ill-intentioned perverters of truth.
In both cases, actions taken in defense of the “people” is an indulgence, a twist on another political shibboleth: the idea that a policy or action is justified if even one poor downtrodden soul is benefited by it.
But the martyrdom complex under which Trump officials and journalists alike labor contributes to a wildly distorted sense of the relationship between empowered individuals and the polity as a whole.
The press is not the enemy of the people. Nor is it its savior. This is because there is no such entity as “the press” or “the people.” At least not in the way implied by the sloppy rhetoric of Trump when he demonizes the “fake news media” or journalists who speak of the democratic role of the press. A collective noun such as “the press” is merely a convenience that allows a speaker to reference multiple entities which, in the context of a given conversation, have some common denominator; it does not eradicate the distinguishing characteristic of the entities that comprise the collective term. They retain their independence and autonomy.
But when Trump and the press speak of “the people’ or of “the media” they do so in a manner that does not reflect the fact that a whole is the sum of its parts, which emphasizes the distinguishing features of the constitutive members of a group. Rather, they attribute the motives of one of the constitutive members of the group to the whole. Thus, the factual inaccuracies of one journalist’s ill-edited report are overblown and the shoddy work ethic of one becomes a characteristic endemic to all members of the press. And, conversely, the animating altruism of one journalist’s commitment to truth becomes a feature of all. The part becomes the sum.
Effectively, this collectivistic mindset encourages the anthropomorphization of the entities involved. For the Trump administration, “the people” is a singular entity with an animating will. It has one set of needs, one set of desires. And the administration has taken upon itself to champion and secure these desires. Just as the press has taken upon itself the role of defending democratic rights.
Which brings us back to the martyr complex and its myriad problems, including an exaggerated sense of proportion. It gives to the self-appointed champion an unrealistic sense of his or her importance.
As natural law necessitates that an individual aligns his or her welfare with virtue (the presumption being that one’s continued existence is a primary good), the propagation of the cause for which the martyr fights becomes bound up in private endeavors. Concepts such as freedom of information are constant truths. In order to be so, they must operate on a different plane of existence than individuals, one that is not subject to the degradation of the natural world. They are advanced when individuals act in a way that propagates them; this changes the individual, not the ideal. But martyrdom erases this distinction. It places the locus of virtue in the individual and conflates the ability and mindset of particular individuals with the ability to advance a cause. In the end, the martyr believes him or herself uniquely placed to fight for an ideal, as a result of the conflation of his welfare with ultimate good.
This is evident in the recent instances of verbal sparring that have occurred between the White House and the press corps. A testy exchange between Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and CNN’s Jim Acosta became nasty because each became defensive of their respected positions, unable to separate their own person from the issues at play.
Acosta’s questions about whether Sanders considered the press “the enemy of the people” was couched in terms of the trials and tribulations of journalists; he proved himself incapable of separating his personal feelings from more philosophic issues surrounding press freedoms. Sanders proved herself equally unable to divorce herself from the question, responding by airing a list of grievances referencing her shoddy treatment by the press.
Just as ideals and the self become confused by the martyr complex, distorting the relationship between the internal responsibilities the rational actor has to one’s conscience and the external factors of other independent members of society, the distinction between the individual and the group for whom he or she fights is eventually obliterated as well.
The interests of the constituent group for which the martyr fights eventually are replaced by the judgment of the martyr. He imagines himself to be the only person capable not just of securing but intuiting the needs of the people he represents, even better than the people themselves.
This is very evident in the Trump administration’s behavior. The dismissing of economic harm done to individuals by the protectionist tariffs levied by the president reveal a sense of disbelief that his policies can go awry. This is because it is not actually the forgotten blue collar workers of middle America who Trump represents but an image of them which he has constructed. Thus, their very real suffering is dismissed as an aberration because it does not fit into the illusion Trump has constructed internally.
The recent dustup between Trump and the Kochs also is a product of this mindset. It is impossible for there to be a genuine good-faith disagreement between Trump and the Kochs as to how best advance values because Trump’s ideas are not merely a reflection of those espoused by the people he represents. They are a product of his own judgment about where the welfare of the American people lies. As he has made himself the stand-in for the nation, he cannot tolerate disagreement, not without jeopardizing his own position. Thus, “America first” becomes the exclusive property of Trump. No one who crosses him can truly have the interests of the nation at heart.
And herein lies the fundamental paradox of the martyr complex: it actually undermines those it purports to help. It abrogates the ability of individuals to retain sovereignty over their own lives. The collected interests of “the people” are whittled down into a singular set of beliefs. A constituency becomes one entity, the attributes of which become definitive of all members of the group. And, inevitably, the person who champions the constituency cannot distinguish between himself and the people he represents, leading to the substitution of their needs with his own.