One of the few consistent features of Trump’s worldview is that countries are taking advantage of the United States. They are laughing at us. So much is unfair.
- Trump said he wants to negotiate the Paris accord “on terms that are fair to the United States.”
- “NATO members must finally contribute their fair share.”
- At the G-20 Trump tweeted that we need to “fix many bad trade deals”—seemingly because they are unfair to the US.
- NAFTA is “the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country.”
- Supposedly, Iran is laughing at us, China is laughing at us, and, well, the whole world is laughing at us. We live on quite a risible planet. (It is interesting that a man who never laughs regularly points out the laughter of others.)
Why should we care that others are laughing at us? Most of us learned the lesson in elementary school: do what is right, and if others mock you for it, that isn’t your problem. If someone is laughing at you, that doesn’t mean you should change your views or actions.
But there is more to be said for Trump’s complaints. Sitting under the “the world is laughing at us” refrain is a simple sentiment. If his words are any key to his psychological states (which I admit is dubious), Trump hates the perception that America is losing, in the vaguest and broadest sense of the word. “We don’t win anymore.” He wants to take pride in the domination, in the demonstration of American strength.
To Trump, politics is like business, and business is a series of zero-sum contests. Laughter evokes the picture that others are cheerfully taking advantage of us. Ideally, America would treat other countries like Trump treats contractors: leveraging wealth and size for self-interested gain.
I want to sketch a worldview that helps us reframe Trump’s complaints and, by extension, how we see disputes between the left and right sides of the political spectrum.
The worldview I’m interested in is characterized by what I call the Batman Principle.
Consider this scene from The Dark Knight:
What is the philosophical idea here? Batman is a symbol. What is he a symbol of? Magnanimity. By being more than an individual man he can be incorruptible. The man, as a symbol, can take the abuse, punishment, and hatred for the sake of a better end. As Alfred says, “He can make the choice that no one else can make: the right choice.” Batman doesn’t fight so that he can be treated fairly, but for the fair treatment of the powerless. And if he has to endure injustice so others can flourish, he is strong enough to take it. He gives what he doesn’t have to give, but he gives because he is so powerful. It is precisely because of his strength that he can accept being the object of ridicule.
This, I suggest, is what makes Batman such a captivating and inspiring symbol of good. Because he is a symbol, the idea of Batman (the Batman Principle) can be implemented by anyone, even at the level of institutions like governments.
So what about governments? Consider the Batman Principle in a passage from Friedrich Nietzsche:
The “creditor” always becomes more humane to the extent that he grows richer; finally, how much injury he can endure without suffering from it becomes the actual measure of his wealth. It is not unthinkable that a society might attain such a consciousness of power that it could allow itself the noblest luxury possible to it—letting those who harm it go unpunished. “What are my parasites to me?” it might say. “May they live and prosper: I am strong enough for that!”
(Genealogy of Morals, Second Essay, §10)
The passage captures of similar sentiment and places it more into the realm of government. What is the idea here? The ability to extract punishment from someone who has wronged you demonstrates a certain amount of power. But the greater demonstration of power is in forgiving without seeking punishment. Mercy requires strength: it means you can endure the injury. Magnanimity includes both mercy and munificence.
The more powerful a country becomes, the more mercy it can demonstrate. The more it can look at the countries and citizens who take advantage of it and say, “May they live and prosper: I am strong enough for that!” The stronger the country, and the stronger its citizens, the less it will care about the laughter of others or the imbalance of its trade deals. Not only can it forgive, but it can give generously to those who are powerless and being treated unfairly.
This reveals the following conclusion: Trump and his followers, in their rhetoric of reestablishing American power and might, are in fact pursuing the exact opposite. America does not demonstrate power by “winning” more, deporting more, withholding more, or refusing more refugees. Those are the actions of the insecure “creditor.” Resistance to mercy shows weakness, even if the act of extracting punishment appears to show power. It is the power of a bully, which is rooted in fear and instability. It is the facade of power. Instead, the power of America is best demonstrated when it is willing to be treated unfairly, to endure the injuries, precisely because it is strong enough for that.
That is the Batman Principle. Which issues can we apply it to? Well…all issues, like foreign policy, healthcare, entitlement programs, and your own day-to-day interactions with others. But let’s finish by considering how the principle might apply to issues in immigration and refugee settlement.
Those on the left frequently argue that America has a moral obligation to accept refugees and show mercy to undocumented immigrants. There are two versions to these arguments. Let’s focus on the refugee situation. The first version is that refugees require help, and since the moral worth of a person is not dependent on their country of origin, countries that are able to help should help. Therefore, we should help. It is that simple. The second version makes use of the claim that if a country had a hand in causing the crisis that created the refugee problem, then it has an obligation to help. Regardless of the merits of these arguments, they tend to be unconvincing to people on the right. Why? People on the right are less likely to speak in terms like ‘moral obligation’. Their focus tends to be on patriotism and national identity.
The Batman Principle does not require claims about moral obligations. It appeals to our self-estimation as a powerful country—the province of patriotism and identity. So if we agree that America is powerful, the best demonstration of that power is in acceptance of refugees and mercy towards undocumented immigrants. Calls to refuse refugees or deport people is an implicit admission of weakness. It says that we are unable to endure.
So we see that the debate over these issues is, at bottom, about the strength of America (and what we should mean by the phrase). Should our politics be based on “consciousness of power”? Or should we admit our insecurity and inability to endure?