Don’t say we weren’t warned

9 11 2016
Douglas Kelley (left) with colleagues

Douglas Kelley (left) with colleagues

The experts are playing catch-up over Donald Trump’s election victory, but there’s really only one person qualified to comment, and since he’s been dead for 60 years I had better do it for him.

Douglas R Kelley knew a thing or two about the need for character in high office because he made it his mission to work out what Americans should look out for when choosing their leaders.

By that I do not mean what to look out for in the next Pericles, he was not that optimistic about American democracy. He meant look out for as in avoid like the plague.

And he had a good idea of what that was, from his job as psychiatrist to the defendants at Nuremberg.

Liberal reaction to the Presidential election result suggests they have elected Peter Finch from the film Network as President.


But Donald Trump is not Howard Beale (Peter Finch’s character in the film), because Howard Beale was mad, and Donald Trump is not that.

And that is something he has in common with the defendants at Nuremberg, as Colonel Kelley put it;

“With the exception of Dr [Robert] Ley, there wasn’t an insane Joe in the crowd.”

In 1945 the whole world was desperate for the leading Nazis to be insane; it was the only comfortable explanation for a country at the acme of civilisation fostering war and genocide, but for the most part they were not insane. It was an uncomfortable truth America was not ready for, when Kelley tried to tell them how to avoid something similar in the USA, and seven decades later it appears they still are not ready.

His attempt to shake the electorate by the lapels is set out in his biography by Jack El-Hai, The Nazi and the Psychiatrist

That was published in 2014 so PT – Pre Trump – which means there are no knowing nods, no constructed pointers, but it is all in there, Trump reaches out from the pages as Kelley’s nightmare.

What would you pick out as Trump’s key characteristics? Here is my layman’s attempt:

  • Businessman
  • Opportunist
  • Narcissist
  • Egotist

Here, in El-Hai’s words, is why Kelley thought a good businessman was not necessarily a good political leader:

They reminded him of the directors of a business, all under the leadership of the late CEO, Adolf Hitler. Altogether the captive Nazi leaders constituted a “board of directors” of their defeated regime, a ruling group that had run a nation.

And in Kelley’s words:

“These people without Hitler are not abnormal, not perverts, not geniuses. They are like any aggressive, smart, ambitious, ruthless businessman, and their business happened in the setting up  of a world government.”

An “aggressive, smart, ambitious, ruthless businessman” has just been elected President of America.

As for the rest of that list of attributes, just read the quotes from the book; it’s all there. Here is El-Hai writing about the Nazi he grew closest to, Herman Göring:

His aim was to advance Herman Göring, and he had joined the Nazis to lead a rising party. His self-interest was notable even compared with other narcissists. Goring possessed the most undiluted self-confidence Kelley had ever experienced.

With his speeches about Muslims and Mexicans, Trump has tapped a seam Kelley identified years ago;

“I found the same anti-minority feeling shot through the American population”.

And his prognosis was bleak:

“They use racism as a method of obtaining personal power, political aggrandisement, or individual wealth. We are allowing racism to be used here for these ends. I am convinced that the continued use of these myths in this country will lead us to join the Nazi criminal in the sewer of civilisation.”

It is easy to assume given what he has had to say about Mexicans and Muslims that Trump is a racist, that’s not my take. To me he is a vacuum who says whatever seems to strike the right chord, generate the right effect.

Despite what happened in Nazi Germany, it’s not clear that all leading Nazis were racists either. It can be pretty frightening where following whatever seems to strike the right chord can take you.

According to Kelley, the right chord chimes in the area of the brain called the thalamus:

“It is an established scientific fact that a person who is thinking with the emotional (thalamic) brain centre cannot think intellectually (cortically). Hitler had an entire people thinking with its thalamus.”

It’s something Conservative, Christian, radio talk show host Tony Beam unwittingly picked up on during the 2016 campaign as he struggled to resist the lure of Trump’s rhetoric:

“This is insane because the emotional part of me cannot take control over the thought process that is going to be what carries us in the long run. And that’s what scares me about this whole thing. All of this is being wrought out on pure emotion.

It’s not Trump that bothers me. What bothers me is that Trump is popular.”

NPR – This American Life 578, I Thought I Knew You

The reason for this dominance of emotional thinking is, according to Dr Kelley, the low emotional age of many Americans, around seven years old on average:

“You can see them everyday – the adult who has temper tantrums like a child, another who resorts to tears to get what she wants, a third who merely sits like a hunk of protoplasm, indifferent to all around him, and a fourth who just won’t play.”

It is striking to see a list of the triggers that he felt should make an emotionally mature voter run a mile:

He urged his countrymen to refuse to vote for any candidate who made “political capital” of any group’s race and religious beliefs or referred indirectly or directly to the blood, heritage, or morals of opponents.

Trump scores a tick on every single one; the Mexicans, the Muslims, the judge ‘biased’ against Trump because he had Mexican forebears, ‘crooked’, ‘lying’ Hillary Clinton (who followed on from ‘crooked’, ‘lying’ Ted Cruz).

Kelley had a prescription, but in seven decades no one wanted to listen to it. It all boiled down to education:

…rebuilding the educational system to cultivate students who could think critically and resist using “strong emotional reactions.

But that was not done and we are where we are.

Is Trump a Nazi, a Fascist, a Racist? No, he is not. He is an opportunistic, egotistical, narcissistic businessman. That’s all.

The problem is it is clear exactly how dangerous that combination can be and, as Kelley foresaw, it is exactly that combination which could drag America down into the ‘sewer of civilisation.



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