I look to the greatest pacifists for inspiration when answers are hard to find, and that’s why I recently pondered what Martin Luther King would say to Donald Trump if he could witness the absurd spectacle of the 2016 Republican candidate for President. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that MLK would have counseled us to take the high road against the loudmouth boor.
But this tells us what Martin Luther King would have said to us, not what he would have said directly to Donald Trump, and likewise we can guess that the great Russian novelist and pacifist Leo Tolstoy would have had more to say about Donald Trump than to Donald Trump. This connects to one of the major themes of Tolstoy’s life’s work, as reflected in the epilogue that closes his masterpiece War and Peace. In these stirring but often misunderstood pages, Tolstoy savaged the idea that we can study politics or history by focusing our attention on individual people, no matter how much “power” these people seem to have amassed.
That kind of power is an illusion, Tolstoy said. Leaders don’t move the masses; the masses move their leaders. Tolstoy thundered at the end of War and Peace about the way intelligent citizens of a progressive society often allow themselves to be dazzled into stupidity by obsessing over the personality quirks or private motivations of individual politicians, generals or public figures. Political analysis that resembles celebrity journalism completely misses the big trends and grand motivations that move nations and masses. Our failure to grasp the actual engine of political action renders us ineffectual and clueless in the face of dramatic societal trends, even as these trends affect or dominate our lives.
But celebrity-based politics is popular — and not only among our dumber fellow citizens. It often occupies our loftier intellects, our most educated minds, our cleverest pundits. But we’re wasting our time when we approach mass psychology with a gaze attuned to individual psychology. We’re gazing at fractured miniature reflections in a room of broken mirrors, seeing fragments that fail to produce a whole. How many articles have you read about the personality of Donald Trump? Or, for that matter, about the personality of Hillary Clinton? But we the American people are suffering for mistakes that have nothing to do with the personality of either public figure. We’re so dazzled and distracted by the endless pointless clues found in the realm of individual psychology that we fail to see the evidence of group psychology that actually dominates our everyday world, and drives the decisions we live by.
To begin to understand the structure of society and the engine of history, Tolstoy said, we must broaden our focus beyond the minds of individual political and military leaders. We need to direct this attention to a more mysterious force: our group mind, our herd mind, our collective self.
This original idea drove Tolstoy’s passions as he wrote War and Peace, and he closed the epic novel with an urgent essay that steps outside the bounds of fiction and into the realm of political philosophy. Apparently aggravated by the dull minds prattling about politics around him, he asks us to consider a group of three Russians gaping for the first time at a locomotive train.
A locomotive is moving. Someone asks: "What moves it?" A peasant says the devil moves it. Another man says the locomotive moves because its wheels go round. A third asserts that the cause of its movement lies in the smoke which the wind carries away.
The peasant is irrefutable. He has devised a complete explanation. To refute him someone would have to prove to him that there is no devil, or another peasant would have to explain to him that it is not the devil but a German, who moves the locomotive. Only then, as a result of the contradiction, will they see that they are both wrong. But the man who says that the movement of the wheels is the cause refutes himself, for having once begun to analyze he ought to go on and explain further why the wheels go round; and till he has reached the ultimate cause of the movement of the locomotive in the pressure of steam in the boiler, he has no right to stop in his search for the cause. The man who explains the movement of the locomotive by the smoke that is carried back has noticed that the wheels do not supply an explanation and has taken the first sign that occurs to him and in his turn has offered that as an explanation.
The only conception that can explain the movement of the locomotive is that of a force commensurate with the movement observed.
The only conception that can explain the movement of the peoples is that of some force commensurate with the whole movement of the peoples.
Yet to supply this conception various historians take forces of different kinds, all of which are incommensurate with the movement observed. Some see it as a force directly inherent in heroes, as the peasant sees the devil in the locomotive; others as a force resulting from several other forces, like the movement of the wheels; others again as an intellectual influence, like the smoke that is blown away.
So long as histories are written of separate individuals, whether Caesars, Alexanders, Luthers, or Voltaires, and not the histories of all, absolutely all those who take part in an event, it is quite impossible to describe the movement of humanity without the conception of a force compelling men to direct their activity toward a certain end. And the only such conception known to historians is that of power.
What would Tolstoy tell us about Donald Trump? War and Peace mocked Napoleon Bonaparte’s epic overreach as his great successes all over central Europe convinced him that he was invincible. Besotted by flattery and drunk with victory, Napoleon invades Russia but cannot conquer the collective Russian soul, as symbolized by the wise but seemingly foolish general Mikhail Kutuzov. Kutuzov seems foolish to his fellow military men because he understands the limits of his own power, and because he sees clearly the tremendous sorrow and suffering the people of Moscow will have to endure in order to survive Napoleon’s assault.
Earlier in the novel, during the crisis point of an intense military strategy meeting, General Kutuzov makes a spectacle of himself by taking a nap. This brilliant comic moment captures the spiritual honesty of Tolstoy’s humble hero, who apparently needs to sleep away his realization of the violent horrors his people are about to endure. He needs to sleep it off so he can face it again the next day. This aged, widely disliked general's expression of helplessness as he exits a tumultuous military meeting for a moment of badly needed sleep reveals Tolstoy’s ideal of a wise political mind.
The other characters in War and Peace are less wise and less humble. The characters who fill our political landscape in 2016 also lack humility, though we must sadly realize how debased our own era is, because our own Napoleon Bonaparte is not even a brilliant military leader with a bold progressive revolutionary mind. Our Napoloen in 2016 is a mediocre millionaire, born into real estate riches, who has puffed up his pride following his own string of amazing successes.
Napoloen Bonaparte was puffed up with pride in 1812 because he had defeated the royal armies of Prussia, Austria and Russia. 2016 suffers badly in comparison: Donald Trump is puffed up with pride because he crushed a few moral nullities named Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in a series of trite Republican primaries. Donald Trump believes those victories have rendered him invincible. The likely trajectory of his own downfall is already plain to see, as he continues to flop on the national stage.
But what about our country, our proud national legacy … our planet, our world? Tolstoy would probably remind us to be more humble and serious about our collective fate than we have been. The defeat of one foolish celebrity politician will not amount to the salvation of our foolish world. The frightful apparition of a possible “Donald Trump, President” has revealed terrible truths about the United States: that we are prone to the siren call of fascism, that we will fall for the most craven propaganda if only the lies are repeated again and again and again, that our racial and ethnic divisions have become so bitter and angry that a significant fraction of our fellow American voters will choose to squander our great historic national legacy as a multi-ethnic melting pot for a program of thinly disguised “white power” as soon as the first charlatan appears with such a program to offer.
The specter of Donald Trump as possible President tells us more about ourselves than about Donald Trump. What will we do next with the future of our confused, confounded country? That’s the responsibility we all now face together, and our leaders and politicians and generals and pundits has no answers to give. We are the locomotive. We’re on our own.