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.